May 14, 2013

Passing the Baton, Running the Race

I've heard it said that you don't really become an adult until both of your parents have died.  Assuming the natural order of things, that day is coming for all of us.  It's not one to which most of us look forward.  It feels like the baton of life is passed to the next generation.  That's right and normal, but still can feel like a loss when your generation is growing closer to becoming the senior generation.  In the last month or so, I feel in a way like some parents have died. Let me explain.

In these last weeks, three men who have been spiritual shepherds to me have died:  Brennan Manning, Beverly Shea, and Dallas Willard.  As can often happen, it's easy to not be as aware of the significance of something in our lives, until that something, or someone, is no longer in our lives.  Now it feels like three lights have gone out. 

These men were very much in my life though I'd never met any of them.  Their thoughts, their insights, and their voices started in my head then sank roots into my soul's soil.  Now that they're gone, the world feels a slightly darker place - like the big rheostat has been slightly dimmed. Like the baton of the faith has been passed a little more clearly to the next generation.  While I know about becoming an adult and running your leg of the race, it's still comforting to have in the world, older people of whom you think highly and who have influenced you toward a deeper, richer relationship with Jesus Christ.   

Brennan Manning wrote a number of books that meant a lot to me.  However, his perhaps best known book, The Ragamuffin Gospel wasn't the one that did the most.  The ones that were most significant for me are "The Lion and the Lamb" and "Ruthless Trust."  There are sentences, phrases, and paragraphs from those books that changed the way I understand God and shaped my perspective on Christianity.  Said another way, as the ideas went from my head to my soul's root system, they changed my relationship with God.   The chapter on Pioneer and Settler theology in "The Lion and the Lamb" thrilled me.  That's the best way I know how to say it.  It thrilled me.  It made me feel that my Christian life could be a lively adventure rather than a soporific waltz of legalism.  "Ruthless Trust" impressed upon me the deep love of God and how He might rather hear us say we trust Him than we love Him.  I'd write more to explain that, but better is to recommend the book.  And I will never forget the walk on the beach with the priest who said, "I'm just thinking about how fond of me is my father in heaven."  Brennan wrote about the scandal of grace.  He did it unashamedly which is really the only way to do it.  If it doesn't feel scandalous, it's probably not grace. That's the tension of it.  Grace merited isn't grace, it's legalism, it's payment for a job done.  Grace stands in the solidarity of its scandalously undeserved self.  

Beverly Shea sang worship songs at Billy Graham crusades for decades.  He died at the age of 104.  While Bev Shea's style of singing was not necessarily one that appeals to me, the style wasn't what mattered.  It was the integrity and commitment of the faith with which he sang, that made those songs soar.  They were towers of hope ringing out in the stadiums of the world as Billy Graham prepared to speak God's clarion invitation to life through Jesus Christ.  "Great is Thy Faithfulness" and "How Great Thou Art" were not just the words he sang, they were the conviction of his heart, of his life, of all that he believed.  That steadfastness of faith, that consistency through the decades, that integrity through a lifetime, that pure heart for God - all speak loudly to me.  For those who are Christians, may we all aspire to it. 

Dallas Willard wrote a lot of books that took biblical Christianity away from the formulaic and quasi legalistic pattern of the puritan evangelical tradition.  I'm grateful for that.  When Dallas Willard said things like, "Christianity is a daily and intimate relationship with Jesus Christ, where I am giving my life to Him and He is giving His life to me," he broke out of the evangelical ruts in a way that was not strident like some younger writers of the last decade.  His voice was not protest but invitation, not criticism but elegant relationship with God.  "I'm learning to live my life as Jesus would live it if He were me."  Who says that?  Who's mind comes up with that?   I carried Dallas' book "The Divine Conspiracy" around with me for 18 months.  I'd often re-read paragraphs six or eight times to try to absorb the full depth of it.  I have more notes, highlights and dog-eared pages in that book than any I own.  

So these three men are gone now - gone home.  They of course are happier than they've ever been.  They are where their hearts most longed to be - in the presence of God, unobstructed by anything.  I'm really happy for them.  And perhaps we should note that they ran faithfully but not perfectly.  We know too much about life to expect a person to be perfect.  But faithful and with integrity - that's different than perfect - and it shows the marks of the work of Christ more fully.  

Now in a sense these men are part of the great cloud of witnesses, who I imagine in my mind's eye may cheer us on - those of us who continue in faith.  The apostle Paul spoke about running the race and fighting the fight.  If you've done it for a while, you get what he's talking about.  And Hebrews 12:1 says Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us fixing our eyes on Jesus...  

Apr 29, 2013

On Reading CS Lewis

This feels a bit like an apologia.  Not sure.  Regardless, that's kind of a fun blog word.

Recently I've been reading CS Lewis' "The Great Divorce."  Yesterday in my sermon at Hope, I realized that I mentioned CS Lewis several times by way of illustrations.  I felt a little insecure about that, because I think I mention his ideas more than just about anyone's.  I wonder if people might think, "Okay already, enough of the CS Lewis."  I know that not everybody finds him to be as helpful as I do, and I can appreciate that.

When I was a brand new Christian, back in college days, I had no idea there was any such thing as "Christian books."  I'd never seen one, and certainly never read one.  In the spring of my sophomore year, I was down in the panhandle of Florida for a week in which it seemingly rained every day.  One afternoon out of boredom, we went to a book store to browse and get out of the house.  Being a new Christian, I noticed the store had a "Christianity" section.  I was excited about Jesus and excited to see a bookstore had a Christian section, so I went over and browsed.  Authors and titles that are common vernacular to me now were brand new to me then.  I decided if I found a book that looked to be about right (in a Goldilocks/porridge kind of way) I would give it a try and buy it.  So I'd pick up a book, skim through it and usually decide, "too thick, don't get it," and I'd put it down.  I was an abject beginner.

The shelves were probably full of books by people like John Stott, J.I. Packer, Jerry Bridges - and others who were prolific.  I like all those guys.  But then I found a small book that got my attention.  Each chapter was a simple letter - just a few pages.  I randomly read one and found it captivating.  I thought the ruse was engaging; the devil writing letters to a junior devil on how to keep his assigned "patient" from getting too close to God.  Written by some guy I'd never heard of, I bought a copy of "The Screwtape Letters" - the first Christian book I ever read.  I was stunned by the insights in that book.  I couldn't imagine that this author, some guy named CS Lewis, could know me so well.  The expose' theme of the book made me feel "found out," and any fraudulence in me was exposed.  It was challenging and thrilling at the same time.  I wondered if this author had written anything else.  I wanted to tell some of my Christian friends about him.  Maybe I could find at least just one other book by him?  I went searching for one.  I found many.  Now, it's sort of a small life-goal of mine to read everything he's written.  Not sure if I'll do it, but I'll enjoy trying.  There's lots - especially when you start going from his books to his letters.

Well, starting from that time in the spring of 1983, I have read a lot of Lewis' books.  I've also read a fair bit about the man himself.  I remember when I first learned that the year Lewis died was the same year I was born.  I don't think that matters for much, but for some reason it's meaningful to me.  I've often wished I could have met him and talked with him - but no chance.  For now.

I remember reading "The Chronicles of Narnia" when I was in seminary - and I couldn't wait to get out of class every day to run home to read.  I'd read for hours in the afternoons, racing through the series in a couple days.  I got it.  The metaphors and allegories spoke to me, the imagery was bursting with clear sense. awesome!

So what's the deal with Clive Staples Lewis?  I know not everyone loves his stuff.  I know many people who have said they find him hard to read.  I can't disagree with that - sometimes I do too.  But the thing I get when I read him that I don't get with anyone else to the same degree is fresh insights into God, human beings, and the Christian life.  I mean really fresh insights - gleanings and ideas that when I read them I think "God thank you, this is an incredible thought!"  Lewis' perspectives are a combination of creative, insightful, undoubtedly true, intellectually deep, understandably simple, clear and courageous.

To be honest, now that I have read a lot of Christian writing since that rainy day in the book store in Panama City, CSL remains the most helpful and most insightful of all Christian writers for me.  In a sense I think, "when you've tasted the really good wine, why drink the other stuff?"  I know there are many other good writers out there and it's not a great idea to become monochromatic in one's reading.  Yes, there are other good wines out there in Christian writing, but for me, none compare with the richness of the flavor and insight of CS Lewis.  

Mar 30, 2013

Is The Resurrection Believable?

This question - "Is the Resurrection Believable" is the big one.  If not, then Jesus was nothing more than a good guy who made people feel better, and then he died.  Many years ago, I felt sorry for people who believed the resurrection - sort of had a pity for them.  "I feel sorry for those people, so foolish to put their hope in a foolish fable."  I was too smart, too intellectually astute to believe that kind of religious nonsense.  Science and empiricism were my intellectual platform and philosophical rationalism was my theme.  "Those poor (foolish) people." Then things happened for me that made me look deeper.  

Question 1:  Is the Bible reliable?  The bible has multiple accounts of the resurrection of Jesus and many accounts of Jesus appearing after he was raised from the dead.  CS Lewis, an Oxford don who was the world's leading expert in ancient literature, from mythology to philosophy had his own journey with the bible.  A secular humanist, he thought it was all so much nonsense.  Then he began to read it.  That's almost always one of the big steps.  He actually began to read it, vs. just hearing about it.  After reading it and studying it, he came to say that the Bible is completely unique among ancient literature.  It is not like any of the mythologies because it has repeated specificity in its narratives.  Days, places, people, details - are all laid out there - written with congruence as multiple witnesses speak of the same things they observed.  And then, he saw even more credibility because the testimonies have enough variation to be "the way human beings really tell it."  Lewis who did not want to believe the Bible, came to believe it after studying it deeply.  An ancient literature scholar.

Secondly, there is a vast science of studying the reliability of ancient literature called "textual criticism."  Text criticism studies the number of copies of ancient documents, their dates of proximity from original writings and the agreement or variation of the copies from one another.  The closer to the original dates, the better chance of accuracy.  The more copies that agree, the better chance of reliability.  Of all ancient literature - yes the stuff you read in school, from Chaucer to Babylonian texts, the Bible far exceeds any of these texts in reliability studies.  The second closest is Homer's Illiad, and it's not very close.  This means when you read the Bible you can have far greater confidence in it's reliability than in any other ancient literature.  It's many hundreds of times more reliable than the Illiad.

Question 2:  Is the supernatural possible?  It's interesting to me how often people like to say they believe in the supernatural.  They talk about angels and interventions and "coincidences."  But when it comes to objective matters of the supernatural they retreat quickly from this possibility.  This suggests that for most people the idea of the supernatural is "a fun idea on my own terms of things going my way" because of supernatural reasons.  This makes the supernatural smaller than me.  I get to play with it as I wish.  But the resurrection is an objective supernatural event.  It is outside of me, and this means it would have implications for me.  This is where people tend to say "I don't want that kind of supernatural."  But at the same time, they say things like, "I felt my mother's presence with me the other day - even though she died years ago."

Here's the bottom line.  If there is a God who made all life, then we and all life are "under" Him.  He is bigger.  This means He can intervene if He wishes - though this is not His normal practice.

Question 3:  The body of Jesus - how come it wasn't in the tomb?  There are four possible explanations for this.  1. The Jewish leaders and council took it.  The problem with this is that the Jewish leaders needed him to be dead more than any other group.  If the body was missing, it would perpetuate the concept that he rose from the dead.  The Jewish leaders would never have taken it.  They wanted all of this to be over with and nothing would help that more than having a dead body in the tomb. 2. The Romans took it.  This scenario has similar problems to #1.  Jesus had developed quite a following and it was creating difficulty for the Romans.  They too wanted him dead in a tomb.  To remove the body would grow the possibility that He really was God's son and had power over the grave.  The Romans wanted a dead body right where it was buried.  3.  The Disciples took it.  This doesn't work because the accounts testify that the Romans placed centurion guards at the tomb.   The disciples wouldn't have been able to get through them.  Secondly, most of the disciples gave their lives for the reality that Jesus was alive.  Most were executed for testifying to the resurrection of Jesus.  If they had taken the body, they would have known that he didn't actually rise from the dead.  When the pressure got hot and they were going to be killed for it, if they knew they had pulled a hoax they wouldn't have died for it.  THey would have said, "okay, okay - it was a hoax." 4.  He wasn't really dead.  This suggests that he was put in the tomb unconscious.  The problem there was that he was "finished off for sure" by a roman spear, plunged into his side.  His deadness, was next confirmed by Pilate who sent a guard to find out if he was really dead, because Pilate was surprised.  The guard testified to Pilate that "yes, he was really dead."  They were experts at crucifixions.  Finally, if he were unconscious and then "came out of it" it would not be possible for Him to remove the stone from the tomb from the inside.  Such stones were removable from the outside only and they weighed many hundreds of pounds.

Is the resurrection believable?

I used to think "those poor people, how can they believe that?"  Then I examined it for myself instead of listening to what others had to say.   And that has made all the difference.

Mar 6, 2013

The "if" of Temptation

Lent is a season of reflection and a time to consider our life in God.  It's the time that leads up to Jesus going to the cross for us - His act of rescue for us all.  It's a time to reflect on our identity in Christ and the gift of forgiveness and new life that He's earned for us.  One reason among others, that His rescue ultimately happened is because He denied temptation and sin.

In the gospel of Luke, chapter 4, Jesus we are told, is tempted by the devil.  This is shortly before Jesus will begin His public ministry.  In a sense, the temptation is a winnowing of His fitness for His role in leadership and His obedience as savior.  Temptation is common to all of us, and it is particularly noteworthy for leaders.  How we stand up to temptation is an important matter in how we will lead other people toward God and not toward ourselves.  This is the essential difference between Christian leadership and secular leadership.  Our call is to lead people to God when the temptations around us are regularly seeking to speak to the deficits in our souls, trying to convince us to lead people to us, to ourselves, to "see how great we are."

It is no coincidence that the opening challenge from the devil to Jesus is "If.... you are the son of God, turn these stones into bread."  This challenge to not trust God's provision is a frequent challenge in our lives and in leadership.  But it is more than that, it is preceded by an even more pernicious and subtle appeal.  It is first something more fundamental - it is a challenge to Jesus' identity as being the son of God.  Being the son of God is the fullest expression of Jesus' identity and the fullest place of His value and worth.  Being a son of God, or a daughter of God is likewise the fullest expression of our identity and worth.  There is no achievement, no celebrity, no wealth - that can make you more valuable than that. If we are settled about our identity as sons and daughters of God, settled about the incredible value this bestows on us, then we are much less temptable.  But if Satan can get us to doubt this, then he has the "in" he's looking for.  If Satan could get Jesus to doubt that He is the son of God, then he could make Jesus believe He was not valuable, not loved, not held in the highest esteem by God Himself.  If Satan could get Jesus to think He didn't have this place of value, of love, of esteem - of identity, then he could try to get Jesus to succumb to sin, and this would wreck the total plan of salvation.

Almost all temptation begins with this challenge to our identity and an appeal to identity deficits and feelings of inadequacy - feelings of not being loved, of not being valuable.  Temptations suggest that "if we do this or that, we will be more valuable, more admired, more highly thought of."  Or, the same temptation but presented from the other angle is "since you are not valuable, not admired, not loved, do this thing because you already know God doesn't care about you, you are not valuable, not esteemed, not worth much."  This is the lie and it is the starting point of almost all temptation.  To succumb to temptation, we have to believe a lie.  A lie about God (that He's not good or not love, that He doesn't care about us and doesn't have our best in mind) or a lie about ourselves (that we are not of highest value to God, that we are not worthy, not loved).  So just before Jesus' was to begin His ministry to rescue the world, Satan tried to get the plan aborted before it started, by challenging Jesus' confidence as the Son of God.  "If you are.... the son of God."  You can hear the hiss of the forked tongue.

Having failed to sidetrack Jesus at the outset, Satan returns one more time just before the ultimate act of rescue would unfold on the cross.  It was there that Jesus was challenged, "If you are the king of the Jews, save yourself and come down off the cross."  If Satan could just get Jesus off that cross, it was his last shot at derailing the work of redemption that would enable all men and women to be forgiven of sin and reconciled to God.  And here it is again, "If" you are the King of the Jews.  Note in Luke, it says that "above His head was a sign that read "the King of the Jews."  Yes, in His utter humility, in His hour of suffering and apparent defeat, Jesus held on to the truth of His identity.  Thank God Jesus didn't succumb to the "if."

It's always the devil's word in temptation, whether spoken or unspoken: "if" you want to be worth anything you should do this, "if" you want to be loved you should do this, "if" you want to be well known you should do this, "if" you want your life to make a difference you should....   What might the "if" be for you?  The "if" is always an appeal to an identity deficit.

However, the highest most valuable place of identity that any person can have is to be a son or daughter of God.  Jesus' sacrifice to get us back, makes this clear.

Let's encourage each other so we never forget it.

Feb 14, 2013


From the first time I heard the word "apologetics" I didn't like it. It sounds like we are apologizing. I know that's not what it means in its more academic sense, but I still don't like it. Apologetics is the inquiry and response to questions of truth.  And, I suppose, as a person who has always wanted to try to "get to the bottom" of truth, I find myself sometimes being considered an apologist.  See how the word feels weird? Would you want to be considered an apologist?

Rather than talk today about dialectical polemics and competing world views, I want to start before that.  In a sense, those debates and discussions are the conversations once you have begun the race.  What I'd rather talk about are things that happen before you even get to the starting line, before you even start the conversation.  These are not "what you think" ideas, they are "why you think what you think" ideas. And I find myself frustrated often with the way people enter the race or the discussion.  What I mean is that in the idea of enlightened debate, many people do not question their starting premises.  They take de-facto their ground of reason and then enter the conversation without ever questioning their reasoning methodology or their prevailing mindset that has taken hold in them even before they entered the conversation.

Let me be frank.  Unless you think at a higher level, your thinking will only be the result of all of us being rats in a maze, who's decisions and directions are dictated by the prevailing influences in our culture and in our world.  This is what you've been taught to think, and like a rat in a maze, this is what you will think. Unless... Unless you question those things, the foundations of the thought culture you were raised in (the air you breathe as far as reason is concerned) you are starting the conversation completely predisposed to already believe something.  In other words, you are not open to truth and weren't open to it even when you began the race.  You entered already thinking a certain way about things, because that's the way you were taught to think about them.  What I'm saying is, before you start trying to discern truth by asking questions, you have to ask more basic questions.  You have to ask, "how am I predisposed to think, and why?"  The unenlightened person will say, "I'm NOT predisposed, I'm rational and open."  Nonsense.

Most of us, you and I, have been raised in a secular philosophical world view that is humanist at its core.  If you don't know that, you've lost touch with the air you're breathing.  From the start, the academic culture of our contemporary western world, teaches a culture of humanism and secular and scientific rationalism.  This is a method of thinking, it is a "school of thought," it is not truth itself.  Do you know this?  To be an open thinker, you must begin by questioning not first what you think, but the culture that taught you what you think and how you think.  Most people never do this.  What this means is, when they ask questions of truth, they will challenge many things, but they will never challenge their own basis of thinking - the very mode of thought that they use to try to think.  Without challenging this, we are never open to truth in actuality, we are only rats going for the cheese that we have been enculturated to eat.  Said another way, we will always only believe what we WANT to believe, regardless of whether it's true or not because it's what the system trained you to do.  And what we want to believe will be what is consistent with the cheese we've been taught to find by the systems and assumptions of thought that were fed to us from our earliest days.  It means that without questioning the mode, the culture, and the assumptions of how you think and what the premises are, you are likely to be the least objective person in the conversation.

Said another way, you can only measure something with a measuring instrument that is independent of the thing you are measuring.  If you want to measure the length of a board, you must use a ruler that is a distinct measuring device from the board itself.  This is the only way to get an objective measurement.  Otherwise you are only left with one possible conclusion of your measurement and that would be to say "my board is about as long as a board."  This non-objective measuring is the way I observe most people thinking in the realm of apologetics.  They are measuring questions of truth (their board) with the same reasoning system.  They are measuring a board not with an objective measuring instrument, they are measuring their board with their board.  What this means is that the "quality" of their measurement (their search for truth) is poor because their premise of measuring is unquestioned at the start.  They never undertake a "quality search" because they don't know that they are predisposing their search to find what they want to find, not to find what is true.

Ultimately there are only two basic platforms of reasoning.  One is a secular humanist platform - with man being the center and the highest.  The other is religious, with God being the center and the highest.  Both sides are at risk of this non-questioning non-objectivity.  Both are at risk of running their every thought through their filter that is predisposed toward their bias.  But the one who's at much greater risk today, are the secular humanists because secular humanism is the "lingua franca" of western intellectual culture.  We've  all been raised in it - which means we are all predisposed to this side of non-objective thinking.

Four and five hundred years ago, it was the other way around.  The religious mindset governed most intellectual explorations, so the religious person was more at risk of non-objectivity.  I suspect that's what spawned much of what is called the enlightenment - although moving away from God can only be called "endarkenment."

If you're reading this and thinking, "well David, as a religious person, you are just as at risk of this non-objectivity," that would be a fair criticism.  However, in my case, this religious position is a complete reversal from what I was raised in and what I was taught to think.  And, probably not a day goes by that I don't question it.

None of us will be totally enlightened.  But to get closer rather than farther, if you want truth, you have to start by challenging the ways you have been taught to think and the presuppositions that you are inclined to advance.  Said another way, "the person who comes to believe what they didn't want to be true, is the person really worth listening to."  The person who simply advances or embraces an ideology that is consistent with the framework they were raised in, is less persuasive.

Jan 15, 2013


Joy is a word that shows up frequently in the bible.  It's the result not of happiness or circumstances, but of spiritual depth in a relationship with God.  It's the fruit of living with Jesus Christ in and through all circumstances.

In the letter to the Philippians, the apostle Paul speaks of joy 16 times - more than in any of his other letters.  Remarkably this letter was written from Rome where Paul was detained under house arrest.  In other words, he didn't write about joy because his circumstances were going well.

Imagine what life could be like if you could know joy as the steady current of your soul regardless of your circumstances.  How could this be possible?  Only if your perspective of life, the vision for your life, was not "situation based" or "circumstance based" but "relationship with Christ" based.  And here is the secret to Paul's joy.  His vision and aspiration for life is found in Philippians 3:10. "I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of his sufferings." (paraphrased).  If this were the vision of our lives, joy would be possible because all circumstances can enable us to know Christ, the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of his sufferings.

In other words, this is a vision of life that is "unshakable" because it is not "circumstances driven."  It is not based on what I believe my life could or should look like.  It is not based on any sense of "the life I deserve."  For Paul, the purpose of his life and the future picture he sees for it is "to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of his sufferings."  That's what he wants his life to be about.

The circumstances of your future, which you envision and hope for, may or may not materialize.  But knowing Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of his sufferings, is a "circumstances-less" vision.  It is "beyond circumstances."  It means if my circumstances are going great, I can celebrate this with Christ in a daily relationship of his companionship.  More profoundly, if my circumstances are difficult, I can grow deep in the fellowship of Christ, in his comfort and hope, his power and presence.

Consistent with this is that we see in Philippians that Paul mentions "Christ" 39 times.  There's the real insight.  His joy (mentioned 16 times) is the result of his passion for Christ (mentioned 39 times).  The point is, he is a person who sees his life, and lives his life through Jesus - regardless of his circumstances and this is the secret to his joy.  He is Jesus focused in vision, he is Jesus grounded in daily life.  So joy overflows in the letter because the word Christ overflows in the letter.

One of the hallmark statements of Philippians is Paul's breathtaking announcement that "for me, to live is Christ and to die is gain."  If we're honest, hardly any of us could say "to die is gain."  But for Paul, death means "going to be with Christ."  (there's the Christ centered relational vision again).   So you might be thinking, "I'd like to be able to say "to die is gain.""  But you and I could never say this and mean it, unless we had come to the place of fully embracing "to live is Christ." (vs. "to live is to be happily married" or "to live is to have a big job and make a lot of money."  You get the point.)

Finally, Paul didn't arrive at this level of depth overnight.  He got there over years of life with Jesus; years that included many excruciating hardships.  He mentions these in 1 Corinthians 11.  See, our roots in Christ grow deep when fertilized with hardship.  No amount of Bible studies or small groups can get us to this same level of depth and maturity.  This means there are many benefits to hardship.  In closing, I'll recap with "10 Benefits of Hardship" (from sermon at Hope Church on January 12, 2013).

Hardship clarifies what’s important
Hardship frees us from pursuing the trivial and missing the point in life
Hardship frees us from worrying about what others think
Hardship grows our compassion
Hardship changes our purpose
Hardship changes our big picture perspective
Hardship cuts the garbage out of our religion
Hardship helps us experience what’s meaningful in life
Hardship deepens and matures us as people
Hardship teaches us we can trust God

Dec 19, 2012


Genesis 6:11-13 Now the earth was corrupt in God's sight and was full of violence. God saw how corrupt the earth had become, for all the people on earth had corrupted their ways. So God said to Noah, "I am going to put an end to all people, for the earth is filled with violence because of them."

Matthew 2:17-18 Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled: "A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more."

Speaking to a person once who had lost a child, she described her initial grief not as a time where she felt alone, not as a time where she was searching for answers, but as a time where she couldn't breathe.  She found it difficult to summon the faculties of mind and body to be able to draw breath.  I'm not sure exactly why, but that woman's gasping is what comes to mind after the tragedy and the evil of the Newtown shootings.  I have thought about those parents every day and I am saddened for them to the point of almost feeling sick for the magnitude of their grief and loss. We have to do something as a society.  

The first thing we have to do is love one another.  Love is the the only power stronger than death, and stronger than this culture of death we have created.  Yes, that we have created.  We need the healing of God from the strident, broken social relationships and discourse in our society.  We have to learn again to disagree with respect and appreciation for human beings.  We have become divided, we have made enemies of the other person and the other viewpoint, and at least for we who call ourselves Christian, we must love.  This is supposed to be what we're good at.  

Then we must ask everyone in a position of influence to turn their swords into plowshares and remove the walls of hostility.  We need unifying leadership from our president to our elected officials to our business and religious leaders.  Enough of the fear driven divisiveness.  One of the most significant marks of the quality of leadership is the unity of the followers.  If unity is gone, decimated as it currently is in our culture, we need to address a leadership crisis.  

Next we must address violence in our culture at all levels and have every discussion about its sources.  This is the place for civility to seek healing, not the same tired blame and anger.  It's time to open every closet and every category as a society, and do some deep and probably painful soul searching.  This is our illness, it's not just the other person's illness.  This must include addressing violence in movies and television produced by Hollywood, it must address video games, it must address gun control, it must address domestic violence and it must address pornography.  All matters should be on the table for a society as sick as ours.  If one of those children in Newtown had been yours, you'd want discussions at every level - no stone unturned.  Our society is sick in our core and we desperately need healing.  Healing will start with love as our motive, and it will seek to uncover truth about our illnesses.  

You and I both know emotions run high on many of these topics.  I appreciate and understand that.  Fear peddlers will scream that this category or that category cannot be touched, "It's not our fault!"  Right now I'm not suggesting who's fault it is.  Right now the blood is more poignant than the blame.  I'm suggesting that every topic needs to be on the table and as a nation we would do well to confess that we are very sick. If your life is crumbling, your preferences become secondary to your survival.  People are dying at the hands of the violence in our hearts, on our screens, and in our every day actions.  Lovingly we need to seek reasonable changes.  

Personally, I hate this violence.  Particularly gratuitous violence pumped into the eyes and thus the hearts and souls of all of us.  I hate it in movies and television and video games and in virtually every corner of our culture.  I hate it in gun use, I hate it in the strident, divisive, fear based leadership that is all too prevalent.   In the Bible's "start over" story of Genesis 6, God saw violence as the most conspicuous manifestation of evil. That gets my attention. I'm not asking God to do another "start over" like that one.  I'm asking Him to change our hearts, to change our culture, to convert us from violence to peace, from divisiveness to unity, from anger to civility.  I'm asking Him to heal us because our culture of death is killing us.   

"Come to us God, this Christmas time.  Come to us Prince of Peace.  Come to us and heal our diseases. For we are sick and we need your help." 

Dec 1, 2012

Upside Down at Christmas

One wonders where all the important people are at Christmas.  They seem to be missing from the Bible's accounts of the birth of Jesus.  Just AWOL.  What's that about?  When reading the narratives of Jesus' birth, there are no "important" people in them.  No important or significant business people, no significant religious leaders - no high priests.  Those people were around of course, but apparently God did not use them to bring Christ into the world.  The most "important" person in the accounts is a priest named Zechariah and he, the "most religious" one in the accounts is the one who least believes God.  The religious leader is the one who indicates the least faith in God.  Upside down #1.

Then the angel Gabriel goes to Mary, a modest young woman.  She will bear the Christ child into the world.  In a man's world, many thought the messiah would come with an army, on the clouds.  No, God will use a woman for this work; in a man's world.  Upside down #2.  Mary and Elizabeth are the towers of belief in the Bible's account.  The priest wasn't.  Men weren't.  At Jesus' resurrection it was women who were first at the empty tomb of Jesus too.  So God used a woman to bring Jesus into the world, and He used women as the first witnesses that he had been raised from the dead.  His birth and resurrection - both ushered in by women.

Mary who is single is informed that she will have a child without being married and without having been together with Joseph.  The penalty for such adultery was death.  When Mary is informed that she will bear this child, she cries out, "My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior." Upon receiving such news, would you have said that? Most people do not receive news that may well be a death notice by saying "My soul glorifies the Lord."  Upside down #3.  For all practical purposes, most people would have received this news from God as a curse.  They would have wondered, "Why me?"  "Why are you against me God?"  "Why am I cursed?"  Not Mary.  She appears to be completely without self regard.  She never says or apparently thinks, "What about MY life?"  Her lack of self interest is remarkable.  It is the essence of humility.  She doesn't think less of herself, she simply doesn't think of herself.  The Bible says "God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble."  At the birth of Jesus, the most pride, the most self regard and self-oriented perspective comes from the priest Zechariah.  He is humbled with the loss of speech, until the day he affirms God's work and agrees to naming his child John, as the angel had said.   So when he didn't receive God, he was humbled.  When he did, his stature was restored.  Let's say it another way, more plainly.  When Zecharia's life was about him, he was humbled through a hard and confusing experience.  When he came to make it about God, he was restored.

Okay, then Jerusalem was near by - a place kind of like Washington or New York - where all the "important" people and events are happening.  That's where the money is and those are the places considered important.  For all worldly accounts, Jesus should have been born in Jerusalem.  Bethlehem was a small place.  This means the most important event in the world was happening in a very unimportant location.  Upside down #4.  So while the "important" commerce and politics and religion were happening in Jerusalem and Rome (New York and Washington) and all the "important" people were doing all the "important" things there - Christ was born - in an unimportant place to unimportant people.  It makes sense, because in reality only the humble really receive Jesus.  Only the humble are really of use for His kingdom.  The proud might acknowledge Him, but only the humble receive Him. There's a big difference between acknowledging Him and receiving Him.  I'd encourage you to think about it.  Receiving Him is the biblical matter of being a Christian - the gospel of John describes being a Christian this way;  "to all who received him... he gave the right to become children of God." (John 1:12)

This Christmas, right now, there are lots of things on people's minds.  There are big issues in the news that feel concerning.  There are things like "fiscal cliffs" in politics and government that feel important and threatening.  Guess what, compared to what's happening at the first Christmas - there in the small town, none of what we're thinking is important is important.  In the humble and the small, God is doing something that trumps all else in importance.  None of the rest compares.  "And the government will be upon HIS shoulders," the bible says.

So the question for us this Christmas is "am I humble enough?"  Not "am I lowly enough," not "have I sufficiently beaten myself up enough," but am I a person with so little regard for my self importance and my rights, that I could be useful to God? Most of us are trying hard to be important.  Most of us desperately want to be important.  But when Jesus was born, the important people appear to be, well, useless.

Oct 18, 2012

Idols and Miracles

I once heard the story of a young Olympic athlete telling his coach how badly he wanted to win a medal in the Olympic competition.  The athlete went on at some length saying that "having a medal would make my life so great, it would give me so much fulfillment."  After listening for a time, the coach said, "Young man, if you're not fulfilled without a medal, you wont be fulfilled with one."  It's a helpful statement, the kind that separates the clutter from our ambitions, fulfillments, and idols.

I have come to see that God does not encourage idolatry in our lives. (Hope you appreciate the understatement there.) I have also come to believe that our lives, even among long time Christians, are full of idols.  The thing is, idols become more subtle as we keep on in the Christian life.  The subtlest of all, are idols that come in the appearance of faith.   Sometimes, even praying for miracles morphs into seeking idols.  More on that in a moment.

God being God, he is the one true source of life, hope, joy, meaning, freedom and identity (I'm going to call this list LHJMFI) and he jealously desires these things for his children.  And anything that might impinge upon them is something that he will seek to prevent.  And it's idols, of all kinds, that are the main thing that keep us from the full LHJMFI that God alone gives us.  Idols lead us to devote ourselves to things other than God, and nothing other than God gives us the LHJMFI that God gives.

This brings us to one of the rigorous matters in the life of faith, and it comes in the form of a vast question: "Am I devoted so to God, that God is all that I desire?"  Yeah, this is a "big boy faith" kind of question.    The reason the question is important is because it leads us with a laser focus to the only one who is our LHJMFI.  If we are looking for anything from him as a way to be happy rather than looking for him as the way to be happy, we are heading toward idols.  Idols will keep us from God and keep us from LHJMFI.  Okay, now you ready for this next point?  Generally if we're looking for LHJMFI, and this is our highest goal, and we are seeking God so we will find these - then, you guessed it, they are our God and god has just become a tool we use to try to get these.  So you're thinking, "So David what you are saying is that our goal is to seek God and nothing else?"  The answer is yes.  Then, when we get honest, we ask, "How to do I do that?  What does that even mean?"  Good question, I ask it too, and it makes me think that perhaps what I've been calling God is just that thing, that being that is supposed to give me LHJMFI.  In this case God isn't God, LHJMFI is.  Welcome to the challenge of the journey.

Recently I heard someone say, "We're believing God for a miracle." I appreciate this heart and hope. This sounds like a very devoted thing to say.  But it can be murky.  The whole question of miracles is quite murky for that matter.  Well, since the conversation I've thought a lot about it; "If you're believing God for a miracle, are you believing God without a miracle - if you don't get one? Because if 'believing God for a miracle' means you will not be believing him if you don't see a miracle, the miracle has become an idol.  And God generally does not answer our prayers when they lead us to idols."  Furthermore, "believing God for a miracle" can in some cases mean "we'll only believe if we see a miracle," or "the belief I have will be reduced if I don't see a miracle."  Do you see the subtle way this puts God in box and "challenges" him to perform?  This is a way such praying can turn into an idol prayer if we are not clear about it.  I imagine that the only time praying for a miracle is not an idol, is if I would believe God no less if there isn't one.

Sometimes we read where Jesus said, "Anything you ask in my name, will be given to you."  What a mysterious thing to say.  It begs the question "what does in his name really mean?"  Surely asking for a miracle is asking for something in his name - right?  Maybe, maybe not.  It might depend on the how much idol is in your miracle.  I'm inclined to think "If I'm not fulfilled with God without a miracle, in short time, I wont be fulfilled with God with a miracle."  Kind of like the olympian and the medal.

In the scriptures, God told Abraham, "I am your very great reward."  This statement clears the decks of idols if we understand it.  It means that God alone is what we're looking for.  Not what he'll do for us, not his miracles, not LHJMFI, not any other thing.  These are just knock offs from the fullest joy - which is God himself.

One of the church fathers said, "He who has God, has everything.  He who has God and everything, has nothing more than he who has God."

Sep 11, 2012

Praying for Peace on September 11th

I remember saying repeatedly, "This is some of the most beautiful weather I have ever seen." My wife Elisabeth and I agreed, the string of beautiful days was stunning with cool nights, crystal clear blue skies, low humidity. It was just like the weather we're having right now. It was so clear that every onlooker, whether present or watching on television, could see jets, huge jets, fly straight into the World Trade Center towers.

Having grown up near New York city, I had a summer job working for a brokerage firm in the 30th floor of the south tower the summer after my sophomore year of college. From my desk near a window in that building, I looked uptown, toward the Chrysler building and the Empire State building. On a pretty day the view was remarkable.

"Some plane has apparently flown into one of the World Trade Center buildings," was the first I had heard of it. I replied, "That's sad, I bet it was one of the small sight-seeing planes that flies around Manhattan." It would have been the perfect weather for such a flight, the visibility would have made it possible to see all of Manhattan Island from the Statue of Liberty on the south to Harlem up north. Shoot, you could even see all the way up the Hudson to the Tappan Zee bridge. "It didn't sound like that," was the reply. "It sounded bigger than that." And then we turned on a television. And then we saw, in real time, a giant passenger airliner fly straight into the second tower. It's an image so startling that one's mind has difficulty making sense of it, not to mention the shock and the tragedy. By then it had become clear that his was no accident and that airplanes had been used as tools of terror. "The world will be different for a long time to come," I thought. Little did we know the extent of those differences, those sadnesses, those animosities, those warring visions.

Years ago I was on a fishing trip with a friend. This friend is older than I am and I am grateful for our friendship. He is gentle, kind, soft-hearted. From early on in our friendship, I noticed his tenderness to anything vulnerable. In fact, when we caught fish, he was adamant about holding fish properly and getting them back in the water quickly so they wouldn't be harmed. Over the years as we've fished together, on the one or two occasions that he killed a fish due to the normal mishaps that can happen when fishing, he would be distraught. Some of you who are hunters, may be thinking this is silly. I can appreciate that.

One time we were on a trip and at the end of the day we were talking about the fishing and sharing stories of fish caught and almost caught. Then the mosquitos began to come out. At one point, a mosquito landed on his arm and he gently leaned his face toward it, and with a soft blow from his mouth, he blew the mosquito off his arm. I watched this in surprise. Most of the time I felt that mosquitos deserved to be slapped flat, a gray and red blotch of mosquito death in the blood that had been sucked from my body. "You don't like to kill anything do you?" I asked. He was quiet for a moment, and what he said next is a moment I've never forgotten. He said, "No brother, I did enough killing in Vietnam. I don't ever want to kill anything again." I was stunned. I was silent. I had no idea. We'd never talked about this. I didn't even know he had been in the Vietnam War.

After some silence where we were looking at each other, I said, "I had no idea. I've never heard you talk about that." "Yeah, a lot of hard memories," he said. Quiet again... "If you would ever like to talk more about that or tell me about it, I'd be interested in hearing," I replied. Then a pause again and then he began to tell me. He told me of stories of approaching Vietnamese villages, not knowing who's going to try to kill you or not. He told me stories of terrifying fire fights and friends being killed - one who was shot to pieces and died lying across his lap. He told me more, more stories, more pain, more of the sights and sounds and smells. He said wistfully, "I did it because I am an American and I felt I had to do what the country asked of me." He talked, I listened, tears come to each of us as he spoke. It was a poignant, intimate, vulnerable time of friendship.

All of this brings me to be praying for peace today, September 11, 2012, 11 years after the 11th. I'm praying for peace in our world, which I have come to believe is not possible without peace in human hearts. I hope you'll join me in praying for peace. It's rigorous and hard praying. To pray for peace is to pray for your enemies. Jesus taught it, and it's rigorous praying. It goes against every normal vengeful emotion. "Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you," He said. (Matthew 5:44). What I can tell you, is that when I do this hard work, my own heart is softened. That's progress. This is also hard praying because I have never been a "pacifist at all costs," person. But I will say that I am seeking peace more at this stage of life than ever in my past. "Blessed are the peacemakers," Jesus said, "for they shall be called sons of God."

None of the other couplets of Jesus' beatitudes say that a person shall "be called a son of God," - but this is what is said of peacemakers. Sounds simplistic perhaps? I can say this, it's hard praying. When one feels sure that there is an enemy that seeks your death and destruction with a deep hatred in their heart, it's hard praying. But here's a challenge for the serious disciple of Jesus: Jesus was a peacemaker.

Sadly, I do not believe there will be an end to wars until there is an end to sin. And honestly, I don't believe that will happen until God's final reconciliation day when peace becomes the final and comprehensive reality. In this new order, those who had previously sought to kill each other will now lie down together in peace; "wolf and the lamb will lie together, and a little child shall lead them." (Isaiah 11) At this stage of my struggling learning with Jesus, I accept that in our fallen world, there may be a place and time to go to war. Ecclesiastes 3 suggests so. But I'm more desirous of peace now, more willing to work harder for it. Yes, praying for your enemies is the first step of peacemaking. It's hard praying. Did I mention that yet?

On a less global scale, praying for your enemies is one way that we, with Jesus' help, can keep many wars from starting. Not the big wars, the smaller everyday wars. Who are you unhappy with today? Who is bringing you pain, and hurt? Will you join me today in praying for them? Praying God will bless them with Himself, with His goodness, with His love - and that they would feel it, and be able to know the goodness of the Lord? Will you pray for things to go well for them, and pray for their soul to know joy and fulfillment? Join me if you will. Join me in seeking the one "who makes wars cease to the ends of the earth" (Psalm 46). This is a profound form of Christian prayer and it's very hard work. I think I already mentioned that.

Aug 27, 2012


I just can't shake it. I think about it often and because I don't know anyone else who thinks about it this way, or talks about it, I feel like a total outcast. Like maybe I'm thinking about this completely wrong or maybe I'm kind of nuts. But I don't think I am wrong about this, I think my view of this is Biblical. But why don't I hear anyone else ever talking this way?

What I'm getting at is this: if we had a real belief in Heaven, it would change everything about the way we see life and experience it. It would take the fear and dread out of death and it would make us look at things completely differently. We would have comfort where there was despair, we'd have confidence where there was fear, we'd have hope where there was grief. Death you see, would lose it's sting. I think this is clearly what the New Testament teaches us about the resurrection of Jesus and about eternal life for all those who are in Christ. This, according to the New Testament would mean that death is no longer the threat, the fear, and the despair that we have thought them to be. In fact, the bible teaches that heaven, the next place for all who are in Christ, is so much more joyous, so much better a life than "earth life" that we would celebrate for anyone who had the chance to go there. Why don't we?

Yesterday I got home and my wife informed me of an elderly woman who had died. My answer, "Good for her. I'm happy for her." I meant it sincerely. Absolutely sincerely. This person had lived a hard life, her husband whom she loved dearly had died a few years ago, and to me, her death sounded like nothing but good news. She is now freed of the challenges she faced in life, she is free in the fullest sense, unto God and into the highest joy. The difficulties her family have borne in caring for her are now concluded. Yes, I'm happy for her.

Okay you say - "but she was elderly and had had a hard life." Yes - true enough, but if Heaven is joy beyond our wildest imagination, we'd be happy for anyone who gets to live there forever; regardless of how long they had lived around here. The bible is clear that Heaven is this kind of joy, with the apostle Paul saying "no eye has seen, no ear has heard, what God has prepared for those who love him." The tone of this is, "think of the best you've ever experienced here and heaven is far better than anything you could imagine." Said succinctly, heaven life is better than earth life. By a long shot.

I feel like the odd man out when I say this kind of stuff. I don't hear anyone else saying it except the apostle Paul, who's confidence and anticipation of heaven was such that he said in so many words, "if I live here on earth, that's okay, but I'd rather be in heaven." We however, cling to earth with a clutching grasp.

Imagine a scenario: In your mother's womb there comes a time where you are informed, "some time in the near future, you are going to make a big move. It's called birth - and you will move from this place to a much much larger and more expansive experience. It's beauty you haven't ever seen, it's experiences that are amazing." To that you might likely reply, "I don't want to do that. I like it in here. It's familiar (you don't know enough to know it's dark and colorless), it's warm, and it's safe. I want to stay here." Alas, you can't. You will be born into a whole new world.

However, when you were in the womb, the idea of birth actually would feel to you like a death - a loss of the familiar. Yet when anyone has a baby, everyone celebrates new life. I think the move from "earth life" to "heaven life" is very much like this. Here we are living in a familiar place and yet there will be a time when we are born into a totally new way of life. For many, anticipating this feels like a death to us, a loss, but in heaven, there will be a welcome and a celebration from everyone who's there - celebrating this new birth. We will have gone from a very limited and limiting experience of life, to a far fuller, far richer, far more joyful one. Just like the move from womb to world.

Add one more angle. In the womb, our sensory experiences are very limited. No vision, no smell, only muffled and indistinguishable sound. Soon however, we will be born into a world of remarkably broader sensory experience - we'll see in vivid beautiful color, we'll hear the most extraordinary music, we'll taste exquisite food. You get the picture. The analogy carries over to Heaven I think. Just as the move from womb to world was a move to incredibly broader sensory experiences, so will the move from world to heaven be similarly spectacular - where it's likely that our sensory experience will be far more amazing than what we've experienced here. And, borrowing some thoughts from Max Lucado, think about the things that develop and grow when we're in our mother's womb that are really of no use to us in that state of life. We are growing and developing eyes, but we don't see light or color. We are developing a nose and sense of smell but we've never smelled anything remarkable. Yes, in the womb, we are developing things that are only for the fuller sensory experience of life after the womb, life outside the womb, life in "the next life." I can only imagine, without knowing, that something similar is happening to us while we live our years on earth. God is growing things in us that we don't really understand, but perhaps they're not for use in this life, but for the fuller experience of perceiving and receiving the fulness of the life we'll live after we're born out of this life and into heaven life.

You can't imagine what these things would be? Similarly, a child at say 6 months of development in its mother's womb couldn't imagine what eyes are for, or what a sense of smell is for. He'll only understand this when he gets to use them, and then he can thank God for them in the next phase of life when he's looking at a beautiful sunset or a view of snow capped mountains with wild flowers all around.

Heaven is our next phase of life. The one that lasts forever and where there is only joy. Jesus' resurrection makes this certain and clarifies that our earthly death is much more like a birth. If we believe this, it will change everything.

Jul 18, 2012

Conservative and Liberal Belief

Last weekend, two articles came to my attention that I would say "caught" my attention. One caught my attention because it was in the New York Times. (links below). Both articles spoke primarily of the Episcopal church's rapid decline in the last couple of decades and both suggest something closer to hemorrhaging in the last couple of years. It makes me sad. See, I love the church and I always want to see the church in all its forms do well. But herein lies a problem: one would be hard pressed to call the Episcopal Church, at least at the national level, a church. Yes, to be sure there are local churches in the Episcopal as well as other main line denominations that are healthy and biblical, but at the national governing levels, it's a different story.

The most fundamental founding moment of the church was when Peter said to Jesus, "You are the Christ (messiah), the son of the living God." (Matthew 16:6). As the New Testament continues to unfold, there are other core matters regarding Jesus that are foundational to Christian belief. One is the bodily resurrection, another is that Jesus is the only way to salvation - the only way to God. This latter statement is not a matter of dogmatic exclusivism but practical reality for those who understand sin and atonement. And then there is the doctrine of the Bible itself, forged through the centuries of witness, testimony, study and councils - all of which could be summarized in the word "canon" - those books that comprise the inspired word of God which is authoritative for doctrine, life and practice. Well, at the national level of the Episcopal Church, these foundational beliefs are not upheld. In some corners they are ridiculed. There are similar bells sounding in other main line (old line) denominations in the U.S. as well.

It was in 1995 that I finished my doctoral thesis, writing very much about these issues that are before us today. My case study was main line Presbyterianism, but the issues and declines in all the main lines are very similar. In that study, I concluded that if the main line churches didn't recover a commitment to orthodox belief, that they would die out like the dinosaurs. If they did recover orthodoxy, they may rise like a phoenix. Unhappily, I suggested that the course of drifting belief seemed irreversible, which led me to suggest that the day may come when some of the main line denominations merge. This will be done with the fanfare of the victories of ecumenism, but in reality organizations rarely merge unless one or both of them needs help. This would be the reason for merging. Such a church might be called something like what exists in Australia - "The Uniting Church of Australia." If it happens, it may become a bastion of liberal beliefs that the church calls Christian, but which in reality are not. There will be lots of obfuscated vocabulary which are the words of ivory towerism, all intended to sound erudite and scholarly (i.e. convincing) but they will not be the words of Christianity at all. They are the words of generalized spirituality that sometimes refer to Jesus, but are not talking about the Jesus of the Bible. In this regard, it is important to get it out on the table - that these words are not Christianity at all, and calling it such is euphemistic and deceitful.

Religion at its core is about belief. Belief, to mean anything has to have clarity to it. There have to be things held to be true, within a framework of an orthodox doctrine. To depart from clarity, from foundations of core beliefs is to depart from Christianity and morph into the amorphous world of new-age spirituality - a mixture of religions, of beliefs, of spiritual words - but without clarities of any kind that would comprise a defined doctrine. Many have said it, but to believe everything is to believe nothing really - it is a vacuous system of wanting religion without commitment, intellectual or volitional. In this regard, it lacks character or integrity - and also courage.

Christianity at it's core is a religion for living life. It's doctrines, while philosophically significant are not philosophical at root. They are practical. The resurrection gives hope to people both for the living of their daily lives, and more profoundly - for their dying. This is so markedly different than the jaded words of pseudo enlightened erudition that pour forth from those who are proponents of unbiblical Christianity. See, Christianity is about changed lives due to coming into a personal relationship with the risen son of God. Changed lives is an imminently practical concept, not one of philosophical word games.

I've never really liked the labels "liberal" and "conservative." They have become laden with targets and pejorative connotations intended to malign opponents. I prefer to make it clearer than that - let's call it "biblical Christianity" or "unbiblical Christianity." And then let's have the guts to say that the latter is not Christianity.

People who are living their lives and coming to church looking for hope, deserve leaders who have the courage to say they either believe or they don't - so these people can draw their own conclusions from clear statements and navigate their eternity accordingly. To play word games with people's lives is a form of leadership to which I am opposed. This having gone on for some time now, is what is leading people to leave these unbiblical organizations, taking their faith and their hope to places that believe in the biblical Jesus.

So, in conclusion - I don't write any of this triumphalistically. I am very aware that the church struggles through the centuries and has risen and fallen throughout history for reasons too numerous to name. I write it because I love the church and I'm grieved when people who don't believe are pretending they do. Saddened. That's all.

To read the articles I mentioned in the first part of this post, see:


Jul 9, 2012

Meanderings on Trust

Some reflections on trust in the spirit of Ecclesiastes:
  • Trust is everything. It's the foundation that enables all interactions to happen in a positive way. Note the "in a positive way" part. Trust is so fundamental and necessary that you might say trust is like air. It's invisible but thoroughly essential. Like air it can get polluted though, and that can make things much more difficult.
  • I wish trust could be more like grace - that it could be a gift. But trust isn't like grace. Grace is a gift. Trust is earned. I was talking about this recently with someone who's experienced an unfaithfulness. With the best of our intentions, we might give grace to a person who has wronged us, but that does not mean that we trust them. That's different.
  • Trust is challenging in that it is so significant, so foundational, and yet so fragile. It's like a piece of glass that is half an inch thick; it can hold a lot, much can rest on top of it. But quick contact from a hammer can break the whole thing apart. A tap really. Trust can take years to build and only a split second to break. To build it back again may take the same period of years, or possibly more. Sometimes, for many reasons, it doesn't get built back again.
  • Trust is the invisible value that exists between two (or more) people that says "I receive you with good intentions and I will interact with you with the assumption that you will treat me well and faithfully." To trust is to be vulnerable. Intimacy depends on vulnerability, without vulnerability there can't be intimacy. Said another way, to be intimate you have to be vulnerable, to be vulnerable you have to trust. By definition, trust is risky.
  • It's virtually impossible to live a human life without giving relatively high levels of trust to people. Some people are more naturally trusting than others. They risk getting hurt. Other people are more naturally suspicious than others. They risk not knowing intimacy. Broken trust often leads to broken hearts. Broken hearts find it hard to trust again. A difficult cycle.
  • People cry out sometimes, "Why can't I trust you!?" The answer in it's broadest sense of course is sin. We serve our own interests and desires ahead of others. And our desires, insecurities, needs, and fears, lead us to self-centered behavior. It's a thick stew.
  • Most people believe they are trustworthy - which means the problem is with the other guy. But if everyone was as trustworthy as they believe themselves to be, this wouldn't be such a challenging area, a landscape littered with so many broken hearts. Who can you trust? God. But some don't believe that - or at least they struggle with that.
Two bible verses for closure: Proverbs 3:5 "Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding. In all your ways, acknowledge him and he will make your paths straight." John 14:1 "Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God. Trust also in me."

Jun 18, 2012

The Challenge of Doing Nothing

We're currently in a series called "My Father's Work," at Hope Church. It's been interesting to walk through this together. It's been provocative but in a somewhat mysterious way. I think it's because the series is calling us, with the prophets, to not just talk about the stuff of faith, but to do it. The prophets in the Old Testament suggest that God's people are full of words, lots of words. And the prophets indict the people that words are cheap, easy - full of bravado and gusto - but their words are empty of meaning, of action, of lives that back up the words.

This is a challenge isn't it? Churches are full of words. As a Bible teacher, I say a lot of words on a weekly basis. Churches have flowery mission statements and lofty visions. But do we actually do them? Yes - words are easy. Noble words make us feel good, but action, as any leader knows, is harder. It's easy to say words, it's harder to do them. This is one of the main cries of the prophets in the Old Testament. Isaiah said it this way, "these people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me." (Isaiah 29:13)

One of the concepts that has become a sub-theme of this series is the word "radical." We've referred to David Platt's book by this title. Radical it seems, is what a person who does the Jesus centered life, looks like. We're marveling at Katie Davis in Uganda who went, who adopted, and who is caring for a large number of children. We're amazed at the people who are "actually doing it." Radical? I prefer to think it's just Christian. What we're being confronted with is that it is possible that all this Christian business we've been a part of - is the business of words - words in the Bible, words in worship songs, words in mission statements. But is anyone actually doing it? It seems that to live the life of a follower of Jesus is being perceived as radical. I hope not. When we read the New Testament, these people lived it out, arranged their lives and priorities around serving God and doing the work of His heart. This has always been the model of Christian life. Not radical, Christian.

I saw that CNN published a Pew study recently that said in 2007, 83% of Americans under 30 said "I never doubt the existence of God." But in 2012, the same study resulted in 68% saying they never doubt the existence of God. We could talk about what those numbers mean forever, but one thing they mean is that younger people are less confident in their faith. And we know from other studies, that younger people are leaving the church in large measure. I think this "talking without doing" is one of the biggest reasons.

Younger people look at the churches they have been a part of and they see programs and pot lucks, choirs and meetings but not much change happening in the world. The church is not "going for it" not making a difference, not getting after it - in terms of serving the heart of God and really making a difference in the world. But they want to see the church make a difference, be more than just words, actually "do" the Jesus centered life. Imagine. And when they don't see this happening in the church, they take their faith elsewhere to be expressed in places that are actually making a difference. Their basic exit statement is "words, words, no action, no impact in the world, no difference making."

James 1:22 says, "Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says." Let's do it.

May 5, 2012

One Faith

Many Christians are acquainted with the general concept that there is "one faith."  However, most Christians don't speak this way.  Most of us speak of "my faith," or we say things like "Her faith is very strong," or "His faith is remarkable."  On the one hand we know what we mean here - it's the faith that these people have in Jesus Christ.  But the way we use this phraseology is a bit afield of what I believe the Bible is getting at.

In Acts 3:16, Peter says "By faith in the name of Jesus, this man whom you see and know was made strong. It is Jesus' name and the faith that comes through him that has given this complete healing to him, as you can all see."  Here we gain greater clarity on this one faith concept.  There is only one faith and it is faith in the name of Jesus.  Further Peter says, "it is the faith that comes through Him" (meaning He's the source of it).  If there's only one source, it makes it easier to understand that there's only one faith. Interesting.  What Peter is saying is that the man who was healed in this instance was not healed by his own faith, but rather by the faith that Peter and John had.  A faith in Jesus.  Nothing is mentioned of the faith of the man who was healed.  It is the faith that Peter and John had in Jesus that was the matter of this healing.  It wasn't even really "Peter's faith" so to speak - it was a man named Peter's faith, faith in Jesus.  There it is - faith in Jesus.  So it is the trust in the bigness and the power of Jesus that is at issue.  

You see, over time, many of us have fallen into a "belief paradigm" (note this is different than 'faith') which most of us would never want to admit.  It goes something like this:  Many try to find God and believe in Him, many struggle and are not sure that He is real or that He is active.  We hear more bad news and we reason, almost subconsciously, "if God were big, He would do something about this mess (or problem, or disease, etc...)." But He doesn't seem to be doing anything.  So God, sometimes without our recognition, gets smaller in our minds, in our beliefs.  We do believe, so we're not atheists.  And we believe God is real and that He does act, so we're not agnostics. But we don't believe in a very big God.  We believe, frankly, in a rather small God.  We hope for more, but we actually believe in less.  

This has led us to think that if we want to see (a small) God work, act, heal, change lives - then we must have a very big faith if this is to happen.  So we develop this unfortunate view that goes like this,  "We must have a very big faith, because He's a rather small God."  Thus, we and our faith are large in the equation, while God is smallish.  This of course now turns the matter to our faith, rather than to Jesus.  Our religion becomes to be about our faith, not about Christ.  Meaning - it's about us.  That's wrong of course, and it pushes us to think that Christianity equals a strong faith in a pretty small God.  And so, it is the strength of our faith that is the issue that might make a difference.  I think this is wrong.  

Jesus said on the contrary, "If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can move this mountain."  (Mt. 17:20).  See, it's not so much the size of the faith, but the size of the one in whom you put your faith.   And so, we are back to the "one faith" idea - that there is only one faith, and it's not "my faith" or "your faith" it is faith in Jesus.  That's it.  That's the one faith.  And, you either have it or you don't.  (And remember that in the Bible, the word faith is more about "trust" than it is about mental assent the usual sense of it.)  

An analogy might be helpful.  Let's say you have $100.  You have a trust that comes with the security or opportunity that $100 gives you.  But let's say you have $1,000,000.  You have a trust that comes with the security or opportunity that $1,000,000 gives you.  In both cases you have a trust - but the trust is different and more solid in the $1,000,000 than in the $100.  The difference in the faith is NOT about the strength of the belief, it is about the size of the thing in which you trust.  It is not your faith "that makes the thing big," it is the size of the thing that makes your trust big (or small.) You may have "more faith" in $1,000,000 than you do in $100, but that's not because of you, it's because of it.  The bigger money gives you more trust.  And here is where I'm going.  A big God is one in whom you put big faith.  But in reality, you don't HAVE to have a big faith, you can have a small faith (like a mustard seed) because it's a big God.  Do you see it?  We all have thought we needed to manufacture a big faith because many of us are conceiving of a small God.  But this is not who God is.  He is so big, that you could have small faith in Him.  Mustard seed sized faith.  See faith is more a question of "Faith - yes" or "Faith - no" and not so much a question of  "faith - big" or "faith - small."  

Now things become more exciting, because now we can see that all believers are invited to take hold of this one faith - faith in Jesus.  And that's it - that's the one faith.  It's the same cord that began when people met Jesus, it's the same cord that was in the early church.  It's like a cord or a thread (the "faith in Jesus Christ" cord) that has run all through history.  It's this faith that Peter and John apprehended, this faith that Augustine apprehended, it's the faith that George Washington apprehended.  Now we begin to see the unity in it too - we are all so deeply united when we are all holding onto the one faith - the "faith in Jesus" faith; not "my faith, your faith, his faith, her faith."  Yes, there's only one faith and it's "faith in Jesus and faith that comes through Him."  And now it makes it so much more clear and exciting when Paul speaks in Ephesians about "one faith, one hope, and one baptism..."  That's for another entry.  

Apr 30, 2012

"On Account of Me"

There are various places in the bible where certain phrases make you say, "What? What in the world does that mean?" One of these statements is from Jesus when he is speaking in regard to John the baptist and Jesus says, "Blessed is the man who does not fall away on account of me." (Matthew 11:6) 

"On account of me??"

 Consider John the baptist, the remarkable man of God about whom the old testament prophets referred as one declaring in the wilderness, "prepare the way of the Lord." John was a man who announced things about Jesus like, "Behold the lamb of God - who takes away the sins of the world," and "This is the man who's sandals I am not worthy to untie." His devotion to Jesus was complete. It would seem.

In time, John's life took some unpredicted turns. The biggest turn was that he found himself in prison at the hands of Herod for characteristically speaking truth and denouncing Herod for an extramarital affair. Prophets do this kind of thing, and sometimes without a lot of tact. Prophets understand this dilemma. In John's case, his outspoken words about Herod got him put in prison. This presents a crisis to John.

I imagine that in John's prison cell, the crisis may have gone something like this, "Jesus I have been so faithful to you. I have spoken strongly about who you are and told the world about you. I have declared that you are the messiah and I believe you can do miraculous things. I have placed my faith in you, I trust you, and more than that, we are first cousins. Since I believe in your ability and power, then WHY am I in this prison - and WHY don't you do something about it?!" John's faith leads him to struggle, John's struggle leads him to a place of doubt - as struggles often do. John is struggling BECAUSE he believes, not because he doesn't. "The reason I am so frustrated Jesus, is because I believe you could do something and you are not apparently doing anything! If I didn't believe you were the son of God, I would not be struggling with you, or with this predicament, because I wouldn't be placing my hope in you." John is at risk of falling away from Jesus BECAUSE he believes, NOT because he doesn't. It is "on account" of Jesus being the messiah and John's belief that He is, that John is experiencing this crisis. To this Jesus says, "Blessed is the man who does not fall away 'on account of me.'" Wow.

So John sends some of his disciples (who apparently visited him in prison while Jesus didn't) to ask Jesus if he is the real deal - really the messiah of God. His challenge: "If you REALLY are the son of God, the messiah who can do the miraculous, then WHY am I in this prison and WHY don't you do something about it?" This is a crucible of faith. Then it gets worse for John.

Jesus responds to John's disciples by saying, "Go tell John what you are seeing. The lame walk, the blind see" etc... If you are John this is on the one hand affirmation, on the other hand turmoil. "Okay, so you ARE the messiah because you are healing the lame and the blind. THEN WHY DON'T YOU DO SOMETHING, SOMETHING MIRACULOUS IF NECESSARY, AND GET ME OUT OF THIS PRISON!?" He's close to "falling away on account" of the fact that he does believe in Jesus - not because he doesn't believe. Do you see it? I think you do. And then Jesus says, "Blessed is the man who does not fall away on account of me." I wonder if this was consolation. Perhaps yes, perhaps no. But what it is, is truth.

I believe the word "blessing" in the bible means "God is very near to." (Consider this in the beattitudes) So Jesus is saying, "God is very near to the person who is struggling with faith in this terrible place of predicament." Helpful on the one hand, so difficult on the other. It suggests God knows the predicament and yet for reasons that we will not understand, He is not intervening. This crucible of faith, makes most places of faith look like small potatoes. This is the big place. The place where faith is our only lifeline but it is challenged to it's maximum. This is the place where we do not have the faith in ourselves - the conviction, the sustaining hope. We only have the perseverance to keep trusting if God gives this faith to us. It is believing in spite of what we are seeing and experiencing. It is remarkably difficult and all but the most mature will indeed fall away.

Finally, Jesus speaks to the crowd about John the baptist and concludes with this towering statement, "there is none greater born of women, than John." I read this to mean that while John is having life's most difficult crisis of faith, Jesus is saying in essence, "I know you are having a very difficult time believing in me. But John, I believe in you." Wow. Still unresolved. Still breathtaking. Still excruciating. All the more so because we know that John was killed.

It's enough to turn a believer into an atheist, unless you are ready for the deepest places. So where is our hope in a crucible like this - one which doesn't have a happy ending? John was killed. The one hope then, in the crucible of life's most difficult faith crises is the resurrection. It's the only answer that makes any sense of it. And one day I suspect, when we are in heaven, we will see all of this, somehow, with very different eyes.

Oh, and there is one more glimmer of hope. A smaller matter than the resurrection to be sure. But it is the consolation of the words "blessed are those who do not fall away on account of me."