Being Human

October 8th, 2015

hipster in midair“Man is the only creature that refuses to be what he is.” (Albert Camus)

About a century ago, an argument that had been brewing in academic circles spilled out into Christian churches. One group of scholars got together and decided that the Jesus of history was merely a wise and moral teacher. He went around doing a lot of good, but he never actually performed any miracles. I mean, miracles don’t really happen, do they? Of course not! They’re unscientific. So, let’s dispense with all the nonsense about virgin birth and walking on water and healing sick people and all that. Let’s especially do away with the silly notion of a bodily resurrection from the dead. Jesus was just a wise and moral teacher, and we would do well to learn from him. Let’s not say he was God in a body.

But the other side of the theological spectrum maintained their belief in Jesus as God — Jesus as eternally pre-existent second member of the Trinity — Jesus as sinless, supernatural, and divine. Jesus born of the Virgin Mary, conceived by the Holy Spirit, suffered under Pontius Pilate, crucified, buried, dead, raised again, ascended into heaven, seated at the right hand of the Father. Jesus the spotless Lamb of God sent to offer his life as a ransom for all.

One side said we should focus on Jesus’ moral teachings. The other side said we should focus on Jesus’ atoning actions.

This all may be boring to you, but there are some implications for us today. Stick with me.

The debate had some underpinnings that we can talk about, but the focus of the conversation shifted midway through the century away from the pressing question, “Who is Jesus?” towards an equally pressing question, “How do I get saved?”

Is there anything I can do to save myself? Is it all from God? Can I help? Do I contribute anything? Is it some kind of partnership where God does one part and I do the rest of it? Who initiates? Where is obedience in the mix? Do I have to obey, and, if so, how much, and which parts?

One camp said perhaps we shouldn’t take the Bible so literally when it talks about things like sin and miracles and people being completely unable to save themselves. They believed that the Bible is really trying to teach us how to be better people. So, we take the moral and ethical teachings to heart. We leave the rest behind, chalking it up to primitive people trying to understand the unknowable God of the universe.

The other side fought tooth-and-nail to hold onto a literal reading of the Bible. The miracles are recorded there because they literally happened. And sin is condemned because sin literally brings death to a person. And when the Bible says humans are completely unable to contribute one whit to their own salvation, it means that literally. Humans are utterly depraved and unable to do anything good or right or holy on their own.

Sadly, the theological conservatives thought it was so important to defend their doctrinal purity that they felt justified in ignoring social concerns. In fact, bringing up social concerns like feeding the hungry and caring for marginalized people came under some suspicion from some conservatives. They began to think that if you talked about human rights and human dignity, you were probably going to say that Jesus was just a wise and moral human teacher.

God only knows how many trees gave themselves for the sake of this argument — which continues to this day, by the way. But I think something has happened. While the church continues to argue over how people get saved and how to read the Bible, society has moved on to another question — a question they don’t even seem to know they’re asking:

What does it mean to be human?

Because here in America the church has had such a tremendous influence on culture, regular folks were keeping up with us in the previous two intramural arguments I mentioned. Regular folks were interested a hundred years ago. They wanted to know what they should do with Jesus. And many regular folks were interested 60 years ago when folks like Billy Graham started talking about how to be saved.

But more and more it seems like no one’s listening these days, and I think it’s because we don’t know what’s really keeping folks awake at night. It’s time for the church to turn its attention to the big question being asked over and over again by everyone from the #blacklivesmatter activists to Caitlyn Jenner to the Supreme Court to Planned Parenthood.

It’s everywhere you look. But no one knows it’s the question underneath the question on everyone’s mind: What does it mean to be human?

Is my gender part of my humanity? What about my sexual orientation? What about my race? What about the race with which I identify? At what point in time does a human become human? Is my online persona part of my humanity, and, if so, is that online persona subject to the same ethical standards I employ IRL? And what exactly does being human merit? Are there such things as universal human rights? If so, who decides who gets them? And when? And for how long?

What does it mean to be human? 

Obviously, I can’t answer that question fully here. But I think this is the question we must begin to think through, and we must seek out the best possible answers from the fields of philosophy, psychology, medicine, and, yes, theology. Of course, if we involve theology, someone’s going to want to know what the Bible says about being human. Then we’re going to have to ask whether or not we’ve learned anything in the last 2,000 years about human nature that the original writers and readers of scripture didn’t know.

That’s a question most Christians don’t want to consider.

But we must.

No. Drama. Ever. Period.

October 6th, 2015

open arms

“You can’t save others from themselves because those who make a perpetual muddle of their lives don’t appreciate your interfering with the drama they’ve created. They want your poor-sweet-baby sympathy, but they don’t want to change.” (Sue Grafton)

A while back I realized that a lot of my relationships reminded me of junior high. On Monday we’d be fused and codependent and attached at the hip. We’d send texts throughout the day like passing notes in class. By Wednesday we’d be clubbing each other over the head with a heap of emotional baggage, suspicious half-thoughts, and unfounded accusations. By Friday we’d have some overblown come-to-Jesus sit-down that would lead to some short-term reconciliation.

These friendships were like some sort of toxic Hydra situation. I’d eliminate one, and it would regenerate immediately. I was baffled at my string of bad luck with friendships. It reminded me of the girls I used to date in high school and college….

And that’s when it dawned on me.

I was the common denominator.

I was drawn to drama like a moth to a flame. I was addicted to it. Chaos was my normal, and when it wasn’t present, I panicked. I wasn’t comfortable without someone with whom to fight. I said I hated drama, but I kept coming back like the junkie that I was. To be honest, it was just easier to blame the world; that allowed me to complain without ever having to change.

You may not be a drama king like I was, but most of us have had our fair share of relational histrionics. Maybe your best friend has as many tragedies as their are days of the week. Maybe you’re the person everyone always calls with their problems. Maybe you unwittingly turn mole hills into mountains.

Whatever the case, if you’d like to have just a wee bit fewer histrionic episodes, read on. I’ve come up with a list of ways to minimize drama in your life.

First, own your part. If drama is a regular feature in multiple areas of your life, guess what? You’re the common denominator. Be honest with yourself. You might be generating (or at least perpetuating) it. Now, the truth is that no one does anything more than once or twice unless there’s a payoff in there somewhere. So, ask yourself: what’s in this for you? Are you looking for attention? Do you think this is an adventure? Did you grow up with drama, so this feels normal to you? If you want attention, can you just say that to the other person out loud? “Look, I need some attention right now, and if I don’t get it I might cause a scene.” Or if you’re looking for adventure, maybe go on a real adventure. Like go out and find something adventurous to do — something that might change the world for the better.

Second, get out of your head. A lot of drama happens in our own heads — usually because we’re too close to the situation to realize it’s not nearly as bad as it seems. When you feel yourself becoming overwhelmed with things, take a step back and ask yourself if this is going to matter a year from now. If not, it’s probably not worth worrying about. What you’re feeling isn’t permanent. This too shall pass. Gaining a little perspective may help you focus on what you actually can control — what you can actually do today to create a better tomorrow.

Third, refuse to wade into another person’s drama. What if you were known as someone who didn’t participate? Maybe that person who repeatedly comes looking for someone to bail her out of the catastrophe du jour would take her stuff to someone else. If she persists in bringing it to you, give yourself a window of time when you’ll listen. Once that timer goes off, walk away. You might be surprised at how quickly she soothes herself when there’s no one around to validate her complaints.

Fourth, get new friends. I know this sounds harsh, but sometimes you just have to say, “Life is too short to deal with all this drama.” I’m not saying you have to sever the relationship with those folks, but you can go find some people with good energy. Heck, spend time with yourself — that’s preferable to spending time with someone who is constantly stirring the pot. Who leaves you feeling stressed more often than not? Minimize your time with them. At the very least you can recognize the triggers. When the conversation veers towards her ex, steer it somewhere else.

Fifth, be open and honest with other people. If you have an issue with someone, go talk to them instead of talking about them. Gossip breeds drama. When you muster up the gumption to say what you mean (and mean what you say), it may be more difficult short-term but it saves a lot of drama in the long run. If you really want to go to the next level, let people know that they can be honest with you. When we feel like we have to walk on eggshells, we hold things in — but that’s like trying to hold a beachball under water. It will eventually come out — if not in words then in actions.

Sixth, be careful what you call drama. Sometimes people have legitimate problems and legitimately need your help. Everyone needs grace — including you. Practice the golden rule. Love people a little more than you think you can. Listen more. Speak less. This will give you the bandwidth to think and respond instead of reacting. Be a friend. Be present. Be in the moment. Then remember that you need to put your own oxygen mask on first, so let the drama go when you walk away. Don’t turn it over in your head later. Stay in the moment — especially when the dramatic moment has passed.

Finally, learn whatever lesson you’re supposed to learn. Accept it for what it is. Learn from it. Get on with life. Move forward. Don’t get bogged down. Sometimes we get stuck and feel like we’re powerless to remove ourselves from the mire. But when you feel overwhelmed, this is your opportunity to learn how to deal with hard times better than you ever have before.

You can always find dozens of small fires burning in your vicinity. Stop giving in to the impulse to put all of them out. When you learn not to fan them, they may actually light the path forward.


Photo Credit: LifeLike Creations

Hole in My Heart

October 5th, 2015

alone at sunset“We have all known the long loneliness, and we have learned that the only solution is love and that love comes with community.” (Dorothy Day)

In the beginning, when God was busy creating everything, there is a clear pattern to the Bible’s recording of the events. God spoke things into existence, examined them, and declared them: “Good”. Then, he would do it again.

Over and over this happens in the first pages of the Bible. God speaks, things appear, he examines them and says, “That’s good.” It’s almost like a little song:

God speaks, and it is so. God saw that it was good. 

God speaks, and it is so. God saw that it was good. 

God speaks, and it is so. God saw that it was good. 

Over and over. Everything’s good — the sun, the moon, the stars, the oceans, the mountains, the birds, the animals — everything is good — until something isn’t.

Anyone remember the first thing about which the Bible says, “That’s not good”?

God surveys all of his magnificent creation and declares: “It’s not good for man to be alone.”

Think about this for a minute. This is before the Fall. Adam exists in unbroken fellowship with God. There is no sin, no shame, no separation. We would be tempted to have a conversation with Adam that looks like this:

US: What’s up with you, Adam?

ADAM: I’m not sure. I feel like something’s wrong.

US: Wrong? You’re a perfect man living in a perfect world created by a perfect God with whom you have a perfect relationship. What could be wrong?

ADAM: I don’t know. Sometimes I just feel…I don’t know…all alone?

US: Oh, Adam, don’t you understand? As long as you have God, you’re never alone.

The problem with that conversation is that it is God himself who chooses the words in this portion of Scripture. And the words he chooses to describe a sinless Adam living in an unbroken relationship with his Creator at this point in time include “alone” and “not good”.

In other words (and I think I have borrowed this phrase from Gilbert Bilezekian), while there is a God-shaped hole in the human heart that no one else can fill, there is also a human-shaped hole in the human heart that not even God himself will fill.

One man, rightly related to God, with no experience of community, is not good. You were not only created to connect with your Creator; you were created for relationships with other human beings. Seeking something from humans that only God can give you is futile, but seeking something from God that he intends for you to find in community is equally futile.

My friend Tim Spivey once said, “Aside from the Holy Spirit, your circle of friends is more important than anything.” Your friends will determine the direction and quality of your life. As Americans we value our independence, but the truth is we’re interdependent and there’s no getting around that. We need people. There’s no shame in saying it. You’re not meant to be alone.

Find your people. Seriously, if you don’t have good people in your life, find some. Ask God to send them. Go look for some. Find some healthy people and ask them if you can join their circle. Stop pretending like you and God can do this alone. Even he knows better than that. You have a hole in your heart; go fill it.


Photo Credit: lee Scott

What God Wants Most

October 1st, 2015

cross bridge“In many cases, our need to wonder about or be told what God wants in a certain situation is nothing short of a clear indication of how little we are engaged in His work.” (Dallas Willard)

Most ancient religions believed that the gods did not like humans. Humans were accidental or incidental or created to do the yucky stuff gods did not want to do. Mostly, the gods were annoyed by and angry at humans. The gods would just as soon kill a human as interact with one. That was their default setting.

So, humans had to do certain things to keep the gods from being angry, to appease them, change their disposition, and convince the gods to bless the humans.

The God of the Bible is different. He doesn’t start out angry. He creates humans on purpose with purpose. Humans are not here to be slaves or lackeys, and we don’t have to convince God to bless us. Blessing is God’s default setting.

In the first chapter of the first book of the Bible, God blesses the birds and the fish. Later (in verse 28), God blesses the humans immediately after creating them. They hadn’t had time to do anything to earn that blessing; God gives it preemptively.

The humans rebel and sin spreads deeper and wider until the whole world is corrupt. God begins again with Noah, and again we read that he immediately blesses the humans after the flood — before they have a chance to demonstrate their repentance (Genesis 9:1). God does not bless in response; God blesses proactively.

It’s God’s default setting towards humans. He wants to bless us all.

When God appears to Abram in Genesis 12, he says, “Go out from your land, your relatives, and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make you into a great nation, I will bless you, I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, I will curse those who treat you with contempt, and all the peoples on earth will be blessed through you” (vv1-3).

What’s the one word that gets repeated over and over? Five times in three sentences we have some variation of bless.

This is what God does. God blesses. As far as we know, Abram hadn’t done anything to earn this blessing. And the grammatical structure doesn’t tie the blessing to Abram’s obedience. There’s no condition. The word “if” does not appear at the beginning of the pronouncement.

Abram is later held up as a paragon of faith (cf. Hebrews 11; Romans 4; Galatians 3). We’re told to learn from him how we might also take this journey of faith to which God calls us. Before we learn from or about Abram, though, we must learn this from and about God:

God does not start out angry.

God does not need you to appease him.

God’s not looking for a reason to kill you.

You don’t have to convince God to be kind to you or talk him into being generous. God has nothing but your best interests at heart. He likes to bless people. He wants to bless you.

That’s his default setting.

Now, he doesn’t want to bless just you. That may be where it begins for you, but that’s not where he wants it to end. God wants to bless everyone. And here’s how he intends to do it: God chooses people in the world through whom he can bless everyone else. This is what it means to be God’s “Chosen People.”

When most of us hear the phrase “Chosen People” we automatically think of the Jewish people — particularly in the Old Testament. And we mostly think it means “God’s Preferred People.”

There have been a lot of folks throughout history who have believed this to be the case. But ask a Jewish person about being God’s Preferred People. Remember Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof? He looks to the sky and says, “I know. I know. We are your chosen people. But everyone once in a while can’t You choose someone else?”

Go back to the text and look at what the descendants of Abraham were chosen for.

When God first appeared to Abraham, here’s what he said, “Go out from your land, your relatives, and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make you into a great nation, I will bless you, I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, I will curse those who treat you with contempt, and all the peoples on earth will be blessed through you” (Genesis 12:1-3).

A very quick, surface-level reading of this text reveals two things.

First, Abraham was chosen to be the father of a great nation. Say what you will, the Jewish nation is a great nation now. From one man and his wife have come millions and millions of descendants. At various times in history they have been great militarily and monetarily. Abraham’s name has become great. People who have blessed Israel have typically been blessed, and people who have treated Israel with contempt have typically been cursed.

If you want to include The Church in this now, I won’t quibble. The Church is also a great nation, a multitude of people no one could ever count — like the stars in the night sky or the grains of sand on the seashore. People who bless the church find blessing, and people who treat the church with contempt find trouble.

Second, Abraham was chosen to be a way through which God could bless everyone. As we said earlier, this is God’s deep desire: to bless everyone. It’s his default setting. It’s what God loves and longs to do. Sometimes he does that directly. Most times he chooses to bless people through other people. This is precisely what Abraham’s descendants are supposed to be: a blessing to the rest of the world.

God wasn’t just choosing to bless Israel; he was choosing to bless the world through Israel. Being one of the “chosen people” should never lead to a sense of entitlement. It should lead to a sense of duty.

Again, I say we should include The Church in this. The Church is a vessel through which God has chosen to bless the world. Being part of The Church shouldn’t cause you to feel any sense of entitlement or superiority. Being part of The Church means you have been chosen to bless the world around you. It’s not about gathering together and reveling in how saved we are. It’s about getting being the conduits of God’s blessing to the rest of the world.

And we don’t do that by complaining all the time or acting like bullies on social media. We don’t do that by living in isolation, withdrawing from society and condemning the world for acting like the world. We don’t do that by calling people names or refusing to serve people with whom we disagree.

We will bless the world when we get out into it and take the redeeming love of Jesus with us — a love that has no other agenda but to serve. When we get out into the world and rub shoulders with others, they get to see God’s love, God’s joy, God’s peace, God’s patience, God’s kindness, God’s goodness, God’s faithfulness, God’s gentleness, and God’s self-control — manifested through us.

They may want to join us. They may choose not to. Either way, they’ll be blessed by our presence.

It’s that kind of action that will truly mark us as “Chosen People”.


Photo Credit: Ta-Ching Chen


Sixteen Years Ago Today

September 29th, 2015

2015-09-17 18.54.38August had been miserable in Columbia, Maryland. Hot and humid are even more difficult to deal with when you’re dirt poor and living in a 1,000 square foot apartment. September wasn’t much better. Indian summer stretched through the month, and the electric bill (from running the a/c) went through the roof. It was 90 degrees outside and about 60 in the apartment. There could have been a thunderstorm in our doorway!

Making the month especially…uh…interesting: my mother had come out for the birth of her first grandchild. She was helping…sort of.

My father juggled his schedule so he could fly out the day after the due date. He spent an entire week twiddling his thumbs, reading all my books and jumping every time anyone sneezed. Eventually, my wife got tired of being stared at and started hiding in the back bedroom. Then he left disappointed — no baby.

One Sunday morning we were driving home after church, and my mother ordered me to stop at a produce stand. She bought peppers of every variety and turned them into the hottest salsa she’s ever made. Some old wives’ tale. We ate salsa until we cried. We went for walks. We did all the things grandmas say will make the baby come out.

No baby.

We blew past the due date. Then we lapped it. Finally, our doctor told us to schedule a time to come in and be induced. We were told to come in late at night. That way we could sleep while they were setting everything up, wake up the next morning (well-rested) and have us a baby.

So, after our Tuesday night Bible study we watched Emeril on the Food Network, packed our bags, waved goodbye to my mother, stopped at the grocery store for snacks, and headed to the hospital. On the way there, she had indigestion or Braxton-Hicks contractions or something. The funny thing is…they were 14 minutes apart.

It wasn’t until we were sitting in the waiting room filling out forms that I realized she was in labor. There would be no sleep that night…or the next.

The best things in life make you wait for what seems like an eternity. You get all excited, mark the date on the calendar in red and then wait while the days crawl by. You go about your regular activities, but they don’t seem to have as much meaning.

In fact, as I look back, I don’t remember anything substantial happening — even though I was serving a church and continued my teaching schedule. I know I must have spent time studying and meeting with people. But I can’t remember any of that.

The only thing I remember was waking up every day wondering, “Will it be today?” I remember every time my cell phone went off during those 10 overdue days: “Is it time?”

Every day was filled with hope and expectation and disappointment and more hope. I knew it wouldn’t be long, and even though it was longer than we expected, I never lost hope.

The baby ran out of water in there. She lingered and swam and rolled over until there was nothing left in there but her. And she still wouldn’t come out.

The doctors told us it would be soon. They lied. There was struggling and suffering and we waited too long for the really good pain stuff. I tried my best to keep everyone distracted, playing Yo-Yo Ma cello music softly in the background, reminding people to breathe, and cracking inappropriate jokes at appropriate times.

We laughed a lot and kept the doctors generally confused.

But that baby wouldn’t budge.

Then, after what seemed like an eternity, everyone got in a big hurry. The baby’s heartbeat was growing faint. The doctor looked scared, and I readied myself for the possibility that I might not get to see her after all.

Suddenly we were whisked upstairs into an operating room. I had scrubs on, and they were cutting through skin and muscle — going in after our little girl who will forever be remembered by the scar she made on her way out. She still prefers to do things in her own sweet time.

I remember holding her for the first time. I didn’t have words. Sometimes I still don’t. She had that big ridge on her head from where she was stuck.

It all seems like a far away memory of a dream now. Everything was slow and fast all at the same time. I had no idea what I was in for. You blink, and she’s 16.

Oh, Time, slow down, please.

Playing Hide and Seek with God

September 28th, 2015

overlooking the city“And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.” (Jesus)

Last week, like so many of you, I spent a fair amount of time watching the wall-to-wall coverage of the Pope’s visit to the United States. It was an historic event, and I have much to consider and digest.

When he appeared at the White House, the President made some remarks welcoming him. I have a confession to make: I had the TV muted so I didn’t have to listen to the commentators filling time before the main event, and I didn’t notice it had started until the President’s remarks were already under way. Then, when I un-muted the TV, the President sounded like he was praying. Every phrase began with “Holy Father…”. I’m not kidding. I initially thought the President was leading an opening prayer.

There’s a fair amount of confusion among Christians about the subject of prayer. Should we pray before meals when we’re eating in a restaurant? Should we have prayer in schools? What about before football games? Should the Pope have prayed when he appeared before Congress? Should we ask the candidates running for President about their prayer habits? Would it have been terrible if the President had prayed while introducing the Pope?

Jesus prayed in public. We have records of that. His followers also prayed in public. Sadly, our public prayers don’t sound much like theirs did, but that’s an article for a different day. Today I want to talk a little more about the time Jesus’ friends asked him to teach them how to pray.

Jesus begins by saying that we should focus on praying to our Father “who sees what is done in secret.” A more literal rendering of the phrase Jesus uses might be “pray to your Father who is in secret” (NRSV). The Father sees what is done in secret, because he is in secret.

Now, if you’re anything like me, the first question that comes to mind is: “Isn’t God everywhere?”

Yes, in one sense, God is everywhere. But Jesus says that God is in secret – in the secret places – often hidden or obscured from our view. Initially, when confronted with the concept of holiness, the human instinct is to hide from God because of our sin. In those situations, God always takes the initiative and comes looking for us. But at some point in time, God turns the tables on us and hides himself. He wants to know if we will miss him and if we’re willing to come looking for him.

Isaiah says, “Truly you are a God who hides himself” (Isaiah 45:15). But the promise of God is, “You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart” (Jeremiah 29:13). Neither of these verses was written about people who were outside of a relationship with God. These verses are not about how to establish a relationship with God. They were written to and about God’s covenant people. They are about how to live in your established relationship with God. First God comes to find us; then God hides to see if we will come to find him.

For those who will do the hard work of seeking God in the secret place, there is a promise of reward. Jesus says, “Then, your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.” The writer of Hebrews assures us, “Anyone who comes to [God] must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him” (Hebrews 11:6b).

But notice it does not say, “Your Father will give you whatever you want.” It says he “will reward you.”

So, what’s the difference? What’s the reward?

For the answer, ask the people you know who make a practice of going to their rooms and closing their doors to be with the Father who is in secret. Better yet, look at their lives for a while. It will become clear.

People who make a habit of spending time alone with their heavenly Father live with an inner sense of peace that comes from knowing that God is with them. They make requests, but whatever the answer is – “yes,” “no” “maybe,” “wait,” “never” – it doesn’t matter if God is really with us.

Perhaps one reason why we wrestle so much with fear and anxiety, why we play it safe and fail to live the bold, brave, courageous lives God calls us to, is because we don’t have that inner sense of peace that comes from true intimacy with the Father.

But we could if we would go into our rooms, close the door, and spend time with him there in secret.


Photo Credit: Chris Sardegna

On Being a Christian

September 25th, 2015

man in church“Being a Christian is more than just an instantaneous conversion — it is a daily process whereby you grow to be more and more like Christ.” (Billy Graham)

A lot of Christians seem to be confused about the goal of life for a person who has signed up to follow Jesus. Should we be trying to change people by convincing them that their perspective is wrong and ours is right? Should we be trying to legislate morality for others with whom we disagree? Is our primary purpose to get others to agree with us either by reason, by rhetoric, or by force?

What is the purpose of life for a Christ-follower?

Various writers, speakers, theologians, and churches have attempted to answer this question. They’ve talked about the upward, inward, and outward focus of Christianity. They’ve talked about growing in intimacy with God, community with other Christians, and influence with those outside of the Christian faith. They’ve used five Gs or five Ms or different shapes and colors.

It seems to me that they all point to the same thing: Love God and Love People.

That’s the goal. If you are a Christian, your main objective, your raison d’être, is to learn how to better appreciate, appropriate, and reciprocate love — to be a better lover of God and others. That’s why you’re here. Otherwise, God could have “saved” you and then killed you immediately. He left you here on earth for a purpose, and your purpose is love.

Now, if that’s true then there ought to be a particularly Christian way of reading and watching and listening. When a Christian reads the Bible or, say, a blog like this one, when he or she listens to a sermon on a Sunday morning, or a speech to the United Nations made by the Pope (or some other international leader), when we watch television shows and movies and Presidential debates, when we have conversations with others — how does our main objective affect the way we do these things?

We read and listen and watch not just because we’ve become like Jesus and are behaving like he did; we do these things in order to become like him.

We don’t just do these things to learn more about him — although that is important. We don’t do these things to check the box and make ourselves look spiritually mature. We read our Bibles and devotional materials, we listen to sermons and speeches and music in order to become more like Jesus. In other words, all of these things are a means to an end. The end is Christlikeness.

At least that’s how it’s supposed to work.

But it’s not just Christian materials or things found in your local Christian knick-knack and bookstore that help make us more like Jesus. In fact, I could say that some of what you’ll find there might actually be counterproductive if you’re not careful.

It is also possible for you to read the newspaper, watch CNN, go to the movies, and listen to talk radio in a way that helps you become more like Jesus.

Certainly, there are times when we just want to check out, put our brains in park and watch Bugs Bunny thwart the best efforts of Elmer Fudd. Sometimes mindless spectacle is just what the doctor ordered.

But there are important books to be read and important movies to watch. There are funny jokes to be told, but there are also important conversations to be had.

But there is a way to read, a way to watch, and a way to listen that must be unique to those who have signed up to follow and become transformed from within into the likeness of Jesus.

Years ago, a church I served gave away 300 Bibles. People signed up to read three chapters a day to get through the whole Bible in a year. They even created a website to help folks. As far as I know it lasted all of three months.

Don’t get me wrong: I think it’s a good idea to read the Bible on a regular basis. But it can be a hindrance to our spiritual formation if we read the Bible the wrong way. Honestly, some of the meanest people I’ve ever met in my life know a lot of Bible verses and have read the Good Book cover-to-cover. Certainly, the Pharisees in Jesus’ day were familiar with the Scriptures, but they had little love for God and even less love for people. They engaged in spiritual disciplines like prayer and fasting, but they didn’t do them to bring glory to God. They were interested in bringing glory to themselves.

People who want to bring glory to themselves are rarely interested in changing their minds or their behavior.

As we read our Bibles, we must keep our goal in mind. The goal is never to simply get through our daily allotted portion and check the box; the goal has to be bigger and deeper than that. Remember, we’ve said that the goal of life for Christians is to become progressively more and more like Jesus. The most substantial and practical byproduct of that Jesus-like lifestyle is that we’ll find ourselves growing in our ability to love and be loved by God and others.

That’s the goal of life for Christians, and that should be the goal for our Bible reading as well. And our movie watching. And our conversations.

If godliness or Christlikeness is our goal, then we’ll read the Bible in a particular way. We’ll read it with our eyes open, scouting for clues as to what he is like. We’ll conclude our reading by asking ourselves, “What does this portion teach me about the character and nature of God.”

Then, as we attempt to apply the passage to our lives, we’ll ask, “How does this portion help me grow in my ability to love and be loved by God and others?”

This approach to a daily Bible reading differs tremendously from approaches I’ve tried before. And I wonder what might happen if a whole church chose to read through the Bible together for a year with this lens in place.

Now, what if we did more than just read the Bible this way? What if we read other materials this way? What if you read this blog that way? What if you read John Piper or Rob Bell that way?

What if our first question had nothing to do with whether we think the author is right or wrong or agrees with me or not? What if it had everything to do with finding an aspect of God’s character to become enthralled with, and with learning to love and be loved by God and others to a greater degree – even when that lesson comes from an author we don’t much care for?

I’m not saying we have to mindlessly accept and agree with everything we read, and God knows we need discernment. There’s a time to take a stand for orthodoxy, and there’s a time to confront heresy. But I’m concerned that we all too often approach reading material looking for error. We practice what we could call a hermeneutic of suspicion. Like we’re God’s appointed theological spell-check program, we read things to either confirm what we already believe or to gain ammunition in some sort of war of words.

At least I know I’ve been guilty of that.

But can that be considered “reading Christianly”? That answer is pretty obviously “no.”

Being a Christian comes down to glorifying God by becoming progressively more and more like him – particularly in our ability to love and be loved by God and others. If that’s so, then just about anything I read should be read with that end in mind – whether it is the Bible or any kind of spiritually formative material. I should always read with my eyes open to learn more about God’s character and nature, and I should always ask myself how the material I’ve just read can assist me in my efforts to grow in love.

Everything I just said about reading applies to listening as well — especially listening to sermons.

As a guy who speaks in just about every kind of church you can imagine, I cannot tell you how many people seem to listen at me rather than listening to (or even with) me. They sit there, arms folded, listening for error or listening to make sure I touch all the appropriate bases. They listen to sermons the way an umpire watches a baseball game. They don’t listen for personal transformation. They don’t listen to grow.

These are the people who always want clarification on some fine point of something I said in passing that wasn’t even the point I was trying to make. These are the people who want to know what version of the Bible I was reading from and why. These are the people who want to know where I went to seminary. These are also the people who wish their brother-in-law had heard the message. They want to get a copy of the CD for someone at work, because it was just the sort of message someone else needed to hear.

These people never come and tell me that it was just what they needed to hear. They never tell me how they could grow from the message or how they plan on applying it to their lives.

Please understand that not everyone does this. There are also plenty of folks who listen well and humbly seek to apply whatever truth they find in the sermons they hear to their personal lives. I love these people, and I wish I were more like them.

Honestly, I am as guilty of this error as anyone else. One of the things I do – as part of my work – is critique sermons. Preachers often ask me for advice or help or coaching in becoming better communicators. Sadly, it’s become difficult for me to listen to a sermon for spiritual formation now, because I’m always thinking about how the speaker could have communicated his/her points more effectively.

But what would change if I started listening to sermons the way I just suggested we ought to read? What if I first asked myself, “What does this sermon teach me about the character and nature of God?” And second, “How can I apply this sermon in such a way as to help me grow in my ability to love and be loved by God and others?”

Maybe this would eliminate a lot of the bickering and divisiveness Christianity currently experiences. Here, at last, is a way for Calvinists and Arminians to read one another without feeling the need to get all bent out of shape. The Piper-ites and the Bell-eons can listen to and with one another, rather than simply listening at one another. Could a liberal politician or theologian actually grow from something a conservative said? Could an Evangelical learn something from the Pope? Would the conservative be willing to listen to a liberal well enough to find the thing they need to hear in order to love better? Perhaps the farmer and the cowman can be friends.

If they choose to.

Sadly, I doubt they will.

But love believes all things, so I will continue to hope towards that end.


Photo Credit: Stefan Kunze

The Prophets, St. Paul, and the Pope

September 24th, 2015

pope francis“Prophets aren’t always popular. We love Isaiah today, but back then they killed him.” (Eric Metaxas)

Rick Warren loves him. Luis Palau has been his friend for decades. Joel Osteen has met with him. So have the folks who own Hobby Lobby. Timothy George, Geoff Tunnicliffe — these names may not mean much to you, but they’re practically evangelical royalty, and they are big fans of the current pope.

This may not seem strange to you, but I grew up in an era when Catholics were the enemy — unsaved, unwashed idolators with whom we do not fraternize. They wear robes. They burn incense. They speak Latin. They’re not to be trusted.

This new, amicable relationship with the head of the Roman Catholic Church is…well…new.

But what’s not to love about this guy, really? He embraces people with skin diseases. He washes the feet of the poor. He shuns the Vatican’s opulent digs. It’s not wonder his approval rating here in America stood at 76% as recently as last year.

And yet….

His approval rating currently stands at 59%. And I just googled the phrase “pope antichrist” and came up with 1,460,000 results in .36 seconds. My Facebook newsfeed is filled with posts of people complaining about the pope for every reason imaginable — from the things he said in his remarks to the things he left out to what he was wearing to the car he rode in to the security detail. You know it, if the Pope does it, someone will complain about it.

What gives?

I listened to some commentators on CNN today as they watched the pomp and circumstance. They called him “The People’s Pope” and remarked at how much he loves to stop the motorcade and physically touch people. One religious expert said Pope Francis is a pastor more than a scholar, and it shows in the way he loves to interact with the crowds and keeps their pastoral care front and center in his homilies.

But here’s my take: Pope Francis was a pastor, a shepherd, a wise and caring guide for his people. But he has now begun to take on the voice of a prophet. And that is taking a toll on his popularity.

We tend to think of prophets as people who foretold the future, but that’s not the primary role of a prophet. A prophet was called upon to speak the Word of God to the people of God — usually because the people of God had conveniently forgotten a particular portion of the Word of God. This was rarely a call that was met with rejoicing by the prophet or the prophet’s family. People don’t always like it when you tell them the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

Prophets prompt us to think about uncomfortable things. For example, Pope Francis recently suggested that the unrestrained pursuit of wealth is the “dung of the devil”. You read the right: Satan’s poop. The unchecked love of money and profit causes us to neglect the poor. That’s hard to read when you were born and raised in a capitalist society, but — if we’re going to be honest — it sounds an awful lot like something St. Paul wrote:

“Those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs.” (1 Timothy 6:9-10).

He also suggested we embrace undocumented workers, which — if we’re going to be honest — sounds an awful lot like something we read about in the book of Hebrews — which maybe St. Paul wrote — maybe not but maybe:

“Keep on loving one another as brothers and sisters. Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it. Continue to remember those in prison as if you were together with them in prison, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering” (Hebrews 13:1-3).

In case you were wondering, the Greek word for “hospitality” is the word philoxenos. That’s a compound word meaning “love of (philo) strangers (xenos)”. Xenophobia would be the opposite of that word.

Add to that his recent statements about climate change being at least partially caused by humans and…well…that’s when the honeymoon with conservative American Christians and the Pope was over. These Pauline remarks did not make the Pope more popular among Bible-believing Christians; they made some people call him a Marxist.

Now, lest I lead you to believe that the Pope has aligned himself with the liberals both theologically and politically, let me hasten to add that he seems to be posturing as an equal-opportunity offender. He is a merciful and gracious Pope, but he still opposes same-sex marriage, abortion, and homosexuality.

Hardly a lefty.

Pope Francis makes everybody squirm. I think he might believe that’s his job. He’s not going to get caught up in right versus left. He’s not going to be trapped in a conservative or liberal dichotomy. He’s not concerned about popularity. He’s concerned with delivering the Word of God to the people of God. He’s a prophet now, and prophets inevitably offend everyone. That’s why so many of them ended up dead.

I hope this Pope lives a good, long time. And I hope he continues to annoy us all — left and right, liberal and conservative, foreign and domestic — calling us all to the place where mercy triumphs over judgment, responsibilities supersede rights, and love covers a multitude of sins.


Photo Credit: Stefan Kunze


How to Pray

September 23rd, 2015

sunset church“But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen.” (Jesus)

I don’t remember my first prayer. I’m a preacher’s kid, and I always have been. That means many different things, but one thing it means for sure is that if the church building was unlocked, I was there. Sunday morning, Sunday night, Wednesday night, Saturday morning door-knocking, VBS, you name it, I was there. And one thing each of these environments always included was prayer.

I spent a good deal of time attending Christian schools, and we prayed a lot there. First thing in the morning, daily chapel services, lunch period, Bible classes – all included prayer.

We prayed at home, too. Before meals, before bed, prayer was a familiar part of the routine of our lives, embedded in the fabric of our day-to-day routine.

But I do not remember what I said the first time someone looked at me and said, “John Alan, why don’t you lead us?”

No one ever taught me how to pray. I never asked anyone to. I just sort of picked it up as I went along. I don’t remember praying any of those children’s prayers: “Now I lay me down to sleep” or any of that. I just heard other people do it often enough, and eventually people assumed I knew what I was doing.

I do remember that, by then, I was familiar with certain “authorized” phrases:

  • “Guide, guard, and direct us.”
  • “Bring us back at the next appointed hour.”
  • “May we do this in a manner well-pleasing in Thy sight.”
  • “Bless this food to the nourishment of our bodies.”

(The church of my youth did not believe God still did miracles, but we’d gather together for church potlucks, load our plates down with fatty, fried foods, and ask God to somehow transform the contents into something that would nourish our bodies.)

As I look back now, I realize that prayer was mostly about asking for stuff. And it was mostly about me. “Bless me.” “Help me.” “Keep me.” “Give me.” I was even trained to think of prayer that way. After all, I frequently heard, “Ye have not, because ye ask not” (James 4:2b).

That kind of praying puts you in a tough spot, the spot where I know prayer works if I get what I want. But what if I don’t get what I want? Then what? Did I get the sequence wrong? I put the change in the slot and pressed the button, but nothing came out. Did God just eat my quarter?!

When that happens (and it happens more frequently than Christians like to talk about), some people actually quit praying. In a church where I served, there was a man who was battling cancer. The doctors said it didn’t look good, so someone in our church arranged a 24-hour prayer vigil. One woman actually told me, “Oh, you don’t think I’m going to participate in that, do you? We did the exact same thing for my husband, and he still died! That stuff doesn’t work.”

I could hear the sadness and the anger behind her words, and it frightened me. I knew what she meant, and I knew that she had a valid point. But I’m too religious (or maybe superstitious) to stop praying. I may not be altogether convinced that it works every time, but what if it works this time? Maybe it’s every other request or some other intricate pattern. God does work in mysterious ways, after all.

Trite answers fit on bumper stickers, but they’re often cold comfort to people who are honestly wrestling with God.

For lots of folks, prayer is a good luck charm. How it works or why it works – who knows? But it’s better to have it close by, just in case.

To make this all the more confounding, you’ve probably noticed how God will sometimes answer a small prayer and completely ignore a large one. I remember having a friend who went without a job for a long time. We prayed and prayed and prayed and prayed and nothing happened. But my aunt will ask God to help her find her keys, and presto! It always works. Ask God to heal your mother, and she might get worse. Ask him to cure AIDS or end world hunger, and nothing happens. Ask him to help you get a parking spot near the front of the mall, and lo and behold!

What are we to make of all this? Is there some hidden secret? Some magic formula? I’ve actually heard people on television (you know who they are) say that people in wheelchairs are there because they just don’t have enough faith to stand up and walk. That can’t be right, can it? Do I have to muster up some kind of confidence or bravado before God will give me what I want?

Surely, it’s not just about saying the right words in the right way with the right feelings. So what is it about?

Here’s a thought: What if none of this is the point of prayer to begin with? What if it’s not about trying to get God to do stuff? Or what if that’s just one tiny part of prayer? How tragic would it be to spend your entire life thinking that one tiny part of prayer was all there was to it?

Jesus’ followers knew how to pray. They were Jewish, and Jewish boys learned early on how to pray. They prayed at meals and at the synagogue, at the Temple, on the Sabbath. They prayed every morning when they got up and every evening when they went to bed. They knew what they were doing. Or at least they thought they did.

But when they met Jesus, they realized that he knew something about prayer that they didn’t know. So, they asked him, “Will you teach us how to do that?”

And, interestingly enough, Jesus does not say what many of us would say: “You don’t need to learn how to pray. It’s just talking to God. Just talk to him. There’s no right way or wrong way.”

Jesus actually says, “Okay, when you pray, do it like this.”

Now, if someone asked you to teach them how to pray, what would you start with?

Jesus starts with…location. He says, “But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen” (Matthew 6:6a).

But, Jesus, can’t we pray anywhere? Location doesn’t really matter, does it?

Let me say this: I believe you can pray anywhere. You can pray in your car (“Please, don’t let that policeman pull me over!”). You can pray at school (“Please, don’t let there be a quiz in here today!”). You can pray in your house, at the park, at work, in a box, with a fox. But it’s no use trying to tell Jesus that location doesn’t matter. He’s smarter than we are about this. He knows something about prayer that we don’t know. And he says location matters, somehow. If you really want to know how to do it, here’s where you start: go to your room and close the door.


We can only guess at what Jesus had in mind, but here’s a way of thinking about it. Anyone who has ever been married — especially married with children — knows how hectic life can get. There’s all sorts of stuff that has to get done. Yard work. House work. Places to go. Things to do. It’s easy for a married couple to become so consumed with all the things that have to get done that they forget to sit and talk and listen and flirt and hold hands and do all the mushy stuff.

See, in all relationships, there’s a business side and a personal side. The business side involves things like paying bills, dropping off the dry cleaning, getting new tires for the minivan, taking the kids to school, picking the kids up, taking the dog for a walk, doing laundry, going to the grocery store, and all the other things that are required to keep all the plates spinning.

Because of the busyness of life, it’s easy to go an entire week and have only a series of short conversations that last no longer than forty-five seconds. You can take care of a surprising amount of business with short conversations fired off on the run.

When we find ourselves, however, enduring a season of those kinds of conversations, there are times when it feels like there’s some kind of barrier between you and your spouse. There may not be any unresolved anger or resentment. You may not be upset with each other. There may be nothing wrong, but there’s still distance.

The reason for the distance is this: You can take care of business in hurried and sporadic conversations, but you cannot build intimacy that way. To build intimacy, sometimes you just have to go to your room and close the door.


Why does Jesus start his lesson on how to pray by telling his friends to go to their rooms and close their doors? Because Jesus doesn’t think of prayer primarily as a way to get things done. He thinks of prayer primarily as a means to intimacy with the Father.

That sound some of you are hearing right now is the shifting of your own paradigm.

If you just think through the implications of that one idea – that prayer might be primarily about building intimacy with God rather than trying to get him to do something – you’ll find your prayer habits begin to change dramatically.


Photo Credit: Ales Krivec


Coming Out of the Closet

September 22nd, 2015

watching the sunset“I am tired of hiding, tired of misspent and knotted energies, tired of the hypocrisy, and tired of acting as though I have something to hide.” (Kay Redfield Jamison)

Without a doubt, the single silliest thing I have ever watched on television was the urban “hip-hopera,” “Trapped in the Closet” by R. Kelly. It was shown a few years ago on one of my favorite channels (IFC). It was late, and I couldn’t sleep.

What can I say?

It’s so bad I found it impossible to turn away. Bad like a train wreck. Bad in ways I didn’t think possible. Bad like “Plan 9 from Outer Space” meets “Howard the Duck” meets “Santa Claus Conquers the Martians”. So bad it was kinda good.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with this project, it’s a 22-chapter musical soap opera sung from the point of view of a man who wakes up in the bed of a woman with whom he had sex the previous night. When the woman’s husband arrives unexpectedly, the man is forced to hide in a bedroom closet. Hence the title of the song.

Things go from predictable to ridiculous. There are dizzying plot points and twists involving a dwarf and guns and allergies – with cliffhangers at the end of each chapter that virtually force you into watching the next installment.

The point of the whole thing is that infidelity can ruin lives and, very often in this world, what goes around comes around.

The reason I bring this up is because I believe there’s another point to R. Kelly’s magnum opus. And this is where my post (hopefully) moves from silly to sensible. It is this: Just about everyone spends time trapped in a closet at some point in time or another.

It is, of course, impossible for us to hear those words without thinking about gay people. The phrases “in the closet” and “out of the closet” have become shorthand for gay people who either refuse to publicly acknowledge their proclivities or do so with some measure of pride. “Coming out of the closet” is, to some degree, for gay people what being baptized is for Christians – a public declaration of identity.

But, when I say that everyone spends some time “in the closet”, I don’t mean that everyone’s latently gay. I simply mean that people hide. It’s been our tendency since Eve handed the fruit to Adam back in Genesis 3. We hide like our lives depend on it.

So, there are three things I try to keep in mind:

  1. Gay people aren’t the only ones who live in closets.
  2. People live in closets because they are afraid.
  3. It is never God’s best for anyone to live in a closet.

I know I’ve logged some time living in the closet, keeping secrets, saying one thing out loud but believing something else in private. I know what it’s like to fear for your job or a relationship, to worry that if the other party knew what you really thought, felt, or did, you might lose something that you can’t imagine having to replace.

That’s not healthy. It’s certainly not God’s intention. God wants us to live lives of authenticity.

What keeps us from living like that, though, is that we’re afraid – sometimes justifiably so – of how people will respond to us. If others really knew the truth about us, they might reject us. So, we go on hiding, trapped in a closet of our own making.

The cost of living a fear-filled life is incalculably high. From my own experience, I can tell you that living in fear eats away at your self-esteem and makes you feel hollow. Living in fear causes stagnation instead of growth, and you live with the pain of unrealized potential. Living in fear costs you joy. Living in fear leads to regret as the “what ifs” slowly turn to “what might have beens”.

Hiding ourselves actually produces the feelings of isolation we’re attempting to stave off by hiding in the first place. We carry deep within our hearts the certain knowledge that you can only be loved to the degree you’re accepted. But you can only be accepted to the degree you’re known. If we’re never willing to let others know who we truly are, we’ll never be truly accepted and truly loved.

Worst of all, living in fear is contagious. It’s practically an epidemic in our society.

And the one place where there should be no fear should be the church. After all, doesn’t perfect love drive out fear?

The church ought to be a place where you can bring stuff into the light, so you can find acceptance and community and healing – for the sins you’ve committed and the sins that have been committed against you. If you feel shame for things you’ve done – well, that may be appropriate at times. But you should never feel shame for being a sinner just like everybody else.

We’re all sinners by orientation and by action. None of us can fix our sinful orientation on our own. In fact, I’m not even sure I can trust myself to know the full extent of exactly what’s wrong with me – that’s how broken I am. I am broken to the point of being disoriented about (and by) my own orientation. The Bible refers to this as a “sin nature”, and it says we’ve all got one. “For all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23).

Some of the things I think of as good traits are part of what’s messed up inside of me. I can’t always tell what to keep and what to chuck, so I bring the whole shattered mess to God and ask him to help me, to heal me, to fix me. I know it’ll be a difficult and painful process. I also know it will involve me cooperating with him by saying no to certain things I want and saying yes to certain other things I may not want.

And it’s going to involve other people. Good people. Wise people. Sensitive people. Forgiving, humble, generous, kind people.

This is how it is with all of us. Christians would be wise to remember this and extend grace and mercy toward all of our fellow sinners, regardless of their orientation.

More than that, more Christians would do well to examine themselves and determine whether or not they might be in the closet about something or other. A secret drinking problem? A porn habit? Skimming a little money off the top here or there? Smoke a little weed now and then?

Perhaps your sins are a little more socially acceptable than that. Greed. Anger. Stress eating. Name calling. Worry. Gossip. My guess is if someone poked around enough, they might find an area of your life where you’re spending an awful lot of time in the closet. There’s something in there that you’re not being completely open and transparent about.

Lead with that. Start there. Instead of trying to talk others into coming out of their closet, come out of yours first. This is how we create a community of real people who are pursuing healing and wholeness — from from fear of judgment and rejection: by leading with our own sin before we attempt to address the sin of others.

And it begins when you muster the courage to come out of the closet first.


Photo Credit: Chetan Menaria