October 12th, 2015

cranes and construction

I am aware that my website is in need of a major cosmetic overhaul! Over the next few weeks you’ll see some changes around here.

  • I’ll continue posting articles — probably three or four posts per week.
  • I’ll also be including more links to my speaking — videos and audio.
  • I’ll be updating my speaking calendar so you can see if I’ll be visiting your part of the world.
  • There will be a way for you to send me a request to have me come speak at your event or for your organization.
  • There will be a page where you can purchase my books.
  • And I’ll be offering coaching/consulting for a few clients. There will be a whole page devoted to that stuff.

Lots of changes. In the meantime, I appreciate your patience. Hopefully, it won’t get too messy around here. In the meantime, make sure you keep up with everything going on by following me via social media:




The Day the Sun Stood Still

October 12th, 2015

sun over field“The sun stopped in the middle of the sky and delayed going down about a full day. There has never been a day like it before or since.” (Joshua 10:13-14)

I was humbled and honored recently to be a guest on my good friend Eric Metaxas’ radio show. His book on Miracles comes out in paperback tomorrow, and he had asked me to contribute a story to that book — a story about an actual miracle I witnessed. The conversation we had reminded me of my uneasy relationship with miracles and the miraculous in general.

I did not grow up among a people who believed in miraculous activity. We believed all that supernatural stuff stopped a long, long time ago. And that has affected the way I pray ever since. I don’t pray for big, crazy things to happen. I don’t believe they will. And I don’t like it. I’m trying to change.

I have some friends who are going through a difficult time with their daughter. They asked me if I’d pray about the whole situation. They want some kind of miraculous thing to happen. They want God to reach down and tweak this young woman — set her on the right path and keep her out of trouble. That’s what they want.

But if I’m being completely honest, I’m not sure I can pray that prayer. I’m not sure that’s how it’ll work out.

I know God can do that. He’s God, right? He can reach into our universe anytime he wants and turn someone’s life completely around. He CAN do that; I just don’t think he DOES do that — at least not very often.

So, I’m oftentimes conflicted in my own prayer life. Is it okay if I confess that to you?

A pastor friend of mine once asked me about stuff like this. I was speaking at his church, and there was some dangerous weather in the forecast. If a tornado were headed straight for this campus, he asked me if he should just walk outside and speak to that tornado. Why wouldn’t a leader just go out there and command it to go elsewhere? That sounds like something that might happen in the Bible, doesn’t it?

I told him he should do that, and that we should also have another plan — just in case. Being honest.

There’s a crazy story in the Bible — Joshua 9-10 — that this all relates to. You probably know the story about the Jewish people coming out of Egyptian slavery. You’ve seen the movie — 10 plagues, 10 commandments, Golden Calf, etc.

They’re headed to this land that was promised to them — the land their forefathers lived in. Problem is: they’ve been gone for 400 years. Someone else lives there now. They have a rightful claim to it, but the people who have lived there for so long aren’t just going to leave because these wandering Jews say their God told them they could have it.

Now, that’s not a huge problem. God is not afraid to kill people who refuse to cooperate. That is not a statement many people like to hear, but the Bible makes that pretty clear. It’s not his first choice, but he’s not afraid to pull the trigger, either.

So, as Israel starts working their way through the countryside, anyone who attacks the Hebrews gets crushed. Heshbon. Bashan. Ashtaroth. They cross the Jordan River and Jericho falls — literally. There’s one temporary set back in Ai, but that gets settled pretty quickly.

Everyone was terrified to see them coming. So, several cities decide to band together. Maybe a united force could repel the Israelites.

There’s one little city-state that chooses not to join forces with everyone else: Gibeon. They were just as scared as everyone else, but they had a different plan:

They approach the Hebrews and say, “We’re not from around here, but we’ve heard all the great things your God has done for you. We don’t want any trouble, so we’d like to sign a peace treaty with you.”

The Israelites believe them and say, “Sure, let’s do it.” The problem is they forgot to check with God. God would have told them that these people were lying.

They signed the treaty, and three days later they realized they’d been tricked. They get angry, but a promise is a promise.

Now, the Israelites weren’t the only ones angry at the Gibeonites; the people from the other cities were a little upset as well. They were already afraid to fight the Israelites; now they would have to fight both the Israelites AND the Gibeonites.

So, they laid low and the Israelites went on their way. And, when they’d gotten far enough away from Gibeon, the unified forces attacked the Gibeonites. Of course, the Gibeonites cry for help from their allies, the Israelites.

Now, if I had been Joshua, I might have been tempted to take the scenic route, but he decides to march 30 miles through the night and take the unified armies by surprise early in the morning.

A chase ensues, and a crazy thing happens: God causes it to hail. Actually, the text says that God hurled large hailstones down on the opposing forces. It even says that more soldiers died from the hail than from the fighting. Chaos ensues, and the enemies sounds a retreat.

But wait. There’s more. Joshua starts to worry that maybe the enemy is going to get away. The light is starting to fade, and if they escape into the night, they might be able to regroup and rally the next day. So, Joshua prays for the sun to stand still.

And then…what happens next is crazy: the sun stood still. For an entire day.


Let’s get a couple of things out of the way here: I believe in a God who is magnificently sovereign and omnipotent. That word “omnipotent” means he can do anything. His power is limited only by his own choice. If he can pelt one army with hailstones and keep the other army from harm, if he can part the Red Sea and the Jordan River, if he can provide manna in the wilderness ,and create everything there is…that God can probably figure out a way to stop the rotation of the earth without having us all fly off into outer space or being drowned by the tidal waves we might think would be inevitable. Yes, I agree to this presupposition.

And, yes, I also know the sun cannot technically stand. I also know that even in our age of glorious scientific enlightenment we continue to use the words “sunrise” and “sunset” — even though we know the sun neither rises nor sets. So, I think the writer gets a pass on that one.

Here’s the truth: we don’t know what happened. I’ve read everything I can find, and I’m just not sure. Maybe it’s poetic license. Maybe it seemed like time slowed down. We say things like that. Maybe the earth’s rotation actually did slow down or stop. I don’t know.

My question is this: What if it really did happen? Would that be so strange? Would it be unlike God to do something like that?

I find it interesting that none of the other battles in Joshua are won with supernatural help like this. Only Jericho and Gibeon. From here on out, they win their battles the old-fashioned way: cunning strategy and hard work.

That seems like the kind of thing God might do: flex his muscles a little at the beginning to give his children confidence that he’s in control and is strong enough to take care of them if/when they get into trouble. Then stand back and let them fight their own battles. Sounds like a good Father to me.

God doesn’t want you to sit back and wait for someone else to fight your battles. He wants you to know you have brains and you have strength and you can do big things.

But I have a confession to make. If I had been there — if I had been, say, an advisor to Joshua, I probably would have laughed and made fun of him for praying such a ridiculous prayer.

Don’t get me wrong. I believe God CAN stop the sun for you; I just don’t often believe he WILL.

And here’s what I’m embarrassed to admit: I also believe God CAN miraculously heal your friend of cancer; I just don’t believe he WILL — not very often. I believe God CAN reach down and grab your teenager and put them back on the right track. He CAN do that; I just don’t always believe he WILL.

And that says a lot about me. And my lack of faith. And it may explain why God doesn’t do that kind of thing very often in my life. We tend to see what we expect to see. And we sometimes get what we pray for — which means we sometimes don’t get what we don’t pray for.

I have a love/hate relationship with being right. I study hard and work hard to know the right answer. And I’m fairly confident in my education and ability to tell you the theologically correct answer to any given question. And there is a part of me that loves that.

But there is another part of me that would love to be proven wrong — about this in particular. I would love to have God show up and be bigger than even I can imagine him being. I would love nothing more than for God to show up and heal that cancer. I would love for him to stop that tornado in its tracks. I would love for him to turn that teenager around.

I don’t pray for those things very often. But I want to. I want to be surprised by a God who does that kind of thing more often. It would make me laugh and cry and clap my hands…and possibly become a better man.

I want to pray for big things like that to happen in my life. I wish I weren’t so afraid to ask. So, how about this: how about we pray to the God of Joshua — the one who somehow or other made the sun stand still — the one who demonstrated his love on the cross and his power in the empty tomb — the one who says, “Ask. Just ask.”


FYI: this post is adapted from a chapter in my most recent book Crazy Stories; Sane God.


Photo Credit: Jake Gard

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