Saturday, December 27, 2008

Secondary Questions - Or, lessons from a homeless man's reading list.

In 2004, a man named Dan walked into the coffee shop where I worked in Grand Rapids. My co-worker took his order and I made the drink. While they waited for me to finish, she decided to make some small talk with this guy. “I’ve never seen you before. Do you work around here?”

“I don’t work around here or anywhere else,” he said.

“Oh. Well, do you live around here then?”

It was an innocent question, but she clearly didn’t understand that Dan was probably homeless. I hip-checked her out of the way and handed him his drink. He paid with a dirty dollar bill and some change, if I remember right, and began talking with me about education and religion. Unlike some of the other people I talked with in that neighborhood, his points were articulate, well reasoned, and truthful. He mentioned some books and asked if I had read them. Then he wrote the titles in beautiful cursive on the back of a concert flyer. “You’ll find these at the Grand Rapids Main Branch Library,” he said.

He told me that one of the books, The Art of Clear Thinking, didn’t have much to say. He really only recommended the chapter, “How To Not Be Bamboozled”. I found all the books on his reading list and read them over the next four months, but I remember this chapter best. “How To Not Be Bamboozled” warned against accepting false information in an age where information is so easily accessible. And mind you, this book was written in the 1950’s, way before the lightning speed at which we could all WikiTubeBookSpace. The author said that all information should be tested by three questions: “Why do I need to know this? Who is telling me? And what are their sources?” I won’t give you my book report summary of the chapter, but I want to point out the importance of further inquiry. It’s easy to hear something and assume that we have a complete understanding of both its context and credibility.

I’m awesome when it comes to acting like I understand everything. Reader’s Digest once had an article that explained how you could impress people at parties. I was ten and woefully insecure, so I ate this stuff up. The author’s strategy was to say truthful statements, but to say them in such a way that deceived people. Imagine someone asks you, “Have you ever read Dante’s Divine Comedy?” Instead of saying “No,” you can answer, “Not in English.” The second reply insinuates that you’ve not only read the Divine Comedy, but that you read it in Italian. But this is a party. You can move on to another circle of cocktails and leave that person to bask in the residual glow of your coolness.

I’ve spent the better part of the past five years re-training myself to not play that game anymore. It all started when I couldn’t get away fast enough and the person started asking questions that proved I was a phony. My Reader’s Digest-inspired cool (if such a thing were possible) couldn’t stand the test of secondary questions.

But secondary questions aren’t just a BS detector. What if every conversation you ever had sounded like a job interview? You have your set of questions for people to get the basic information of who they are and what they’ve done. But without context, do you really know the person? I recently filled out an application that asked me to tell them a little about myself. “What makes you tick?” it asked. I looked at the space given after the question and basically wrote in, “It’s a long story, but at least it’s not boring.” I couldn’t give a short, easy answer. If I had given an answer like, “I’m a writer,” and left it at that, their assumptions could lead them to a conclusion miles away from my meaning. In Nashville, when you say you’re a writer, most people immediately say, “Songwriter?” I have to tell them, “No, typewriter.” It takes another question for them to understand what I meant.

I’m learning to ask secondary questions when I pray. First, it’s important to ask questions that test the truth of what I may hear in prayer. 1 John 4:1-3 says, “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world. By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God; and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God; this is the spirit of the antichrist, of which you have heard that it is coming, and now it is already in the world.” Just because I hear something while I’m praying to God, and just because it sounds like something God might say, it doesn’t automatically mean the word is from God. John encouraged people to ask questions that would test the spirit speaking to make sure the word came from God.

Then there are the questions I ask God to build an understanding of what He may require of me. I think He wants us to make an effort to understand, to learn and grow instead of passively accepting everything that comes our way. There’s a reason, I think, why James 1:5 encourages us to ask for wisdom from God. And the writer makes it clear that God wants to give you wisdom. But you have to ask.

If God were to tell you to get a new job, for example, does that mean you should get any job other than the one you have now? Or should you take a moment to ask, “Where do you want me to work?” That could save you a lot of frustration applying and interviewing at dead ends, which might cause you to blame God for making your life hard. And I’ve found that asking God the secondary questions doesn’t only give me clearer information on what He wants me to do, it also helps me to understand His heart, how He desires to give me good things, how He loves me enough to guide me.

Secondary questions help keep us from being bamboozled. We can see if the guy at the party is making himself look a lot cooler than he is in real life. We can see if God is speaking, or if a lying spirit is trying to deceive us. Information without credibility will eventually break down if you press it with questions. That sure beats having your thinking enslaved by lies.

Secondary questions also make space for a relationship. It’s the difference between a boss who only wants you to know your duty and a Father who wants His adopted son to become more like Him. Information without context is just trivia, and I don’t want my life to be trivial. Instead of asking the wandering homeless guy where he lives, you could ask him why he’s out of work. Who knows? He might give you a cool reading list.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

The Importance of Being Right – Or, a possible path toward unbelief.

Recently, I considered the topic of predestination. Unless we’re talking about the movie 12 Monkeys, I don’t typically like discussing the hopelessness of man’s decisions. The topic surfaced again when my roommates and I read about the atonement in Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology. One roommate took the side of particular redemption. I told him that I could only, at this point, agree with particular redemption after the fact. That is, I will only tell a person that Jesus came to specifically save them, that God chose them from before their birth for salvation, after they have already accepted Christ. And consequently, I will regard every unbeliever as one who may potentially accept Christ. My roommates and I talked for about an hour and a half on the subject. I finished my argument later by saying, “Even if I’m wrong, I can’t be mad. Nobody deserves to be saved. One person receiving salvation is more than the whole of mankind deserves from God.”

The conversation ended well even though we didn’t come to an agreement. As I washed the dishes afterwards, I smiled at the thought that a room full of opinionated men could still be humble in their beliefs. There were no assaults made against a person who didn’t agree with one side or another. We tried to come to an understanding based upon what we know of scripture and cared only that we lived our lives in a way that honored God. I haven’t fully adopted Reformed theology, but I am still thinking about the points made in its defense. I want to know more about God. In order to make sure that I don’t become stubbornly proud in my faith, I have to remind myself, “I don’t know everything.”

At the end of Stark Raving Obedience, I spent a little time writing about Blaise Pascal. In the book Pensees, he said that man is a point on a line and limited in his ability to comprehend either end of the line. Man cannot comprehend the extremes of anything in nature. There are numbers so big and small that we have yet to count them. The Universe continues to expand, and we have only begun to chart the vastness of it. On the other hand, scientists keep finding smaller and smaller subatomic particles. Some light and sound waves are too high or low for our senses, and maybe our machines, to register. Yet these extremes exist regardless of our ability to know them. Pascal’s argument was that some Being must fully comprehend these extremes. This was one argument he made for the existence of God. He said that it was man’s great joy to discover more of what God had put in place, but man must humbly recognize that he will never arrive at full and complete comprehension. This belongs to God alone.

Toward the end of George MacDonald’s Lilith, the narrator struggles to understand a truth Mr. Raven tells him. Apparently, the narrator is in a dream, but everything seems quite real. He doubts that his senses deceive him. Everything feels real, so how could it not be real? If his current surroundings were a dream, how would he know if he ever truly entered the waking world? Mr. Raven explains, “Thou doubest because thou lovest the truth. Some would willingly believe life but a phantasm, if only it might for ever afford them a world of pleasant dreams: thou are not of such! Be content for a while not to know surely. The hour will come, and that ere long, when, being true, thou shalt behold the very truth, and doubt will be forever dead.”

I often think about Pascal’s picture of humble learning and taking joy in discovery. But does this mean that any skepticism of new understanding puts me in the wrong? According to MacDonald, it shows that I have a love for the truth, a truth I can never fully understand apart from God’s illumination. I want my knowledge to form a complete whole instead of a pile of facts with which I can agree. I want to learn, but I’m trying to reconcile what I have already learned with any new information. If I’m going to learn anything, I sometimes have to allow for the possibility that I’ve previously accepted something untrue. This is the hard part. So hard, in fact, that I need the Holy Spirit to help me change my thinking.

I take this very seriously because of how easy it is to resort to an “I’m right, you’re wrong” mentality. The danger in this attitude comes from a resistance to truth not previously understood. If it doesn’t make sense, it’s a breeze to disregard it as nonsense, right? Priests and bible teachers of Jesus’s day were arrogant in their knowledge of scripture, but they didn't see Jesus as the fulfillment of all those prophecies they had memorized. In John 8, they couldn’t recognize Him when He stood right in front of them. Jesus had come to the temple to teach and said in John 8:12-14, “Then Jesus again spoke to them, saying, ‘I am the Light of the world; he who follows Me will not walk in the darkness, but will have the Light of life.’ So the Pharisees said to Him, ‘You are testifying about Yourself; Your testimony is not true.’ Jesus answered and said to them, ‘Even if I testify about Myself, My testimony is true, for I know where I came from and where I am going; but you do not know where I come from or where I am going.’”

Did you ever wonder why the Pharisees said, “You are testifying about Yourself; Your testimony is not true”? I think they were trying to trap Jesus with His own words. Three chapters earlier, Jesus said in John 5:31, “If I alone testify about Myself, My testimony is not true.” But then he says in verse 32, “There is another who testifies of Me, and I know that the testimony which He gives about Me is true.” This is why Jesus answered the Pharisees accusation by saying, “Even if I testify about Myself, My testimony is true, for I know where I came from and where I am going; but you do not know where I come from or where I am going.” He knew that He was the Son of God, one in and with the Father, but these religious leaders had no understanding of the Trinity to know the truth when they heard it. It didn’t make sense, so they disregarded it.

My pastor pointed out that John 8 takes place in the temple court. The priests kept huge oil lanterns burning day and night to signify God’s presence in the temple. Here they stood, focused on the representation of God’s presence and unable to see God Himself standing before them saying, “I am the light of the world.” It probably would have been okay if they had responded by saying, “Huh? We don’t understand what you’re saying, Jesus. Why don’t you explain it to us?” The disciples said that all the time. But the Pharisees didn’t want Jesus to explain. They wanted to trap Him and prove Him a liar. They wanted to be right.

What did that leave them with? Unbelief, I think. Graham Cooke once said, “The Bible talks about ‘an evil heart of unbelief”. And it’s not that if you have unbelief, your heart is evil. What it’s saying is that the impact of unbelief on your heart is really evil. You commit yourself to a life of toil, struggle, and pain. It damages everything.”

What’s the opposite of unbelief? Faith. Then that probably means the impact of faith on your heart is lovely. I’m not going to say that thinking you’re right equals unbelief, and thinking you’re wrong equals faith. Put it in terms of the attitude you have towards knowledge. Is it arrogant and prideful? Then you’re in danger of unbelief just like the Pharisees in John 8. Is it humble, allowing for new understanding? I’d say that’s a good step toward faith.

Having said all that, I encourage you to both seek as well as stand firmly upon truth. People used to tell me that I had to be open minded. At the heart of their argument, they wanted me to admit that their version of truth was just as valid as mine. Which is funny because this meant they didn't think my explanation of truth was valid. I didn’t budge from my position that there is one eternal God. That not all gods were God. That truth was not relative. Absolutely nothing will change my mind about these statements.

So whether God knew (and therefore picked) who would be saved, or if He made a genuine offer of salvation to all, Jesus is the only way to salvation. I can stand on the truth of Christ and yet continue to learn more about this truth. At least on this, the roommates and I can agree.

Friday, November 28, 2008

How the Bears Became Bad News and the Ducks Became Mighty.

Baseball may have taught me a lot, but nobody taught me a lot about baseball. I remember getting yelled at in Little League for messing up a play or batting poorly. Lots of people were willing to tell me what I did wrong, but very few people would show me how to do it right. There’s a reason I gave up playing the game for playing punk music. Mistakes were acceptable if not celebrated, and it was easy enough to teach myself anything I needed to know. Even so, I still wish I had that cinematic baseball team where a coach comes to turn a bunch of misfits into all-stars.

I’ve been in Michigan for the last three weeks and seen lots of old friends. Some of them have asked me how I like living in Nashville. Even though I lived in Michigan most of my life and moved only a year ago, I tell them that Nashville is my home. When they ask me why I like it so much, I used to tell them that I’m pleased to live where God wants me. While that’s true, I realize that I have another answer. I have people in Nashville who train me in discipleship. It’s like I found the Little League coach I always wanted. Until I moved to Nashville, I never understood the value of discipline and discipleship.

I used to identify the word “discipline” with punishment. Anything else was training. The Bible used the word discipline in terms of punishment sometimes and many a Baptist child heard these verses. Proverbs 22:15, for example, “Foolishness is bound up in the heart of a child; the rod of discipline will remove it far from him.” Or the famous Proverbs 13:24, “He who withholds his rod hates his son, but he who loves him disciplines him diligently.” Dang, right? Imagine how blessed you’d feel hearing someone quote those verses after hitting you with a belt.

But more often than not, scripture talks about discipline as if it’s the greatest thing in the whole world. Hebrews 12 talks of how God disciplines to train us in holiness. Verse 11 says, “All discipline for the moment seems not to be joyful, but sorrowful; yet to those who have been trained by it, afterwards it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness.” And in Revelation 3, in a letter to Sardis, God says, “Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline; therefore be zealous and repent.” Paul rejoiced at the discipline of the church in Colossians 2:5.

We can easily get the wrong idea about discipline. It’s not punishment for its own sake. It’s not hateful correction. Like children, we think we know the best way to live, but we would mature poorly if we didn’t have people to train us. The disciples weren’t masochists, as far as I know. They wanted Jesus to show them how He lived His life. Instead of studying in the back of some synagogue for an allotted amount of time, they followed Him everywhere, listened to every word, asked Him all sorts of questions. “How should we pray?” “How many times should I forgive my brother?” “Should I pay my taxes?”

Alright, so discipline isn’t as bad as it sounds. It develops a mature way of life. But what does that have to do with living in Nashville? I have people in Nashville who meet with me regularly, whether intentionally or otherwise, to encourage me towards discipline. Then I turn it around and help other people with the same encouragement. It’s created a community of people seeking to develop a mature relationship with God, help each other reach those goals, stay accountable, and celebrate the growth. This gives me even more incentive to build and maintain an intimate relationship with God knowing that it helps my church. Paul mentions this kind of other-centered discipline in Romans 15:1-2. “Now we who are strong ought to bear the weaknesses of those without strength and not just please ourselves. Each of us is to please his neighbor for his good, to his edification.”

I’m glad I grew up in Michigan. But taken away from the culture of discipline that I’ve found in Tennessee, I fall back into old patterns and live less than extraordinarily. How often does this happen to you? How easy is it? That’s a pretty good sign that I’m still learning. I’m not ready for the travel team yet. I found myself saying the very words a friend told me about his lack of discipline. The decline in discipline almost made me think that I had begun to desire God less. I’m a forgetful person who needs others to remind me of my hunger for God. If I could do it on my own, why would Paul spend all of 1 Corinthians 12 saying that members of the Church were given different gifts so they could work together as a body with different parts?

The different parts of the body depend on each other. They are responsible to each other. They train and build together. They become strong and focused. They are able to accomplish their goals with skill. If the body is supposed to be a picture of the church, how out of shape is yours? In 1 Timothy 4, Paul instructs Timothy how to deal with false teachings and says, “But have nothing to do with worldly fables fit only for old women. On the other hand, discipline yourself for the purpose of godliness; for bodily discipline is only of little profit, but godliness is profitable for all things, since it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come.”

I’ve said it before, but all I want from life is to glorify God and point others to Jesus. When I die, put it on the stone. I can’t accomplish these things effectively on my own. I’ve tried. It doesn’t work. I burn out too quickly and lose heart. I need people to cheer me on, train me, keep me going towards that goal. How else am I going to make a big play in the championship game?

I once wrote about the church as a team. Here are some questions that might apply well to the analogy. How well do you know the people in your church? When you gather, do you encourage each other in righteousness? Are you willing to submit to spiritual authority? You don’t have to answer all of those questions right now. Let’s start with this one. When you think about discipline, do you think of it as a means to victory?

Thursday, November 6, 2008

The Reason Why We Shouldn’t Fear Anything.

Now that baseball season is over, I don’t have any good reason to watch television. I can see Heroes online, you know? And that’s a better deal because I don’t have to endure so many commercials when I watch television shows online. Advertisements, more than many things, bother the hell out of me. During the World Series, though, I saw a Wendy’s commercial that annoyingly fits well with what I want to tell all of you today. The ad has two well-cast “everymen” sitting at work. One guy has a Wendy’s bag and asks the other guy how he liked his chicken sandwich. The second dude says, “I don’t remember.” Then the girl on the Wendy’s bag starts giving him a hard time about eating boring food.

This commercial is relevant to my point because memory sometimes fails more than serves us. I remember learning about “Mass Amnesia” from… somebody, I can’t remember. It’s a phenomenon that causes us to forget things like the outrage over gas prices crossing the dollar fifty mark, why we thought that Macarena song was so good, or how my teacher in elementary school convinced an entire fourth grade class that overpopulation would strangle the earth by the time we were twenty-five years old. Which is now. I hate this about my brain because sometimes I forget the most important of truths. The Kingdom of God is at hand. Jesus is Lord. I can put my trust in Him. My ears will hear, my own mouth will say words that evaporate into the air, and then I’ll forget to live in the confidence of these truths.

I can’t begin to tell you how many times I’ve said that the Bible is absolutely true, infallibly true, the standard of truth. But then I go through my days with a low level of anxiety hanging out in my chest and giving me headaches. Why am I stressed? Why am I worried about anything? Why am I ever afraid?

Just before Jesus ascended into Heaven, his disciples came around him. Matthew 28:17 says, “When they saw Him, they worshiped Him; but some were doubtful.” My paraphrase would read, They hung out with the Messiah, whom had so recently died a brutal death; but some suffered from mass amnesia and wondered if He really was the Son of God. It makes me wonder how easy it could have been for some of them to forget what Jesus said in the very next verse, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth.”

I love the wording of Revelation 4:2, “Immediately I was in the Spirit; and behold, a throne was standing in heaven, and One sitting on the throne.” One. Only One sits on the throne. God alone rules everything, and everything is subject to His rule. He loves us and He has it under control. This is the reason why we shouldn’t fear anything.

This post almost had the title, or at least the subtitle, “The Only Reason We Should Ever Fear Anything.” I decided to accentuate the positive. But really, that old question still demands an answer. Why am I ever afraid? It’s because in my heart, I’ve put other things on the throne. I sometimes worry about having the money to pay bills, so I put success and financial responsibility on the throne. My thirties will be here before I know it, and I sometimes think if I’m not married and having babies before then, I’m going to be miserable. I’ve put relationships and family on the throne. Certain family members have at times expressed concern over me wasting my talent. I sometimes listen to them. When I do, I’ve put my abilities on the throne. So many things have sat on the throne in my heart that didn’t deserve the seat. That’s God’s chair. When we put our trust in something or someone else to save us, preserve us, make us happy, or give us hope, then it has become an idol. Only then should we fear because deep inside of us, intricately woven into our souls, is the understanding that our idols can and will fail us.

If I genuinely put my trust in Jesus, then I also trust in His authority, His victory. Jesus has been and always will be mankind’s only hope. He alone can guarantee security through His salvation. Everything else, including good things like achievements or relationships or success, falls short of our security in Jesus. Sometimes these things assert themselves as having power over us, but any power they have first came from God. Remember the conversation between Jesus and Pilate in John 19:10-11? Pilate was offended that Jesus wouldn’t answer a question, so he said, “‘You do not speak to me? Do You not know that I have authority to release You, and I have authority to crucify You?’ Jesus answered, ‘You would have no authority over Me, unless it had been given you from above.’”

Now that’s fearlessness. Jesus just had the shit beat out of Him, and there He is, toe to toe with the governing ruler, telling him that he has no say in whether He lives or dies. It’s a beautiful, albeit gruesome, picture of how we should deal with fears. God is in control. He’s on the throne. Whatever happens, I know this is true. I’ll just have to try not to forget it.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Are Those Your Ribs?

We wear nametags at Lifehouse Church. It’s a practice I have historically avoided until now. Now I see the benefit of helping newcomers get to know about a hundred people. One Sunday morning, the woman writing out nametags gasped when I slapped the sticker to my shirt. Apparently, I had leaned back as I breathed in and she saw the ridge of my ribcage. “Isaiah! Oh my goodness! Are those your ribs? Do you eat?” She and I stared at each other for a moment. If she’s asking if I eat, I thought, that’s one thing. If she wants to know if I eat enough, that’s a different question altogether. It didn’t occur to me until later that I should have asked if she wanted to feed me. She apologized for making a scene about it and I told her not to worry. I’ve been this way my whole life.

If you can’t figure it out from my pictures, I’m a fairly scrawny dude. At a height of six feet two inches, I have, once, weighed a little more than one hundred forty pounds. There are a few reasons for this. First, I have a world-class, championship, gold-plated metabolism. Second, even if I have enough money to buy three meals a day, I usually forget about eating. One of my old roommates once said, “How can you forget about eating? That’s all I think about!” I’ll tell you how. I’m busy. I’ll get to reading and writing, playing music, cleaning, watching a baseball game, or anything besides taking the time to preparing a meal. Grazing typically gets me through the day, though. If I can wrap my teeth around a granola bar or bagel while I’m working, I can sustain for hours. Sometimes days. This will go on until I see an oversized, perfectly cooked steak advertised on television or smell someone grilling as I walk by their house. Then I’m reminded, “Oh right! I haven’t eaten.” Suddenly, I feel downright ravenous. The next chance I have to eat a meal, I will devour it without any thought towards table manners.

Like most stories, I didn’t see any significance in what Nametag Lady said until much later. I’m re-reading Lilith by George MacDonald and came across a certain passage. The narrator has come to the home of Mr. and Mrs. Raven. “We are in want of something to eat and drink, wife,” he said; “we have come a long way!”

“You know, husband,” she answered, “we can give only to him that asks.” She turned her unchanging face and radiant eyes upon mine.

“Please give me something to eat, Mrs. Raven,” I said, “and something – what you will – to quench my thirst.”

“Your thirst must be greater before you can have what will quench it,” she replied; “but what I can give you, I will gladly.”

The whole book is like that. One, big metaphysical knot that MacDonald takes his sweet time in untying. How can a person be hungry or thirsty, but not nearly enough to have the thing that will really satisfy? Wouldn’t it makes sense that if a person were only a little thirsty, a little water would take care of the thirst? Isn’t a snack sometimes enough? Mrs. Raven’s enigmatic reply reminded me of two passages in scripture. Psalm 42:1 says, “As the deer pants for the water brooks, so my soul pants for You, O God.” Then, in John 4, Jesus speaks to a Samaritan woman at a well. He asks her for a drink and this sets off a conversation that makes MacDonald’s dialogue seem elementary. Jesus then begins to talk about the difference between well water and “living water” that He has come to offer. He says in John 4:13-14, “Everyone who drinks of this water will thirst again; but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him shall never thirst; but the water that I will give him will become in him a well of water springing up to eternal life.”

A good friend of mine told me that he wanted to become more disciplined in spending time with God. Then just a few weeks later, he confessed to how little time he had spent in prayer or reading his Bible. He said, “It’s not that I don’t have the time, but when the opportunity comes to spend time with Him, I make up excuses to do something else. I think the reason is that I don’t desire God enough.”

I told him, “Dude, please, I know you. You desire God. You’re hungry. You just don’t know how hungry you really are. I’m not going to pray that you become more disciplined. I’m going to ask God to show you just how desperately you already want Him. If you want something bad enough, you’ll do whatever it takes to get it.”

Of course, discipline is a good thing. Paul commended the church in Colossians 2:5, “For even though I am absent in body, nevertheless I am with you in spirit, rejoicing to see your good discipline and the stability of your faith in Christ.” But I believe that desire leads us to begin a pattern of discipline, after which we need to persevere in it. In 1 Corinthians 9:25-27, Paul talks of working hard for the sake of the gospel. “Everyone who competes in the games exercises self-control in all things. They then do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. Therefore I run in such a way, as not without aim; I box in such a way, as not beating the air; but I discipline my body and make it my slave, so that, after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified.”

My friend’s problem with discipline and my eating habits look very much alike. When I have the time to eat a meal, I toast a bagel or open a bag of chips because I think it’s more important to do other things. I’m misdirecting my hunger to something that won’t satisfy. My friend wants to spend more time with God. At the moment he has the chance to get alone with God, though, he chooses to do something else that he believes is more important, like sleeping in.

Jesus’s death and resurrection enabled us to come into God’s presence. We now have the opportunity to accept His gift of salvation. This is at the heart of the gospel, and we must want His presence so badly that we’ll do anything to get there and stay there. We have to love the gospel so much that we can’t help but tell other people about it. We have to need God’s presence like the deer needed water in Psalm 42. We must feel our need to drink the living water Jesus offered before our thirst is quenched. We very well could be starving, but sometimes we need a lady to ask us if our ribs are showing. Once I realize that a granola bar isn’t a substitute for a solid breakfast, one meal isn’t enough. I have to commit myself to eating three meals a day, otherwise nothing will change. And I really should stop losing weight.

I wanted to remind any readers of my offer to answer questions in the form of a post. You may leave a comment here or email me at

Friday, October 17, 2008

Our Team Will Change the World.

The cool kids at Hiawatha Elementary School each had a favorite basketball team. They’d show off their trading card collections and posters of gigantic men performing super-human feats on the court. Well, I didn’t have those trading cards or posters. I didn’t watch professional basketball. Ergo, I wasn’t one of the cool kids. But what I did have was an intense desperation to avoid their scorn. At some point in fourth grade, one of the coolest kids asked me, “Who do you think the best basketball team is?” Other kids were laughing, thinking that I wouldn’t have an answer. I said, “The Harlem Globetrotters”. They laughed so hard that one could have called it hollering.

Later that year, I met Curly Neal, arguably the most recognizable of the Globetrotters. He tried to spin a basketball on my hand, but I was so nervous that it kept falling off. I brought a photo of our meeting to show and tell, me with a stupid grin, him looking with polite dismay at the ball toppling off of my hand. I told the kids that Fred “Curly” Neal was involved in the Orlando Magic organization (which was true). The kids thought I was trying to tell them that I had met Shaquille O’Neal, who played for the Magic. Afterwards, I decided never to discuss basketball with any of those kids ever again.

I hadn’t thought about the Globetrotters for many years until last week. My friend Matt and I were praying for the people in our church and I began to thank God for allowing us to have fun while we did His work. I thanked God for the victory that Jesus assured us even though we find ourselves in the midst of a battle. “It’s like you made us the Harlem Globetrotters,” I laughed. It was just an offhand remark in prayer, but now I can’t shake this picture of God’s church.

The Globetrotters are a highly skilled team that exists outside of any recognized league. Even though they have the talent to compete with NBA teams, they serve a different purpose. The UN named them Goodwill Ambassadors. They have traveled to 119 countries to show the world just how fun and how excellent people can play the game of basketball.

Every analogy will break down if you look into it hard enough, but think about this for a moment. The world seems defined by competition. Who has the best job or car? Who’s got the blazing hot wife? Who’s famous, successful, beloved, cool, or revolutionary? The world chases after these things, but it ends in frustration apart from God. Sometimes, God’s the one who frustrates those plans. The people in Genesis 11 tried to come together in direct opposition to one of God’s commands. In Genesis 11:6-7, “The LORD said, ‘Behold, they are one people, and they all have the same language. And this is what they began to do, and now nothing which they purpose to do will be impossible for them. Come, let Us go down and there confuse their language, so that they will not understand one another's speech.’”

Jesus trained His disciples for a new and different purpose. When He rose from the dead, He told them of this purpose in Acts 1:8. Jesus said, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be My witnesses both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and even to the remotest part of the earth.” This is typically referred to as The Great Commission. God Himself gave people purpose again, based and driven by the power of the Holy Spirit. The purpose of the Great Commission goes against the world’s attitude of competition. Instead of getting the biggest slice of pie, we’re meant to bring life and truth to the world.

Paul explained our new roles as Ambassadors for the Kingdom of God in 2 Corinthians 5:14-20. “For the love of Christ controls us, having concluded this, that one died for all, therefore all died; and He died for all, so that they who live might no longer live for themselves, but for Him who died and rose again on their behalf. Therefore from now on we recognize no one according to the flesh; even though we have known Christ according to the flesh, yet now we know Him in this way no longer. Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come. Now all these things are from God, who reconciled us to Himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation, namely, that God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and He has committed to us the word of reconciliation. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were making an appeal through us; we beg you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.”

I recently joined a church for the first time. When I joined, I put aside my old ambitions for fame and success with writing and music. In its place, I took on a new ambition to spread the Gospel with those talents. Many of my friends in this church have that same ambition. We hope to travel in at least 119 countries, should God call us there, in order to show people the good and excellence of life in Jesus. My punk rock heart loves the idea of existing outside of the recognized leagues of the world and speaking a message that runs contrary to its norms. But I know I’m not quite ready to go out there yet. During this period of my life, God is training me for that purpose and sharpening my skills.

Like all the kids who dreamed of one day becoming a Harlem Globetrotter, my friends and I look forward to the next step in advancing God’s Kingdom. And it’s going to be fun, because like the Globetrotters, you can count on seeing a victory.

Friday, September 26, 2008

A Bend In the Path – Promises and Patience.

I started writing a graphic novel two months ago. It’s about Jewish people in the old west. The idea for the story came to me when I played a concert in Grand Rapids last summer. This girl was hanging around as I waited for my turn on stage. I had a Star of David that I’d picked up in Jerusalem and I was fidgeting with it in my right hand. She caught a glimpse of it and asked, “Are you a sheriff?” I tried not to make fun of her, but it got me thinking, “I wonder if there was a Jewish sheriff in some dusty gold-rush town…”

The story has gone through some changes from that initial thought and I’ve already had a lot of fun the past few weeks. At one point in the story, as the Jews sail on a ship headed to California, a Russian listens to a Jewish boy talk about his faith. The boy narrates the story, “As I told him of King David hiding in caves while King Saul sought to kill him, he stopped me. ‘I have heard these stories. The priest at the Orthodox Church told them to me. What I don’t understand is God’s power to give things He promises to people. He told your people that they would have the Promised Land, and yet they did not have it for centuries. He told David that he was king while Saul still sat on the throne. Then David had to run for his life, hiding in caves until Saul died. Could not God promise something and then simply give it?’”

After I wrote this question, I realized that I didn’t have an answer for the boy to give the Russian. Then I realized that I didn’t know the answer for that question in my own life. Why couldn’t God simply give the things He promised?

God has made a lot of promises for my life. He’s made a lot of promises to a lot of people. He makes so many promises to the world in scripture that I don’t feel like scanning to find them all. When I read the promises in the Bible or hear Him make promises to me in prayer, I very often feel a longing to see them fulfilled. Sometimes, I let those feelings of longing and hope (I’m looking forward to these gifts, Lord) turn into despair (Are you ever going to come through on those promises?).

For the sake of brevity, I’ll only talk about one of these promises. God has promised me a wife someday and I felt like He told me one night, “Pay attention to (her). I want you to pursue (her).” Now, I’m aware that He didn’t say, “You’re going to date her and marry her.” I’m only trying to make the point that I have a promise and feel like God has showed me a possible fulfillment of that promise. As I prayed about this, seeking confirmation and asking for wisdom, an elaborate picture came to mind.

God and I walked along a path together. An arch formed in the path and a field lay between us and the other side of the bend. God pointed at a figure on the path across the field and said, “See that person? I’m bringing you two together. That’s what I want to give you.”

In my excitement, I figure the shortest distance between two points is a straight line, so I dart into the field. Unfortunately, I don’t see that the field is full of quicksand and bear traps and debt collectors and all sorts of other stuff I’d want to avoid. By the time I get to the other side, I’ve lost a shoe in the quicksand, a foot in a bear trap, and changed my phone number. That’s trouble enough. Even if I make it to the other side, I can’t be sure that I’ll know what or whom God pointed out because I perceived something different at a distance. It might not look at all like what I thought close up. Because I’d made assumptions based on vain imaginations, I might be confused or frustrated with what I find. I’m not sure how I’d deal with the disappointment. And what if I did find the right person that God pointed out? Would they be ready? What if I grabbed that person’s hand saying, “Alright, let’s get back to God,” and I drag them through the field I barely survived?

The best thing for me to do is stay by God’s side and follow Him around the bend. Staying on the path may take longer, but I’ll keep out of unnecessary trouble. That’s not to say I won’t suffer hardships. I will, but the things He and I encounter together will prepare me for what’s ahead and I’ll mature in the process. When we finally come to the point that God showed me earlier, I’d see the promise for what it really is in the time and context that He intended. If things worked out the way I expected, I would have spent so much time in preparation with God that He would remain my primary focus. The gift wouldn’t become more important than the Giver. If things didn’t work out the way I expected, I wouldn’t feel disappointed. God and His promises would still be good. I’d be grateful for what He has given me.

So why would God show me what was ahead? If it's all going to happen anyway, isn't it kind of a tease to make me wait for it? Or is it more like incentive to keep me going?

When I was in summer camp, I ran a race around Piatt Lake in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. I don’t exactly think I’m an excellent athlete, so I knew I was in for an agonizing afternoon. Every now and again, I’d catch a glimpse of a landmark ahead and think, “Just make it there. You’ll be okay, just make it to the bridge.”

The writer of Hebrews spoke of a race and the promise of a prize. Hebrews 12:1-3 says, “Therefore, since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us also lay aside every encumbrance and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. For consider Him who has endured such hostility by sinners against Himself, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.”

When Jesus ran His race here on earth, his prize was bringing salvation to mankind. To get there, He had to endure abandonment and crucifixion among other things. He’s our example, the hero of our own marathon. Our goal is eternity with Him, but we have work to do, a race to run, a relationship to build with Him. Despair creeps in when I focus on the “landmarks” so much that my journey seems more like a waiting game. It’s easier for those feelings of longing to produce hope when I’m focused on how the race itself builds my relationship with God. Looking at it that way, I don’t mind taking the long way around.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

If God Were Really Good At Playing Cards – A look at omniscience and free will

(I have since retracted some of my points here and here. I decided to leave this post in the Press so people might see how I have changed from thought to thought.)

I live within two miles of two Universities and school is back in session. It’s probably safe to say about half of the people in my church building on Sunday go to college. In the past few weeks, I’ve met so many new students that I warn them immediately “I might forget your name.” Sometimes that doesn’t offend them and we’ll get to talk. During these conversations, at least five people have brought up the subject of God’s will and how that works with free will. I’m not kidding. The conversations all had their own, unique subjects that funneled into stuff like Predestination. One began as a discussion on Descartes and why I hate his work. Here’s one way someone asked me a question on God’s will:

Me: So what do you want out of life? (I really ask this question, usually during uncomfortable pauses. If we ever meet and you run out of small talk, watch out.)

Them: I want to know what God’s will is for my life. Should I be doing this or should I pay more attention to that? I’m having a hard time telling if it’s God directing me or if it’s just what I want.

Me: It sounds like you want to know how to discern the voice of God and know when He’s telling you something as opposed to you telling it to yourself.

Them: Yeah, that’s pretty much it.

Then after I tried to make myself look cool by telling them about my book, the person asked what I thought of Reformed Theology. I thought this was pretty funny, having moved from West Michigan, where the Reformed Church of America set up its headquarters, to Nashville, where Southern Baptists and the Church of Christ reign supreme. Then again, I don’t know what they think about Reformed Theology, either. There are too many denominations, huh? Moving on.

Me: I like some parts, but not other parts.

Them: What do you think about predestination?

Me: Ooh. Uh. Well, I seem to remember a verse that says God does not wish that any should be lost. So it sounds like it’s God’s will that all should be saved. But of course, not everyone will choose to follow God. Then the question is, if God is all-knowing, doesn’t He know if people will accept or deny Him?

Then I used a metaphor that has become very dear to me. I’m aware that some Christians will give themselves headaches when I compare God to a gambler, but stay with me. Imagine that God is a really good poker player. He could stack the deck if He wanted to, but then anything won would be meaningless because He set Himself up to win. So He has to set that ability aside in order to have true victory. At the same time, He can count cards. So based on what you throw out, He has a pretty good idea of what you’ll do next.

God’s omniscience is a part of His character, but then let me ask you an uncomfortable question: Was Jesus, God, omniscient while here on earth?

In Matthew 4, Jesus begins a forty-day fast after His baptism. Matthew 4:1 says, “Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.” But if Jesus, God, were omniscient, why would He need the Spirit to lead Him anywhere? Wouldn’t He know where to go already? Or consider what Jesus said in John 8:28, “I do nothing on My own initiative, but I speak these things as the Father taught Me.”

Here’s how I see it. God the son had to willingly put His Omniscience to the side in order to become fully man. That way he could learn and live and make choices between right and wrong. He could be filled with the Holy Spirit (another theological knot I won’t try to untie for you right now) and operate as an example to His disciples of how to live by the Spirit.

I used this example to show that God is omniscient, but for the sake of truly winning our love, He is able to set his omniscience to the side in the area of our choices. This gives space for free will to exist. I think he did this so He could give us opportunity to choose Him. If He knew absolutely from the beginning that a person would not choose Him, two things would make me believe that God was cruel. First, God would have created a person to be damned. That goes against the scripture I referenced earlier, 2 Peter 3:9, “The Lord is not slow about His promise, as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance.” Second, He’d offer salvation to people He knew were incapable of accepting it. That’s just, you know, a tease. And my new friend who got me started on this conversation said, “Exactly. Otherwise, what would be the point of praying for people? What would be the point of Evangelism?”

Now that I’ve come to the end of this post, I realize that I didn’t have an agenda when I started it. I can say for certain that I don’t want readers to think less of God’s power, but more. I don’t want to diminish the truth that God never changes, but emphasize the fact that God is not stiff and rigid. God is loving and will find a way to allow us to love Him. He wants you to seek His will, but He’s also able to work our own decisions to our good and to His glory. And He will be glorified. But that’s a different card game. God stacked the deck on that one. He will be glorified no matter what we do.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

A Simple Guide to Overdoing the Great Commission.

Whenever pastors talk about missions, they will almost certainly talk about the Great Commission. Jesus gave this last command to His disciples before ascending into Heaven. In Acts 1:8, He says, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be My witnesses both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and even to the remotest part of the earth.” And in Matthew 28:19-20, He adds, “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”

Growing up hearing this from pastors most of my life, I could tell early on how much they liked preaching this sermon. It was easy. They could recite Jesus’ command, tap their finger on the page, and then point that finger at the congregation. “You are all missionaries,” they’d say. I liked that. The phrase “a missionary in your own backyard” had a snappy ring to it. It lit a fire in me to raise money for faceless, starving children. Raising money from the neighbors up and down my street helped the children and let the block know that I loved Jesus. I truly was a missionary in my own backyard. Once, I even stood up with a Bible in my first grade class when my teacher had mentioned a certain crisis that existed in the world.

And then I got my ass kicked for five years. Although some of the kids in my school were pretty ruthless, I don’t think they were actively persecuting me for my beliefs. I get the feeling that I pissed something off in the spiritual realm.

The first part of Acts 1:8 should demand our attention. Jesus told His disciples not to spread the gospel until they had received power from the Holy Spirit. Some people have told me that Jesus said to because the signs and wonders brought by the Holy Spirit would make God’s power evident to people hearing the gospel. I suppose that’s true. Paul said in 1 Corinthians the signs were used to show the message through God’s power and not human wisdom. I think there’s something else to it, though. They needed His guidance.

In Acts 16, Paul and his companions are out on one of their missionary journeys. In verses 6 and 7, “They passed through the Phrygian and Galatian region, having been forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia; and after they came to Mysia, they were trying to go into Bithynia, and the Spirit of Jesus did not permit them.” If people stopped to think about this, they might find it outrageous. “What? Didn’t God want the gospel preached there as well?” I think so, but through others and at a different time. The people in Galatia formed a pretty significant church. Paul’s letter to them may be one of my favorite epistles.

But this wasn’t the kind of mission trip where kids all wear the same T-shirts and build schools for impoverished communities. A lot people wanted to kill Paul and his buddies. Even in the cities he did visit, he faced riots and imprisonment and attempts on his life. But God miraculously saved him every time. Why? Because Paul went exactly where the Holy Spirit led him to go. He went into large, influential cities (cities, I should mention, that had more local authority to keep villagers from skewering the apostles) and shared the gospel to as many people as possible. This allowed others to share the gospel in turn with a common language and mutual history. “Hey Pete. Did you hear about that riot in town? You’ll never guess what this guy was saying to the people.” Voila! Ministry time. God put Paul in specific places to set other people in motion. His job wasn’t to save the whole world. I’d imagine that job would be very exhausting. And it would not have allowed more leadership to rise in the church. But people think that is their job. Save the whole world one backyard at a time.

For any of us who want to spread the gospel through full-time ministry (I wonder what “part-time ministry” means), we should consider this pattern. As we seek to do God’s work, we should listen for His voice and follow the direction He gives us. Otherwise we might take on burdens that are not ours and in turn place those burdens on our families and loved ones. I’m not saying that ministry never involves pain or sacrifice or hard choices that affect others. I mean to say we would do better to have God show us who to reach and then help them reach others. That way we don’t end up in Bithynia wondering why nobody’s listening or why those people over there are picking up heavy rocks.

Friday, August 22, 2008

What Do You Mean "It's A Ministry"?

For the past few months, or maybe two weeks after I started this weblog, I've viewed my writing here as exercise. Between writing my new book and a graphic novel (you heard me), I write about something completely unrelated just to stay in shape, so to speak. Sometimes those other projects have peripheral subjects that inspire the posts, but are otherwise unrelated. The point is, I very rarely think about 'Am-ha'aretz Press as serious ministry.

This has begun to change, though. When I realized that my parents weren't the only people paying attention, I had a sudden understanding of my responsibility. Recently, I've received emails and phone calls from people in Chicago, New York, Ohio, North Carolina, and Finland all saying how God spoke to them through my weblog.

I want to take this a little more seriously. Not to say I'll be writing here every day. I can't promise that. But I'm inviting you into the process. Here's how. Many of my posts and other writings come as a result of questions raised in conversation. But I live around a lot of busy and driven people, so I spend much of my day alone. (You may have noticed that I don't have a lot of posts. I keep telling myself that quality trumps quantity.) If you have any questions or subjects that you would like me to address, please leave a comment. I'm almost certain that you don't need an account to do so. Adam did this once and it inspired one of my favorite posts.

That's all I wanted to say for now. God has been kicking my ass over a few things, and I'm sure I'll have more to say after we work through some of it. Until then, don't be afraid to tell me you love me.

Monday, August 18, 2008

When We Move, It's A Movement.

A friend of mine gave me the new John Eldredge book, Walking With God. Because my “to-read” list is pretty long, it can take ages before I finally get to the newest book. For some reason, I decided to upset the natural order of things and skip other books I had promised to read first. So far, I like Walking With God very much. It’s actually a little spooky how close Eldredge’s teachings mirror the life my family has lived for the past fourteen years. It’s like the guy’s been reading my mail, or at least my book. John, if you're reading this, let’s hang out.

Last night, I read the section “Until God Becomes Our All”. I tried not to get visibly excited while sitting in a hip café as I read these words. “The first and greatest command is to love God with our whole being. Yet, it is rare to find someone who is completely given over to God. And so normal to be surrounded by people who are trying to make life work. We think of the few who are abandoned to God as being sort of odd. The rest of the world – the ones trying to make life work – seem perfectly normal to us.” So help me, I almost said aloud, “That’s me!” I’m not saying that I get it right all the time, but my mistakes happen in the middle of my effort to live for God by the direction of the Holy Spirit.

Abe once told me that one of the most neglected commands in the Bible is to have no other gods before God. I think I agree with him. Millions of good Christian people just snarled at me, I know. But think about it. People will follow God as long as it doesn’t look foolish, jeopardize their finances, or interfere with any other plans they may have. They worship at the alter of money, image, career, relationships, or whatever else started as a gift from God. But I’m not writing about idols today. I had a long night, you know? I want to write about something exciting.

This verse comes from Stern’s Complete Jewish Bible. Acts 9:31 “Then the Messianic community (the church) throughout Y’hudah (Judea), the Galil (Galilee) and Shomron (Samaria) enjoyed peace and was built up. They lived in the fear of the Lord, with the counsel of the Ruach HaKodesh (Holy Spirit); and their numbers kept multiplying.” Two things ought to stick out from that verse. The believers feared God, meaning they lived for Him above everything else, and they sought the direction of the Holy Spirit. When the church lived in this way, they grew. People came to Jesus. It sounds pretty basic, right? Still, why do I look at the church in the western world and see so little life? How much are these churches growing because people are giving their lives to Jesus and how many churches are growing because of the Fan Club?

At church yesterday, the pastor taught on John 8. This is the awesome passage where Jesus says in verses 28, “So Yeshua (Jesus) said, ‘When you lift up the Son of Man, then you will know that I AM [who I say I am], and that of myself I do nothing, but say only what the Father has taught me.’” Jesus lived this way. He served God first, and only moved with the guidance of the Holy Spirit. He is our example, and all throughout the New Testament we are encouraged to live as Jesus lived. My pastor asked if anyone wanted prayer for that kind of relationship with God and a number of people responded. I prayed for one of my new church friends. He told me that he wanted a more dynamic, personal relationship with God. “I want that extraordinary life,” he said. Enough with that boring and normal and safe version of faith where we try to keep everything under our control. Let’s change the world.

This isn’t melodrama, people. I’m talking change. There is a reason the Gospel is called “Good News”. The world needs to hear this. And if people in the church are willing to sacrifice control of their lives (trying to make it “work”), giving all of themselves over to God, the world would take notice. The very thought of it touches my punk rock heart. Some people might say we need to take responsibility for our lives. I did that already, and I nearly ruined the whole thing. My responsible life didn’t mean much until I dedicated it to God in total surrender. Unless the church today begins to live as it did in Acts 9:31, it will become more inbred and ineffective. The church needs to move with the direct and personal guidance of the Holy Spirit. It’s like the Orchid song says, “when we move, it’s a movement.”

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Remember the Sabbath and Keep It Holy, or some Gentile thoughts on the nature of rest.

Sometimes while reading the Bible, I’ll start laughing because I put myself into the story. Like here in John 5:2-17, I’ll insert my commentary throughout the passage.

Now there is in Jerusalem by the sheep gate a pool, which is called in Hebrew Bethesda, having five porticoes.
What’s a portico?
In these lay a multitude of those who were sick, blind, lame, and withered, [waiting for the moving of the waters; for an angel of the Lord went down at certain seasons into the pool and stirred up the water; whoever then first, after the stirring up of the water, stepped in was made well from whatever disease with which he was afflicted.] A man was there who had been ill for thirty-eight years.
When Jesus saw him lying there, and knew that he had already been a long time in that condition, He said to him, “Do you wish to get well?” The sick man answered Him, “Sir, I have no man to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up, but while I am coming, another steps down before me.”
No, He asked if you wanted to be healed, man.
Jesus said to him, “Get up, pick up your pallet and walk.” Immediately the man became well, and picked up his pallet and began to walk.
A drag no more.
Now it was the Sabbath on that day. So the Jews were saying to the man who was cured, “It is the Sabbath, and it is not permissible for you to carry your pallet.”
If Jesus knew that this guy had been lame for years, didn’t the locals notice the miracle? What a bunch of kill-joys.
But he answered them, “He who made me well was the one who said to me, ‘Pick up your pallet and walk.’” They asked him, “Who is the man who said to you, ‘Pick up your pallet and walk’?”
They still aren’t picking up on the part where the man was healed. Why are these guys so caught up in a dude holding his mat?
But the man who was healed (at least the writer insists on mentioning the healing) did not know who it was, for Jesus had slipped away while there was a crowd in that place. Afterward Jesus found him in the temple and said to him, “Behold, you have become well; do not sin anymore, so that nothing worse happens to you.”
Wait, did anyone else catch that last part?
The man went away, and told the Jews that it was Jesus who had made him well.
“Alright, if you’re going to harass anyone for healing me of a life-long handicap, blame this guy.”
For this reason the Jews were persecuting Jesus, because He was doing these things on the Sabbath.
“Are you the guy who told that cripple to carry his rug?”
But He answered them, “My Father is working until now, and I Myself am working.”
“Yeah, I’m the guy. What are you going to do about it?”

Jesus flat-out admits to their accusation by saying, “I Myself and working.” What a bad-ass! And when the scripture says the Jews were persecuting Jesus, that’s a nice way of saying they wanted to kill Him. He had to know that. And then, for the rest of the chapter, Jesus talks about His authority as the Son of God and chastises the Jews for rejecting Him. Ouch. There is a lot I could talk about here, but I’m going to stick with the Sabbath for now.

The subject of the Sabbath, or God’s appointed day of rest, can irritate a lot of Christians. Let’s be honest, how many believers really observe the Sabbath? What is the Sabbath, anyway? And for that matter, when is the Sabbath? We talk about it so little that it becomes easy to ignore. I’ve thought about it more recently because of an argument I had with a guy. He observes the Sabbath, and on Saturday. “The real Sabbath,” he said. He got mad at me because I didn’t think it was necessary to observe all the Jewish laws so strictly.

“But it’s one of the Ten Commandments. How can you ignore that? And don’t tell me that you pick your own Sabbath. God appointed Saturday, that’s when we’re supposed to rest. You can’t change God’s rules,” he said.

I responded, “You know how much I like Jewish people, but we’re not Jews. As far as I know, we’re Gentiles. When the early church wanted to know if the Greek believers should convert to Judaism before Christianity, James told the church leaders, ‘But concerning the Gentiles who have believed, we wrote, having decided that they should abstain from meat sacrificed to idols and from blood and from what is strangled and from fornication.’” That’s Acts 21:25, in case you’re wondering. “Of all the commands they could have given the gentiles, they pretty much said, ‘don’t serve other gods or do things that glorify death, and stay sexually pure.’ They didn’t mention the Sabbath.”

We never really came to an agreement. This argument gets sticky because the two sides are both technically Biblical. God did command His people to observe the Sabbath. And God was serious about it. In other portions of the law, He tells His people to execute other Jews who don’t observe the Sabbath. Hence the Jews "persecuting" Jesus.

At the same time, Paul talks about the different applications of the law for Jewish and Gentile believers in Romans 2. It’s a pretty complicated passage, so I won’t get too deep into it. But notice verses 27 through 29, “And he who is physically uncircumcised (which was technically against the law for Jews), if he keeps the Law, will he not judge you who though having the letter of the Law and circumcision are a transgressor of the Law? For he is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is circumcision that which is outward in the flesh. But he is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is that which is of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter; and his praise is not from men, but from God.”

The point I want to make is this: Jesus didn’t break the law by healing a man on the Sabbath, and the man healed didn’t break the law by carrying his mat. The Sabbath was put in place to remind men that God created them for more than their work. It was meant to allow time for us to focus on our relationship with God. Jesus did as the Spirit of God led him to act, and the crippled man obeyed the Messiah. So if both of them acted in obedience, and their actions glorified God, how is that sin?

Galatians 5:3 says if you take one part of the law, you take on the whole of the law. And the message of Romans 2 is that Jews shouldn’t judge the Gentiles because they themselves fail at keeping the whole law. People who claim to observe the whole law and do so without having “circumcised their hearts”, or dedicated themselves to their relationship with God, they bring judgment on themselves. Jesus says this to the kill-joys in John 5. Those men were caught up in their image of perfection. If they had been concerned with glorifying God, they would have recognized the miracle and praised Him. Their trust in Him would have grown. Their relationship with Him would have deepened. And it’s in this deepening relationship that we find a true Sabbath of the heart.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

I'm Not Unemployed, I Work For God.

(This is a long post. And I'm saying it's long. I thought about breaking it up into two parts, but I don't think that would do much good. Most of you should read more anyway.)

People naturally ask me what I do for a living. I can't blame them. I only very recently graduated from sleeping on the floor to a camping cot. In the past, I would answer their questions by telling them that I get money from book sales and then sometimes play guitar for a certain gospel singer. While this is true, I do make money that way, it's not what I really do. I mean, that's not my primary occupation or what sustains me.

Here's the real answer. Every day, I ask God what he wants me to do. Then I do it. Because I live in obedience to Him, God sustains me both supernaturally and through my creativity. This answer doesn't satisfy everyone, but it's the truth. So I'm not unemployed, I work for God.

To illustrate this point, I'm including a story from a friend of mine. We both felt weird about using his real name, so instead of making you wade through the boggy mess of endless pronouns, I've changed his name to "Abe". Abe, if you read this, there's a reason I chose this name. Sorry if you hate it.

Abe needs God to bless him. He’s waiting on a deal to come through and is short on cash. Instead of simply blessing Abe and leaving it at that, God sent Abe on a road trip to help people.

Abe left his temporary home in North Carolina to help his dad with some things in central Ohio. At ten minutes to five in the afternoon, he blew a tire out on a busy highway. He towed the car to a tire shop just before they closed. On the way back to his father’s house the next day, God tells Abe, “Stay in Columbus another day or two.”

At three in the afternoon, Abe’s father handed over one hundred forty dollars and said, “Get the other tire replaced.” At the tire shop, the same man was behind the counter from the night before. He gave Abe a forty-five dollar discount on the second tire. When they tried to remove the old tire from the rim the sidewalls disintegrated.

The tire shop is near a cafe. Abe headed over there to do some work on his computer. About two hours later his computer ran out of battery power despite the fact that it’s plugged in. Abe saw a flyer in the coffee shop advertising a local hotel with a low rate. Remembering the hotel is between the tire shop and Coffee Shop, Abe asked God if he should stay there. God said, “Stop in,” so he checked the rates at the hotel. The only room available was very expensive.

There was another man in the hotel lobby. He dressed in motorcycle gear and appeared exhausted. The man looked familiar, and Abe asked, “Can I help you?”

The man shook his head. “I just drove 8 hours by motorcycle from Kansas City."

Abe then remembered him from the International House of Prayer in KC, which surprised the motorcycle man. Abe asked, “Where are you going?”

“I’m headed to Cleveland, but right now I’m trying to figure out what I’m going to do for dinner and a room.”

Abe recommended a restaurant across the road. “When you leave, head toward Cleveland, take the next exit and stay in the Hampton Inn. It’ll be about twenty dollars more than a normal room would cost here."

As Abe walked to his car, the man called out, “Why are you leaving me?” He asked this question three times.

Abe replied each times, “Because I’ve answered all of your questions and told you what you need to know. You will be alright!”

Eventually, the man said, “How did you know that I had just asked God, ‘what am going to do Lord? What do I need to do?’”

Abe laughed when he told me this story and then asked me, “So how useful was this ‘day of unemployment’ to God?”

Instead of answering this question for you, I'm going to jump into the story of Elijah. I heard a man named Terry Virgo give a message on this passage a few weeks ago at a conference in Western Missouri. The passage is from 1 Kings 17:1-16.

The prophet Elijah told the king of Israel, "As the LORD, the God of Israel lives, before whom I stand, surely there shall be neither dew nor rain these years, except by my word."

Then God tells Elijah, "Go away from here and turn eastward, and hide yourself by the brook Cherith, which is east of the Jordan. It shall be that you will drink of the brook, and I have commanded the ravens to provide for you there." Elijah goes to Cherith and the birds meet him there with food morning and night.

After some time, the brook dries up (because, hey, there's no rain) and God tells Elijah to move on. "Arise, go to Zarephath, which belongs to Sidon, and stay there; behold, I have commanded a widow there to provide for you."

Again, Elijah goes where God leads him. He sees a widow in Zarephath and asks her for food. The woman replied, "As the LORD your God lives, I have no bread, only a handful of flour in the bowl and a little oil in the jar; and behold, I am gathering a few sticks that I may go in and prepare for me and my son, that we may eat it and die."

Elijah tells her, "Do not fear; go, do as you have said, but make me a little bread cake from it first and bring it out to me, and afterward you may make one for yourself and for your son. For thus says the LORD God of Israel, 'The bowl of flour shall not be exhausted, nor shall the jar of oil be empty, until the day that the LORD sends rain on the face of the earth.'" So she went and did what Elijah said, and they had food every day. The bowl always had some flour in it and the oil jar never ran dry.

Let me retell this story another way. Imagine God wanted you to have a meeting with the president. At the White House, you say, “Our economy is going to crash until I give the word. Then we’ll prosper again.” Soon massive flooding, early frost, and other natural disasters destroy the nation’s farms. Food prices skyrocket. Oil becomes so expensive that we see the Conestoga Wagon make a comeback. Dominos fall all over the place and crush everyone. The president remembers your crazy prophecy and adds you to the FBI’s Most Wanted list. Now you’re on the run, and all because you did what God told you to do.

God tells you, “Go to this one river in Montana. I’ve told an army of ants to carry food over to your campsite every day.” When you set up camp in Montana, sure enough, ants carry bread and meat and drop it off in front of your tent flap. Meanwhile, in a fit of panic, the government decides to build a dam on that river to form a reservoir for struggling farms. This simultaneously creates several jobs for the recently unemployed, which worked for FDR, right? Of course, your ants live in that valley and can’t swim. Now you don’t have a river or little ant servants and you’re starving in the middle of Montana.

Then God says, “Make your way to New Orleans. I’ve commanded a homeless man to take care of you.” You run into a homeless guy who insists that he’s Steve Guttenberg. He smells like the inside of a shoe, but he’s got a nearly empty jar of Skippy peanut butter and four slices of Wonder Bread. You ask him to make you a sandwich. When he agrees to feed you, the two of you somehow manage to make peanut butter sandwiches for months.

It’s crazy, right? But that’s what Elijah did. God took care of him because he obeyed. What if Elijah didn’t go to Cherith? He would never have met up with the birds God sent to feed him. And what about going to Sidon, a characteristically pagan region, to meet with the widow? Two people had to obey that one. First, Elijah had to go there even though hardly anybody followed God’s voice in that area. Second, the widow had to make Elijah's food first, trusting that God would provide for her family as well.

Now I’m going to tell my story. My car has been at an auto shop since mid May. God blessed me with such a rare car that I’ve had trouble locating a replacement part. Last week, a friend drove me to the auto shop in Franklin so I could get some things out of my car. She works at my church, which is about seven miles from the mechanic. Among the items I pulled out of my trunk, I felt compelled to put a few copies of my book into my backpack. I walked about three miles toward my church before I asked God if I could hitchhike. I figure, it’s Franklin. There are not a whole lot of ax-murdering ne’er-do-wells. But God said, “No, I’m sending someone to pick you up.”

Ten minutes later, a pickup truck pulled over. “Where are you headed? I can take you most of the way, hop in.” Of course, one of the first things he asked me was, “What do you do?” I told him that I follow God’s voice in obedience and I also write. I told him about my book. He said, “That’s interesting. I saw you walking earlier and something told me to pull over for you.”

I said, “Really? Because I asked God if I should hitchhike. He said, ‘No, I’m sending someone to pick you up.’ I think that’s you, mister.”

“Where can I get this book of yours?”

“I have some copies in my backpack.”

He pulled out cash and bought one. It paid for my lunch. He drove me the whole way to church so we could continue our conversation. This story is an example of how God blessed me obviously and immediately. There are other times, however, that are not so obvious or immediate.

One of my roommates moved back to Michigan yesterday. After I helped his parents pack their trailer, God wanted me to walk a mile and a half to a café. He said, “Work on the new book there. Don’t wear headphones.” I usually listen to music while I write, so I wondered what God had in mind. A little while later, my roommate came in and repaid me for a bill I had covered. I gave him a hug goodbye and he said, “Keep writing. Keep making the world a better place. You know that’s what you’re doing.” I thanked him and went back to work when he left.

An hour later, I asked God, “So... why did you want me here? Did I miss something?”

God pointed out that a man had been sitting in the chair next to me most of the afternoon. “He has been asking me a question and I put you in place to give him an answer. He heard what Dustin said to you. That was his cue and he didn’t take advantage of it. If you had put headphones on, you would have blocked him out. But now he has no excuse.” He was no motorcyclist from Kansas City, but my mission resembled Abe’s. God put us in place to do His work. I wonder if God had a backup guy in the cafe…

Now, this may seem silly. You might say, “Of course we should all obey God, but there comes a point in time when a man has to stand up and take responsibility, work the soil, earn his bread with the sweat of his brow.” If so, I would ask you to consider Matthew 6:31-34. Jesus said, “Do not worry then, saying, 'What will we eat?' or 'What will we drink?' or 'What will we wear for clothing?' For the Gentiles eagerly seek all these things; for your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things will be added to you. So do not worry about tomorrow; for tomorrow will care for itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.”

When I seek God’s direction in my life and obey what He asks of me, I am actively seeking Him and doing the work of His kingdom. This is not passive. I have to do something in order to obey. God routinely tells me to write, or sing, or arrange meetings with people. It’s not all divine appointments and money falling from the sky, but my provision still comes as a result of obedience to God. Because I’ve learned to trust His provision, I have peace in my heart as I sleep soundly on my cot.

I have the best job ever.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Judgment As a Marriage Proposal

My roommates recently told me about this preacher. He’s on television. His church is massive. His books become bestsellers, I guess. I’ve never read them. Like I said, I just heard about this guy. The roomies said he was on Larry King Live so I watched a few clips on YouTube. The guy didn’t want to offend anyone (any potential readers, maybe?) so he wouldn’t say whether or not anyone would go to Hell. His whole message is thick with positivity. He insisted that he believed in Jesus. Jesus, and some good deeds. When asked if Jews or Muslims would go to Heaven without believing in Jesus, he said, “It’s not my place to judge”. He said that other faiths “love God” and are very sincere, so he didn’t want to impose his beliefs on them.

A lady from Minneapolis introduced me to the term “Easy Gospel Church”. This kind of church is the feel-good, non-confrontational, theatrical sort of place. Lots of people come, but many of them don’t have a strong relationship with Jesus. I wonder if the preachers don’t want to offend anyone by saying a judgmental thing like “Jesus alone brings salvation to mankind.”

What do you say we talk about the gospel today? Let’s start with John 3:16, a well-known verse thanks to people with poster board signs at stadium events. But instead of leaving it with the one verse, I’m going to tack on verses 17 and 18. “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life. For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through Him. He who believes in Him is not judged; he who does not believe has been judged already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.”

The word judgment, in a religious sense, gets a bad rap. We’re told not to be judgmental. Don’t judge lest ye be judged, and all that. If you take John 3:16-18, judgment is given objectively. Jesus is asking, “Do you trust me or not?” God didn’t do this to bring condemnation, but offer the choice. He allows people to accept or reject Him and then people are objectively held to their choice. In one sense, that is easy, and it does appeal to seekers. Circle “yes” or “no”, right?

A woman once told me, “I can’t believe in a God that would send people to hell.” I replied, “Think about it like this. God wanted to spend the rest of eternity with a person. Jesus was kind of like the marriage proposal. If the person accepted the proposal, then he and God would begin to develop an ongoing relationship. But if that person rejects the proposal, God honors that person’s wishes and remains separate from him. And separation from God is Hell.”

That’s the true “easiness” of the gospel. It’s not about a good feeling or the show, or even the eternal security. It’s about putting your trust in Jesus and developing a relationship with God through that trust. But that decision is crucial, and if we don’t present the gospel as such, then what are we doing?

Let’s go back to the mega-preacher. I wrote a post several weeks ago about people who preach the message of Jesus for selfish reasons. I’ll ask the question again. Wouldn’t it be great if that preacher heard his own gospel message and came to really know Jesus as the only Son of God? Instead of image and sales and a feel-good ministry, what if he used his gift of influence to spread the truth?

It’s needed more now than ever. There is a highly debated statistic that predicts 4% of teenagers will be Bible-believing Christians by the time they reach adulthood. Those numbers may or may not be accurate, but it wouldn't surprise me to find that Christianity is dwindling among young Americans. I have to wonder, has the feel-good ministry approach worked? Have the stadium signs brought droves of people to Jesus? Are the safe answers and non-confrontational messages enough? Or are kids starting to see that something doesn’t line up? But what if we developed that deep relationship with God through Jesus, then lived it, and then told people about it?

If that makes you nervous, don’t sweat it. God’s the one proposing to them, you’re just His messenger. Or maybe you’re like the glass of champagne with the ring inside of you. If the person rejects the proposal, you haven’t imposed judgment on them for it. Judgment, like the wedding ring, was theirs to accept or deny.

Friday, June 13, 2008

God's Backup Guy

Even though I’ve known how to hear God’s voice for over a decade, I didn’t listen regularly until about five years ago. Dad and I had begun work on our book, Stark Raving Obedience, and I wanted to immerse myself in listening prayer. It was practice, research. I’m not sure if I knew how screwy a life of obedience could appear both to me and others. Every once in a while, God would ask me to go somewhere. Sometimes He’d send me to a park or a café, usually a public place. When I would arrive, I’d sit for a while, looking around to see why God wanted me there. Pastors and teachers had often talked about “divine appointments”, where God put people in place to do His work. I would ask, “What’s going on? Am I meeting someone here? Is there a baby about to fall out of its high chair? A fire I have to put out?” And all I would ever hear in reply was, “Wait.” After a while, He’d say, “Okay, you can go.”

You can imagine how this frustrated me. I mean, I guess I wasn’t very busy. I’d been kicked out of college, left my job, been dumped, and so on. I wanted answers from God. He should have guided me back into a stable life, given me peace and comfort, or something. So those times where I felt like God told me to take up space made me a little angry. Then, for a while, we moved on to the peace and comfort part. He brought people into my life who helped me through those hard years. He stopped asking me to “go here and there” to sit. I assumed my lesson was to obey even when it didn’t seem to have a purpose.

About a year ago, He told me to walk to a library. I sat in the main room and waited. Nothing. “Stop playing games, God. I thought we were past this already.” Then He said, “It’s time to go.” After this little episode, I had a conversation with my friend Bob. He told me about God sending him to divine appointments. Sometimes, he would sit in one place until God pointed out the person who needed to talk to him. Other times, God would show him other people He had sent to take care of the situation. If that person didn’t follow through in obedience, Bob would have to step in and do the job instead. I said, “So you’re saying that sometimes God needs a backup guy?”

At that moment, God reminded me of all those times He put me in a place and said, “Wait.” In those days when I needed answers and comfort, God wanted people to speak to me. Sometimes they didn’t obey. Others did obey, and they were the ones who prayed with me and encouraged my trust in God during difficult times. And then later, at the Library, after my trust in Him had strengthened, He needed me to help a person in case someone else didn’t obey. I was God’s backup guy.

It took some time adjusting to the idea that God has a bullpen, people in place and ready in case the starting pitcher leaves early in the game. But then again, it also gave me comfort. There are times when God asks me to call someone or pray for a person or give money to a guy, and for some reason I don’t obey. When I realized that I failed to obey God, I’d feel searing condemnation. It never occurred to me that God’s will for mankind would rest on more than my obedience. He’s got backup. Even if I totally miss my opportunity to further the work of His kingdom, I haven’t ruined His plans. And what about those times when I did obey and nothing seemed to happen? Maybe it was a matter of corporate obedience, like a secret team effort where a few people had to obey at precise times. Does God refuse to bless me because some other people didn’t listen to Him? No, it just means He has to call in other people who will take orders.

One of my favorite stories from the Old Testament takes place outside of a city called Kadesh-barnea. God wanted to give the land to His people after their time of wandering. In preparation for battle, Moses sent twelve spies into the city as reconnaissance. When the spies returned in Numbers 13 and 14, Caleb and Joshua said, “let’s go! The land is amazing, and God has promised it to us.” The other ten spies kept talking about giants and fortresses and convinced the Israelites to back off. God told the people that they wouldn’t enter the land and forced them to wander forty more years. Of that entire generation, only two were allowed to live in the Promised Land: Joshua and Caleb. And they lived out their years receiving God’s full blessing. The disobedience of others didn’t ruin God’s plan for their lives. He brought in another generation to take the Promised Land with them.

In Judges 4, several decades after the time of Joshua and Caleb, Canaanites had taken control of the Promised Land. A prophet named Deborah tells a man named Barak to gather an army and fight their oppressors. Barak says, “If you will go with me, then I will go; but if you will not go with me, I will not go.” Because he wouldn’t step into the authority God had given him and deferred to her, Deborah tells Barak, “I will surely go with you; nevertheless, the honor shall not be yours on the journey that you are about to take, for the LORD will sell Sisera (the Canaanite general) into the hands of a woman.” The Israelites are victorious in battle, but Sisera flees into a politically friendly area. A woman there takes him into her tent and gives him something to drink. When Sisera falls asleep, she drives a tent peg through his skull. Sometimes backup comes from unexpected places.

All of this makes me wonder if Jesus wanted God to find a backup guy for the cross. Maybe that’s why He prayed in Matthew 26:39, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from Me; yet not as I will, but as You will.” It was a part of Jesus’s humanity that He should desire to live. When He understood that no other person on earth could bring salvation to mankind, His willingness to obey under duress was the first part of His sacrifice.

I want to be the guy who obeys. I want to see the blessing God has promised to those who obey Him. But if I miss my opportunity, I know that God is bigger than my failures. This also means that I have to find patience in those times when His commands don’t make any sense. Who knows? I just might be God’s backup guy.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Light Armor

In the first book of Samuel, we find the people of Israel in conflict with the Philistines. A giant man, a seriously large dude, named Goliath proposes a challenge during a face-off on the battlefield. “We’ll save the energy and people by avoiding a battle. Let’s just see if any of you can beat me in one-on-one combat. If you win, we’ll become your slaves. If I win, you’ll become our slaves.” Goliath’s got a reputation. Saul, Israel’s king, knows about this guy’s military history. Everyone remains silent while their hearts sink to their sandals. And then this scrappy shepherd boy named David gets pissed and accepts Goliath’s challenge. He even tosses a little defiance into his reply.

This story is so well known that it’s a part of the public lexicon. Every underdog movie is a “David and Goliath” story. A lot of focus is put on the small boy defeating a giant warrior. The little guy wins. My favorite part about this story is how David prepared himself for battle in 1 Samuel 17:38-40. “Then Saul clothed David with his garments and put a bronze helmet on his head, and he clothed him with armor. David girded his sword over his armor and tried to walk, for he had not tested them. So David said to Saul, ‘I cannot go with these, for I have not tested them.’ And David took them off. He took his stick in his hand and chose for himself five smooth stones from the brook, and put them in the shepherd's bag which he had, even in his pouch, and his sling was in his hand; and he approached the Philistine.”

The armor should have suited him. I mean, the king gave David his own armor, the best armor. He should have been fit for a battle against a giant warlord. But David took it off and used the tools with which God had trained him as a shepherd. The armor was too heavy to be effective.

Another famous Bible passage is found in Ephesians 6:13-17. “Therefore, take up the full armor of God, so that you will be able to resist in the evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm. Stand firm therefore, HAVING GIRDED YOUR LOINS WITH TRUTH, and HAVING PUT ON THE BREASTPLATE OF RIGHTEOUSNESS, and having shod YOUR FEET WITH THE PREPARATION OF THE GOSPEL OF PEACE; in addition to all, taking up the shield of faith with which you will be able to extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. And take THE HELMET OF SALVATION, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.” Portions of the text are in capital letters because they refer to Old Testament scripture. Paul, trained as a Pharisee, had learned scripture in the rabbinical style. Rabbis often used a technique in their teachings called “Remez”. This Hebrew word means that the rabbi mentioned one part of a scripture as a reference to the whole passage.

In Isaiah 59:17, God clothes Himself with the Breastplate of Righteousness and the Helmet of Salvation. But why? The whole chapter of Isaiah 59 speaks of mankind’s separation from God. He saw that no one would intercede and stand up for justice or righteousness, so He came to bring salvation Himself. The feet prepared with the Gospel of Peace refers to Isaiah 52. In this prophecy, Israel has been released from slavery and oppression. God has restored Himself to His people. Isaiah says in verse seven, “How lovely on the mountains are the feet of him who brings good news, who announces peace and brings good news of happiness, who announces salvation, and says to Zion, ‘Your God reigns!’” The Belt of Truth is derived from Isaiah 11:5, “Also righteousness will be the belt about His loins, and faithfulness the belt about His waist.” Bible scholars call this passage “The Peaceable Kingdom”. It’s a picture of the Messiah’s rule over the world.

So let’s look at these three passages, Paul’s three remez. First, God comes to bring salvation to the world. Then, people are sent out to proclaim God’s salvation. At the end, we have the hope of the Messiah’s kingdom. One could see the armor of God as an allegory of the Gospel. If this was Paul’s intention, then the armor takes on a meaning far different from how I had always perceived. Teachers focused on the different parts of the armor, detailing how each piece applies to our lives. If we didn’t have the whole armor on, then we were susceptible to the enemy’s attack. There was a time when I tried to “pray the armor on” every day. It took so much time, and even then I still felt spiritually attacked. But how about daily living in the knowledge and truth of the Gospel? When I began to look at the armor this way, it felt like I had taken off the heavy armor and picked up a slingshot. But that’s all it took to kill a giant.

Revelation 12:10-11 describes how this new, lighter armor defeats the enemy. “Then I heard a loud voice in heaven, saying, ‘the salvation, and the power, and the kingdom of our God and the authority of His Christ have come, for the accuser of our brethren has been thrown down, he who accuses them before our God day and night. And they overcame him because of the blood of the Lamb and because of the word of their testimony, and they did not love their life even when faced with death.’”

Armed with our trust in the death and resurrection of Jesus and with our stories of God’s work in our lives, we wield a different kind of power than what the world expects. The message of the cross is powerful enough to move hearts, face adversities, and advance the Kingdom of God. Clothed in light armor, we can face the giants in our lives and proclaim, “Look at what God has done!”

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Vain Imaginations

Kids all over the world play make-believe, pretending that they know how to fight fires or shoot bad guys or discover buried treasure. I put myself into anything that I read in books or saw in movies. There were quests to complete, rare elixirs to obtain, princesses to rescue. It was cool until about halfway through elementary school. But for those of us who didn’t play football or street hockey very well, we had to continue this childhood hobby much further into our lives.

Then came adolescence. Many young men and women probably carried their day-dreams and fantasies seamlessly into the hellish experiences of puberty. For some, they might have considered it the only way to endure those awful days. In their heads they were attractive, or brave, or loved, or cool. They could smack the jukebox with their open palm and play the hit parade. They could get a room full of people to orbit around them like metal shavings and a magnetic pole.

I had come to believe that life in my head was as real as, well, reality. So when I started a band at the age of twelve, nothing sounded better than our version of Ramones and Toadies songs. It may have been barely listenable. But in my head, we were hot stuff. No question. We’d play the hippest parties and girls would finally like me. Which leads to another disparity between life in my head and life in the real world. When I met a pretty girl, I’d have figured out the rest of my life with her before I even knew her last name. But why was that important if we were going to get married anyway? Her last name would eventually be Kallman, right?


This used to happen all of the time. Now, I try to remind myself of all the times fantasy and reality didn’t resemble each other. That doesn’t mean I won’t ever have happy endings to stories, but it keeps my expectations in check. Besides, thinking about all the great stuff that could happen takes up so much time and brain activity that I could easily miss what I should have paid attention to at the present. Allowing my imagination to develop into expectation gives opportunity for disappointment.

My baby sister graduated from college a few weeks ago. The school invited her to give a speech at their final chapel meeting. She spoke of a day when she walked through some woods telling God all the reasons why she felt angry. When she came to the end of her list, she realized that she wasn’t angry at all. What she mistook for anger was really disappointment. She was disappointed that her life didn’t happen the way she thought it would. Now, my sister is happy. She has good friends and her wedding is scheduled this summer. But growing up was pretty hellish for her. It could have been easier. She probably didn’t imagine those fifteen awful years. At the end of her speech, though, she spoke of how God pointed out the ways He used those hardships to make her a spiritually mature woman.

If we know that God has sovereignty in every moment of our lives, then we can still trust Him when the times are tough, keeping our eyes open for how He will use the situation to glorify Himself. And when He moves in unexpected ways, we won’t necessarily have our expectations blinding us.

I love the Jewish people. Ever since I went to Israel in 2000 to help Ukrainian Jewish refugees, serving them helped me understand the roots of my own faith. I met a man there. He would have coffee with my family and I nearly every night. One day, my parents asked him how he could know so much about Jesus, and how Jesus kept the Torah, but still not accept Him as the Messiah. What was keeping him from believing? He said, “The dead were supposed to rise when the Messiah came.” Someone replied, “But some of the dead did rise and interact with many people in Jerusalem.” He said, “Yes, but not all of the dead.”

He told us that every righteous Jew was to have risen with Messiah when He came into Jerusalem. Almost like an army following him in procession. The Jews expected the Messiah to overthrow Rome and act as a political ruler in Israel. In fact, they expected a lot of other things from the Messiah. But Jesus spoke of the Kingdom of God, which had no borders or political structure as they knew. When Pilate interrogated Him, Jesus said in John 18:36, “My kingdom is not of this world. If My kingdom were of this world, then My servants would be fighting so that I would not be handed over to the Jews; but as it is, My kingdom is not of this realm.”

The Jewish people didn’t see Jesus as Messiah, but as an apostate blasphemously claiming to be the Son of God because He didn’t show the signs they expected. In Matthew 12:38-40, “some of the scribes and Pharisees said to Him, ‘Teacher, we want to see a sign from You.’ But He answered and said to them, ‘An evil and adulterous generation craves for a sign; and yet no sign will be given to it but the sign of Jonah the prophet; for just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the sea monster, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.’” This last bit refers to His death and resurrection. The Jewish people got a sign, but one they didn’t anticipate or understand.

Pilate thought Jesus was a foolish man, delusional, but not dangerous. Paul echoes both the Jewish and Gentile reactions to Jesus in 1 Corinthians 1:22-23. “For indeed Jews ask for signs and Greeks search for wisdom; but we preach Christ crucified, to Jews a stumbling block and to Gentiles foolishness.”

I often wonder if these expectations, how we think God should act, sometimes gets in the way of our seeing how He does and will act. If I were in Jerusalem during Jesus’s ministry, would I have known that He was the Son of God? Or would I have stuck to how I imagined the Christ would come? Even now, when God moves, am I paying attention to what He’s doing at present, or am I waiting on something that only exists in my head? Is it possible that my expectations of God have become an idol that gets in the way of my relationship with God?

I’ve said it many times. I prefer a God who surprises me. Not all the surprises are new cars or mysterious checks that cover rent. If I’m trapped in my daydreams, trying to live my fantasies (religious or otherwise) out loud, I could miss some awesome moments in my relationship with God. I want my hopes and dreams to have their proper place instead of confusing it with reality. I want to be humble enough to admit that I don’t have God figured out. If I expect something to turn out bad in a situation, I want God to prove me wrong. If I expect something good, then I want Him to do something better.