Tuesday, May 24, 2011


We're in a series called Destinations in our church, where we've been looking at the concept that "direction determines destination" in life - that no matter how good our intentions are, the direction we're headed in life is doing to determine where you and I eventually end up. For example, it doesn't really matter if you intend to run a marathon - if you're spending your free time sitting on the couch eating a bag of Cheetos and watching Sportscenter, it's very doubtful you'll ever cross the finish line (unless the EMS happen to carry you across on a stretcher).

According to Jesus, the destination in life that we should be striving to arrive at is this crazy idea called the Kingdom of God. Christ said that the Kingdom was near, close, at hand, and even in our midst. He also taught his disciples to pray that the Kingdom would one day be fully on earth, just as it is in heaven. The Kingdom is God's way of doing things, or God's pattern and design for the way that you and I are to be living life, and it's almost always completely backwards and upside down to the way the world works.

In Matthew 6:33, Jesus told his disciples (and a bunch of other people who were listening), "Seek first the Kingdom of God," and all the other stuff they were worrying about in life would fall into its intended, God-designed place.

But the problem with seeking after God's way of doing things first is that there are a ton of distractions - things that are always trying to catch our eye and lure us off this narrow path. In Matthew 13 Jesus told a story of a farmer scattering seed on different types of soil. One seed feel among the thorns, and even though the plant began to grow, the thorns came in and choked the life out of it. Jesus later explained to the twelve that the seed was like those who received God's way with a ton of energy and excitement - until the worries, temptations, and distractions of life came in a choked out all those good intentions.

Some distractions are obvious - such as deliberate sin or stubborn rebellion against God. But other distractions are more subtle. Take, for example, the story of the great banquet in Luke 14, where a master was throwing a huge party and invited several people to come and join in the feast.

However, one by one, he received word that people weren't coming. We hear about three responses. One man bought a field and felt the need to go check it out instead of attending. Another had just acquired some oxen and wanted to take them for a test drive, so he declined. Finally - and I have to say, this is my favorite - one man simply replied by saying, "I have married a wife. I can't come." The story ends with the master bringing in the poor, broken, and outcast from the streets to enjoy the feast, instead of those invited.

Whether it was a newly purchased plot of land, a yoke of strong oxen, or the warmth of family at home, all three individuals in the story were distracted by things that weren't necessarily evil or bad. In fact, they were good, respectable, decent things. Yet, they became so focused and consumed with those good things that they missed out of something far greater.

C.S. Lewis once wrote, "Indeed, if we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires, not too strong, but too weak...like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased."

Stories like those in Luke 14 call us to ask tough questions of ourselves. How often are we guilty of allowing our own pursuits of wealth, security, and accomplishment distract us from God's definition of success? How often do we allow our own careers and professional aspirations to drain us of the time and energy that God would have us use elsewhere? How often do we use our busy family lives as an excuse to completely neglect our relationship with God?

Nothing is more important than God and God's Kingdom. Not our security. Not our careers. Not even our own families (Matthew 10:37).

We must remember that Jesus' command to seek first the Kingdom of God - God's way of doing things - is a command that comes with a promise. If you pursue God's way of life, everything else will fall into place. But we have to seek God's way first.

There are two things we should know by now about God's way of doing things. First, God's way is almost always backwards and upside down from the way you and I would do things, and from the way the world thinks things should be done. Second, it's always better than anything you and I could come up with.

It's always backwards, but it's always better.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

forgiveness and justice

On the morning of October 2, 2006, Charles Roberts backed up his truck to the front door of the West Nickel Mines School, a one-room Amish schoolhouse in Bart Township, Pennsylvania. He entered once and spoke to the teacher, went out, and came immediately back in carrying a 9mm handgun. Roberts proceeded to take hostages: 10 girls - ranging in ages from six to thirteen. Over the next 45 minutes, law enforcement arrived but the situation worsened. Two of the older girls, realizing their almost inevitable fate, requested to be shot first that the others might be spared. However, at approximately 11:07 that morning, Roberts opened fire on his victims - killing five and severely wounding the others – before finally taking his own life.

As horrific and unimaginable as the malicious act of violence was, the shooting wasn't really the thing that shocked the nation. We see so many shootings on the nightly news that we've almost become calloused to them. What made headlines on every television station and newspaper stand for weeks was the almost immediate response of the Amish community…the response of forgiveness.

The same day of the shooting occurred, a grandfather of one of the girls who was killed spoke to those in his family saying, “We must not think evil of this man. He had a mother, a wife, and a soul.” Mere hours after the tragedy, members of the Amish community sought out Robert’s widow and parents to express their forgiveness and provide comfort. It’s reported that one of the men in the community held Robert’s sobbing father in his arms on the floor for an hour. 30 members of the Amish community attended Robert’s funeral, bringing gifts and condolences.

The public response to the swift and compassionate acts of forgiveness was widespread, and often critical. One writer for the National Review condemned the stance of forgiveness by the Amish people, saying, “In this case, anger is more righteous than forgiveness.” Another writer claimed that the community failed to honor the dead by such a quick extensions of mercy. “Forgiveness,” he wrote, “is not always divine. Sometimes justice is.”

That statement might illustrate an underlying belief in our society: in the presence of forgiveness there is an absence of justice. Or, in other words, people tend to believe that in the face of real pain or wrongdoing – the kind of gut-wrenching and heart breaking offense that leaves the hair on the back of your neck on end – that the only good, right, sensible, or even just response is one of anger, bitterness, and hatred. Forgiveness shouldn't even be part of the equation, but rather a response of repaying pain for pain, hurt for hurt, scar for scar, eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.

When we go to the movies, we all like to see the sinister bad guy fall to his death. We really like it if there is some sort of ironic twist where the individual gets paid back for all the wrong they committed. We certainly don’t want to see the villain receive forgiveness, mercy, or compassion before the credits roll. It just wouldn't make sense to us, because that's not the way the world is supposed to work!

But it is the way God works. It’s God’s justice, which honestly operates on a completely different level than our own. Our idea of justice seems to revolve on repaying evil for evil, wrong for wrong. It focuses on whatever pain you’ve caused in someone’s life, and sees that the same be done to you. Yet, the kind of justice that we see floating around Christ throughout the gospels in the things that He said and the way that He lived was a just that sought to respond to personal offense and wrong doing with forgiveness, compassion and mercy. Jesus seemed to emphasize responding to unbelievable pain with unexplainable love (see Matthew  5:38-48).

The world says to hate, be angry, and harbor bitterness against those who hurt us. God says to forgive. Why? Simply on the basis that God has forgiven us. Because God continues to forgive us every single day. Because God chose to use forgiveness to completely change the course of human history through the cross. That God, seeing our failures, mistakes, and disobedience, chose not to throw those things back on us, but rather took them on Himself and sacrificed Himself that we might receive forgiveness.

If we don't think that reality justifies our need to forgive other, we might need to reread Matthew 18:21-35, especially the warm-fuzzy tagline that Jesus throws onto the end: "And so my Father will do the same thing to you if you do not forgive your brother and sister from your heart." We need to begin to wrap our minds around the truth that, while God's love toward us is unconditional, God's forgiveness towards us is not. Our forgiveness is conditioned upon our willingness to forgive others (look it up in Matthew 6:14-15). We are called to forgive as freely and as completely as our heavenly Father has forgiven us.

For those who claim the name of Christ, forgiveness is not an option. Forgiveness is a requirement. It is essential and necessary - like the air in the lungs and blood in our veins. And like so many other things that Jesus calls us to, our ability and willingness to forgive is what makes us different than the rest of the world around us. While the rest of the world chooses to respond to hurt, pain, and offense with anger, bitterness, and revenge, we choose to respond with love, compassion, and forgiveness. That's what will make the world stand up and take notice.

And that's what makes us sons and daughters of God (Matthew 5:45)

Monday, March 14, 2011

behold, the kingdom

This past weekend we took fifteen of our students on a poverty simulation in Waco, Texas. It was an amazing experience watching both students and adults alike struggle with the realities that those in poverty face every single day. Hunger, helplessness, and vulnerability were constant companions during our forty two hour immersion. The weekend concluded on Sunday morning with worshiping at The Church Under the Bridge, which is pretty much just what it sounds like - a church that meets every Sunday under a highway overpass in downtown Waco.

It's a beautiful thing to see such a diverse mixture of people gathered together - not confined by the barriers of economic status or race - to simply worship the Creator.

One of the most powerful moments in the service came right before the message. The minister announced that one of the "rock stars for Jesus" was going to lead us in a song. Slowly, from the back of the crowd, a middle-aged man named Claude limped towards the stage. The right side of his body appeared to be paralyzed from some sort of disability, as he struggled to force his limbs to take each additional step. His weathered face and hands, along with his stained and worn out clothes, clearly testified that he knew the rigors of poverty and homelessness all too well, like a guest who had overstayed his welcome.

As Claude began to speak in the microphone, it also became clear that our new song leader suffered from a strong speech impediment and possible mental disability. His words were slow and deep, but slurred and hindered, like each syllable required the effort of his whole being. As he gained his composure, he began to sing:

"Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so. Little ones to Him belong; they are weak, but He is strong"

It was out of tune, off pitch, and absolutely beautiful. Then, right on cue, all two hundred people joined in the chorus, "Yes, Jesus loves me. Yes, Jesus loves me. Yes, Jesus loves me. The Bible tells me so." 

In that moment, with the least of "the least of these" standing and leading God's people in worship - not divided by rich or poor, black or white, male or female - time stood still underneath a bridge in Waco, Texas.

It was like God pulled back the curtain and said, "Behold, the Kingdom of God. Welcome to it."

Thursday, March 10, 2011

ashes, ashes

Ash Wednesday was always a confusing experience for me growing up. I could never quite understand or wrap my mind around what was going on. Granted, much of that probably had to do with growing in three different faith traditions (Methodist, Catholic, and Baptist), and all three put their own spin on the service, or omitted it altogether. The "ashes-on-the-forehead" thing never made sense to me. It seemed contradictory to dress up for church only to go rub dirt on your face.

So, what's the deal with Ash Wednesday? Why are millions of people in almost every country of the world gathered together, confessing the name of Jesus Christ, and rubbing ashes on their foreheads? Why this day, and why this night? In the end, it might come down to two of the most unpalatable and uncomfortable words in our spiritual vocabulary - confession and repentance.

Most of us don't like to talk about those two words. We don't like to talk about confession, because confession means that we're talking about our failures. Confession means that we're coming face-to-face with our scars - the uglier parts of our lives that we'd just assume keep concealed and under wraps. Confession means we're acknowledging, along with Paul in Romans 3:23, that we all sin and fall short of God's standard and design for our living.

We don't like to talk about repentance either. For some of us, our minds might immediately drift back to some traumatic experience with hyper-legalism, like some church elder condemning us for the cardinal sins of listening to "devil music" and wearing shorts to Sunday service.

But at it's root, repentance means seeing the sin in our lives - the habits, actions, and patterns in our lives that don't line up with God's design - and running in the opposite direction. Repentance means that we're no longer living life as we did the day before. Repentance means change - radical, dramatic, and often drastic change - and that's never easy.

When we think about the two concepts of confession and repentance, our minds tend to immediately focus on our own personal, intimate, and private spiritual lives and relationship with God. We might ask ourselves questions in the deep recesses of our heart. Questions like, "What are the sins that I'm struggling in? What do I need to confess? What parts of my life need change and repentance?" We might ponder those things in the shelter of solitude, prayer, and silence. We might even follow through with the instructions given in James 5:16, to confess your sins to one another and pray for one another.

I think Ash Wednesday can be about that. I think we can use a night like tonight to dig down deeply into ourselves and come to grips with those parts of our lives that we haven't yet fully given over to God. Yet, on day like today, with millions around the world gathered together, tonight is also about something more than just our own personal sins and struggles.

It's also about what we see the nation of Israel doing in Nehemiah 9, where the children of God gather together not simply as scattered individuals, but as one people. As God's people, they gathered to confess and repent - fasting and throwing ashes on their heads as a sign of deep sorrow and mourning.  They came together not just to confess their personal sins, but their corporate sins.

That's a pretty strange and foreign concept for most of us - the idea of corporate sins. It's difficult to wrap our minds around the idea, because we so often think of the sin in our life as some type of private affair - something between God and I that I'm trying to get ironed out behind the scenes and behind closed doors. However, the reality is that we never really sin in solitude, and the effects of our choices are felt far beyond our own private spiritual lives. As Walter Raushchenbusch once wrote, "Sin is not a private transactions between the sinner and God. Humanity always crowds the room when God holds court."

In Nehemiah 9, the nation of Israel had gathered together to confess and repent of their unfaithfulness as God's covenant people. God had chosen Israel, out of all the nations of the earth, to be a light to the world and example to the rest of humanity. God had given them the task of modeling the characteristics of his nature - to show the rest of the world what God was like, his love, mercy, and justice. Yet, as a community of people, Israel had to confess that they had fallen short.

As a God's representatives, they'd become distracted, chasing after other gods and idols, and worrying so much about fitting in with the world around them that they had lost their identity as God's chosen people. So they gathered together, threw ashes on their head, confessed, repented, and found a new beginning.

Now here we are, thousands of years later, and we've been given the very same task. We who claim the name of Christ have been given the task of being the salt of the earth, the light of the world, and the manifestation of Jesus' love to the rest of humanity. We have been called to be imitators of God, the hands and feet of Christ, and the very aroma of God among the nations. We are supposed to "be Christ" for the world around us.

So, how's that goin? As the children of God, how are we doing with being the salt, light, and love that the world so desperately needs? Are we like the nation of Israel in Nehemiah 9, having become distracted by other things and chasing after different "priorities"? Have we become so preoccupied with fitting in with the rest of the world around us that we've forgotten our identity as Christ followers?

So what are our corporate sins as the people of God? Where do we often fall short?

When our struggles with anger and religious pride wound the relationships with those around us, so that Christians are known more for judgement and hatred than we are for love and forgiveness, we have sinned.

When our bitterness, gossip, and deceitfulness impair the community that Christ has designed for his church to be, we have sinned.

When our sins of greed, excess, and consumerism stretch halfway around the world to fuel sweatshops in Malaysia and child labor in third-world countries, we have sinned.

When we buy into our sexually driven society that makes the industries of pornography and the underground sex trades to be two of the most profitable undertakings in our economy, we have sinned.

When we allow the evils of racism and discrimination to drive our decisions on the employees we hire, the neighborhoods we live in, and the people we allow into our lives, we have sinned.

Our sins as a people stretch far beyond our personal spiritual lives, but bleed out into the way we see the world around us and the actions we take...or don't take. Probably one of the greatest sins that we as the people of God are guilty of isn't blasphemy or even idolatry. It's apathy. It's indifference. It's seeing injustice, the hurting, the broken, the outcast, the poor and oppressed, and we just don't care. Or at least we don't care enough to do something about it. What we fail to see is that "we join the oppressors of those we choose to ignore" and whatever we did not do for the least of these, we did not do for Him. We have sinned.

So, what do we do with that? What do we do when we come face-to-face with the reality that, just like the nation of Israel in Nehemiah 9, we have often failed to be the light of the world that God has designed us to be. What do we do when we realize that we've become known more for the things that we hate than for the people we love?

We gather together on a night like tonight, as the people of God, with millions of other believers. We put ashes on our forehead as a symbold of sorrow and mortality. And we remember.

We remember the story of Peter, who after denying Christ three times, found forgiveness, restoration, and a new beginning. We remember the cross, and the blood of Jesus that can remove our sins "as far as the east is from the west." We remember the empty tomb - the resurrection - that Christ conquered death and gives ultimate victory over sin.

And we confess. And we repent.

Because on a night like tonight, with millions of other believes, we know that we are not alone.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

the formula

I think there is a formula that we've generally bought into, whether consciously or subconsciously, for how our relationships with the people around us work. It goes something like this: I'll treat you how you treat me. If you're nice to me, I'll try to be nice to you. If you're a jerk to me, I have every right to be a jerk right back. If you hurt me, to the degree with which you hurt me, I can hurt you. If you hate me, I can hate you and treat you like dirt.

We even have biblical precedent: "If any harm follows, then you shall give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe " (Exodus 21:22-25). Never mind that this passage is in reference to injuring a pregnant women during a brawl.

Simple enough, right? It was, until a random Jewish carpenter-turned-rabbi showed up and completely jacked up the formula: "But I say to you that listen, love your enemies, do go to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you" (Luke 6:27-28) 

Now Jesus has said some pretty crazy stuff, but this just doesn't make sense. What happened to "eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth"? What happened to "I'll treat you like you treat me"? You're not supposed to love your enemy - that's why they're your enemy! If they punch you in the face, you're not supposed to offer them another shot. If they steal your phone, it would be stupid to hand them your laptop (unless, of course, you're planning on getting the iPad 2).
This whole "loving your enemy" thing just doesn't add up. It's like saying 1+1=5 or something. It's not how we live, it's not how we interact with people in relationships, and it's not how the world works.

Maybe that's exactly the point. In everything that Jesus taught and did, he was introducing a completely new way of being human - a totally different way of living life - that was often upside, backwards, and sideways from the way the world works. Why? Because if we haven't noticed, "our way" isn't working out so well.

Our way, which could be characterized by cliches like "Don't get mad. Get even" and "Revenge is a dish best served cold," has led to centuries upon centuries of violence, hatred, racism and the death of millions of innocent people. Our way led to the invention and spread of nuclear weapons, so that we have the capability of destroying the entire world's population three times over.

Our way can be seen in the gas chamber of Auschwitz, the "Killing Fields" in Cambodia, and the unmarked graves of two world wars. So again, how's "the way the world works" going for us? As Derek Webb writes, "An eye for an eye will never satisfy, until there is nothing left to see."

Jesus' teaching on loving one's enemies and living selflessly isn't simply some invitation to be a doormat for Jesus. It's about completely changing the formula of what it means to live life by replacing hatred, bitterness, violence, and rejection with love, forgiveness, healing, and acceptance. 

What's more, Jesus taught his disciples that every time they loved their enemy, forgave those who hurt them, cared for their neighbor, and accepted the outcaste, they were taking part in something more infectious and powerful than any political movement or revolution ever seen: they were taking part in the Kingdom of God.

Jesus calls us to live in such a way as to transform and change the world around us for the better. Christ lived, taught, and died as though the world was not beyond saving, and that salvation is just as much about living as it is about dying.

Jesus teaches us to love our enemies, knowing that by loving them, our enemies would cease to exist. As Abraham Lincoln once said, "Do I not destroy my enemies when I make them my friends?" Christ taught that the poor were rich and blessed in the eyes of God, because if a person's value and significance is no longer measured by how much money they have in their wallet, poverty would be something for the history books. If we truly looked after the needs of others as if they were our own, then everyone would have plenty.

Then, and only then, will we understand the words of Jesus in Luke 17:21 - "Behold, the Kingdom of God is in your midst."

Wednesday, February 16, 2011


I think we can all agree that the Bible says some pretty crazy stuff. If you don't agree, go check out 2 Kings 2:23-24. Yet, of all the bizarre and backwards stuff we find in Scripture, Paul's instructions to the church of Ephesus in Ephesians 4:28 has to rank up there, especially coming from an American perspective.

"Thieves must give up stealing; rather, let them labor and work honestly with their own hands, so as to have something to share with the needy." (NRSV)

In the midst of instructing the Ephesians on how to conduct themselves as new followers of Christ, Paul nonchalantly mentions that the purpose and motivation behind their hard work should be that they will have something to give away.

Apparently, Paul didn't get the memo. You see, we're supposed to be teaching our kids to work hard in school in order to get into a good college to get the respectable degree to qualify for high paying job for the purpose of fulfilling our own needs, wants, desires, and dreams. We're supposed to punch the time clock and put in hard hours of work in order to earn money to spend on ourselves - not to give it away! God might have spoken to Moses through a burning bush, but Paul must have been smoking some bush when he wrote this stuff down (and yes, that's an illicit drug reference in only my second post).

The reality is that, for most of us, it's really difficult to give stuff away - whether it's our money, our possessions, or our time. Most of us growing up weren't conditioned to give sacrificially. We might have been taught to share our toys, but our parents wouldn't have been very pleased if we gave our toys away (after all, they spent good money of those). Not that we would ever give away our toys, because one of the first words to ever leave our lips as a child was "MINE!"

"Well, maybe Paul was just talking about those individuals who were stealing? They had to give out of punishment." That would be nice, except for the countless other passages that instruct Jesus followers to look after the needs of others before their own, like Philippians 2:4, "Let each of you look not to your own interest, but to the interests of others." (NRSV)

Once again, we're confronted with the tension that seems to constantly exist between the principles of our society and the calling we have as Christians to live dramatically different than most of the developed world around us. I say "developed" because in many second and third world cultures, generosity and giving are as natural as breathing. I remember a story one of my college roommates told me about going overseas on a mission trip. He told me, "You can't complement anything in their home (speaking of the people in the other county). Not even what they're wearing; because they will literally turn around and give it to you. They find more honor in giving than in possessing."

And we're going overseas to teach them about Jesus?

Tonight at Overflow (our Wednesday youth service), we're talking about generosity and the call of every Christ follower to live a life of giving. It's a tough subject, especially when you're reading stories like the "Rich Young Ruler" in Matthew 19:16-22 and most of the kids have iPhones - including the youth minister. I'm certainly not coming from the perspective of someone who personifies generosity (if you complement my truck, I'm not handing you the keys). But we have to begin to deal with the tough words of Jesus (and Paul), not hide from them or pretend they don't exist. Even if it costs us.

No matter how crazy that sounds.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011


In one of my final classes during my last semester in college, a professors took the time to address our class and commend us on our upcoming accomplishment. "Congratulations," he said. "You've all now reached a higher level of ignorance."

The reality is that the more we learn about something, especially God and spirituality, the more we discover how little we really know. The deeper we dig for answers, the more questions we find, until we realize that our black-and-white pictures of the world around us are really only shades of grey. The more we live, learn, and experience, the more humbled we are by what we have yet to see, know, and understand. In a sense, all we can ever hope to achieve is a higher level of ignorance.

This blog isn't meant to be a source of wisdom and earth-shaking insights. There are people older and wiser for that. Nor is it intended to be a venue for seething theological debates, though I'm certainly open to discussion. This is simply a place where I can synthesize some of my own thoughts and questions into written word and, through the process, invite others to join in on the conversation. 

In addition, I have the privilege of serving as the minister of students at a church just southeast of Houston, Texas. For our students and parents, this is a place to continue the conversations from our Sunday morning and Wednesday night gatherings. Many of the posts will be an overflow of whatever we've been talking about.

So, let's see what comes of this...