Tag Archives: decisions

Immigration is about Kingdom Ethics, not Party Preference

A letter in the Washington Post

This week World Relief bought space in the Washington Post in order to invite President Trump to reconsider his executive order banning refugees from several countries.  They also invited pastors of many congregations larger than 2000 to sign their letter.  The church I lead partners extensively with World Relief in Rwanda, and one of their refugee resettlement ministries is located in Seattle, so when I learned of this opportunity, it didn’t require much thought.  I signed as soon as I was able, and the reasons were obvious to me.

1. The insider/outsider paradigm is a ruse.  The assumptions that terror or violent extremism are mostly imported are, to put it politely, “alternative facts”.  Never mind the reality that not a single terror act on our soil has originated from any of these countries; the notion that evil and violence are “out there” and we need to keep “them” at bay is simply wrong, both historically and theologically.  In the country of Timothy McVeigh, Omar Mateen, and Dylann Roof, the elevation of “external terror threats” is theologically tantamount to what Jesus spoke of when said “Why do you try to remove the speck from your brother’s eye when you have a log in your own eye?”  We, in other words, ought to be asking questions about why we lead the developed world in per capita gun violence and what it is about our culture that breeds internal violence and terror.  It’s far too convenient to vilify “the other” in a way that blinds us to more real problems, and threats, that are already here.

2. The vetting of immigrants has been working, as evidenced by the total lack of incidents from anyone residing in the USA from these countries.

3. The executive order is a chain saw, rather than a surgical incision.  There’s a woman and her four children (all under age six) about to enter the USA from Iraq.  They are, in no way whatsoever, a threat to our security.  To the contrary, they are the people who need exactly what we have offered to immigrants throughout our history – a fresh start amongst the most generous and hospitable people in the world.  When we no longer wish to welcome these, we’ve lost our moorings, lost our great idea.

4. Hospitality and Grace are more in keeping with our Christian calling than Fear and Exclusion 

He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing. And you are to love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt. (Deuteronomy 10:18-19)

When Jesus talks about this stuff, he tells the story of the Good Samaritan, and in this story it’s the “so called” pagan who demonstrates the compassion of Christ by entering into the risk and cost of crossing a social divide to help someone in need, while the religiously upright people ignored him.  Whether from pride, fear, or risk, we’re not told.  But we’re not told because it doesn’t matter.  What does matter is that someone who’d been tossed aside was cared for, and that caring is exalted by Jesus as a Christian virtue.  At the least, the vast, vast, vast, vast, majority of those who are seeking entry into America aren’t coming for the free health care, or wonderful social safety net.  They’re coming because Alleppo is burning.  They’re by the side of the road, beaten down and afraid.

The punchline of Jesus’ story is simple: 

“Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”

The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.”  (Being unwilling even to say the word “Samaritan”!)

Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.” (Luke 10:29-37)

So I did…

.And that’s why I signed the petition.  

Is this political?  No.  The kingdom of God, and God’s ethics transcend any party line.  I called out President Obama regarding his views on late term abortion too, because these aren’t political issues; hey’re theological; discipleship issues.  Christ followers who are truly intent on advocating for the vulnerable should be willing to advocate for life in the womb as vocally as for the lives of refugees, and vice versa.  That we’re slow to see this and rise above partisan politics is both what saddens me, and why I’ll continue to advocate for life in the womb, life for the refugee, life for the uninsured woman dying of a treatable disease, and life for the victim of gratituitous gun violence.

I leave you with words from one of my favorite magazines:

“Muslim refugee children are sacred.  Police officers are sacred, as are young African Americans with names like Trayvon Martin, Eric Ganern, and Freddie Gray.  Unborn babies are always sacred.  And so too, with all their grave guilt, are their abortionists.  Progressive hipsters, prosperity gospel televangelists, members of Congress, gender-transitioning former decatheletes, Confederate flag waving white nationalists.  All are sacred.”  

Perhaps we can drop our political labels and dialogue about the ethics of the kingdom.  It’s the only way we’ll move toward an informed unity of Christ’s body to which we’re invited.

The Gifts of Christmas #5 – Shepherd, Provider, Gift Giver

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Over 37 years, two stockings have become ten. JOY!

It was in the late summer of 1976 when I first made my way north to Seattle, Washington.  I was headed to a new college, having changed my major from architecture to music.  I drove up from California and every mile north of Sacramento was new territory for me.  I’ll never forget seeing downtown for the first time and being overwhelmed by it’s beauty.  It’s proximity to the the water, it’s view of the mountains, the relatively new Kingdom (and the new Seahawks who’d soon be playing there) bound my heart to the city immediately.  Over the next three years I’d grow to love both the city and the rest of state, as I tromped through the forest with my fiancé, the evangelist of the outdoors, attended Sonics games, and ran 10k races downtown and Bloomsday in Spokane.  By that last year in Seattle, in 1979, my fiance and I had been together on snowshoes, in sailboats, in running shoes, and in hiking boots.  We married and moved, reluctantly, to California, where I eventually went to seminary.

I was offered a full time position at a church in Los Angeles, but declined.  I sat over supper with my favorite professor and he chided me for rejecting the offer.  “I feel called to the Northwest” I said, and he laughed.  “Doesn’t everyone?”, to which I replied, “No. Everyone doesn’t feel called to place – not the the way my wife and I do. It’s the rain, the green, the teams, the culture – everything.  We belong there.”  I was sincere, and it was a few months later, while working as a carpet cleaner, that a church in Friday Harbor called me in search of an interim pastor.  Donna was eight and a half months pregnant then, with our first child.  It was the late summer of 1984 that we returned to Washington state.  The Huskies were playing UCLA on the hospital TV when Kristi was born that October Saturday.  When we moved back in 1984, our hearts landed here.  Home.

Tonight, after leading the services at the church I serve, I’ll drive home to the mountains in the very center of this state we love, and there will be 10 stockings hung, appropriately with climbing gear, on the bookshelves.  My wife and I will, at some point, look at each other and say, “look what God has done!”, as we ponder the reality that we each arrived here solo, 32 years ago, and now enjoy the greatest gift of all, as we see our three children, their spouses, our grand-daughter, and my mother in law, all convened from distant parts of the world to celebrate the gifts we’ve so mercifully received from our God – these children and their families, of course, being the greatest gifts of all – and the privilege of investing in a place,  a region we love, with all the new friends that blossom in such a context, coming in a close second!

The thing is, I’ve never felt worthy of such blessings.  But I know, too, that “there is a time for everything” and that when the time is a time of blessing, the best possible response is gratitude to God for all that he’s given.  Knowing we don’t deserve the many gifts we enjoy, makes us both more grateful, and more generous to share them freely with others.  It also helps us seize today and rejoice with all the strength that is in us, knowing that there will be other days that are valleys of loss, confusion, and loneliness.  “In the days of prosperity be happy, but in the day of adversity, consider that God has made the one as well as the other.” (Ecclesiastes 7:13).  Yes, there will be other lesser days, for everyone – and when they come, the hope is that the same God who faithfully rejoiced with us as we received gifts, will walk with us, weep with us, comfort us, when we face loss.  I’ve known it to be true, so believe it to be true still.

When I received a phone call from my wife, during seminary days, that “we’re pregnant”, my response was equal parts joy and fear.  The fear came from this sense of inadequacy I’d always carried with me, for lots of different reasons.  I’d never consider myself a “self- made man”, because as I look back at my own story I see the hands of so many loving me, encouraging me, affirming me, helping me.  Wow!  And behind them all, of course, I see a good God whose gifts of kindness are intended to remind us that we can relax a bit, because companionship with Christ is the bottom line of what makes life worth living anyway, and that’s available 24/7.  Everything else is a gift – and if Bonhoeffer could see the gifts in prison, and MLK could see the gifts in a Birmingham jail, and my friend could see the gifts as he lay dying of cancer, I think I can say with confidence:  the gifts will come, are likely here already.   Ours is to simply see, and receive with gratitude.  They don’t solve every problem, these gifts – but they’re still gifts.

Yes it’s a broken world.  Yes there are clouds on the horizon.  Yes, we must roll up our sleeves and work for justice, and give to those needing help and empowerment. Yes we will walk with courage, wherever we need to go in 2017 – and yes – God is still good.  Christ is still here.  And in the midst of all the brokenness, the world is still beautiful.

Marriage: 37 Lessons from 37 Years of Experience

still smiling after 37 years of journeying together
still smiling after 37 years of journeying together

Thirty seven years is a long time, and yesterday my wife and I were able to celebrate that time marker as the length of marriage.  This is something that brings us both pride and gratitude, but more gratitude than  pride.  We realize that we’ve been largely healthy, and at least one of has been employed, the whole time.  We have much cause for thanks, because of the lives we’ve been given.  Still, 37 years is a big deal and to be both married and still very much in love is, we feel, no accident.  

While I’d never presume to write a book about marriage, it may prove helpful to share some of “what’s worked for us…”  So here they are:  37 lessons learned in 37 years.  Enjoy!  And if you find it helpful or think it might help others, share freely!  

  1. We’ve always made big decisions entirely together.  Why would we move, buy or sell a car, change jobs, or practice radical hospitality, if only one party thought it was a good idea?
  2. Candles at supper have been the default for the 37 years.  We’re at our best when the TV is off and we’re eating together, sharing, talking, and listening.
  3. Our devotional lives are very different, and though it took over a decade for me to realize it…that’s OK.
  4. Our circadian rhythms are also different, and while I’m still convinced God’s desire is for all humans to rise early, I’ll confess I enjoy the quiet house before 7.
  5. We’ve learned to fan each other’s strengths into flame.  She’s better at details, organizing, and maintaining.  I’m better at vision, words, writing, teaching.  We’re done trying to change the other in these realms, now seeing them as assets.
  6. We enjoyed our children when they were small, and still do now that they’re all adults and married. 
  7. Though we enjoy our children, they’ve never defined us fully.  The whole time we’ve been married we realized that we’d been a couple before we had children, and would still be a couple (short of death), after they left home.
  8. Donna’s heart of compassion for others is a quality I celebrate, and I’m in awe of it on a regular basis. 
  9. Her compassion makes me a better pastor and teacher.  I know this, and so any accolades that come my way for my work, I share with her so she knows the important role she plays in my world outside the home.
  10. Donna has her own chain saw.   You have no idea how important this is unless you burn wood as your primary heat source. 
  11. We both love cutting wood, and I love splitting, while she loves stacking.  It’s as if we’re made for each other.
  12. We are both terribly easily pleased.  Sunsets, simple meals, good coffee or tea, the smell of the forest, and the sound of birds bring us as much joy as a night at a fancy restaurant, or a concert or sporting event. 
  13. We’ve learned that we’re aging (in spite of fish oil and eating occasional vegetables) and have adapted.  In fact, I’d say “adaptation to life’s changing seasons” has been one of the most important reasons we’re still wildly in love.  We gave up the illusion of control a long time ago.
  14. We’ve worked at our sex life to make sure it’s still enjoyable and life giving to both of us.  This requires conversation, total transparency, a bit of trial and error, and a sense of humor.  That is all.  
  15. She wants a cat and I don’t.  I want a big dog, like a Malamute or Husky, and she doesn’t.  So we’re happily pet free.
  16. Our shared love of the mountains, evident from the day we met, has been a good glue.  We get outside together often, and always have.  It’s a context where real sharing occurs.
  17. I’ve appreciated Donna’s quickness to forgive.  “The freedom to fail” was one of the three things I was looking for in a spouse.  She’s given me that and the result has been a profound transparency that I now realize is too rare among married couples.
  18. She’s not picky about music and I am.  This has worked out well for me and, I can only assume, for her too. 
  19. Early on we sought approval from each other for any expenses over $20.  The amount’s gone up.  The principle remains – no money is “mine” or “hers”.  It’s ours. 
  20. We’ve paid our credit cards on time every month, which means we’ve bought less than we’ve made.   
  21. We’ve given our money away – both to our church and other organizations.  We’ve done this regularly, even when we were making “not so much”. 
  22. Beyond our economic compatibility is the unanticipated gift that I’ve never felt pressured to “earn up” in order to achieve a lifestyle.  Only now, looking through the rear view mirror, can I see what a blessing this was, and still is. 
  23. We are both strong as individuals.  This has been important because throughout our marriage there have been seasons where we’ve been able to offer less of ourselves to each other.  Travel for work, young children, and aging parents, all come to mind.  I tell young couples that one of the best things they can do to prepare for marriage is develop a strong sense of personal identity, so that they’re not making incessant demands on their spouse to fill some gaping hole in their life. 
  24. To really know what the other person wants in a given situation we sometimes jokingly say, “What would you do right now if I weren’t here… If I were dead?”  “Well if you were dead, I’d have steak, mushrooms, and a spinach salad.  Then I’d go for a walk and listen to the birds.”  Done.  Evening planned, or decision made, according to the desires of one or the other of us. 
  25. Each of us believe that marriage requires a million tiny little positive investments, and that each positive investment will eventually yield rich dividends.  As a result, a neck rub, a clean kitchen, a meal prepared while the other rests after a hard day, are things we enjoy doing for each other.  We’ve recognized that the joy isn’t just in the moment, but that there will be joy later because of these tiny acts of kindness.
  26. We don’t watch much TV at all.
  27. When we argue, the win isn’t that one of us is right and one is wrong.  The win is that we both feel heard and honored by the time we’re done. 
  28. We both believe that God brought us together, and brings every couple together, in order to create a new union that will bless the world uniquely.  Because of this we have a sense of calling to be a blessing to others, and though we debate what that means and looks like, we are truly seeking to live into that calling.
  29. We are both able to say the hard thing to the other and know it will eventually be received. 
  30. We laugh nearly every single day and this seems, to me, to be a sign that we’re still having fun, and she’s still the one!
  31. We share some deep commitments to a body/soul/spirit theology that means we take exercise, food, stress managements, and sleep seriously, just as we take prayer, Bible reading, fellowship, and service seriously.
  32. We share some recreation, in particular hiking and downhill skiing. 
  33. Sharing recreation requires that we appreciate each other’s personalities.  I go fast and push for more.  She slows down to savor.  It’s a dance and we do it well enough that we genuinely enjoy our shared loves. 
  34. Traveling together has not only expanded our world, but increased our intimacy.  We’ve seen things in other parts of the world that have challenged our ways of thinking, and that we’ve seen them together has been helpful.
  35. We know each other’s love languages.  Hers is “words of affirmation” and mine is “time spent together”.  Knowing this and serving each other in these ways is huge.
  36. Christ is the foundation of our marriage in the sense that our completion in Christ is the well from which we’re able to draw so that we can serve and bless each other freely.
  37. Forgiveness.  “Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you”. Ephesians 5:32

We’d love to hear what’s worked for you in the comments section.  Cheers!  

Completion as a Starting Point

50 miles of the PCT

I started a little vacation about a week ago.  The plan was to hike a big chunk of the Pacific Crest Trail with my wife of nearly 37 years.  This kind of space would provide the kind of beauty and clarity needed for me to see far into the future (“Do you have a five year plan?” someone asks me) and so be able to prepare for it.  After all, we learn from an early age that life’s about setting goals, envision a future, and then going after it with all the gusto we can muster.  This is all well and good, perhaps, if you know exactly what your future is to be, but as one grows older assurances about the future become harder to assess.  There are too many wild cards.  Health.  Money.  The shelf life in one’s profession.  Needs out there which you might be able to help meet.  Your own need for rest.  Desires to write.  Or travel.  Desires to keep doing what you’re doing.

The options are dizzying, and unknowable.  Still, I thought the space of hiking through the wild would grant clarity; that I’d come home with needed understanding and some goals to pursue, marching orders for the next chapter.  Mercifully that whole line of thinking fell off a cliff somewhere below Cathedral Rock on day two of our hike.

Instead, clear as the mountain peaks around me, I was granted the realization that two realities must be in place in order for any of us to move toward the life for which we’re created.  What are they?

1. We need right motives for what we’re doing.  Proverbs 16:2 says that “people may be pure in their own eyes, but the Lord weights the motives”.  This is a stunning statement because we tend to look at a person’s pursuits as indicative of their wisdom, and the quality of their life.  Look at the triathlete and you think, “self discipline”.  Look at the person who started that non-profit and you think, “idealistic; devoted”.  Look at the rich person with a reputation for generosity:  “sacrificial”.  It’s all very impressive, and certainly extends to people who work in ministry, or speak for a living, or are super committed to raising ‘excellent kids’.  Yes.  Let’s be a version of human that causes people to take notice, in a positive way.

And therein, my friends, is the problem because pursuits born out of a desire to be well thought of by others will lead us down the wrong path – every time – even when the pursuit seems noble.  So will stuff born out of a desire to please others and avoid their judgement.  So will stuff born out of a sense of the overwhelming needs we see, for the there are needs all around us and they will never go away.  Ministries and philanthropic organizations are littered with broke down lives who could never say “no” because the need was always there, always hungry, always thirsty, always needing more us.  So it’s not the thing itself that offers assurance we’re on the right path.  It’s far too easy to justify the nobleness of any pursuit in our own eyes, even in the eyes of others.

“…the Lord weighs the motives” means just that.  Pursuits born out of greed, or anger, or need for approval, or fear of rejection, or a desire for comfort, or a desire to prove something to someone – all these will, in the end, melt away.  The one thing that matters is this:  “What is God asking of me in this particular moment?” I think of Jesus in Mark 1.  He’d healed some people and cast out demons, taught them, and hung out at a house ’til late into the night.  By the next morning, word of his power had spread and whole town as knocking on the door, wanting to be with him.  His response:  “Time to move on to somewhere else and preach there. For that is what I came for.”  This is impressive to me because it tells me that his motive is, as he says elsewhere, simply to do the will of the one who sent him.

How freeing would that be?  For starters, it would free you and me from doing anything out of a FOMO, or any other fear.  We’d also be liberated from being driven to action by every need we see, which can only, in the end, result on compassion fatigue in a world where racism, global poverty, sexism, oppression, environmental degradation, family breakdown, health crises, mental illness, and o so much more are knocking at our doors.  It’s too much for any one to bear.  What’s needed, then, is for each of us to know our part and do it, recognizing that along the way some will view us heartless, too liberal, too conservative, too prudent, too foolish, too ambitious, too lazy, and on and on it goes.  If we’re in the right space, we’ll be able to sift this stuff and move forward with our true calling, but doing so requires that we have the second reality in our experience as well as the first one.

2. We need to be secure that we are complete in Christ.  If the starting point of my life is that I’m already complete, then I’ve nothing to earn, nothing to prove, and nothing to fear.  All my actions, when born from the reality of completion and security in Christ, will be nothing more than saying yes to God’s next step.  For Elisabeth Elliot, decades ago, it meant moving back to Central America to live among the people who had murdered her husband, in order to share the reality of Christ with them.  For another it means retiring early to care for aging parents.  For another it means staying in the same job for 50 years.  For another it means moving often.  One might write and never sell more than a few thousand books, or less even.  Another might regularly make the NYT Bestseller list.  One’s a millionaire.  Another’s living in a camper van.

50 Miles of PCT

 Like various flora in the forest, each is fulfilling its calling without the anxiety and compulsion of comparison or fear.

How cool would it be to be secure in the assurance that we’re loved completely, perfectly, infinitely?  It would free us to believe that, in Christ, we have a unique role to play in blessing the world, and our one true thing will be to pursue that thing – not out of a desire for fame, or financial security, or to prove to someone how important we are, but simply out of love for the one who has healed us, filled us with life and hope, and given us the chance to participate in blessing a world thirsty for blessing.  That’s the life I’m after friends, no matter where it leads.

The good news is that Christ came to fill us with nothing less than his life so that we can enjoy this “confidence of completion”.  The bad news is that religion has too often mutated into some sort of performance whereby we’re trying earn approval, from each other, or God, or the church.  Sick stuff, really, when you realize the whole point of the gospel was to set us free from that very mindset!!

The hike’s over and the particulars of the five year plan are no less clear.  Any anxieties I had about not knowing are gone though.  They been blown away by the comforting winds of the Holy Spirit, who has reminded me that I’m complete, already, because of what God has done in Christ.  I’m done performing for approval – seeking instead to live a life poured out in obedience to Christ as an act of gratitude for his matchless love.

Does this sound unapologetically Christo-centric?  I hope so.  People may or may not use the language of Christ, but I’m convinced, more than ever, that a world thirsting for peace, meaning, hope, joy, strength, confidence, beauty, intimacy, and Justice, is a world searching of Jesus.

 

“Adventures in Saying Yes” was the best read of the summer because…

It was just a casual breakfast encounter at a conference where I was speaking last week.   He told me about his time in Indonesia.  I asked him if he’d read “Speaking of Jesus”, which is one of my favorite books, precisely because the author has a knack for telling people about Jesus as if it’s actually good news, rather than the distorted version of the gospel that implies God’s mad at the whole world.  God’s angry at sin and death, friends, and we’re trapped in a matrix of these very elements… but I digress.

The guy from Indonesia then says, “Have you read his newest book?” and when I told him I hadn’t he began to tell me about it.  “Something about fear… I can’t quite remember the title.  O wait!  ‘Adventures in Saying Yes- A Journey from Fear to Fatih’  That’s the title.”

Because I loved the other book I’d read by this author I bought it immediately.  I bought it for a second reason too: Almost everyone I know is afraid these days.  We’re afraid of the economy imploding if we elect someone untrustworthy for president.  There are unemployment fears, terror fears, fears for our children, fears of aging, fears of rejection, fears of dying, fear of conflict, and o so many more fears.  Many members of the prayer team at the church I lead tell me that fear and anxiety are the number one issues about which people are asking for prayer.  Not shame.  Not anger.  Not prayers for the health and well being of others.  Fear!

I’ll let you know that both books of Carl’s are easy reads; funny at times; brutally honest, and very practical – they will help you express the reality of your faith in Christ (if you have one) in a more natural and honest way.  Rather than saying more: here are a few quotes from his “Saying Yes” book:

Stop for a moment and think of all the things that your need for security might actually stop you from doing… 

Here’s my definition of fear: Fear is anything that potentially threatens your sense of safety and security.  

Most of our fears are ‘potential fears’.  What ifs.  Yeah buts.  Maybes.  Then whats.  They’re not real.  They could be real.  But they’re not.  Those sorts of fears are dream squashers.  They’re not fun.  They rob your joy.  

Carl decides to basically spend a year saying yes to everything, and as a result, finds himself in some amazing circumstances in the middle east, where he’s a missionary living among and loving Muslims.  As a result, the fears that he needs to overcome include things like death threats, encounters with angry Imams, and opportunities to speak hope to groups of Jews and Muslims who hate each other.  We’re afraid of losing our high paying jobs.  He’s facing the threat of death of he follows through and speaks in this one certain place.  Different fears – same principles!

That’s all that I’ll say, but I’ll share one more thing Carl says:

…fear keeps you from selling everything and moving to Lebanon with your young family.  It keeps you firmly in the grip of words like ‘responsible’ and the often-used ‘wise’.  But Mr. Wisely Responsible never had much fun.  he doesn’t go on Hobbit like adventures.  He might save money.  And he might raise three very responsible and wise children who are very well behaved.  But he doesn’t dream, never lives outside the box.  To him, life appears quite normal.  

But I say, Leap!  Dream.  Say yes!  Set out on an adventure – a risky journey with an uncertain outcome. ...

All this is terribly appropriate as I’m planning on speaking this coming Sunday about the three kinds of people in the Moses story of leading God’s people through the wilderness.  The three kinds are born from three different attitudes towards risk.

Looking back people live with a fear of the future that creates in them a bitterness about where they are and a longing for the good old days.

Looking around people decide that they’ve had enough adventures, and that they’ll spend the rest of their days staying safe.

And then there are looking ahead people.  They’re…

WAIT!  You need to hear the sermon.  And you’ll be able to hear it here – on Sunday.  But whether you listen or not – read “Saying Yes” – because saying Yes to this read might just change your life and lead to adventures!

While the world goes mad, Four Things We KNOW

Mourning at a stadium in San Bernadino

Behind the holiday lights, both here in Europe and back home in the USA, the waves of unhappy news just keep coming.  Colorado Springs.  Beirut.  Paris.  Mumbai.  San Bernadino – death dealing violence has become so common its hardly news anymore.

In such times, the events themselves are never the only stressors.  There are reactions to the events, or the proposed reactions by politicians and wanna-be presidents that cause reaction too, and then, because we’re all connected, there are our responses to each other’s responses.  Gun control or conceal and carry?  Religious profiling or open borders?  Boots on the ground?  Drones in the air?  Leave them alone?

These are our debates, and as we’re having them, they usually aren’t pretty.   The uncivil dialogue creates yet another stress, as we become ‘houses divided’ even in communities of Christ followers.  How good people land on such profoundly different sides on these conversations is a topic for another day.  For this day though, I’d suggest that the most important thing Christ followers can do as they seek to form their own convictions on these matters is to make certain that our convictions are formed by things we know with a great deal of clarity from our Bibles.   Jesus hasn’t ruled directly whether a ban on assault weapons is a good or bad idea.   He didn’t go into detail on what Rome’s immigration policy should be in the 1st century  But he wasn’t silent either.  Jesus taught us stuff, and it’s the stuff we know that should be our starting point in framing our ethics:

What DO we know?

1.  We shouldn’t be motivated by fear

The west is bathed in fear right now, and the fear is giving birth to all kinds of unhealthy responses, ranging from pre-emptive violence against immigrants to amassing weapons and ammo to protect ourselves and our stuff, to blanket condemnations of entire people groups.

It’s important to see that throughout the Bible, if the motive behind our actions is fear, our actions are likely wrong.   When the Lord speaks to Joseph about the unexpected pregnancy of his fiance, God tells him to ‘fear not’, and this means he must overcome the natural fear of social consequences and fear of what other people think.  The same message to “fear not” comes to Mary, and then later to the shepherds.  Everyone is called to simply “do the right thing” and then trust that the consequences of such actions will be in God’s hands.

The problem with fear is that it leads to reactionary responses and often escalates cycles of violence needlessly, and this is the reason we should make certain we’ve slain the fear in our hearts before choosing our course of action, or even making our vote.  Fear’s a seductive mistress, often bathed in the rhetoric of patriotism and/or faith, but when stripped to core, it’s still just fear.

2. We’re called to be people of justice

While it’s true that embodying the character of Jesus means turning the other cheek, loving our enemies, and laying down our lives for one another, it’s also true that Jesus has a heart for the unjustly oppressed, the downtrodden, and victims of violence whether in Paris or in Syria.

When my pacifist friends tell me that Jesus calls us to lay down our lives, I wholeheartedly agree.  What makes our world tricky is the question of how I’m to respond when the lives of others are at stake; my children, my wife, my Muslim or Christian neighbor, innocents celebrating a birthday in a Paris cafe, or gathering for a work party in Santa Monica, the teenage girl sexually enslaved in Asia or Los Angeles due to greed – what should Jesus do here?    Maybe more than tweets and prayers.

What does the Lord require of us?  Do justice!  And then he leaves it to us to figure out what that means.  The thing he makes clear is that the justice for which we’re to work is that of others first, more than justice for ourselves.

3. We’re called to be people of mercy

There’s a story in Genesis about Abraham bargaining with God over the fate of Sodom and God tells Abraham that he will spare an entire city that’s filled with unjust people for the sake of 10 who are righteous.

It seems our conversations these days have become the exact opposite of that.  We’re willing to vilify, label, and exclude an entire religious group because of the risk that some few among them might be zealots intent on doing harm.  We’ll judge the whole because of the risk of a part being hurtful.  Is this mercy?

4.   Words matter

Jesus said that by our words we’ll be justified and by our words we’ll be condemned, and then the Apostle Paul followed up on this by twice calling us to watch our language.  When we lose civility in our conversations, we also lose credibility.  This isn’t to say we should be anything less than honest, forthright, and courageous in what we say.  It simply means that the way we say things matters as much as what we say.

Here at the end of this post, I’ve not addressed ethical and political specifics.  It’s not because these don’t matter.  However before there are ethics, there are motives and priorities which shape those ethics.  And now, more than ever, is a time when we need the wisdom of Christ at the core, at the level of motives and priorities.

The Prince of Peace has come.  God with us!  But more, he’s calling us come to each other in exactly the same way he came to us.  May we search our hearts and motives this Advent, to the end that the words of our mouths and the actions of our hands  will have their origin in Christ himself.

 

When shoot happens… what happens next?

The latest shooting is over.  Very soon it will fade like invisible ink, further hardening our collective consciousness against a despicable form of violence against innocence.

By now, unless the shooting is personal, we Americans know the drill quite well.  Our president will stand up and talk about the need for a change in gun policy.  The president of the NRA will get up and talk about the 2nd ammendment, and mental health. The press and internet will explode with arguments and stats, and mentions of Australia and Honduras.  The left and right will talk loudly, with lots of inflammatory language, but neither side will do much listening.  There will be news clips about the victims, the shooter, his mental health (it’s almost always a male), and his family (in this case his mother was a gun rights advocate who kept a loaded AR 15 and AK 47 in her house.  There’ll be stirring pictures of the memorial service, and a nod to some heroic figure who put themselves in harm’s way.

Then, after a week, everyone will get back to living their lives as if nothing happened.  Then it will happen again.  And again.  And again.  This one appears like it will be #298 on the list once it’s updated; more than one a day, in the most civilized nation in the world.

All this is tragedy enough.  But the bigger tragedy, in my opinion, is the peace we’ve made with this ongoing scar and tragedy, so visible to the rest of the world, and yet becoming an increasingly evident blind spot in our collective national consciousness. We seem to “get over it” in short order, so that this will become just one more thing to which we adapt.  Like late term abortion, food policies that are killing both people and the land, childhood obesity, and homelessness, human trafficking, and mass shootings are quickly becoming the new normal.

According Walter Brueggeman, the prophetic role during the time of the Old Testament was to awaken hope for something different.  This was important than, as now, because dysfunction had become the new normal.  Without such hope, we accept our new normal, and then we retreat into tiny survivalist mentalities whereby our personal safety, long life, and well being become paramount.  Of course we all know what Jesus had to say about that kind of mind set right?

I don’t have solutions.  I know the challenge of putting the genie back in the bottle, even if our country wanted things to change.  I understand a belief in self defense and defense of family.  I understand the rhetoric for both sides, and have been around this discussion long enough now to know that there’s no simple way forward.  The right and left and mostly preaching to echo chambers.  But most of all, I understand that the violence is systemic, and the status quo isn’t changing a thing.

For the love of God (and I choose the words, not as a saying, but intentionally because they mean something) I have a suggestion:  Can we please pray that the trend line of becoming numb to this kind of violence ends, and that we’re shaken awake to the tragedy this is? I say this because mourning is the soil out from which a vision for change will someday occur.

There’s much that’s right with our nation, and against the backdrop of Syria, Nigeria, Ukraine, and dozens of other locales, our challenge pales.  Still, this is our challenge, and it’s important that, as was prayed decades ago by the founder of World Vision, that “our hearts be broken by the things that break the heart of God”

Can we at least start there?  

Identity Theft – It’s not what you think. It’s worse.

Have you ever had this experience?   You look back at yourself after some moments on the far side of an argument, or the far side of dipping your toe into the waters of an addiction from which you thought you were free.  Not only do you not like what you see, but you think to yourself, “I don’t know who that person is, but it’s not me.  I don’t throw things at my spouse, or swear and hit the wall, or gaze at porn, or get drink just because I’m sad…” or whatever it is that you did just 24 hours earlier.

But now here you are, seated and in your right mind,  wondering how it happened that you were a different person yesterday.

The answer’s simple:  identity theft.   You became, for a period, someone other than who you are, or at the very least, who you’re meant to be.  When we do this (and all of us do it from time to time, though our failures vary in degrees of both privacy and social acceptability), we step right into Romans 7 in the Bible.   Paul the Apostle shares this struggle when he writes, “I do not understand my own actions.  For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.”  He articulates the universal struggle that there’s a gap between our actions and our ideals.  We want purity, but struggle with lust; want humility, but are prone to arrogance; want contentment, and yet are driven by insatiable appetites.  Paul ends his diatribe about this struggle with the timeless question:  “who will deliver me from this body of death?”  It’s a great question, and unless there’s an answer, we’ll continue to feel ourselves hijacked by ourselves the rest of our lives.

But there is, thank God, an answer.  “The Victory” Paul says, “comes through Christ.”  Yes friends, life in Christ is that practical.  It’s God’s intention that each of us move inexorably toward the life for which we were created, which is a life of joy, peace, wisdom, hope, generosity, justice, and strength.   Here’s why identity theft is so damning and thus why identity in Christ is so important.

I.  In Christ, you’ve become a new person.  – This is what we’re told, and what it means is that Jesus, mysteriously but nonetheless actually, is joined with our human spirits to give us a new essence, a new identity.  This changes everything, because it means that Christ now resides in me, so that all of his joy, hope, and power, are available to find expression through me in unique ways.  But more than just available – the reality is that I’m called to be the presence of Christ in my daily living.  This is my identity:  a light bearer, bringing hope, healing, and joy to the world.

II.  Though new, the “old files”  are still embedded.  I still hear ghosts, sitting in the shadows, telling me, not that I’m a light bearer, but a loser  – telling me I’m unloved because my parents abused me, or that I’m unworthy, because a past failure caused a life implosion, or that life’s unbearable without a hit from sex, or drugs, or alcohol.  All of this is what Paul calls, “the old man” which is a euphemism meaning “this is who you once were”  – Once you self comforted via compulsive drinking, or one night stands.  Once you dealt with conflict through rage, or seething bitterness.  Those “old files” are still there on the computer that is your soul, just waiting to be opened.

III. The Liar’s Specialty – Diverting You from Your Identity.   Satan delights in opening the old files.  You take a look at them, and if you believe them, you’re stuffed.  That’s because your belief empowers them and they rise up and change your behavior.  “I’m unloved, or unlovable, or unappreciated” becomes, “so life’s not worth living”, or “so I’ll prove I’m worthy” or “so why not have another drink?”  Soon you’re living in ways that contradict your own identity, if only temporarily.  Then you wake up and say, “what happened?” and you realize that your identity has been hijacked.

IV. The Way Forward – Looking at Jesus’ temptations at the hands of “the liar” in the wilderness, we can see that Satan’s key strategy has always been to divert us from our truest identity.  He says to “the Son of God”….  “IF you are the son of God, make these stones become bread” as a means of getting Jesus to move into a distorted identity.  Jesus’ answer?  “I’m more than just a material person, so though I’m hungry just now, I’ll not let my life be defined by the pursuit of bread.  That’s not my identity.”

Wow!  When I’m hungry, it’s overwhelmingly easy to think that my life is about getting bread.  When I’m lonely, it’s about companionship.  When I’m feeling neglected or overlooked, it’s often about proving myself.  When I’m in pain, it’s about self comforting.

It’s easy, in other words, to allow our identity to be hijacked by the whims of various trials that are blowing through.  Allow ourselves to be hijacked though, and we’ll “act out”, only to look back, on the far side of our failure, and ask, “Who was that?”

The answer:  That was in imposter.  Send him/her back to the tombs because though the files are still on the hard drive of your emotions, they’re corrupt, and corrupting.  You have a new identity:  in Christ.  And that changes everything.

Here’s a helpful list of verses about your identity in Christ.  When you read something here and it doesn’t seem true, or feel true, you’ve met your battleground.

I’ll be speaking on the Temptation of Christ at Bethany Community Church on Sunday, August 2nd.  Tune in for a live stream of our worship here. 

“Not Burdensome”…. musings on the ease of obedience and self-denial

 

Is self denial a burden?

In the coming days, I offer some thoughts from my devotions in Jeremiah.  It’s been too long since I’ve written, as life’s been full of house sales and meetings, travel and teaching.  Jeremiah, though, has been a good friend during these days, and I want to write some things I hope will help you navigate both your own personal waters, and the waters of a culture in upheaval as shootings, racism, and political posture seem to continue unchecked.  I write in hopes of helping you become a person of hope in the midst of  it all… cheers!

Tucked away at the end of Jeremiah 23, there are two verses that give me pause.  In v33,34 God says to Jeremiah, “When one of these people, or a prophet, or a priests asks you, ‘What burdensome message do you have from the Lord?’ tell them, ‘You are the burden, and I will cast you away.  I, the Lord, affirm it!  I will punish any prophet, priest, or other person who says, ‘The Lord’s message is burdensome…”

God is mad that people think God’s message to humanity is a burden.   This is a point worth pondering, because with just a little bit of reflection, if the truth be told, all of us at times consider God’s commands to be burdensome.   Self denial is burdensome when I want to sit on the train, rather than surrender my seat, or when I want the larger piece of salmon, or the job that pays the most money.  Generosity is a burden when I write a check to help.   Compassion is a burden when I work hard to shut off my narcissism and enter into the suffering of another.   In fact, encouragement can even be a burden when the default would be to jump on the bandwagon of negativity that’s in a room, or a meeting, or a culture.

Not burdensome?  Oscar Wilde speaks for many when he disagrees with God as seen here:

What is God thinking about when God says the commands and way are not burdensome?

What God’s thinking about is the big picture.   When Jesus utters little sayings about crosses and self denial, and also says his yoke is easy and his burden is light, he’s not contradicting himself.   Rather, Jesus is opening the door to two important truths

There’s usually a lag time between action and reward/punishment.  This is one of the most important truths in the universe.  You can eat trans-fats for years and not know the difference, but eventually they’ll kill your heart.  You can enjoy a one night stand, or two of them maybe, but each time you do that, you’re diminishing your capacity for genuine intimacy, and enslaving yourself to appetites.

Conversely, giving, service, obedience, and self-denial will likely all be challenging in the moment, but in the end, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it. 

The best meals are eaten when we’re hungry because we haven’t snacked our way through the day.  The best sex with our spouse comes on the far side of conversation, service, waiting, and foreplay, rather than shallow “intimacy on demand” that does nothing more than feed our lusts.  The best learning comes through slow reading, and practice and conversation.  The best fitness comes through little imperceptible gains that are made simply because we denied our desire to stay in bed and went walking instead, or denied our desire for ice cream and ate a carrot instead.

You do these hard things, and you don’t necessarily enjoy the results immediately, which is what makes them feel like a burden.  But in the end?  The real burden is born by those with sexual addictions, or health problems, or a greedy narcissism that has destroyed their capacity for joy and intimacy.  They chose that which seemed easy in the moment, but paid the price over the long haul.

God calls this the law of sowing and reaping in the Bible, and we’d do well to take our cues from farmers.  They do tons of work without seeing any rewards on the day they do the work, because their eye is on the harvest.   In a culture of instant gratification, learning the law of the harvest is vital because we suddenly see that the self denial of the moment isn’t some sort of vast burden.  To the contrary, what we’re denying in our self denial is that very part of our nature that needs to be denied anyway.  Our self denial feeds and strengthens the spirit, and the more we do it, the greater our joy.  Our self indulgence feeds the flesh and the more we do it, the greater our enslavement.

Christ’s motivator was joy!

He taught and exemplified loving enemies, going the extra mile, service, generosity, and sacrifice.  In the end he was betrayed, arrested, beaten, executed.  And yet he said his commands were not burdensome!  Is this some sort of Buddhist koan, some Jedi nonsense?

Not at all.  We’re told that he did it all for the joy that was set before him.  Paul took this and ran with it, when he speak of the “light aflliction” which produces in us the “weight of glory”.  We’ve switched that in our culture, making any affliction a weighty burden.  I’m convinced part of the reason is because we’ve never really tasted raw glory.  One taste though, and we’re hooked.  When that happens, the suffering is endured, yes… but even the endurance, when we’re at our best, comes to contain some joy.

A trillion choices of indulgence over self-denial, scattered throughout history has created a world awash in oppression, addiction, destruction, environmental degradation, and loneliness.

And we think God’s commands are burdensome?  Maybe we should reconsider.   After all, it was the suffering one who said, “I have come that you might have life and have it more abundantly!”

To suffering.  To self-denial.  To service.  To life!

I welcome your thoughts….

 

 

5 Sentences: The Wisest Advice I’ve ever Received

five wordsIn the avalanche of words that constitute our lives, I hope that for each of us there are particular conversations and moments that stand out as especially meaningful.  Such words remain, long after the vast majority have evaporated, and they remain for good reason.  They’re life giving, and wise.  Here are five sentences filled with wisdom that I’ve received over the years, offered in hopes that they’ll be helpful to you as well.  Enjoy!

1. Make knowing God the number one priority in your life. This was the word spoken to me from Jeremiah 9 when I was 20 years old and I realized at the moment that “knowing God” was at best, a peripheral pursuit in my life, far behind vocational aspirations, financial security, and having a little bit of fun.  I was not only convicted by the truth of Jeremiah’s words, but I was drawn by their simplicity.  In a world where I’m constantly being told to readjust my priorities to include P90X, wise investing, taking a cruise, losing weight, getting an advanced degree, finding cheaper insurance, avoiding cancer, finding my calling, protecting my identity from thieves, and about a thousand other things, the notion that the deepest joy in life can come from simply enjoying intimacy with my creator was stunningly beautiful.  I’ve since come to see that truth in many texts, and have experienced the bliss, at my best, of knowing “the simplicity and purity of devotion to Christ”.  This is the North Star to which I return over and over again.

2. Everyone knows how rotten they are – they need to know how gifted and loved they are.  My friend Jim said this while I was in architecture school, and he practiced it too.  I was a wreck at the time, body, soul, and spirit—and yet felt encouraged and affirmed by this wild eyed Jesus fanatic who also happened to be a great architecture student.  But what struck me most about him was his real, demonstrable knack for encouraging and loving people.  When I asked him about it one day, he said this;  “People know their own shortcomings, but need to know they’re loved.”  At my best, I seek to remind people of this too.  At my worst, I default, not to hyper criticism, but benign neglect, which might even be worse!

3. When you have too much to do and you’re overwhelmed – remember to let the peace of Christ reign in the moment. Breathe deeply.  Do the next thing.  This word comes from Elisabeth Elliot, wife of martyred missionary Jim Elliot.  She no doubt faced an ocean of suffering and questions after her husband’s untimely death at the hands of the Auca Indians, and yet she managed to keep her wits.  Eventually she would return to minister among the very tribe that killed her husband, and after that, return to Wheaton College with the newly saved man who was the killer.  He stood in chapel at Wheaton and declared himself as a Christ follower because of this woman’s faithfulness.  That faithfulness was micro, step by step, in the wake of loss.  All those little steps built a life.  Nothing’s changed since then.  Books are written a word at a time, churches built a sermon, prayer, visit at a time; children raised, a meal, bedtime story, teachable moment at a time. The good life is neither microwavable nor achievable without a million “next things” being done—step by step.

4. If you have a million dollars, but you don’t have a leader, you don’t have anything. If you have a leader and a nickel… you have a significant future. Ray Harrison, founder of the  International Needs ministry our church supports, told me this in response to my question: “When people give you unrestricted funds, how do you decide what to do with them?”  His answer: “Invest in good leaders, because…” and then he said what I wrote above.  The word has served me well in my own leadership role, and has been confirmed time and again.  A good leader will be exerting influence even without money or a title and so, ironically, will likely gain both.

5. Take care of your whole self. You are body, soul, spirit. In all three areas, rest, exercise, and what you eat, matter.  This comes from my friend who runs a Bible based wilderness program in Austria where I teach, and from I Thessalonians 5, where Paul prays that we’d all prosper in all three areas.  I’ve come to see that my life is an eco-system and that body neglect will affect my spiritual life just as spirit neglect will harm my body.  As a result, I try to get enough sleep and also spend time “letting the peace of Christ” rule in my heart.  I try to eat good food, and ingest healthy reading material for spirit and soul as well.  Whole life discipleship is the only kind of discipleship worth pursuing.

It’s an overwhelming world at times, and this is why the wisdom that’s risen to the top like cream and stayed there, is so very important.  We’re at risk in a world where anchors are disappearing daily, of being tossed around, squandering the precious gift of our daily lives because we just don’t know what to do next.  But these words have anchored me more than once, and so I’ll be forever grateful for those folk who spoke them and lived them.