Friday, February 28, 2014


It ought to be that simple.  If Jesus said we’re free, we ought to accept his declaration at face value and run with it.  It ought to help us define ourselves. But it doesn’t.  Christians will do almost anything to get away from the simple meaning of the word and the wonderful experience of freedom.

Something about freedom scares us to death.  We continue in our bondage – and that is a major tragedy.  It is a tragedy because Christ went to so much trouble to set us free.  It is a tragedy because there is so much more to being a Christian than obeying rules, doing religious things, and being “nice.”  And it is a tragedy because our heritage is freedom…and we’ve sold it for a mess of pottage.

- Steve Brown, A Scandalous Freedom: The Radical Nature of the Gospel, copyright 2004, Howard Books, page 7

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Confession (By what we have done, and by what we have left undone.)

Let us confess our sins against God and our neighbor.

Most holy and merciful Father:
We confess to you and to one another,
and to the whole communion of saints
in heaven and on earth,
that we have sinned by our own fault
in thought, word, and deed;
by what we have done, and by what we have left undone.

We have not loved you with our whole hearts, and mind, and strength. We have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. We have not forgiven others, as we have been forgiven.
Have mercy on us, Lord.

We have been deaf to your call to serve, as Christ served us. We have not been true to the mind of Christ. We have grieved your Holy Spirit.
Have mercy on us, Lord.

We confess to you, Lord, all our past unfaithfulness: the pride, hypocrisy, and impatience of our lives,

We confess to you, Lord.
Our self-indulgent appetites and ways, and our exploitation of other people,

We confess to you, Lord.
Our anger at our own frustration, and our envy of those more fortunate than ourselves,

We confess to you, Lord.
Our intemperate love of worldly goods and comforts, and our dishonesty in daily life and work,

We confess to you, Lord.
Our negligence in prayer and worship, and our failure to commend the faith that is in us,

We confess to you, Lord.

Accept our repentance, Lord, for the wrongs we have done: for our blindness to human need and suffering, and our indifference to injustice and cruelty,

Accept our repentance, Lord.
For all false judgments, for uncharitable thoughts toward our neighbors, and for our prejudice and contempt toward those who differ from us,

Accept our repentance, Lord.
For our waste and pollution of your creation, and our lack of concern for those who come after us,

Accept our repentance, Lord.
Restore us, good Lord, and let your anger depart from us;

Favorably hear us, for your mercy is great.
Accomplish in us the work of your salvation,
That we may show forth your glory in the world.

By the cross and passion of your Son our Lord,
Bring us with all your saints to the joy of his resurrection.

Almighty God have mercy on us, forgive us all our sins through our Lord Jesus Christ, strengthen us in all goodness, and by the power of the Holy Spirit keep us in eternal life. Amen.

**This is a Confession used in both Anglican and Lutheran services.  

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Is Hell for the Rich?

From Shawn at Red Letter Christians:

Jesus shared a parable that seriously calls everything we think about hell into question. It’s the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus in Luke 16:19-31. Frankly, I think any discussion of hell in America should include this parable.
You might be familiar with this story. There’s a rich man who is living well by the same standards we like to measure success. He has a lucrative lifestyle, nice house, fine clothes, good food, and lots of friends. Then there’s Lazarus, a poor beggar who is covered with disgusting sores that the stray dogs can’t keep from licking. Well, they both die and Lazarus is carried by angels to the bosom of Abraham while the rich man ends up alone in hades in a place of torment.

Now, this passage makes me very uncomfortable because if I’m honest I have much more in common with the rich man in this story than Lazarus. I think most of our churches resemble the rich man more than Lazarus too. If you disagree just try to find a seat at Panera on a Sunday morning!

This begs the question, is Jesus saying all rich people are going to hell and all poor people going to heaven? This wouldn’t be the first time Jesus gave this impression. Earlier in Luke, Jesus says “blessed are the poor” and “woe to those who are rich.” In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus draws the eternal lines of judgment between those that show compassion to the poor (incarcerated, immigrant, uninsured, and unemployed) and those that don’t. As I heard one pastor say, no one gets into heaven without letters of recommendation from the poor.

So is hell for the rich?

Well, that’s not exactly what Jesus is saying. Think about this: King David was rich and Scripture says he was a man after God’s own heart. His riches did not make him so proud that he couldn’t cry out to God, “I am poor and needy” in the Psalms. And Barnabas was rich but he was willing to sell his property and give it to the apostles to be distributed to those in need. Being rich, in and of itself, is not the defining issue.

It’s the rich man’s apathy toward an impoverished Lazarus. He passed him daily on the street and offered no relief or compassion. He was indifferent, unconcerned, and unresponsive. Perhaps the rich man didn’t even see him. Arloa Sutter, Executive Director of Breakthrough Urban Ministries in Chicago, writes in her book, The Invisible, that the poor and homeless are largely invisible in our society. Whether it was willful neglect or an obliviousness to the plight of others---the rich man does nothing.

And so, in an ironic twist, the rich man who neglects the beggar ends up begging Father Abraham to send Lazarus to come quench his thirst in hell.

The rich man refers to Abraham as Father which reveals he is a religious Jew. He probably went to synagogue every week. He may have prayed, fasted, and even given significantly to the building fund. But his relationship with God did not carry over into his relationship with the man who suffered at his gate. He knew Abraham as his father, but he did not recognize Lazarus as his brother. This failure to recognize the brotherhood of humanity created a chasm between him and Lazarus in this life that carried over into the next life.
In this context, hell is not meant to create dividing lines between Christians and non-Christians, but to draw our attention to the chasms we create between ourselves and others, especially the invisible and ignored. Hell is not meant as a religious weapon we use to threaten others that have different religious beliefs as we do, but as a warning for us not to ignore the poor and suffering in our own backyard.

I have friends who are turned off to Christians because they’ve been told they are going to hell if they don’t believe. Being a Christian has always been more than just believing the right things. It was about following a revolutionary Jesus who keeps overturning our social and economic assumptions and systems in order to make more room for the very ones we (religious and non-religious) try to distance ourselves from.

If we continue to distance ourselves from the ones Jesus says are blessed then we will be distanced from God’s Kingdom because the kingdom is theirs.

What’s so striking about this story of the afterlife is that it brings our attention to right here, right now. There’s urgency in the parable. It forces us to examine the chasms between ourselves and the poor (the chasms between us citizens and those without documents, the chasms between us who are free and those who are locked up, the chasms between us who live in safe neighborhoods and those who live in fear of violence, the chasms between us who eat well and often and those that don’t).

It challenges us to narrow the chasms between us NOW!

Jesus came to bring good news to the poor–which means all of us. The poor are those that know we’re all beggars in need of grace. The damned are those whose riches (and pride) blind them to their own poverty and the poverty of others. Hell is the warning against building chasms between ourselves and others, and thus ignoring the dignity and needs of our brothers and sisters.

With us....Impossible

Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.  Ephesians 4:32

All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. 2 Corinthians 5:18-19
“When we make reconciliation our goal, we don’t pretend to have it all together. Like the tax collector who beat his chest in the back of the temple, saying, “Lord, have mercy,” we begin our prayer for reconciliation with lament and repentence. With us, reconciliation is impossible. But with God, all things are possible.”

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Scoundrels, Warmongers and Saints

The church is always God hung between two thieves. Thus no one should be surprised or shocked at how badly the church has betrayed the gospel and how much it continues to do so today. It has never done very well. Conversely, however, nobody should deny the good the church has done either. It has carried grace, produced saints, morally challenged the planet, and made, however imperfectly, a house for God to dwell in on this earth.

To be connected with the church is to be associated with scoundrels, warmongers, fakes, child-molesters, murderers, adulterers and hypocrites of every description. It also, at the same time, identifies you with saints and the finest persons of heroic soul within every time, country, race and gender. To be a member of the church is to carry the mantle of both the worst sin and the finest heroism of soul….because the church always looks exactly as it looked at the original crucifixion, God hung among thieves.
— Ronald Rolheiser, The Holy Longing

Friday, February 21, 2014

Not a record of the blessed good, but rather the blessed bad.

From Tullian Tchividjian:

I love the introduction to Sally Lloyd-Jones’ Jesus Storybook Bible.  A piece of it goes like this:
Other people think the Bible is a book of heroes, showing you people you should copy. The Bible does have some heroes in it, but…most of the people in the Bible aren’t heroes at all. They make some big mistakes (sometimes on purpose). They get afraid and run away. At times they are downright mean. No, the Bible isn’t a book of rules, or a book of heroes. The Bible is most of all a story. It’s an adventure story about a young Hero who comes from a far country to win back his lost treasure. It’s a love story about a brave Prince who leaves his palace, his throne – everything – to rescue the one he loves.
She’s right. I think that most people, when they read the Bible (and especially when they read the Old Testament), read it as a catalog of heroes (on the one hand) and cautionary tales (on the other). For instance, don’t be like Cain — he killed his brother in a fit of jealousy – but do be like David: God asked him to do something crazy, and he had the faith to follow through.

Since Genesis 3 we have been addicted to setting our sights on something, someone, smaller than Jesus. Why? It’s not that there aren’t things about certain people in the Bible that aren’t admirable. Of course there are. We quickly forget, however, that whatever we see in them that is commendable is a reflection of the gift of righteousness they’ve received from God-it is nothing about them in and of itself.

Running counter to this idea of Bible-as-hero-catalog, I find that the best news in the Bible is that God incessantly comes to the down-trodden, broken, and non-heroic characters. It’s good news because it means he comes to people like me — and like you.

Our impulse to protect Bible characters and make them the “end” of the story happens almost universally with the story of Noah.

Noah is often presented to us as the first character in the Bible really worthy of emulation. Adam? Sinner. Eve? Sinner. Cain? Big sinner! But Noah? Finally, someone we can set our sights on, someone we can shape our lives after, right? This is why so many Sunday School lessons handle the story of Noah like this: “Remember, you can believe what God says! Just like Noah! You too can stand up to unrighteousness and wickedness in our world like Noah did. Don’t be like the bad people who mocked Noah. Be like Noah.”

I understand why many would read this account in this way. After all, doesn’t the Bible say that Noah “was a righteous man, blameless among the people of his time, and he walked faithfully with God” (Genesis 6:9)? Pretty incontrovertible, right?

Not so fast.

Let’s take a closer look. You can’t understand verse 9 properly unless you understand its context.  Here’s the whole section, verses 5-7:
The Lord saw how great the wickedness of the human race had become on the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time. The Lord regretted that he had made human beings on the earth, and his heart was deeply troubled. So the Lord said, “I will wipe from the face of the earth the human race I have created—and with them the animals, the birds and the creatures that move along the ground—for I regret that I have made them.”
Now that’s a little different, isn’t it? Look at all the superlatives: every inclination, only evil, all the time! That kind of language doesn’t leave a lot of room for exceptions…and “exception” is just the way Noah has always been described to me. “Well,” I hear, “Everyone was sinful except Noah. He was able to be a righteous man in a sinful world…it’s what we’re all called to be.” But that’s not at all what God says! He says, simply and bluntly, that he “will wipe from the face of the earth the human race I have created.” No exceptions. No exclusions.

So what happens? How do we get from verse 7 (“I will wipe from the face of the earth the human race I have created…for I regret that I have made them.”) to verse 9 (“Noah was a righteous man.”)?  We get from here to there – from sin to righteousness — by the glory of verse 8, which highlights the glory of God’s initiating grace.

“But Noah found favor in the eyes of the Lord” (Genesis 6:8).

Some read this and make it sound like God is scouring the earth to find someone—anyone—who is righteous. And then one day, while searching high and low, God sees Noah and breathes a Divine sigh of relief. “Phew…there’s at least one.” But that’s not what it says.

“Favor” here is the same word that is translated elsewhere as “grace.” In other words, as is the case with all of us who know God, it was God who found us—we didn’t find God. We are where we are today, not because we found grace, but because grace found us. In his book Surprised by Joy, C.S. Lewis recounts his own conversion with these memorable words:
You must picture me alone in my room, night after night, feeling the steady, unrelenting approach of Him whom I so earnestly desired not to meet. That which I greatly feared had come upon me. In the fall term of 1929 I gave in and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most reluctant convert in all England. Modern people cheerfully talk about the search for God. To me, as I then was, they might as well have talked about the mouse’s search for the cat.
It took the grace of God to move Noah from the ranks of the all-encompassing unrighteous onto the rolls of the redeemed. Pay special attention to the order of things: 1) Noah is a sinner, 2) God’s grace comes to Noah, and 3) Noah is righteous. Noah’s righteousness is not a precondition for his receiving favor (though we are wired to read it this way)…his righteousness is a result of his having already received favor!

The Gospel is not a story of God meeting sinners half-way, of God desperately hoping to find that one righteous man on whom he can bestow his favor. The news is so much better than that. The Gospel is that “while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).  Sinners like Noah, like you, and like me are recipients of a descending, one-way love that changes everything, breathes new life into dead people, and has the power to carry us from unrighteousness to righteousness without an ounce of help.

So, even in the story of Noah, we see that the Bible is a not a record of the blessed good, but rather the blessed bad. The Bible is not a witness to the best people making it up to God; it’s a witness to God making it down to the worst people. Far from being a book full of moral heroes whom we are commanded to emulate, what we discover is that the so-called heroes in the Bible are not really heroes at all. They fall and fail; they make huge mistakes; they get afraid; they’re selfish, deceptive, egotistical, and unreliable. The Bible is one long story of God meeting our rebellion with His rescue, our sin with His salvation, our guilt with His grace, our badness with His goodness.

Yes, God is the hero of every story—even the story of Noah.

He built their coffins and dug their graves.

Father Damien was born Josef de Veuster in 1840 in Belgium.   In 1864, Damien arrived in Honolulu as a missionary and was ordained to the priesthood.  Fr. Damien became aware of thousands dying from leprosy. Hawaiian  As their limbs wasted away they were often shunned and left untreated by their families and society at large. The only solution the government could find to stop the spread of the leprosy epidemic was to forcibly remove everyone who contracted the disease and then confine them to a remote peninsula where they could not escape. King Kamehameha segregated the lepers by creating a colony, moving them to an isolated settlement on the island of Molokai. They were not only cut off from any contact with their families and friends, but were left defenseless in a situation where lawlessness reigned and unrestrained abuses became rampant. Many sought escape from their  misery and hopelessness through getting high on opium and alcohol. Those too weak to care for themselves, and the dying, were left alone to fend for themselves.

Damien was concerned about the care of their souls if they were to be sent to this desolate area.  He believed that the lepers should at least have a priest to tend to their spiritual needs so he volunteered knowing it was a definite death sentence, so he asked his bishop to be sent to Molokai.

Damien arrived at the isolated settlement and his Bishop presented Damien to the 600 lepers as "one who will be a father to you, and who loves you so much that he does not hesitate to become one of you; to live and die with you." Damien was sent to a morally deprived, lawless colony of death where people fought each other to survive. His first project was to build a church so the people might learn the faith and have a place to worship.

Damien described the conditions when he arrived: 
“Many…make their small shelters, covering them with sugar cane and ki leaves, or at best with pili grass…Under such primitive roofs these wretches, banished from society, live together, without any distinction being made regarding age or gender, and without anyone being classified according to whether their illness is advance or in its early stages, and all of them, more or less, unknown to each other. They pass all their time playing cards, drinking some kind of rice beer and giving themselves over to various excesses…In this place there is no law!” 
“At that time, the development of the illness was horrible and the number of deaths quite considerable. The miserable condition of the lepers was so terrible that the colony well deserved the name given to it: ‘a living cemetery’” (letter dated November 25, 1873).

The King didn't plan the settlement to be in chaos but he neglected to provide desperately needed resources, which contributed to the confusion and disorganization in the colony.  Damien changed an impossible situation into a colony of life by teaching, painting grass shacks into painted houses, organizing farms and constructing buildings, chapels and roads. He restored faith in his battered and neglected flock. He showed them that despite what the outside world told them, they were precious in the eyes of God. He taught them to believe in God and showed them that by his genuine acts of charity that what there was purpose in their lives. He restored personal pride and dignity among so many who had given up hope. He organized a band, horse riding and choir.

Damien’s superiors had given him strict advice: “Do not touch them. Do not allow them to touch you. Do not eat with them.” At the time it was seen as the right hygienic thing to do, but Father Damian knew that would be impossible. How could he not bless the dying, embrace the sick, bandage the wounded, and console the grieving? After all, that is what Jesus did. Jesus was physically present to those in need. He came to their homes, sat and ate with them, listened to their needs and concerns, and prayed with them as well. He blessed, touched, embraced, healed, and consoled those who were troubled in mind, body, and soul. Even lepers approached Jesus with confident trust that he would receive them and show them mercy. 

“As for me, I make myself a leper with the lepers to gain all for Christ. Because of this, when I preach I normally say, ‘We lepers’…When I go into a hut, I always begin by offering to hear their confession. Those who refuse this spiritual help are not deprived of corporal assistance, which is given to all without distinction. Consequently, everyone, with the exception of a few obstinate heretics, look on me as a father” (letter dated November 25, 1873).

Damien made it a habit to personally visit ever leper and to inquire of their needs. He not only made them his friends, he ate with them from the same pot. He even shared his own pipe with them. He nursed the sick, cleansed and bandaged their wounds, and prayed with them as well. He incessantly wrote letters demanding that the best medicines and supplies be sent right away for the care of his lepers.   

Damien worked providing comfort for the people of Kalaupapa for sixteen years. He was not just their priest, but a builder of homes and their doctor, too. He dressed their ulcers, and tended the sick and dying at their bedsides, bringing them meager portions of taro, fish and water and tried to cheer the despairing with sweets. He built their coffins and dug their graves. He liked praying at the cemetary, “My greatest pleasure is to go there [the cemetery] to say my beads, and meditate on that unending happiness which so many of them are already enjoying.” Damien grew to love his parishioners as his own children, caring for lepers of all ages, especially for the children segregated in the colony for whom he created an orphanage.

"Without the constant presence of our Divine Master upon the altar in my poor chapels, I never could have persevered casting my lot with the afflicted of Molokai; the foreseen consequence of which begins now to appear on my skin and is felt throughout the body."

In 1885, he announced, "I am one of you;" he was a leper yet he continued to build hospitals, clinics, and churches, and some six hundred coffins. 

In his last letter to his brother, he confided:
“Dear brother, I continue happy and content and even though I am very sick, I only want to fulfill the will of the Good God….I am still able, though not without some difficulty, to stand every day at the altar where I never forget any of you: Please, in return, pray and get prayers for me as I am gently drawn towards my grave. May God strengthen me and give me the grace of perseverance and a good death” (letter dated February 12, 1889).
On March 28, 1889 Damien became bedridden. Even though he knew that his death was imminent, he did not stop taking thought for his lepers.

On Monday, April 15, 1889, the first day of Holy Week, Damien knew his hour had come.  He said, “The Lord is calling me to celebrate Easter with him.” He died in the arms of his two missionary companions, Father Conrardy and Brother Sinnett. Sinnett wrote, “I have never seen a happier death. He constantly was one with God through his prayer and suffering.” 

Father Joseph Damien de Veuster was beatified by Pope John Paul II on June 4, 1995, and the state of Hawaii has honored him with a statue which stands in Statuary Hall in the Rotunda of the United States Capitol building. On October 11, 2009 he was declared a canonized saint by Pope Benedict XVI.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

You are allowed to be a sinner...

Richard Beck is Department Chair of Psychology at Abilene Christian University writes a blog called Experimental Theology.  Recently, he discussed the need for Christians to stop hiding their sins from each other and acting so pious that we can't see God's mercy and forgiveness in each other's lives.  What do you think?

Two weeks ago I wrote about how we make the love of God credible and believable to others when we stand in front of each other and say "I love you." It's hard to believe in the love of God unless human beings stand before us as signs, representatives, sacraments and ambassadors of God's love.

When you say "I love you" to others you make the love of God credible and believable.

Something similar happens when it comes to God's mercy, grace and forgiveness. It's hard to experience the mercy of God. It's hard to feel forgiven. And the church doesn't help much with this. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes in Life Together in the church "we are not allowed to be sinners":
For the pious community permits no one to be a sinner. Hence all have to conceal their sins from themselves and from the community. We are not allowed to be sinners. Many Christians would be unimaginably horrified if a real sinner were suddenly to turn up among the pious. So we remain alone with our sin, trapped in lies and hypocrisy, for we are in fact sinners.
This experience of hiding and shame is a tragedy given the grace and mercy of God. As Bonhoeffer describes, under the merciful gaze of God you are allowed to be a sinner:
However, the grace of the gospel, which is so hard for the pious to comprehend, confronts us with the truth. It says to us, you are a sinner, a great, unholy sinner. Now come, as the sinner that you are, to your God who loves you. For God wants you as you are, not desiring anything from you – a sacrifice, a good deed – but rather desiring you alone. God has come to you to make the sinner blessed. Rejoice! This message is liberation through truth. You cannot hide from God. The mask you wear in the presence of other people won’t get you anywhere in the presence of God. God wants to see you as you are, wants to be gracious to you. You do not have to go on lying to yourself and to other Christians as if you were without sin. You are allowed to be a sinner...
And yet, God's mercy remains unbelievable to us. We don't trust it. It seems too incredible. And so we continue to hide in shame and fear.

This is why the sacrament of confession is so important. In being embraced as a sinner by another human being the mercy and forgiveness of God becomes credible. In confession we become sacraments of God's grace for each other and that makes the grace of God more believable. God's forgiveness becomes credible when we forgive each other. Bonhoeffer:
Now each stands in Christ’s place. In the presence of another Christian I no longer need to pretend. In another Christian’s presence I am permitted to be the sinner that I am, for there alone in all the world the truth and mercy of Jesus Christ rule. Christ became our brother in order in order to help us; through Christ other Christians have become Christ for us in the power and authority of Christ’s commandment. Other Christians stand before us as a sign of God’s truth and grace. They have been given to us to help us. Another Christian hears our confession of sin in Christ's place, and forgives our sins in Christ's name. Another Christian keeps the secret of our confession as God keeps it. When I go to another believer to confess, I am going to God...
We are to become signs of God's mercy for each other. Me for you and you for me. Each of us an incarnation of God's grace and love.

I'm reminded of the exhortation from 1 Peter:
1 Peter 4.8-11
Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins. Offer hospitality to one another without grumbling. Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms. If anyone speaks, they should do so as one who speaks the very words of God.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Marcella of Rome

I am reading Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals by Shane Claiborne and others.  It is an amazing daily prayer book that will change the way you start your day.  You can buy it here or read it online here.

This is part of the January 31 reading.  (I am a little behind.....)
Marcella of Rome (325 – 410) had an enviable life as the daughter of a prominent Roman family who married a wealthy man. But less than a year after her wedding, her husband died. She was given a chance to continue living in wealth when she was proposed to by the wealthy consul Cerealis. She chose instead to convert her mansion into one of the earliest communities of women, where she and other noblewomen used their riches to help the poor. Marcella said she preferred to “store her money in the stomachs of the needy than hide it in a purse.” In 410, when the Goths invaded Rome, they broke into Marcella’s home. When they demanded money, she calmly responded that she had no riches because she had given all to the poor. Though she was an elderly woman, they beat and tortured her mercilessly. Her attackers were eventually shamed by her piety and she was released, but she died within a short time.

Marcella of Rome wrote, “By heaven’s grace, captivity has found me a poor woman, not made me one. Now I shall go in want of daily bread, but I shall not feel hunger since I am full of Christ.”
The prayer book offer this prayer in response:

"Lord, some of us have found wealth in this world, while others of us are left wanting. But as we stand before you, we are all paupers save for your grace and love. Remind us that our true wealth is your gift of a sustainable way of life for all. Amen."

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Voluntarily, Deliberately and Decisively

"Think of yourselves the way Christ Jesus thought of himself. He had equal status with God but didn’t think so much of himself that he had to cling to the advantages of that status no matter what. Not at all. When the time came, he set aside the privileges of deity and took on the status of a slave, became human! Having become human, he stayed human. It was an incredibly humbling process. He didn’t claim special privileges. Instead, he lived a selfless, obedient life and then died a selfless, obedient death—and the worst kind of death at that—a crucifixion."
   Philippians 2:5-8 (The Message)

Christ turned his back, voluntarily, deliberately, and decisively, upon all that belonged to personal glory, and all that conduced to personal gain. He recognized no limit to the extent to which His obedience to God in self-humbling must go. Whatever he found in himself to be expendable, he spent. While anything was left which could be poured forth, he poured it forth. Nothing was too small to give, or too great. This is the mind and the life which is commended to us by the example of Christ and approved by signal acts of God.

— Alec Motyer
The Message of Philippians

Monday, February 17, 2014

Be Incredibly Inefficient at Love

About once a month, I read an article by Bob Goff that he wrote for Relevant Magazine last year. It can all be read here. Over the next few weeks, I will post a few of my favorites from his list of  "10 Ways to Live an Extraordinary Life." Bob's bio is below.

#3 Be Incredibly Inefficient at Love

“Don’t do an efficient brand of love,” Goff says.

Then he does what he does best—launches into a story without missing a beat.

“The woman who lives across the street from us has cancer. She called me up and told me the bad news, and I told her, ‘I’m not going to call you ever again.’ She’s like, ‘What?’

“I went to Radio Shack and got us two walkie-talkies, and it was terrific. For the last year, we’ve been talking on walkie-talkies every night. It’s like we’re both 14-year-olds and we’re both in tree forts.

“She took a turn for the worse about four days ago, so this morning, I woke up about 5, and I went to the hospital. I sent the nurse in with a walkie-talkie, and I sat in the next room and called her up. I heard her just start crying—because there’s something inefficient and beautiful about it. We were sitting in a hospital, separated by a room, talking on walkie-talkies.”

Here he breaks off and seems choked up for a moment.

Then he continues. “Be inefficient with your love. The more in-efficient, the better. It would have been a lot more efficient for God to not send Jesus to die for us. That was very inefficient love. But so sweet and so tender.”

Bob Goff is the New York Times Best-Selling Author of Love Does, as well as an attorney who founded Restore International, a nonprofit human rights organization operating in Uganda and India. Bob often appears at various leadership and university events, inspiring current and future influencers to get to the ”do” part of life.  Restore International has pursued justice for the needy. Restore worked with Uganda’s judiciary in bringing to trial over 200 cases, including cases involving children who were languishing in jail without trial. In India, Restore investigated and intervened to relieve minor girls from a life of forced prostitution, leading to the identification and arrest of over 80 perpetrators. Restore now has a school in Northern Uganda called the Restore Leadership Academy.  Bob’s inspiration has been fueled by the friendships he has developed with others around the world who desire to pursue strategic ways to help people in need. As an attorney, Bob shares leadership in a Washington law firm, Goff & DeWalt. Additionally, he serves as the Hon. Consul for the Republic of Uganda to the United States. He is also an adjunct professor at Pepperdine Law School where he teaches Nonprofit Law, and Point Loma Nazarene University, where he teaches Business Law.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Leaving Church: Jesus Has Friends

This post is by Jonathan Storment, pastor at Highland Church of Christ in Abilene:

“The Church is like Noah’s Ark. It stinks, but if you get out of it you will drown.” –Shane Claiborne
So last week, Donald Miller wrote a couple of blog posts that started a firestorm across the interwebs by telling the world that he didn’t regularly go to a local church.  Follow up post is here.

As a pastor, I appreciated Donald Miller saying this, not because I agree with him, but because it’s something I’m hearing more often from people who don’t have any reason not to say it.

To be honest, Miller’s blog took courage to write. The people who read his writing, and invite him to conferences and lectureships, are overwhelming people who are invested in local churches.

But I think Miller has brought up a good question and I would like to address it.

Churches are filled with mean, hypocritical, judgmental, conservative/liberal, unkind people. Sure, we have our brighter moments, when the sweet older couple brings over a casserole after someone has surgery, or when the ladies Bible class holds a baby shower for the single mom. I get to see plenty of stories like that, but we have plenty of horror stories too, right? The preacher who condemns a certain sin, one with which he doesn’t happen to struggle, or the elder who is embezzling money, or the deacon who is having an affair with an underage girl.

Those are way too common to just be ignored as exceptions to the rule.

So maybe a better question to ask is, why does anybody belong to a local church?

In her book, The Great Emergence Phyllis Tickle talks about the way Christian history has worked during the past couple of millennium. Every 500 years or so, the Church has what Tickle calls “a rummage sale” where we begin to look at the way we do things and re-evaluate whether or not they are important.

In other words, every 500 years the church changes drastically to make sure that she is still being faithful to her mission of making disciples and following Jesus into the world.

I think to a large degree that is what is happening today.

Traditional/institutional churches aren’t going away, but they are changing, because the world is changing. And new kinds of churches are developing all around us, from cell-groups or house churches, to churches that meet in bars or coffee shops. Churches are trying to figure out what the best methods are for us to follow Jesus together.

But that is still not enough.

A couple of years ago another best selling author, Anne Rice, spoke in an interview in the Los Angeles Times about why she “quit Christianity”.
"I’ve come to the conclusion from my experience with organized religion that I have to leave, that I have to, in the name of Christ, step away from this. It’s a matter of rejecting what I’ve discovered about the persecution of gays, the persecution and oppression of women and the actions of the churches on many different levels.

I’ve also found that I can’t find a basis in Scripture for a lot of the positions that churches and denominations take today, and I can’t find any basis at all for an anointed, hierarchical priesthood. So all of this finally created a pressure in me, a kind of confusion, a toxic anger at times, and I felt I had to step aside. And that’s what I’ve done…"
I mostly agree with Anne Rice. Except….

We say that Job is the most patient person in the Bible, but that only works until you get to the Gospels. Jesus strikes me as the most patient person in human history. “No guys, we can’t call down thunder on the Samaritans.” “Hey y’all, tell your mom that you can’t be in charge, and quit trying to passive-aggresively make power plays!” “Hey Judas, where have you been? A kiss, you’re normally not one for PDA. Oh…I get it now.”

And that’s without even mentioning Peter.

Book after book has been written about how Americans like Jesus but not the Church and I get that. I like Jesus too, and I often don’t like the church.

But I can’t get Jesus without the church, because Jesus is the one who dreamed this whole thing up, and any Jesus that doesn’t involve messy, back-stabbing, power-playing people isn’t the Jesus that the Gospels are giving us.

I think it’s interesting that at the same time we are asking the question “Why should we belong to a church” atheist communities are starting their version of churches. They’ve even started to split! (So I think they’re getting the basic principles down.)

And I’m not trying to be snarky, I think the nature of what we do when we gather together is bring people from every different age, race, orientation, and socio-economic background to come together and confront all the ways we are broken, sinful people. Of course we split, and of course we try to segment off toward people like us.  At least that way, we can fool ourselves into thinking that God grades on a curve.

But Jesus doesn’t do that. Instead, he gets people together who are as radically different as possible, teaches them to live in community, and then tells them to go out and start other communities like that.

It’s fascinating to me that the thing that was scandalous in Jesus’ day was that he ate and fellowshipped with the outsiders, the immoral people. Today, we’re fine with that. The thing that bothers us now is that He ate and fellowshipped just as much with the insiders and “moral” people.

He was teaching them that they weren’t as good as they thought, and that only those who know they are sick know how much they need a doctor.

While breaking bread, drinking wine, singing and praying, and reading Scripture together, these people start to learn how to love and forgive and reconcile again and again.

That is the dream of the Jesus of the Gospels.

If you want to love Jesus, you have to learn to love His friends.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Where are the Laments? Where is the grief?

I love these thoughts of John Frye put into words:

Some pastoral observers grieve the loss of our ability to corporately lament in our with-it, contemporary, high-tech, juke and jive American (evangelical) worship services. Many Christians it seems have no clue that a whole Bible book is titled “Lamentations.” Or, if they do know, they have no clue about why it is in the Bible. If they read it, they probably conclude, “Bummer. What a downer. Can we sing another upbeat, feel good Jesus-loves-me song now?”

I remember teaching some friends the Book of Habakkuk and facilitating discussion of the serious, almost tortuous questions that Habakkuk raises. Habakkuk, the book, has similarities with the lament psalms. I have spun out some personal musings about lament and its place in our life of faith together.

My observation, unscientific, yet extended is this: a submerged, yet vast determinism has eviscerated the Church’s ability to lament. How can this be? This determinism leads ordinary folk to conclude that everything that happens is God’s will. Is it proper to lament God’s will being done? Controlling determinism excises from the church her “bowels of mercies” (KJV). We have lost the guts to lament because why should we? Lament does not do anything and, besides, it appears to be an affront to the will of God in which everything is good because everything is for his glory. Was it St. Augustine who was honest enough to follow the logic of theistic meticulous determinism to its end and to declare that for God there is no such thing as evil? Why lament? Even when we are told that God ordains the means as well as the ends or we should ponder “middle knowledge,” the thoughtful Christian senses the shell game that tries to soften a rigid determinism with these theological word-games.

I once observed a pastor telling a distraught widow to stop crying over the death of her husband. Why? She was ruining her testimony and distracting others from Christian hope. In effect, the pastor was saying, “God is working all things for good, so suck it up.” No lament, no grief allowed. Lament is taboo.

Yet Habakkuk bumps up against the sovereign, if not alarming and confusing purposes of God and he still laments, “How long, O LORD…?” Habakkuk takes God to task and so do many of the psalmists. If we hold a theology that diminishes our ability to experience agonized, broken hearts pierced by the pains of the people on this rebellious and wrecked planet, then we cannot claim to follow the One who was a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. If our identification with others is intellectual and not visceral, we are handicapped agents of the kingdom of God. When God is merely the all-seeing, unblinking cosmic Stare of classical determinism, our minds may be stimulated, but our hearts will be unbroken and unmoved. We simply will kiss good-bye to lament. These are my musings and I hope I am wrong.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

"LiveStrong" Christianity

From Tullian Tchividjian:

A couple months back I wrote about Reader’s Digest Christianity, and how it reduced the Christian faith to pithy, easily-achievable goals that ensure our personal improvement. Here, I have a different (though depressingly similar) target: “LiveStrong” Christianity. LiveStrong bracelets are today even more popular than the infamous WWJD bracelets were 10 years ago, despite the public fall from grace of their namesake, Lance Armstrong.

In the minds of many people inside the church, “Livestrong” is the essence and goal of Christianity. You hear this obsession in our lingo: We talk about someone having “strong faith,” about someone being a “strong Christian,” a “prayer warrior,” or a “mighty man/woman of God.” We want to believe that we can do it all, handle it all. We desperately want to think that we are competent and capable— we’ve concluded that our life and our witness depend on our strength. No one wants to declare deficiency. We even turn the commands that seem to have nothing to do with strength (“Blessed are the meek” or “Turn the other cheek”) into opportunities to showcase our spiritual might. I saw a church billboard the other day that said, “Think being meek is weak? Try being meek for a week!”

We like our Christianity to be muscular, triumphant. We’ve come to believe that the Christian life is a progression from weakness to strength—”Started from the bottom, now we’re here” (Drake) seems to be the victory chant of modern Christianity. We are all by nature, in the terminology of Martin Luther, theologians of glory—not God’s glory, but our own.

But is the progression from weakness to strength the pattern we see throughout the Bible?
Take Samson, for instance. As a kid growing up idolizing Rocky, Rambo, and Conan the Barbarian, the story of Samson was right up my alley. I may have been bored by the rest of the Bible, but not the Samson narrative. Anybody who could kill a thousand bad guys with the jawbone of a donkey had my respect. He was the Wolverine of the Old Testament and I wanted to be just like him. Samson seems, at first blush, to be an exemplar of “Livestrong” Christianity.

The story of Samson is actually the exact opposite of the “weakness to strength” paradigm that has come to mark our understanding of the Christian life. Samson’s story shows us that the rhythm of Christian growth is a progression from strength to weakness, rather than weakness to strength.

Samson starts off strong. He’s invincible. Seemingly indestructible. Clearly unbeatable. He’s what we all want to be—what, down deep, we’re all striving to be. Maybe not physically, but spiritually.

We think his strength is in his hair (heck, even Samson thought that his strength was in his hair), but before every great deed Samson performed, we read, “The Spirit of the Lord rushed upon him.” Before he tears a lion apart with his bare hands (Judges 14:6), before he kills the 30 men of Ashkelon (14:19), and before he kills a thousand men with the jawbone of a donkey (15:14), the exact same phrase is used: “The Spirit of the Lord rushed upon him.” The author of Judges is at pains to make it clear that these feats of strength are not Samson’s, but God’s.

Think about the times in your life when other people have told you that your faith was strong. Aren’t people always saying that when you feel the weakest? When you feel like you’re barely hanging on? There’s something to be said for the real-world truth of Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 1:27—”But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong.” It is when we feel foolish that God shows himself to be wise. It is when we feel weak that God shows himself to be strong.

The Philistines are not defeated until Samson is weakened. His hair is shaved, his eyes are gouged out, and he’s chained up like an animal in the zoo. He finally realizes that he is weak and that God alone is strong and so he prays and asks God for a generous portion of strength. God answers his prayer and Samson brings the building down on himself and all the lords of the Philistines. It is when Samson is at his weakest that he is most powerfully used.

Gideon experienced something similar to Samson. Gideon is prepared to fight a battle. He’s got his army ready—32,000 strong. But God reduces his army from 32,000 to 10,000 by getting rid of everyone who’s afraid. Then he reduces the army from 10,000 to 300, keeping only those who drink “like a dog.” Then he reduces their weaponry to trumpets and empty jars. No knives, no swords, no spears. God wants to make it obvious that their promised victory is owing to his strength, not theirs.

We see this same pattern in the life of the Apostle Paul. By his own admission (Phil. 3:4-6) he started off strong. His spiritual resume was more impressive than anybody else’s. And yet God systematically broke him down throughout his life so that by life’s end he was saying stuff like, “I’m the worst guy I know” and “I’m the least of all the saints” and “For when I am weak, then I am strong.”

The hope of the Christian faith is dependent on God’s display of strength, not ours. God is in the business of destroying our idol of self-sufficiency in order to reveal himself as our sole sufficiency. This is God’s way—he kills in order to make alive; he strips us in order to give us new clothes. He lays us flat on our back so that we’re forced to look up. God’s office of grace is located at the end of our rope. The thing we least want to admit is the one thing that can set us free: the fact that we’re weak. The message of the Gospel will only make sense to those who have run out of options and have come to the relieving realization that they’re not strong. Counterintuitively, our weakness is our greatest strength.

So, the Christian life is a progression. But it’s not an upward progression from weakness to strength—it’s a downward progression from strength to weakness. And this is good news because “Livestrong” Christianity is exhausting and enslaving. The strength of God alone can liberate us from the burden of needing to be strong—the sufficiency of God alone can relieve us of the weight we feel to be sufficient. As I’ve said before, Christian growth is not, “I’m getting stronger and stronger, more and more competent every day.” Rather, it’s “I’m becoming increasingly aware of just how weak and incompetent I am and how strong and competent Jesus was, and continues to be, for me.”

Because Jesus paid it all, we are set free from the pressure of having to do it all. We are weak. He is strong.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

No Adjective. Not one.

"Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst. But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his immense patience as an example for those who would believe in him and receive eternal life." 1 Timothy 1:15-16 (NIV)

"Here’s a word you can take to heart and depend on: Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners. I’m proof—Public Sinner Number One—of someone who could never have made it apart from sheer mercy. And now he shows me off—evidence of his endless patience—to those who are right on the edge of trusting him forever."  1 Timothy 1:15-16 (The Message)
The gate of Mercy is opened, and over the door it is written, ‘This is a faithful saying and worthy of all acceptation, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.‘  Between that word ‘save’ and the next word ‘sinners,’ there is no adjective.  It does not say, ‘penitent sinners,’ ‘awakened sinners,’ ‘sensible sinners,’ ‘grieving sinners’ or ‘alarmed sinners.’  No, it only says, ‘sinners.’  And I know this, that when I come, I come to Christ today, for I feel it is as much a necessity of my life to come to the cross of Christ today as it was to come ten years ago—when I come to him, I dare not come as a conscious sinner or an awakened sinner, but I have to come still as a sinner with nothing in my hands.
            -----Charles Spurgeon

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Nicholas Winton

In 1939, the English stockbroker Nicholas Winton rescued 669 Czech children from their doomed fate in the Nazi death camps, but his achievement went unrecognised for more than half a century. For fifty years most of the children did not know to whom they owed their lives. The story of Nicholas Winton only emerged when his wife Greta came across an old leather briefcase in an attic and found lists of the children and letters from their parents. He hadn't even told her of his role during the war.

Nicholas Winton, then a 30-year-old clerk at the London stock exchange, visited Czechoslovakia, in late 1938 at the invitation of a friend at the British Embassy. When he arrived, the British team working in newly erected refugee camps asked him to lend a hand.

He spent only a couple of months in Prague but was alarmed by the influx of refugees, endangered by the imminent Nazi invasion. He immediately recognized the advancing danger and courageously decided to make every effort to get the children outside the reach of Nazi power. 

'The commission was dealing with the elderly and vulnerable and people in the camps kept telling me that nobody was doing anything for the children,' Nicholas Winton later recalled.

He set up office at a dining room table in his hotel in Wenceslas Square in Prague. Word got out of the 'Englishman of Wenceslas Square' and parents flocked to the hotel to try to persuade him to put their children on the list, desperate to get them out before the Nazis invaded. 'It seemed hopeless,' he said years later, 'each group felt that they were the most urgent.' But Winton managed to set up the organisation for the Czech Kindertransport in Prague in early 1939 before he went back to London to handle all the necessary matters from Britain. 

Back in London, Winton immediately began organizing transports to get the children out of the country, cooperating with the British Committee for Refugees from Czechoslovakia and the Czechoslovak travel agency Cedok. Working day and night he persuaded the Home Office to let the children in. For each child, he had to find a foster parent and a 50 pound guarantee, in those days a small fortune. He also had to raise money to help pay for the transports when contributions by the children's parents couldn't cover the costs. 

In nine months of campaigning as the war crept closer, Nicholas Winton managed to arrange for 669 children to get out on eight trains, Prague to London (a small group of 15 were flown out via Sweden). The ninth train - the biggest transport - was to leave Prague on September 3, 1939, the day Britain entered the war - but the train never left the station. 'Within hours of the announcement, the train disappeared,' Winton later recalled. 'None of the 250 children on board was seen again. We had 250 families waiting at Liverpool Street that day in vain. If the train had been a day earlier, it would have come through. Not a single one of those children was heard of again, which is an awful feeling.'  None of the children set to flee that day survived the following years. Later, more than 15,000 Czech children were also killed. 

Nicholas Winton never forgot the sight when the exhausted children from Czechoslovakia piled out of the trains at London's Liverpool Street station. All wore name tags around their necks. One by one, English foster parents collected the refugee children and took them home, keeping them safe from the war and the genocide that was about to consume their families back home.   Winton, who gave these children the gift of life, watched from a distance.

Nicholas Winton, one of the unsung heroes of World War II, known as the Schindler of Britain, is still revered as the father who saved scores of his 'children' from Nazi death camps.

In September, 2001, Nicholas Winton was the guest of honour at the film premiere of his story in Prague. Winton was invited by Czech president Vaclav Havel and around 250 of the 664 people he saved were expected at the event. The biography, Nicholas Winton and the Rescued Generation, by Muriel Emmanuel and Vera Gissing (Vallentine Mithchell Press) was published in 2001. A Slovakian film entitled: Nicholas J. Winton - Power of Good is also in the works. 

Winton insists he wasn't anything special, adding, 'I just saw what was going on and did what I could to help.'

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Fear or Freedom?

If we are ever to enter fully into the glorious liberty of the children of God, we are going to have to spend more time thinking about freedom than we do. The church, by and large, has had a poor record of encouraging freedom. It has spent so much time inculcating in us the fear of making mistakes that it has made us like ill-taught piano students: we play our pieces, but we never really hear them because our main concern is not to make music but to avoid some flub that will get us in trouble. The church, having put itself in loco parentis (in the place of a parent), has been so afraid we will lose sight of the need to do it right that it has made us care more about how we look than about who Jesus is. It has made us act more like subjects of a police state than fellow citizens of the saints.

Friday, February 7, 2014

All his idea, All his work

It wasn’t so long ago that you were mired in that old stagnant life of sin. You let the world, which doesn’t know the first thing about living, tell you how to live. You filled your lungs with polluted unbelief, and then exhaled disobedience. We all did it, all of us doing what we felt like doing, when we felt like doing it, all of us in the same boat. It’s a wonder God didn’t lose his temper and do away with the whole lot of us. Instead, immense in mercy and with an incredible love, he embraced us. He took our sin-dead lives and made us alive in Christ. He did all this on his own, with no help from us! Then he picked us up and set us down in highest heaven in company with Jesus, our Messiah. Now God has us where he wants us, with all the time in this world and the next to shower grace and kindness upon us in Christ Jesus. Saving is all his idea, and all his work. All we do is trust him enough to let him do it. It’s God’s gift from start to finish! We don’t play the major role. If we did, we’d probably go around bragging that we’d done the whole thing! No, we neither make nor save ourselves. God does both the making and saving. He creates each of us by Christ Jesus to join him in the work he does, the good work he has gotten ready for us to do, work we had better be doing.

Ephesians 2:1-10
The Message

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Natural Enemies

What binds us together is not common education, common race, common income levels, common politics, common nationality, common accents, common jobs, or anything else of that sort. Christians come together because they have all been loved by Jesus himself. They are a band of natural enemies who love one another for Jesus’ sake.

— D. A. Carson 

Love in Hard Places

Monday, February 3, 2014

Check Back with me in Six Months

As I’ve said before, God speaks two words to the world. People have called them many things: Law and Gospel, Judgment and Love, Critique and Grace, and so on. In essence, though, it’s pretty simple: first God gives us bad news (about us) and then He gives us Good News (about Jesus).

This is perhaps most clearly seen in another incredibly well-known (and incredibly misunderstood) passage of Scripture: Jesus’ interaction with the woman caught in the act of adultery.

The scribes and Pharisees catch a woman in the act of adultery, and drag her before Jesus. Can you imagine a woman who ever felt more shame than this one? Literally caught in the act of adultery? Unfathomable. They tell Jesus of her infraction, and remind him that the law of Moses says such women should be stoned. Then they issue a challenge: “What do you say?” They’re trying to trick Jesus into admitting what they suspect: that he’s “soft” on the Law.

Boy, were they wrong.

Confronted by this test, Jesus bends down and writes in the sand with his finger. Now, we aren’t told what he writes, but I think it’s instructive to look at the only other instances in the Bible where God writes with his finger. The first is obvious: The inscription of the 10 Commandments on the stone tablets. The second, though, is less well-known.

In Daniel 5, King Belshazzar is having a huge party, at which “they praised the gods of gold and silver, of bronze, iron, wood and stone” (v. 4). Suddenly, a hand appears and begins writing on the wall. When Daniel is called in to translate the writing, this is what it is revealed to say: “Mene: God has numbered the days of your reign and brought it to an end. Tekel: You have been weighed on the scales and found wanting. Peres: Your kingdom is divided and given to the Medes and Persians.” There can be no doubt that these are three words of judgment—i.e. Law. “You have been weighed on the scales and found wanting.” Has a more chilling word of judgment ever been uttered?

So the two other times God wrote with his finger, he wrote law. I don’t think, therefore, it’s a stretch to think that when Jesus writes in the sand with his finger, he’s writing law. I like to think that perhaps Jesus wrote, “Anyone who even looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matt. 5:28).

Far from being “soft” on the Law, Jesus shows just how high the bar of the law is. How do we know? Because the scribes and Pharisees respond the same way that all of us respond when we are confronted with depth of God’s inflexible demands—they scattered. Beginning with the oldest ones, they all, like the rich young ruler, walked away defeated.

When Jesus and the woman are left alone, and she acknowledges that no one remains to condemn her, Jesus speaks his final word to her: “Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more” (John 8:11). This is where the story gets misunderstood.

“Aha!” we cry. “See! Jesus tells her to shape up! He leaves her with an exhortation!” But look at the order of Jesus’ words: First, he tells the woman that he does not condemn her. Only then does he instruct her to sin no more. This is enormous. He does not make his love conditional on her behavior. He does not say, “Go, sin no more, and check back with me in six months. If you’ve been good, I won’t condemn you.”

No. Our Savior does so much better than that.

Jesus creates new life in the woman by loving her unconditionally, with no-strings-attached. By forgiving her profound shame, he impacts her profoundly. Now free from condemnation, she walks away determined to leave her old life behind. As this account demonstrates, redeeming unconditional love alone (not law, not fear, not punishment, not guilt, not shame) carries the power to compel heart-felt loyalty to the One who gave us (and continues to give us) what we don’t deserve (2 Corinthians 5:14).

Like the adulterous woman, we are all caught in the act—discovered in a shameful breach of God’s law. Though no one on earth can throw the first stone, God can. And he did. The wonder of all wonders is that the rock of condemnation that we justly deserved was hurled by the Father onto the Son. The law-maker became the law-keeper and died for us, the law-breakers. “In my place condemned He stood; and sealed my pardon with His blood. Hallelujah, what a Savior.”

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Repeat Offender

by Tullian Tchividjian
No one in the Bible is more of a repeat offender than the apostle Peter, the so-called “rock” upon which the church is built. His consistent ineptitude is almost comic, or at least it would be, were he not also the one who Jesus appointed to be his chief representative.

As you may remember from Sunday school, Jesus called Simon (and his brother Andrew) while they were fishing by the Sea of Galilee. He immediately left his family business and followed the Lord. After he answered Jesus’ famous question, “Who do you say that I am?” correctly, Jesus changed his name from Simon to Peter, which means rock. Peter lived with Jesus for three and a half years, witnessed many miracles, and heard his teaching. He was part of Jesus’ inner circle of three (Peter, James, and John) and was clearly captivated by Jesus and his teaching. Peter was the one who asked Jesus to explain parables, and the one who asked for more clarification about forgiveness. He had given up everything for the Lord he deeply loved (see Matthew 19:27), and he loved his Savior more than he had ever loved anyone. And yet, his track record was abysmal.

A few bullet points from his spiritual resume:

- When Jesus told him to walk on water, Peter was afraid and sank. (Matt. 14:22–33)

- Peter tried to persuade Jesus that he would not have to die and received the following reply: “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the – concerns of God but merely human concerns.” (Matt. 16:23 NIV)

- He fell asleep in Gethsemane three times, despite the explicit instructions of his sorrowful Lord, who asked him, “Could you not watch one hour?” (Mark 14:32–42)

- When the guards came to arrest Jesus in Gethsemane, Peter drew his sword and Jesus rebuked him for it. (John 18:11)

- After Jesus was arrested, Peter denied him three times, after being told by Jesus—in no uncertain terms—that he was going to do so. (Mark 14:26–31, 66–72)

Apart from his being the first to acknowledge that Jesus was the Christ, the son of God, almost everything he did in the Gospels ended in a correction, a rebuke, or just simple failure. It is hard to imagine how to be a worse disciple than Peter, short of rejecting the faith entirely, once and for all. He could be relied upon to fail at doing God’s bidding, with one or two salient exceptions. Yet these exceptions were enough for Jesus to proclaim that he was the rock. Why?

It is no coincidence that Peter was both the weakest and the one who recognized who Jesus was. He could recognize the Savior, because he knew how much he needed one. His faith was directly tied to his failure. As one writer accurately put it, “The great and merciful surprise is that we come to God not by doing it right but by doing it wrong!”

This is proved by one of the most comforting (and probably overlooked) passages in the Bible. When the women find the young man minding the empty tomb on Easter morning, he gives them a message: “Go, tell his disciples and Peter, ‘He is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you’” (Mark 16:7). Jesus names Peter specifically. That disciple who had seemingly done all in his power to ruin his relationship with Christ, and who had, only a few days before, denied even knowing him at all, was still going to receive a kept promise: “There you will see him, just as he told you.”

Though Peter was, and we are, ultimate promise-breakers, Jesus was, and ever will be, the ultimate promise-keeper.