Category Archives: Kingdom Coming

Photocopying Heaven, or Why Church Matters

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Why bother with church?

Millennials may be the sort with the audacity to voice (and act on) this question, but they certainly aren’t the only ones who have wrestled with it. Apart from that inevitable conversation one’s committed self has with one’s sleepy self every Sunday morning, the question lurks in the shadows for most of us each time we once again experience dissatisfaction with the worship, frustration with the preaching, or debilitating isolation from the fake fellowship.

Why keep going back for more?

Deep down we know that there is more to church than simply being encouraged in our walk with God. If we didn’t, we would have quit long ago. We toss arguments about the Bible commanding it, about us really needing it, or (least convincing of all) Christian tradition demanding it in the general direction of the question, hoping it will go away. But millennials aren’t settling for our lame reasons, and neither should we.

It should come as no surprise that we struggle to see the significance of going to church. We have lost the plot (quite literally) on what we are doing while we are there. Why all the music? The talking? The strange rituals with water and food? Why all together? Because we are ignorant (or perhaps simply unaware) of the metanarrative we are participating in, we fail to see the point.

The story of the church began long before hipsters, seeker-sensitivity, Fanny Crosby, or the Reformation. It predates the Desert Fathers, the Apostle Paul, and even the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. In a sense, it began with Adam and Eve serving in God’s garden-temple, with Abraham filling the promised land with places of worship. But it really picked up when God commissioned Moses to build the first institutionalized structure for Him to meet with His people.

But why did they need a building to meet in? Wasn’t it enough that God was in their midst? Couldn’t each person simply have a nice prayer time or invite a few families over to their tent?

Those questions miss the point. They betray a fundamental assumption that the Church exists exclusively to meet the needs of its people, a fallacy almost as egocentric as thinking that God exists exclusively for me. Yes, this building would function as a visible reminder that God was with them (though the fire cloud that hung over their camp pretty effectively accomplished that purpose already). Yes, it would provide a central space where they could gather as a community and be taught by the Lord. But quite frankly, the architectural design of the tabernacle would be lousy for acoustics or visibility. It contained neither pews nor stadium seating!

The LORD said to Moses, “Tell the Israelites to bring me an offering. You are to receive the offering for me from everyone whose heart prompts them to give. …

Then have them make a sanctuary for me, and I will dwell among them. Make this tabernacle and all its furnishings exactly like the pattern I will show you.”

Exodus 25:1-2, 8-9

The point was that this first building project was to be a miniature replica of God’s temple in heaven. It was so important to God that Moses get it “right” that He not only spelled out in great detail how to go about making and assembling each part, He started out by inviting Moses up into heaven to show him the original. The dimensions, the spaces, the colors, and even the furniture were all carefully crafted to correspond with their heavenly counterparts.

The cherubim are to have their wings spread upward, overshadowing the cover with them. The cherubim are to face each other, looking toward the cover. Place the cover on top of the ark and put in the ark the tablets of the covenant law that I will give you. There, above the cover between the two cherubim that are over the ark of the covenant law, I will meet with you and give you all my commands for the Israelites.
Exodus 25:20-22

Sure, a wooden box with gold overlay was a meager substitute for God’s heavenly footstool. And one wonders how the majestic cherubim who surround His throne felt about their man-made replicas being hammered in gold and woven into curtains. But the ark, the altar, the table with bread on it, the lampstand with its seven lights, and the tabernacle itself were all physical representations of a heavenly reality. What happened with them and in them on earth was meant to correspond with what was happening concurrently in heaven.

In the same way, when we meet as the church, we participate in heavenly realities. The plot has developed a long way since the time of that animal skin tent in the desert with its smoky meat sacrifices and rigidly defined spaces. In Christ, the veil separating us from God’s throne room has been torn and the edges of His tent have been stretched to encompass the whole earth. But we are still acting out on earth the story that He is unfolding in heaven.

What’s more, we are participating in heaven by what we do on earth. When we gather to sing songs of worship, we are joining our voices with those of the saints and angels before His throne. The prayers we say, the praises we sing, and the money we drop in the plate all ascend to His heavenly altar and invite Him to come down. In response, He feeds us from His Word and meets with us at His communion table. And then He fills us with His Spirit and commissions us to go out, carrying His blessing to the messy society, needy people, and parched earth around us.

Whether or not we realize it, all this is happening when we go to church. Our services may not reflect it, we may not feel it, but our presence and activity at church changes things, both on earth and in heaven.

It also happens to change us.

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When Hope Comes Hard

aLife’s harsh realities have a way of squeezing the stars out of our eyes. When I encounter a young couple dreaming of their happy future, my smile comes bittersweet, already feeling the pain they will inevitably encounter but also savoring the naïve hope they can enjoy for now.

For those who have already been around life’s block a few times, hope doesn’t come so cheap. We know that things rarely turn out the way we expect, and allowing our hopes to rise again entails the risk of exposing them to another crash. The inexperienced might call us skeptics, but we can hardly afford to be otherwise.

We want certainty; He offers Himself.

But as people of faith, how do we reconcile our awareness of life’s pain with hope in God’s goodness? The easy way out (and one I have repeatedly given into) is to mentally separate these categories, relegating God’s intervention to the realm of the spiritual and maintaining our self-protective pessimism towards life in the “real world.”

So the sisters sent word to Jesus, “Lord, the one you love is sick.” When he heard this, Jesus said, “This sickness will not end in death. No, it is for God’s glory so that God’s Son may be glorified through it.” Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. Yet when he heard that Lazarus was sick, he stayed where he was two more days.
John 11:3-6

This is the dynamic I observe in Martha’s guarded response to Jesus after her brother’s death. She had every reason to hope that He would have come quickly to heal Lazarus. After all, wasn’t that what He went around doing for everyone else? Of course He would come for the one He loved. But He didn’t.

Faced with such deep disappointment, Martha had a difficult choice to make. She had already lost her brother; she didn’t want to lose her Lord, too. And yet how could she make sense of His unresponsiveness to her heart’s cry? How could she reconcile her faith in His goodness with His failure to prove it?

When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went out to meet him, but Mary stayed at home. “Lord,” Martha said to Jesus, “if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask.”
John 11:20-22

Martha went out to meet Jesus, relieved to be with Him again but steeling her heart against the further disappointment His presence might bring. She couldn’t help but state the obvious: it was His fault her brother had died. But rather than dwell on the gaping wound in their relationship, she quickly covered it over by affirming her faith in what she knew to be theologically true.

Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.”
John 11:23

As usual, Jesus knew the struggle going on in her heart and put His finger right where it hurt. He didn’t just want vague statements of her faith in His sovereignty. He wanted her heart, in all its broken, disillusioned messiness. In a claim that could have seemed almost taunting in light of His recent track record, Jesus promised the very thing Martha was too afraid to hope for. Her brother would live again.

Martha answered, “I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.”
John 11:24

Still attempting the valiant feat of holding on to faith while dealing with disappointment, Martha came up with the safest possible spin on what He had just said. Her theological training came in handy, allowing her to state with certainty what the written Word had already guaranteed. She could look forward to the distant hope of resurrection but could not bear to think of something closer to home. Spiritualizing Jesus’ promise allowed her to affirm its truth while not letting it destabilize her immediate expectations.

Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; 26 and whoever lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?”
John 11:25-26

And as always, Jesus understood. Rather than push the point of what He was going to do in the situation at hand, He met her where she felt safe to go. His claims about Himself were the basis of all that He did. If she was willing to state her belief in who He was and the way He works on behalf of His people, what more was needed?

“Yes, Lord,” she told him, “I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who was to come into the world.”
John 11:27

Martha rose to the occasion, just as Peter had. Despite her struggle to see His goodness in the here and now, despite her inability to claim that He would fulfill her deepest longing, she stated her categorical faith in Him. The rest would be resolved in the minutes and eternity to follow. But for now, Martha had found a bedrock on which to rest her hope: Christ Himself.

Like Martha, many of us live stuck between yesterday’s disappointments and tomorrow’s hope. We know God is able to intervene now and we know He will be faithful to make things right in the end. But what hope can we claim for how He will act in between? As He did for Martha, Jesus responds to our hidden fears with a call to trust in who He is and how He works, not just in the distant future but also in the here and now.

We want certainty; He offers Himself.

Redistributing God’s Wealth

attachmentSpending last week with a northern Nigerian bishop felt surprisingly like riding around with a mafia godfather.

Wherever we turned there was another person waiting to tell him their troubles and ask him for help. Again and again, I watched him reach into his pocket and peel off a few more layers from his rapidly shrinking wad of well-worn bills. And again and again, I watched another person walk away, relieved of the heavy burden they had been carrying.

What inhibits my generous giving is not my responsibility to plan wisely, but rather my lack of responsibility to care for my neighbor.

I confess I had to repeatedly suppress the urge to stop him. I knew that, unlike a mafia don, this “godfather” had a very limited supply with which to meet the overwhelming demand. My forward-thinking mind started fretting about how he would pay his own bills, both current and upcoming. With two kids in college and a mortgage to pay off, he had his own share of financial troubles to worry about.

He who is kind to the poor lends to the LORD, and he will reward him for what he has done.

He who gives to the poor will lack nothing, but he who closes his eyes to them receives many curses.
Proverbs 19:17; 28:27

But the fact was that he did have the cash in hand. His bills for this month were covered, and other peoples’ were not. As he continued to distribute his meager resources, he explained his economic reasoning to me. “If I hold this back for my own future need when someone else needs it today, I am not being a faithful steward of God’s resources. If God has supplied enough for me today, He will also be faithful to supply again tomorrow.”

In the house of the wise are stores of choice food and oil, but a foolish man devours all he has.

A good man leaves an inheritance for his children’s children, but a sinner’s wealth is stored up for the righteous.
Proverbs 21:20; 13:22

Humbled, I still wanted to reason with him. What about wise financial planning for your family’s future? What about ensuring that you don’t run short and then become a burden to others? Wasn’t his simply a non-Western, communally focused approach to resources as opposed to our equally valid (and perhaps economically superior) approach to investing in the future?

But the truth is, something about his childlike faith appeals to me deeply. God took His people through forty years of wilderness economy to train them in the same approach. Each day He supplied enough goods for that day only. There were no viable “leftovers” that could be saved and invested as capital for the next day. And as a result, no one could begin to trust in his own hard work or careful planning. Their only reliable resource was the Lord of the manna.

Being fiscally responsible is no excuse for being communally irresponsible.

Still, my capitalist mind wants to argue, those were exceptional circumstances. Once they settled in the land, were they not responsible to plan wisely and invest accordingly? Weren’t they right to hold back enough seed for next year’s planting?

He answered: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.'”

“You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.”
Luke 10:27-28

And again I know that I am avoiding the real issue. Of course it is godly and right to save for future needs. But how often do I use that as a trump card to avoid giving to today’s needs. Ultimately, what inhibits my generous giving is not my responsibility to plan wisely, but rather my lack of responsibility to care for my neighbor.

But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”

In reply Jesus said: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he fell into the hands of robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side.
Luke 10:29-32

And this is where my problem lies. Who is my neighbor? For whom am I financially responsible? Like the Pharisees, I want to erect relational boundaries to protect myself from having to sacrifice my resources to meet other people’s needs. This is why I am tempted to avoid eye contact with the beggar on the street, or to back-peddle on those conversations in which an acquaintance starts to talk about her financial need. I’m afraid of getting caught in a situation where I will feel guilty for not giving.

But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, took him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two silver coins and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’
Luke 10:33-35

But Jesus rips those walls down with His answer: my neighbor is the person I encounter. My responsibility is to redistribute whatever resources God has entrusted to me, first in the care of my immediate family, but also in the care of my extended “family.” And if ensuring tomorrows’ provision is more important to me that sharing todays’, then I may find myself in the same position as the rich man who refused to take responsibility for his neighbor, Lazarus. Being fiscally responsible is no excuse for being communally irresponsible.

“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.”

Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”
Luke 10:36-37

Watching a third-world bishop in action has convicted this first-world lay person. My economically advanced reasons for not loving my neighbor as myself have been unmasked for what they truly are: a self-reliant lack of faith. Of course allowing my time and money to be drained by other people’s needs makes no sense in a godless, survival-of-the-fittest world. But if God really reigns over seed and harvest, investment and returns, will He not look after all my needs?

I am left with no recourse but to go and do likewise.

In God’s Kitchen

IMG_0294If you would have told me five years ago that I would be professor and spiritual mentor to Christian leaders across the developing world, I probably would have groaned.

At the time I was firmly entrenched in my life in South Asia, up to my elbows in teaching responsibilities, counseling duties, prayer needs, and ministry demands. I was doing what I loved, but somehow my delight had turned into duty. I began to resent the knocks on the door and the requests at the church, feeling like I was overstretched and underappreciated. I was tired and wanted to be let off the hook.

Sadly, I got my wish.

I think I am not the only one who has struggled with self-important exhaustion. I hear it in those conversations at church when people one up each other with the lists of all they have to do. I read it between the lines of my students’ journal submissions describing how close they are to burn-out and yet how there is no one else whom they can trust to handle some of their ministry responsibilities.

At the heart of all these well-intentioned servants is the false assumption that we are the only ones capable of carrying out God’s all-important work. We feel that if we don’t do it, it won’t happen. Shouldering such an emotionally laden burden on our own leaves us exhausted and (dare I say it) just a bit resentful.

He came to a broom tree, sat down under it and prayed that he might die.
“I have had enough, Lord,” he said. “Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors.”
1 Kings 19:4

Two years ago, I began this blog with an article about Elijah needing some cave time after the intense demands that God had placed on him. Elijah’s condition connected deeply with my own at the time, as did God’s gracious provision of time and space to heal. But as I revisit his story in light of my own, I see a similar dynamic at work.

‪Then Elijah said to them, ‘I am the only one of the Lord’s prophets left, but Baal has four hundred and fifty prophets.‬
‪At the time of sacrifice, the prophet Elijah stepped forward and prayed: ‘ Lord, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Israel, let it be known today that you are God in Israel and that I am your servant and have done all these things at your command. ‬
1 Kings 18:22, 36

Elijah had begun to believe that everything hinged on him. God had called him to perform some unbelievable feats: stopping up the heavens, confronting a hostile king, and taking on a high-powered, politically favored god along with its entourage of priests and devotees. Elijah’s special commission had also come with special provisions, but somewhere along the way he started believing that he was special, the only one willing and able to carry out these critical tasks.

‪He replied, ‘I have been very zealous for the Lord God Almighty. The Israelites have rejected your covenant, torn down your altars, and put your prophets to death with the sword. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me too.’‬
1 Kings 19:10

Elijah’s bold faith in God’s accomplishments through him began to carry a tinge of assertive self-importance, and with it a note of self-pity. This really came out in the exhausted, post-traumatic laments he made to God.

The Lord said to him, ‘Go back the way you came, … and anoint Elisha son of Shaphat from Abel Meholah to succeed you as prophet. … Yet I reserve seven thousand in Israel – all whose knees have not bowed down to Baal and whose mouths have not kissed him.’‬
1 Kings 19:15-18

God’s first response to him was provision, not exhortation. But with time, God called Elijah back out of the cave with a gentle reminder that he was not the only one, that there were plenty of other arrows in God’s quiver. He sent Elijah back to work, this time with the assignment to mobilize and mentor his successor. Long after Elijah’s ministry was over, Elisha would carry on the same work with an even greater portion of capacity and effectiveness than Elijah had ever had.

And this is where I now find myself. After taking me through a multi-year attitude adjustment, God has recommissioned me as a mentor to classrooms full of Elishas. I marvel at these African leaders’ insight, maturity, and commitment to the kingdom. I am humbled and delightfully surpassed by their accomplishments and their godliness. With people like them at the helm, there is great hope for the global Church.

I feel as if God has invited me back to help in His kitchen. I used to serve here as if I were doing Him a favor. Now I realize that, like I used to do with my own young children, He is doing me the favor. He is letting me be a part of what He is making of the world. He could do it a lot quicker and easier without me, but out of His great love He is sharing the pleasure.

My response used to be “Must I?” Now it is “Please, may I!”

The Dance of the Eunuchs

attachmentLunchtime conversations in our home are rarely conventional. In response to a series of questions my children had about bisexuals, trans-genders, and eunuchs, I recently found myself telling the story of the time a gang of eunuchs showed up at our house to dance.

In the region of South Asia where we lived, eunuchs held a despised but critical position in society. Whether by birth or by the hands of men, their condition disqualified them from normal family life. Instead, they were raised by fellow eunuchs who dressed like women and made their living by singing and dancing at the birth of each new baby in the community.

Somehow the idea of hurting sexual misfits is easier to embrace than the reality.

My neighbors had told me stories of these intimidating she-men, how they wielded their power to bless vulnerable infants in order to extract gifts of food, money, and clothes from terrified families. If you didn’t give them what they wanted they could become quite aggressive and even turn their blessing into a curse on your child! So of course when a gang of heavily made up, sari-clad men showed up at our door, I politely but firmly did everything I could to avoid a debacle of dancing eunuchs celebrating the birth of my newborn son.

Now an angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Go south to the road–the desert road–that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” So he started out, and on his way he met an Ethiopian eunuch, an important official in charge of all the treasury of Candace, queen of the Ethiopians. This man had gone to Jerusalem to worship, and on his way home was sitting in his chariot reading the book of Isaiah the prophet. The Spirit told Philip, “Go to that chariot and stay near it.”

Then Philip ran up to the chariot and heard the man reading Isaiah the prophet. “Do you understand what you are reading?” Philip asked.

“How can I,” he said, “unless someone explains it to me?” So he invited Philip to come up and sit with him.
Acts 8:26-31

But repeating the story these thirteen years later, I’m not so satisfied with my response to them. I’m soberingly reminded of another eunuch who was turned away by people but lovingly pursued by God.

What attracted a sexually-altered Gentile foreigner to even attempt entry into the Jewish temple in Jerusalem is beyond me, especially considering he may have encountered prohibitions against “his kind” in his reading of the Old Testament. Obviously it hadn’t gone well. Far from the soul filling, heart-renewing experience that temple worship was meant to be, this man was leaving frustrated, confused, and empty.

The eunuch was reading this passage of Scripture: “He was led like a sheep to the slaughter, and as a lamb before the shearer is silent, so he did not open his mouth. In his humiliation he was deprived of justice. Who can speak of his descendants? For his life was taken from the earth.”

The eunuch asked Philip, “Tell me, please, who is the prophet talking about, himself or someone else?”
Acts 8:32-34

But he hadn’t quit on his quest. A passage of Scripture had gripped his heart, and even the humiliation of having come so far for nothing did not deter him from pursuing it. Who was this Suffering Servant whose description matched his own so miraculously: someone who had been forced to submit to a humiliating “shearing,” who had been deprived of his dignity and right to justice, and who consequently would never experience the social honor or personal joy of being able to have children?

Yet it was the LORD’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer, and though the LORD makes his life a guilt offering, he will see his offspring and prolong his days, and the will of the LORD will prosper in his hand. After the suffering of his soul, he will see the light [of life] and be satisfied…
Isaiah 53:10-11

If there was hope for such a Man, then there was hope for him. Could it be that God would accept this crushed half-a-man after all and turn his degradation into celebration? Was there some way in which God could transform his dried-up, socially cut-off self into a flourishing, reproducing member of a community?

And the good news that God sent Phillip to share was yes to all the above.

Let no foreigner who has bound himself to the LORD say, “The LORD will surely exclude me from his people.” And let not any eunuch complain, “I am only a dry tree.”

For this is what the LORD says: “To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths, who choose what pleases me and hold fast to my covenant–to them I will give within my temple and its walls a memorial and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that will not be cut off.
Isaiah 56:3-5

This story makes me weep with relief and joy over the grace God would show to a wounded outcaste. And yet where was that compassion when the band of eunuchs showed up at my door?

Somehow the idea of hurting sexual misfits is easier to embrace than the reality. We have come a long way in raising awareness about the injustice that forces many prostitutes into the sex industry and the shame that keeps them there. But how many of us have invited a prostitute over for tea? Similarly, I think we have a long way to go in compassionately seeking to understand the dynamics at work behind people’s aberrant sexual preferences and in reaching out in genuine love.

I detest the way I allowed my fear and discomfort to stand in the way of loving those whom Jesus came to restore.

The good news that God commissions us to share is yes to all the above.

My children asked me what I would do differently now, if I could. I wish I could go back and invite the eunuchs in for a cup of chai and serve them some of the celebratory sweets essential for all such occasions. I wish I could prepare bags of lentils and rice as a thank you gift for their coming (even if I did decline their services). But most importantly, I wish I could look them in the eye and give them the dignity of being treated like any other person on the planet: a loved sinner for whom grace is available.

I may not get another chance with the dancing eunuchs, but I suspect that more opportunities surround me than my eyes (or heart) have been open to.

May God find me worthy in how I respond.

Missing Purple

attachmentBombed out churches. Imperious monuments. Golden palaces. Now stained glass windows…

I’m finally home from a summer of travels, but I’m still processing the significance of the sights that I took in across Germany and France. So much of a people’s worldview can be discerned by what they build to last long after they are gone. These cathedrals and monuments, paintings and palaces still speak on behalf of their long-dead creators, their messages either ringing true through the centuries or being discredited by the passage of time.

Last week as I stood gazing at the medieval windows of Notre Dame, I was struck not only by what was present but by what was missing. Our guide had already pointed out the stunning imagery of the north rose window, its intricate designs all depicting scenes from the Old Testament that would later be fulfilled in the New. The effect of the light shining through the multi-colored scenes was a stunning purple, intended to communicate a sense of anticipation and forward movement.

But when I turned to look at the south rose window, the one depicting scenes from the life of Christ and the early church, I was surprised to notice that it lacked the same purple hue. The glorious fulfillment of the Old Testament was there, with the four evangelists (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) sitting on the shoulders of the four great prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel) and scenes from Christ’s miracles, death, resurrection, and enthronement. But the sense of future anticipation was missing.

…singing of a future glory in heaven while trudging aimlessly here on earth.

I can’t help but feel that the purple is missing from our worldview, too. We are well trained to look back and celebrate the story of what God has done in the past, but we don’t know how to look forward and see that we are participating in the story of what He will due in the future. Without a clear vision of where our story is heading, we lack the direction and the motivation to get there.

You will arise and have compassion on Zion… The nations will fear the name of the LORD, all the kings of the earth will revere your glory. For the LORD will rebuild Zion and appear in his glory. He will respond to the prayer of the destitute; he will not despise their plea. Let this be written for a future generation, that a people not yet created may praise the LORD: “The LORD looked down from his sanctuary on high, from heaven he viewed the earth, to hear the groans of the prisoners and release those condemned to death.”
Psalm 102:13-20, 26

The psalmists and the prophets spoke out of incredibly messy situations, pointing to a future reality in which God’s kingdom would come on earth as it is in heaven. The afflicted man could cry out the depths of his soul’s current anguish and in the same breath describe the heights of God’s future deliverance. The disheartened prophet could talk about the seeming dead-end of hope while still claiming the certainty of God’s promise to make all things new.

How long, O LORD, must I call for help, but you do not listen? Or cry out to you, “Violence!” but you do not save? Why do you make me look at injustice? Why do you tolerate wrong?

“For the revelation awaits an appointed time; it speaks of the end and will not prove false. Though it linger, wait for it; it will certainly come and will not delay. …
For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the LORD, as the waters cover the sea.”

Though the fig tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines, though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the LORD, I will be joyful in God my Savior.
Habakkuk 1:2-3; 2:3,14; 3:17-18

The saints of the Old Testament could endure and navigate incredibly troubling situations because they could see how their story was leading to something better. Of course that hope wasn’t always easy to hold onto. Faith never comes easy, especially when it is severely tested. But their patient endurance paid off when the Messiah finally came and made good on a lot of what God had promised.

But what about all the mess that still remains? Why don’t we see worshipping nations and prostrate kings, all declaring the glories of our God? What happened to the end of oppression and the coming of God’s compassionate, just reign? We live in a world where terrorism and sex-trafficking abound, where impaired bodies and broken hearts define our existence.

We can anticipate our role in that better-than-Eden reality, where life-giving streams and healing leaves apply to everything that’s broken in our world.

We cling to the fact that somehow Jesus’ death and resurrection is supposed to relate to all this, but how? The Old Testament holds out hope that the earth will be restored, and yet the only hope we can point to is the salvation of our souls. No wonder we segregate our lives, singing of a future glory in heaven while trudging aimlessly here on earth. Our only hope is eventual escape-by-death.

We are missing the purple.

Sing to the LORD a new song, for he has done marvelous things… Let the sea resound, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it. Let the rivers clap their hands, let the mountains sing together for joy; let them sing before the LORD, for he comes to judge the earth. He will judge the world in righteousness and the peoples with equity.
Psalm 98:1, 7-9

If what God has done in history is the full extent of the good news, then we really do have little to look forward to (and all those Old Testament promises were grossly over-stated.) But the fact is that our waiting, and His story, are far from over.

We are still anticipating the New Creation, that time when God will bring heaven and earth together in a glorious union. And we are anticipating our role in that better-than-Eden reality, where garden and city will combine in a Christ-centered utopia with life-giving streams and healing leaves that apply to everything that’s broken in our world.

And they sang a new song: “You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, because you were slain, and with your blood you purchased men for God from every tribe and language and people and nation. You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God, and they will reign on the earth.”

They held harps given them by God and sang the song of Moses the servant of God and the song of the Lamb: “Great and marvelous are your deeds, Lord God Almighty. …All nations will come and worship before you, for your righteous acts have been revealed.”
Revelation 5:9; 15:2-4

Jesus told us to watch and work towards it. John warned us that it would take a great amount of patient endurance to finally reach it. But the day will come when we pick up the songs of the psalmists and prophets and sing them with a new spin: past tense.

If I were to create a stained glass window depicting the world as I see it, I’m afraid it would involve plenty of messy, unpleasant scenes. But as God grants me a developing eyesight of faith, I see a hope-filled hue of purple shining through the shades of pain.

What are the colors in your worldview window?

In the Palace of the Sun King; or Why Sheep Stealing Isn’t the Problem

IMG_0002I experienced one of those “zoom in, zoom out—aha!” moments this weekend. I was wandering through the rooms of Louis XIV’s Palace at Versailles, so overwhelmed by the magnitude of its splendor that it was numbing me. The ache in my feet and the smell of the crowd became a more noticeable reality to me than the priceless works of art or the astonishingly sumptuous architecture. I left the Hall of Mirrors and veered off into a corner of the King’s Chambers, really just looking for a space to mentally regroup.

And there, with my back to the rest of the grandeur, my eyes fell on a small section of intricately carved wood paneling, slightly chipped and worn from centuries of being bumped against, but exquisite just the same. I marveled at its elaborate design and wondered about the long-gone hands that had carved it. And just as this tiny piece of golden beauty began to spark my wonderment, I noticed that it was only one of three strips of identically carved paneling arching over the same door. I turned around to see their overall effect, only to be awestruck by the vision of countless windows, doors, and an entire ceiling crisscrossed with the same carved panels, their golden patterns fading into a ribboned effect that draped the room in brilliance.

It struck me that the Church is much the same as this palace. We are the magnificent residence of our glorious King, developed and expanded over the centuries since His coronation. Each room, each section of paneling is a tiny but significant piece of its overall grandeur: no more, no less.

The next day John was there again with two of his disciples. When he saw Jesus passing by, he said, “Look, the Lamb of God!” When the two disciples heard him say this, they followed Jesus.

They came to John and said to him, “Rabbi, that man who was with you on the other side of the Jordan–the one you testified about–well, he is baptizing, and everyone is going to him.”
John 1:35-37; 3:26

John the Baptist lived and expressed this tension in an incredibly admirable way, especially when his ministry began to rapidly dwindle as a result of the New Guy in town. Initially He had just shown up as a visitor in one of John’s services, but even then John’s public affirmation of Him resulted in two of his associate pastors walking out and joining this start-up ministry. When this Visitor set up a seemingly identical ministry just down-river, John’s remaining associates got really nervous. They felt threatened by all the people going over to Jesus, worried that His presence would put their leader “out of ministry”.

There came a man who was sent from God; his name was John. He came as a witness to testify concerning that light, so that through him all men might believe. He himself was not the light; he came only as a witness to the light.

John replied in the words of Isaiah the prophet, “I am the voice of one calling in the desert, ‘Make straight the way for the Lord.’ ”

“I baptize with water,” John replied, “but among you stands one you do not know. He is the one who comes after me, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie.”
John 1:6-8, 23, 26-27

But John wasn’t threatened. From the beginning of his ministry he had known and proclaimed that he was merely the forerunner, the one who had been sent by God to get things ready for Jesus. This was no small role, and John knew that, too. He embraced his assignment with all the gusto of someone who recognizes its prophetic significance and its practical importance. But pouring his life blood (literally) into that particular ministry did not cause John to amplify its significance at the cost of valuing the bigger picture of which it was designed to be a contributing part.

To this John replied, “…You yourselves can testify that I said, ‘I am not the Christ but am sent ahead of him.’ The bride belongs to the bridegroom. The friend who attends the bridegroom waits and listens for him, and is full of joy when he hears the bridegroom’s voice. That joy is mine, and it is now complete. He must become greater; I must become less.
John 3:27-30

When Jesus’ increase in fame and followers caused John to decrease, he welcomed it. John rejoiced that his overarching goal was being accomplished, even if that meant he was being made redundant. He gladly faded into the background of the grandest of structures, fulfilled in the knowledge that he had gotten to play a supporting part in something way bigger than he was. Jesus’ success was sweeter to him than his own. It had always been his highest goal.

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Whose sheep are they?

The challenge for all Christian leaders is to maintain this big picture of Christ and His Church. Our tendency is to build our church, denomination, or organization to the exclusion of the whole, defining our “group” by its distinctives (what sets us apart from all the others) and seeking to draw and keep the greatest number of people within our particular fold. While we would insist that we are doing it all for Christ’s sake, the way that we cling to “our sheep” and zealously (or even jealously) promote “our group” betrays us. As John so wisely reminded his disciples, the church is not our Bride.

…Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless.
Ephesians 5:25-27

When I step back and gaze at the Church from across the room of time and space, I see how all these segmented ministries are really tiny sections of paneling set side by side in a gloriously diverse, complex pattern that fills the walls of God’s temple. Each one has its distinctive place and particular role, but no one comprises the focal point of the structure. As one rises and another fades, we should all be able to celebrate the way they each contribute to the grandeur of the whole.

In light of the big picture, perhaps migrating sheep isn’t our big problem, after all. Possessive under-shepherds is.

The Legacy of a Leader

tombRunning the streets of Paris this week has gotten me thinking about great leaders and the legacy they leave behind. My different routes take me by towering structures and massive monuments, opulent palaces and magnificent cathedrals. And while sparkling golden domes and triumphant archways inspire me with their grandeur, I can’t help but see them in the context of les miserables at whose expense they were built. While I doubt that these great leaders had the suffering of the marginalized in mind as they drew up their strategic plans and executed their visionary agenda, I see that as precisely the problem.

To be frank, I notice a startling similarity between political visionaries who build their empires on the backs of their downtrodden subjects and spiritual leaders who build the church or its institutions at the expense of their downtrodden sheep. I sympathize with the heavy mantle of leadership, the constant pressure to do what is best for the whole group and to keep the flock moving forwards towards important goals. But too often leaders accomplish their goals at the sacrifice of the most vulnerable members of the flock. They reach their destination leaving behind a long trail of limping lambs and wounded stragglers, unintended but uncared for casualties of their leadership agenda.

Too often leaders accomplish their goals at the sacrifice of the most vulnerable members of their flock.

In the classroom-based leadership training and the pew-based leadership observing that I do around the world, I have encountered all sorts of worthy church-building agendas. For some the focus is on evangelism or numerical growth, for others it is on preaching of pure doctrine or promoting the holiness of the church body. Often I encounter more specific goals like making a church more relevant to a particular generation or social group, or the less-likely-to-be-stated agenda of preserving its status quo in doctrine, worship style, or values.

“What do you think? If a man owns a hundred sheep, and one of them wanders away, will he not leave the ninety-nine on the hills and go to look for the one that wandered off ? And if he finds it, I tell you the truth, he is happier about that one sheep than about the ninety-nine that did not wander off.
Matthew 18:11-13

But whatever the agenda, when I see a pattern of marginalized members whose needs have been neglected or run over “for the good of the church as a whole,” alarm bells go off in my head. Jesus’ example of pastoral care means leaving behind the ninety-nine cooperative, contributing sheep to go after the one wounded straggler.

…who forgives all your sins and heals all your diseases, who redeems your life from the pit and crowns you with love and compassion, who satisfies your desires with good things so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s. The LORD works righteousness and justice for all the oppressed.
Psalm 103:3-6

In fact, as I look a bit deeper at God’s leadership style, I see a strong pattern of focusing in on the downcast and specializing in the “pit-dwellers.” He makes their problems His problem, using His power to strengthen those who are feeling weak, His position to promote those who can’t put themselves forward.

The eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you!” And the head cannot say to the feet, “I don’t need you!” On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and the parts that we think are less honorable we treat with special honor. And the parts that are unpresentable are treated with special modesty, while our presentable parts need no special treatment. But God has combined the members of the body and has given greater honor to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it. Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.
1 Corinthians 12:22-26

Under God’s pastoral care, the people who get preferential treatment are those who don’t fit the perfect Christian mold, whose life circumstances, emotional state, or inability to contribute to the “agenda” of the church have put them at risk of being marginalized. Rather than allowing them to straggle at the edges and fall prey to the wolves, the Master Shepherd moves the rest of the flock to surround its weaker members. He invests them with additional attention and honor, calling the rest of His sheep to do the same.

I have seen (and experienced) Christian leaders who are willing to risk following in the shoes of their Shepherd. The Ugandan pastor who risked his standing in the community to protect an unwed mother from the customary punishment of being thrown over a cliff. The Indian Christian leader who hires disgraced ministers with a checkered past so he can offer them careful mentoring and a second chance. The Californian university professor who gathers demon-oppressed students under his sheltering wing for prayer and counsel. And the well-respected old Presbyterian pastor who wept with a traumatized, washed-up woman, willing to believe a story that pushed the limits of his theological paradigm and willing to put his reputation on the line to stand by her.

Jesus’ example of pastoral care means leaving behind the ninety-nine to go after the one wounded straggler.

Of course I’m not decrying the need for proactive nurture of the healthy members of the flock, but I am pointing out the importance of being willing to be inconvenienced by the ones who don’t fit the agenda, whose lives are messy and complicated, whose problems probably won’t go away with a few counseling sessions or a bring-them-a-meal rota. Whether they are the generation not-in-focus, the sub-culture we weren’t looking to attract, the unemployed or recently divorced man who doesn’t fit in our tidy picture of the “perfect Christian family,” or the emotionally messy woman who can never seem to pull herself together—the agenda has to adjust to make space for them, too.

As you come to him, the living Stone–rejected by men but chosen by God and precious to him–you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. For in Scripture it says: “See, I lay a stone in Zion, a chosen and precious cornerstone, and the one who trusts in him will never be put to shame.”
1 Peter 2:4-6

God’s ultimate agenda for His church is to build her up one living stone at a time, including in His magnificent structure people who fit our preconceived mold and people who don’t. A leader’s legacy is not based on numbers, buildings, programs, or even doctrine. It is found in the people he has loved and nurtured, the living stones that she has helped to find their place in the walls of God’s cosmic temple.

That’s the sort of monument I want a part in.

Closer than You Think

Jesus_ascending_to_heavenWhere is God right now, anyway?

The atheist laughs at the question; the agnostic shrugs it off as irrelevant; but the struggling Christian grasps for an answer.

Her cries of “Forsaken?!” erupt from experiences that seem to deny the presence of a loving, protecting God.

His cries of “Abandoned?!” flow from deep disappointment over the ways God has not responded to prayer, has not intervened in a seriously messed-up situation.

Does God even hear? Is heaven so far away that it takes an earthquake or a massacre to get His attention?

Blessed are those who have learned to acclaim you, who walk in the light of your presence, O LORD. …For you are their glory and strength, and by your favor you exalt our horn.

How long, O LORD? Will you hide yourself forever? How long will your wrath burn like fire? Remember how fleeting is my life. For what futility you have created all men! …O Lord, where is your former great love?
Psalm 89:15-17, 46-49

The Psalms seem to resonate with schizophrenic prayers of people grappling with messy earthly realities in the face of a pristinely perfect heaven. At one moment they can celebrate and affirm the tangible, even visible presence of God on earth, intervening and making things right. But the next verse over, they are calling out in disillusionment, feeling like God has slammed the gates of heaven and no longer hears or cares.

“As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.”
Isaiah 55:9

Sometimes the gap between heaven and earth seems infinite.

But is it really?

The great wonder of Christ’s incarnation was that, for a season, heaven came to earth. What a great relief to actually get to see God walking around with hands and feet, facial expressions and audible words! No more of this guess work, trying to figure out where God is and what He is doing—the woman about to be stoned heard Him absolve her, the father of a dead child saw Him bring her back.

Sometimes the gap between heaven
and earth seems insurmountable.

But what about when those painfully short years ended? When Christ ascended from the earth and sat down at the right hand of the Father, did the doors of heaven shut behind Him?

But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight.
Acts 1:8-9

Thankfully not. Jesus blazed a path between the two realms, transversing the short distance with His physical body in tow. Rather than ditch it on the way up, he took a bit of earth along with Him as a keepsake from His visit, a memento of His return. And He left with the promise that He would soon send a bit of heaven down to earth.

When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.
Acts 2:1-4

And thankfully, Jesus didn’t keep us waiting too long. A little over a week later He made good on His promise. A package arrived from heaven, not in the tiny, earthy form of another baby, but rather resembling the sort of phenomenon we would expect when a heavenly Being lands on earth: violent winds swooping from heaven, eerie flames dancing overhead, and gloriously strange manifestations in those with whom it came in contact.

Glimpses of heaven are all around us.

As inspiring as it is to rehearse these 2,000 year-old stories, it can still feel like heaven is impossibly far away. Why don’t we get to chat with angels reassuring us that Jesus will come back the same way He left? Why can’t we see the Spirit flame spreading and alighting around us as we trudge through days of frustrated labor and nights of unconsoled tears?

“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
Matt. 28:18-20

But if we take off our “It is only real if I can see it” glasses, glimpses of heaven are all around us. Each time the fruit of the Spirit manifests itself in us, God has broken through. Love? Peace? Patience? I know those aren’t native to my fleshly self. Repentance? Faith? Transformation? I witness the miracle of His powerful intervention in the most unexpected situations. And then of course there are those jaw-dropping evidences of God at work in the world when justice is served, when healing happens, when captives are set free.

…I will go on to visions and revelations from the Lord. I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven. Whether it was in the body or out of the body I do not know–God knows. And I know that this man–whether in the body or apart from the body I do not know, but God knows– was caught up to paradise. He heard inexpressible things, things that man is not permitted to tell.
2 Corinthians 12:1-4

Through all that, I am learning to see the very present interface between the heavenly realm and the earthly one, the one existing just above the other with constant interaction between the two. As a friend of mine recently said, it is as if a veil hangs over us, hiding the heavenly realm from our earthly eyes. Sometimes that veil gets momentarily lifted, like when Stephen was granted a glimpse of glory just before his death or when the apostles and prophets were shown the heavenly realities going on behind earthly events. And to be honest there have been times in my own life when the veil has been particularly thin or even, for a brief but breathtaking second, lifted.

If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.
For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when perfection comes, the imperfect disappears. …Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face.
1 Corinthians 13:1, 9-12

More often than not, though, heaven remains an invisible reality, perceived only through eyes of faith. I cherish those memories of when it has been less so, replaying them in my mind when my faith wavers and my current struggles cause them to grow dim. I actively pursue the fruit of God’s Spirit and the great commission through which He is bringing heaven down to earth. And I long for the day when the clouds will roll back, allowing us to gaze with unveiled faces on the heavenly reality we have been participating in all along.

It’s a lot closer than we think.

Inhabiting No Mans’ Land

attachment-e1430302595774I’m caught in an evangelistic no man’s land.

I will exalt you, my God the King…
Your kingdom is an everlasting kingdom, and your dominion endures through all generations…
Psalm 145:1-2,13

On one side of me I see my glorious King, risen and reigning over heaven and earth. I see multitudes of saints and angels around His throne, caught up in the ecstasy of white-hot worship. And I feel myself drawn into their number, ready to abandon all inhibition and join in their joyous, unfettered proclamation of Jesus as King.

One generation will commend your works to another; they will tell of your mighty acts. ..They will tell of the power of your awesome works, and I will proclaim your great deeds. They will celebrate your abundant goodness and joyfully sing of your righteousness.
Psalm 145:3-7

But then I look in the other direction. There I see sidewalks full of regular folks, going about their everyday business with little or no reference to this supposed King. Where is He when their paycheck runs short or their partner walks out? What mighty deeds or miraculous intervention can they speak of? Life is hard and, in their estimation, the only one looking out for them is Number 1.

The LORD watches over all who love him, but all the wicked he will destroy.
Psalm 145:20

When I look at the proclamation of God as King through these eyes, it suddenly loses its luster. It begins to sound like a taunt instead of a tender. Aren’t His benefits only available to those who are already members of the club? Isn’t He the God who threatens to destroy those outside the club, the “wicked”? I can see how the good news that I so desperately want to proclaim would come across as slightly less than appealing.

And this is how I find myself stuck, marooned between two radically different perspectives. In this no man’s land I fall silent, relegating my worship to my private life and proclaiming God’s goodness only within the confines of the clubhouse.

…The LORD is faithful to all his promises and loving toward all he has made. The LORD upholds all those who fall and lifts up all who are bowed down. The eyes of all look to you, and you give them their food at the proper time. You open your hand and satisfy the desires of every living thing.
Psalm 145:13-16

But when I go back to the bold, unapologetic claims of my spiritual predecessors in the Psalms, I realize that I have missed something. Those outside the “holy club” may feel like God has done nothing for them, but that doesn’t mean He hasn’t. Their very existence is testimony to His proactive love. When they were oblivious to their own existence, He formed them in their mother’s womb. When they felt vulnerable and alone, He was watching over their every step. Even though they haven’t looked to Him for food, He has repeatedly handed them both their bodies’ needs and their hearts’ desires.

The LORD is righteous in all his ways and loving toward all he has made. The LORD is near to all who call on him, to all who call on him in truth.
Psalm 145:17-18

The point is that God doesn’t just take care of the people who are in His club. He actively relates to every person He has made, showering them with daily expressions of His love whether or not they return the favor. Even better, He promises to get more involved in their lives if they will turn around and ask for it.

I’m not stuck in the gap;
I’ve been called to stand in the gap.

I confess that I too often stand helplessly in the space between these two camps, wondering why God doesn’t do more to make Himself known to those who live apart from Him. How can they know to turn around and call out to Him if they don’t even know that He is there and that He cares?

The LORD is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and rich in love. The LORD is good to all; he has compassion on all he has made.
Psalm 145:8-9

And then I realize the ridiculousness of my self-imposed predicament. I’m not stuck in the gap; I’ve been called to stand in the gap. I wonder at God’s seeming apathy towards the suffering of the world while blindly neglecting my role in bringing the news of His deliverance. I’m the one who doesn’t adequately care. I’ve been trying to pass the world off as God’s problem when all along He keeps calling me to be part of the solution.

All you have made will praise you, O LORD; your saints will extol you. They will tell of the glory of your kingdom and speak of your might, so that all men may know of your mighty acts and the glorious splendor of your kingdom.
Psalm 145:10-12

My role is to take His praise to the streets, not in a rubbing-it-in-your-face sort of way but with all the boldness and compassion of one who has been sent with a life-altering report. My awareness of people’s perspective should not neutralize my message. Rather it should compel me to raise their awareness of God’s reality.

No man’s land is the place where the prophets lived, the expanse that Jesus bridged, the gap that we are now called to fill.

I guess it’s not such a bad place to inhabit, after all.