Tag Archives: community

It Doesn’t Have to Be This Way: Sex Scandals and What our Leaders Need

I need this.” Reading the recent investigation on claims of Ravi Zacharias’s sexual misconduct, I was caught by the statement multiple women reported hearing from him.  Having worked with Christian leaders around the world, I hear more in those words than a pick-up line. I hear the plea of men and women caught up in the isolation of their ministry success and feeling desperately in need.

“In need of what?” their admirers may wonder. Beyond fame, fortune, and following, these leaders evidence amazing riches in God’s wisdom and power. If that isn’t enough to satisfy, then what is? Yet so many leaders end up enmeshed in immorality and scandal that news of it is hardly more surprising than that of another dip in the stock market or sighting of a hurricane. Unsurprising, yet damaging, those whose lives they influenced are left to grapple with doubts over what was real and what was not. 

Henri Nouwen, who served in the L’Arche communities founded by now-disgraced Jean Vanier, identified the conditional nature of the world’s love as a source of enslavement, particularly to those in its limelight. Gifted leaders who perform well are elevated to hero status, with the caveat that they consistently meet and exceed expectations. “These ‘ifs’ enslave me, since it is impossible to respond adequately to all of them.  …It is a world that fosters addictions because what it offers cannot satisfy the deepest craving of my heart.” 

Ours has become a culture in which leaders are either sanctified or vilified, with very little room for being human. We are familiar with the idea that power corrupts, but we fail to recognize how our image of leaders undermines their capacity to live as beloved children of God, made of weak flesh and in need of ongoing nurture.  This in no way excuses their indecent behavior or abuse of power, nor does it downplay the devastation of broken lives and disillusioned communities left in their wake. But there are multiple forces at play driving good leaders to end up in bad places. To the extent we can recognize and work to change these, we can alter the increasingly familiar narrative of fallen leaders and discredited ministries.

Without constantly cultivating the childlike intimacy with God that usually defined David, leaders will fall prey to a tempting barrage of unmet needs and entitled excuses.

Sex scandals among leaders are as old as the Bible.  David’s abusive treatment of Bathsheba fits the pattern perpetuated among leaders from Seattle to Sri Lanka. Taken at face value, his public statement of confession (Psalm 51) reveals a heart that did not intend for things to end up where they did. But the toxic mix of unquestioned authority and pedestalized isolation led this otherwise godly leader to seek his next “high” in the wrong place. For the many like him, fanfare as addictive as a “Like” button can combine with a dizzying height of social expectation to create a lifestyle fueled by a perpetual adrenaline rush. Add to that long work hours, constant travel, and the pressure to perform, and it is no surprise that the Davids of our time suffer from a deep inner hunger.  Their souls are starving, and the quickest “bite” they can grab is a shoddy stand-in for true intimacy, not to mention one of the very lambs they have devoted themselves to shepherding.

Leaders are responsible to safeguard their flocks, their families, and their souls. Without constantly cultivating the childlike intimacy with God that usually defined David, leaders will fall prey to a tempting barrage of unmet needs and entitled excuses. Thomas à Kempis’s words, penned long before the invention of global media, point to the need for leaders to regularly step back from the microphone, to abstain from social dialogue, and to engage in guided soul-searching: “No one can safely appear in public who does not enjoy seclusion. No one safely talks but he [she] who gladly keeps silent. No one safely rules but he [she] who is glad to be subordinate.” 

Our leaders need us to see them for who they are and not just what we want them to be

But we also have a role to play in safeguarding our leaders. Paul repeatedly requested the loving engagement of the communities that he led, disclosing his weakness and begging their prayers. Whether or not they invite it, our leaders need us to see them for who they are and not just what we want them to be. 

That is what our leaders need. Our leaders need us to be Samuels and Nathans who mentor and supply needed guidance, Jonathans who provide intimate friendship and peer support, and Abigails who intervene and call forth the best in them when we see danger ahead.  Only then can we work together to put an end to the blight of scandalous shepherds and victimized sheep.

Entitlement, Racism, and the Lie of Limited Resources

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When my children were young I took them to our train station to drop off a guest. As a parting favor he gifted each of them with their own bag of chips, which they clutched to their chest like rare treasure. Before we could exit the chaotic South Asian platform, a crowd of ragged beggar children swarmed around them, tugging on their clothes and extending grimy hands in a plea for food. My first impulse was to drive the intruders back, protecting my own blond babies from being mobbed and robbed of their little treat. I am ashamed to admit it now, but I felt my children were entitled to their chips, and though I felt pity for these brown scraps of humanity, I didn’t value their nurture and well-being to the same degree as I would have if they looked, smelled, and sounded like me.

“I would like these children to remain in their poverty, and I will eat my chips.”

Like me, Jesus’ disciples struggled with implicit racism, valuing their own “kind” over the other ethnic groups around them and assuming God’s favor on them over the others rather than on behalf of the others. In a human economy, there were only so many chips to go around, and they wanted to make sure there were plenty for their own kids.

Leaving that place, Jesus withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon. A Canaanite woman from that vicinity came to him, crying out, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me! My daughter is demon-possessed and suffering terribly.”
Jesus did not answer a word. So his disciples came to him and urged him, “Send her away, for she keeps crying out after us.”

No wonder the disciples got upset when a Syrophoenician beggar approached Jesus for a favor. On one hand they had been conditioned to expect His compassionate response to the myriad of marginalized individuals who came clinging to His robes and calling out from the street sides. That was simply His way, and they were learning to appreciate it. But those were needs from within the family. This woman pestering Jesus was an outsider. If He started doling out favors to all of them, then how much time and energy could they realistically expect to be left over for their own people? It wasn’t that they wished any ill for this woman, but they wanted Jesus to maintain His priorities (meaning them) and keep first things (meaning their best interests) first. Her persistent presence made them uncomfortable.

He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.”
The woman came and knelt before him. “Lord, help me!” she said.
He replied, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.”

But Jesus’ priorities didn’t match theirs. In fact, His entire approach to resources and races was radically different from theirs. Jesus recognized the entitled mentality of His followers, and gently challenged it through His witty banter with the other-race woman. At first glance His comments to her seem shockingly racist. Children vs. dogs? Even if He did have an exclusive calling to the Jews, He didn’t have to insult her like that. But Jesus’ comments were as much aimed at challenging His disciples’ implicit racism as they were at engaging the woman’s need.

“Yes it is, Lord,” she said. “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.”
Then Jesus said to her, “Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.” And her daughter was healed at that moment.
Matthew 15:21-28

Jesus knew a courageous, witty woman when He saw one. He threw her a soft pitch, and she hit it out of the park. Using derogatory language that had most likely been thrown at her before, He put a little spin on the metaphor that placed this “dog” not on the street as an unwanted outsider, but rather under the table as a beloved member of the family. And this plucky, determined image bearer took His cue and ran with it. Yes! She would take whatever place in the household she was offered as long as it meant she could share in the family benefits. Like the psalmist singing “I’d rather be a doorkeeper in the house of God…,” she recognized the treasure of the Kingdom and banked on it. I can almost see the twinkle in Jesus’ eye as He bantered with this woman, and the smile on His face when she pushed back with her demand.

Jesus called his disciples to him and said, “I have compassion for these people; they have already been with me three days and have nothing to eat. I do not want to send them away hungry, or they may collapse on the way.”
His disciples answered, “Where could we get enough bread in this remote place to feed such a crowd?”
“How many loaves do you have?” Jesus asked.
“Seven,” they replied, “and a few small fish.”
Matthew 15:32-34

Jesus’ interaction with the woman was not only an invitation for her to stand up for the dignity that was rightfully hers; it was also a demonstration for His disciples to witness His view of people from other races. His use of their racist language put a mirror in front of them, causing them to see the ugliness of their own attitude and giving them the opportunity to see another way. And if they were still struggling with the idea that opening the doors to “her kind” would somehow deprive “the children” of the house, He demonstrated otherwise by healing and feeding 4,000 outsiders from her region, with 7 basketfuls of leftovers to match the number of complete fullness.

If I am willing to stand up for the right of my children to eat their chips in safety and without fear, why am I not willing to do the same for children of another color?

Jesus’ example challenges our hidden assumptions about resources and race. If I am willing to stand up for the right of my children to eat their chips in safety and without fear, why am I not willing to do the same for children of another color? Does Jesus’ compassionate care end with my family and community, or does He intend me to extend the same to all of His image bearers crying out for security, dignity, and equal access to resources? To be honest, this raises fear in me—fear that if I expand the circle of my involvement my own family will suffer lack. Somehow it is easier to send a donation to help suffering children of color far away than to notice and share with the ones in the next neighborhood over.

Aware of their discussion, Jesus asked them: “Why are you talking about having no bread? Do you still not see or understand? Are your hearts hardened? Do you have eyes but fail to see, and ears but fail to hear? And don’t you remember? When I broke the five loaves for the five thousand, how many basketfuls of pieces did you pick up?”
“Twelve,” they replied.
“And when I broke the seven loaves for the four thousand, how many basketfuls of pieces did you pick up?”
They answered, “Seven.”
He said to them, “Do you still not understand?”
Mark 8:17-21

My son hung back from the demanding hands, stating in his toddler simplicity what I have often been too hypocritical to admit. “I would like these children to wemain in their poverty, and I will eat my chips.” But my daughter knew the joy of sharing and the lavishness of the Sharer. She imitated Jesus, moving forward into the crowd to carefully distribute her chips into each outstretched hand and make sure that no one was missed.

An Awkward Feast

turkeyYesterday’s BBC headlines opined that this could be the most awkward Thanksgiving ever. Following months of heated debates, antagonistic facebook posts, and threats of leaving the country from both sides, American families may find it difficult to sit around the same table and talk with each other again.

I have to admit that I have been shocked by the nastiness this election dredged up in all of us. I heard in our conversations a heartlessness and cruelty towards the opinions and interests of others that should have shamed us, but didn’t. In fact, we modeled for our kids (and for the watching world) that it is perfectly acceptable to mock, slander, verbally attack, and basically dehumanize whomever we disagree with. It is almost as if, for a suspended period of time, we chucked out all our Christian morals about the fruit of the Spirit and supported the humanist assumption that all is fair in love, war, and politics.

In the wake of all that, how do we regather as families, churches, and communities who have been torn right down the middle by our political battles? Do we simply pretend like we didn’t say the things we said? Do we confront each other with “I told you so”s or “I can’t believe you would”s? Or do we simply avoid each other, silently retreating from those we have come to see as the enemy?

Having watched Christians on both sides of the emotionally-charged fence navigate the aftermath of the Scottish Referendum and of Brexit, I would suggest that we approach this Thanksgiving feast the way Christians throughout the ages have been called to approach our Eucharistic feast.

Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God… Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.
Ephesians 4:29-32

More important than preparing our turkeys, we need to start by preparing our own hearts, asking ourselves, “In what ways have I contributed to the problem? What attitudes or assumptions have I held on to that may be unnecessarily distancing others? Have my rants and jokes and snide comments communicated the love Christ bears for them?” If we start by working the planks out of our own eyes, we may have a better chance of seeing each other with renewed compassion.

…remember that at that time you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ.
Ephesians 2:12-13

Zooming in on ourselves is a critical first step for creating humble pie, but zooming out allows us to remember why we bother with a feast in the first place. We come to the Lord’s Table because we are broken and needy refugees, desperate for His healing touch, His cleansing blood, and His life-restoring presence. We come because our relationship with Him gets strained or distant and is in constant need of renewal. When we come confessing our sins and sincerely seeking His face, He never turns us away or hides behind distancing excuses. He places Himself in our hands, once again offering us the opportunity to both delight and hurt Him (which we inevitably do). And because of Christ’s conciliatory posture, we (who just as often behave like His enemies as we do His friends) can again be at peace with God.

For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility,by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility.
Ephesians 2:14-16

And as sweet as this peace with God is, it is not complete until we share it with each other. After all, communion was never meant to be a private dining experience. I am not the only one He invites to His table! If I claim to love God, then I must love those whom He loves. If I care about what is important to Him, then I will invest myself in reconciling the relationships that He poured out His blood to make peace between.

For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit. Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household…
Ephesians 2: 17-19

I hear Christians from opposing political camps talking as if they can no longer share fellowship with each other. For many it is the pain and betrayal they feel from those who seem to have blatantly compromised their Christian values by the way they have behaved or voted. For some it is simply the inability to understand why certain issues would be such a big deal to the exclusion of others. Regardless, as those who have been invited to sit together at God’s table, it is simply not an option to hold on to our relationship with Him without also working to reconcile our relationships with each other.

As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.
Ephesians 4:1-3

We might be tempted to wonder why God would include at His table such an odd assortment of guests. What with our disparity of cultural values and political positions, not to mention emotional temperaments, personal perspectives, and communication styles, how can He expect us to all sit together and enjoy a peaceful conversation? It may be that we have to do a lot of teeth-gritting as we put up with each other, praying frantically that the Spirit will override the divisive reactions which naturally come springing out of our lips and replace them with His own fruit.

God never promised that diversity would be easy, or that unity would come naturally. Overcoming barriers of caste, gender, race, nationalism, and political persuasion to gather His people from every tribe, tongue, and nation into one happily dining family is nothing short of a miracle. It takes constant forgiveness (even of those who don’t know they need it) and vigilant sensitivity to the fears and pain of others.

But this is exactly the awkward social situation into which He invites us to come and dine. And as our stubborn love keeps us together at the table, the miracle of His grace gets put on display for a watching world to see.

Overcoming Evil

distressed fatherPolice brutality. Race riots. Brexit angst. Political upheaval. Refugee crises. ISIS bombs. Global terror.

Our land is shaken and torn open, O Lord! Mend its fractures, for it is quaking. (Psalm 60:2)

I begin my day with prayer, not knowing how to pray. My heart churns with the overwhelming tide of global unrest, seeking a stabilizing point on which I can plant my feet.

From the ends of the earth I call to you, I call as my heart grows faint: lead me to the rock that is higher than I. (Psalm 61:2)

And He offers just that, fixing my gaze on Himself as the one who is big enough to handle it. Because He governs men and nations, I don’t need to fret or despair.

Find rest, O my soul, in God alone: my hope comes from him. He alone is my rock… I will not be shaken. (Psalm 62:5)

Though I don’t see it in the headlines, though I don’t feel it in the heated discussions, He reminds me that He is still reigning, still in the process of putting all things under His pierced feet.

One thing God has spoken, two things have I heard: that you, O God are strong, and that you, O Lord, are loving. Surely you will reward each person according to what he has done. (Psalm 62:11-12)

In the end, He will make all things right, judging each of us for what we have or have not done.

Our confidence in Christ’s lordship calls us to an overcomer’s mentality of proactive love.

And that is where He turns my prayers around and puts the burden back on me. What have I done to bring peace in my time? What have I done to offer refuge to the refugee? What have I done to encourage those who govern or protect us, to speak up for those who are vulnerable to discrimination and unjust treatment, or to break down walls of hostility and mistrust? I too will be judged.

But what can I do? The overwhelming nature of the problems tempts me to a victim’s mentality of helplessness. But the all-powerful nature of God calls me to an overcomer’s mentality of proactive love.

Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Romans 12:21)

I can use my everyday actions to show acts of kindness to those who least expect it. Like the black doctor who worked to save the lives of white police officers, I can go out of my way to show love to those who fall into opposing political camps or racial groups from me. Look an immigrant in the eye and ask him how he is doing. Invite black acquaintances over for dinner and ask them how they are really feeling (and then listen empathetically). Buy a police officer a coffee and thank him for his service. Write a constructive letter to a politician from the “other side,” encouraging her to consider my cause.

As I meditated on Romans 12 this morning with our current global contexts in mind, it spoke deeply and practically to how we as Christians should live out our confidence that Jesus is Lord. Because we trust that He is actively reigning in our world, we don’t need to react in terror, erect boundaries in fear, re-enforce divisions in distrust, write scathing criticisms in alarm, or retreat in despair. Rather, with our feet firmly rooted on rock of His rule, we are free to love those we would otherwise hate, or fear.

This is what it means to be a Christian in our world. As you pray through the following verses, I would love to hear how God is speaking to you about what we can do to stop fretting over the problems and start being a part of the solution.

1 Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. 2 Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.

9 Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. 10 Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves. 11 Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord. 12 Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. 13 Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality. 14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. 15 Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. 16 Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited. 17 Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. 18 If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. 19 Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. 20 On the contrary: “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.” 21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

Romans 12

 

 

 

 

 

Warts and All: On Why I Love the Church

853664e3b6e531ef7a9fc711013888ddI hear a growing chorus of frustration with Christianity and the “the church.” It pops up in blog posts, surfaces in individual conversations, and seeps through the cracks of our decaying religious moral. And for the most part, I would add my voice to the critiques.

Sadly, the church rarely lives up to its noble calling. In far too many cases truth has been wielded with all the tenderness of a baseball bat, authority structures have abused and suppressed the very sheep they were entrusted to nurture and empower, and programs, systems, and corporate culture have squeezed the very soul out of those who come seeking God.

Denying the church’s flaws isn’t helpful. But neither is dismissing it because of them.

I have seen (and smelled) the underbelly of too many Christian organizations and churches to be naïve to the painful realities involved in any human community. There isn’t a group that I have been part of that doesn’t have its casualties. At this point I’m not sure any story of Christian abuse, neglect, insensitivity, or betrayal can shock me. My own experiences have trained me in just how damaging the church can be.

Denying the church’s flaws isn’t helpful. But neither is dismissing it because of them.

An ecclesiology which sees the church primarily as a filling station for our individual spirituality will lead us to easily and quickly quit on it when it does not scratch where we itch. We have bought in to a consumerist paradigm which uses marketing strategies to grow churches and business models to run them. No wonder we are inclined to take our business elsewhere when their services no longer suit us!

Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.
Ephesians 4:2-6

But despite all its toxic boils and cancerous perversions, the church is still the Church. It is the body of Christ, the family of our Heavenly Father. That’s not just a nice metaphor designed to give us all a warm fuzzy at the end of a special service. It’s the reality that the Trinity set in motion when the Father sacrificed His Firstborn to bring many more sons and daughters into the family. It’s the reality that we breathe in and out as we enjoy the benefits of the Spirit’s presence with each of us.

For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink. Even so the body is not made up of one part but of many.

But God has put the body together, giving 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.
I Corinthians 12:13-14, 24-27

God doesn’t offer us individual package deals. As much as we like to think about how much He loves each of us as His special child, the implications of that relationship are that we are now stuck with each other as a family. More than that, we are actually one huge, living organism, bound together by the same life-giving Spirit and topped off with the same life-directing Head. No one of us can belong to God without belonging to the others. No one of us can quit on the rest without also quitting on God (and ourselves, while we are at it).

Perhaps our problem is not that we haven’t found the right church. It’s that we haven’t taken the right approach to church.

Perhaps our problem is not that we haven’t found the right church. It’s that we haven’t taken the right approach to the church.

Years ago a wise Indian pastor knocked the bluster out of me. In response to my self-important criticism of the theological limpness and evangelistic anemia of the mainline church, he quietly replied that he found it easier to stand outside of something and throw rocks at it rather than to remain doggedly within it and work for change. His comment made its mark, influencing me from then on to choose my church based not on its vitality but rather on its need.

Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away….
When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me. For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face.
1 Corinthians 13:8, 11-12

The longer I have practiced being part of the solution rather than a harbinger of the problem, the more I have come to love the church. What started as a theological commitment to unity has become a part of my spiritual DNA. The more I love God, the more I can’t help but love His body. The more I invest in His family, the more I mature in sharing His own heart.

As frustrating as I still find certain people to be, as infuriating as lousy theology, damaging relationships, and distancing structures still are, I honestly cannot conceptualize of being a Christian apart from the church. It’s my family! Wherever I go in the world, I find my kin. Whether the songs are unfamiliar or the language incomprehensible, these are my people. I have no choice but to bear with them in love.

Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.
Ephesians 4:15-16

So when we raise our voices in critique of the church, we had better recognize that we do it as insiders. Whatever each of us points out as a problem we then have the responsibility to proactively engage. This warty body’s only hope of eventually matching up to its glorious Head lies with each of us, its members, doing our bit.

This is the only Body we’ve got. We may not always like it, but how can we not love it?

And-It-Is-Not-You

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When our childhood rhyme ended with the finger pointing at me, that final verdict always left with me with a sense of “not good enough” (unless, of course, our lot-casting was over some unwanted task). It dashed my hopes of being the chosen one, singled out for some special privilege or honor.

In our life-long quest for significance, we dread that moment of being passed over for someone else. We want God to pick us for some major contribution to humanity or some significant kingdom work. It becomes increasingly disconcerting as life unfolds and we feel we have little to show for it. What happened to ending poverty by the time we were thirty, saving North Korea by forty, and publishing books on it by fifty? But perhaps we are looking at our lives from the completely wrong angle.

David was not It.

They brought the ark of God and set it inside the tent that David had pitched for it, and they presented burnt offerings and fellowship offerings before God. …

Ascribe to the LORD, all you families of nations, ascribe to the LORD glory and strength. Ascribe to the LORD the glory due his name; bring an offering and come before him. Worship the LORD in the splendor of his holiness. …  Let the heavens rejoice, let the earth be glad; let them say among the nations, “The LORD reigns!”

1 Chronicles 16:1, 28-31

After years of dedicated service to God by the power of the Spirit, David longed for nothing more than to build a monument to God’s name. This would be the culmination of all he had worked for. Zeal for God’s house had compelled him to complete the unsavoury task of purging the land from those God had commanded his predecessors to destroy, to set up a kingdom of righteousness and peace, and to retrieve the ark from its shed and bring it up to the highest point in his new capitol city. The final step would be to build a glorious temple in which it could be properly honored, a house of prayer to which all nations could come and from which God’s blessing could flow to the ends of the earth.

“Go and tell my servant David, ‘This is what the LORD says: You are not the one to build me a house to dwell in.

‘I declare to you that the LORD will build a house for you: When your days are over and you go to be with your ancestors, I will raise up your offspring to succeed you, one of your own sons, and I will establish his kingdom. He is the one who will build a house for me, and I will establish his throne forever. I will be his father, and he will be my son. …

1 Chronicles 17:4, 11-13

Consulting the prophet on this plan almost seemed like a formality. After all, God had already anointed David as His chosen one to rule the nation. It made perfect sense that God would pick him to build the temple, too. But He didn’t. Instead He made some promise about David’s offspring getting the honor.

David said, “My son Solomon is young and inexperienced, and the house to be built for the LORD should be of great magnificence and fame and splendor in the sight of all the nations. Therefore I will make preparations for it.” So David made extensive preparations before his death.

1 Chronicles 22:5

While David could have thrown up his hands in frustration or withdrawn to lick his wounded pride, he instead embraced the grander vision that God had laid out for him. After all, this wasn’t all about him. It was about being a small part of God’s kingdom coming on earth as it is in heaven. He still longed to see that earthly replica of God’s heavenly dwelling built in its rightful place, so he dedicated himself to equipping others to do the work that he couldn’t. He threw himself into raising funds, organizing resources, identifying talent, training leaders, and casting vision for his successor to lead the nation in creating the masterpiece he would not live to see.

Solomon wasn’t It, either.

After receiving the tabernacle, our ancestors under Joshua brought it with them when they took the land from the nations God drove out before them. It remained in the land until the time of David, who enjoyed God’s favor and asked that he might provide a dwelling place for the God of Jacob. But it was Solomon who built a house for him. 

“However, the Most High does not live in houses made by human hands. As the prophet says: “ ‘Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool. What kind of house will you build for me? says the Lord. Or where will my resting place be?

Acts 7:45-50

As much as it might have seemed that the climax of history rested on Solomon’s crown, he was merely a stepping-stone to the next phase of God’s dwelling among men. Yes, he fulfilled the prophecy about building a temple where God’s Spirit would live and respond to the needs of His people, and the glorious structure that he completed surpassed even David’s expectations. But it was only a miniature version of a greater one to come. In fact Solomon in all his splendor was only a shadow of another King who would build the biggest temple of all.

But even Jesus wasn’t It.

After His bodily “temple” was destroyed and raised again on the third day, He might have sat back and finally enjoyed the recognition of all those people who had doubted and derided Him. In a very real sense He had arrived at His destination, conquering renegade powers, delivering His people, and establishing His reign of righteousness and peace. But His vision was much bigger than that. He wanted to build a temple that would encompass the whole cosmos, one which would include Him as the chief cornerstone, but only be complete along with the rest of us, too.

 But very truly I tell you, it is for your good that I am going away. Unless I go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you.

But to each one of us grace has been given as Christ apportioned it. This is why it says: “When he ascended on high, he took many captives and gave gifts to his people.” 
(What does “he ascended” mean except that he also descended to the lower, earthly regions ? He who descended is the very one who ascended higher than all the heavens, in order to fill the whole universe.) 
So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up…

John 16:7, Ephesians 4:7-10

Like the Spirit who lived within him, Jesus found greater satisfaction in distributing power than in holding on to it. He moved out of the way so that the Spirit could come transform each believing body and our corporate Body into His sacred dwelling place. And the Spirit is still in the process of doing just that: distributing gifts to different ones of us so that we can have something to contribute to the building of this same Temple.

When I am tempted to think that my significance rests on single-handedly achieving some great feat, I need to look again at the story I am living. This is not a story about me. It isn’t even really just a story about God (though He is certainly the Author and Main Character). It is a story about us: God, humans, angels, cosmic bodies, and even the earth with its plants and animals. The temple we get to be part of is greater than the sum of its parts, filling Heaven and earth and filled with the Spirit of the Infinite God. No one of us could complete it in a lifetime. But with the Spirit’s help, each one of us gets to play a significant role in helping out.

What a relief not to be It!

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.

Priesting Lessons, or When God Invites Us to Dinner

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What does it mean for me to be a priest? Obviously some people are called into a specific type of priestly ministry, involving specialized training, recognition, and a particular leadership role within the church. But what about the rest of us? If a core part of our identity as believers is to be part of a priesthood, what does that actually look like?

Embracing our identity as priests should radically shape the way we go about our lives. Studying the Reformation with my children in our recent history classes has reminded me how life altering this doctrine was for the believers of that era. In a post-medieval context, it infused common people with a new boldness to approach God directly and to study the Scriptures personally. But how does this doctrine speak into an individualistic era in which we are more likely to think of our relationship with God as a personal matter and relegate our spirituality to what we experience in our private time with Him?

Then Moses went up to God, and the LORD called to him from the mountain and said, “This is what you are to say to the descendants of Jacob …
Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’
Exodus 19:3-6

Like us, Moses had a long way to go in figuring out how to do this whole priest thing. He, like his ancestor Abraham, had been chosen as God’s representative on earth. But what started out as the not-so-simple task of confronting a powerful government and rescuing a group of slaves quickly turned into an even more complicated task of leading an unruly nation through its unpredictable adolescence and into its high calling of being a kingdom of priests. For starters, Moses needed a little training himself.

Listen now to me and I will give you some advice, and may God be with you. You must be the people’s representative before God and bring their disputes to him. Teach them his decrees and instructions, and show them the way they are to live and how they are to behave.
Exodus 18:19-20

Thankfully God sent along his father-in-law, a veteran priest from Midian (and a fellow descendent from Abraham). In addition to his invaluable advice about empowering those under him to lead, Jethro also charged Moses with the dual responsibility of taking the people’s concerns before God and of speaking God’s concerns to the people. More than that, he called Moses to live before the people in such a way that they could see what it looked like to be a priest in service to God and imitate his example. Jethro himself led by example, blessing Moses and ushering him, Aaron, and all the elders of Israel into communion with God through a sacrificial feast.

When Moses went and told the people all the LORD’s words and laws, they responded with one voice, “Everything the LORD has said we will do.” … He got up early the next morning and built an altar at the foot of the mountain and set up twelve stone pillars representing the twelve tribes of Israel. Then he sent young Israelite men, and they offered burnt offerings and sacrificed young bulls as fellowship offerings to the LORD. …

Moses then took the blood, sprinkled it on the people and said, “This is the blood of the covenant that the LORD has made with you in accordance with all these words.”
Exodus 24:3-8

Moses faced a steep learning curve as he was almost immediately called on by God to lead his people in a similar encounter. God was going to show up on a nearby mountain in His overwhelming power and glory. This was no small deal. It was God once again descending to inhabit a physical space on earth and to meet with His people. The first try at this on the mount of Eden had ended in disaster when the people-priests violated the terms of their employment and desecrated themselves with restricted food. This time around they would need to be more careful.

Moses went to great lengths to prepare his community for the day of God’s coming, telling them God’s words and ways, calling them to respond in obedience and faith, offering sacrifices of prayer and praise on their behalf, and teaching them to do the same. Using the same words our great High Priest would later speak as He introduced yet another communion feast, Moses applied the blood of God’s covenant to their physical bodies.

Moses and Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, and the seventy elders of Israel went up and saw the God of Israel. Under his feet was something like a pavement made of lapis lazuli, as bright blue as the sky. But God did not raise his hand against these leaders of the Israelites; they saw God, and they ate and drank.
Exodus 24:9-11

And amazingly, the same holy God who had traumatized them with His life-threatening thunderclouds and earth-shattering voice now invited Moses and his companions to come to His place for dinner. Just as a select few of Jesus’ disciples would later get a mountaintop glimpse of His glory, God gave these mortals the opportunity to gaze on His beauty. Feet planted on earth and eyes gazing into heaven, they ate and drank with God.

The intimacy of this absolutely floors me! And yet this is the very sort of communion that we get to share with God each time we break bread and drink wine together in His presence. Not only do we eat and drink with God at the Eucharistic altar, we also dine with Him each time we invoke His blessing on our meal and receive our daily manna with thanks. In a very real sense, when we pray over our food we are functioning as priests.

And just as communion is by nature a communal act, our priestly calling is anything but something to be limited to our private lives. We are those whom God has called into relationship with Himself so that we might represent Him to others and others to Him. His blessing on those around us is mediated by our faithfulness to intercede on their behalf before His throne and to speak on His behalf into their lives.

As we consciously live and serve in the presence of God, we become the bridge between heaven and earth, between God and man. That is what it means to be a priesthood of believers.

Scrubbing the Competition

competitionI’d like to think that I am not competitive, that I have learned to love others to the point that I can pursue my own personal excellence while rejoicing when they achieve the same. But then I run smack into the glass door of reality. The truth is that I sometimes look around a room and find fault with each person present. I struggle to celebrate when my peers get recognized or promoted beyond me. And I find ways to justify in my own mind why I am more deserving than they.

At the heart of all this I recognize a deep selfishness which hinders true community. As long as my self-interests are not threatened, I am free to love, to affirm, and to promote those around me. But as soon as their success impedes my agenda, the warm fuzzies evaporate and my green-eyed monster is laid bare.

Despite my life-long efforts to fight this tendency, I am ashamed to discover it still at work in me. O wretched friend that I am—who will save me from my critical, competitive self?

All of a sudden the disciples incessant bickering about which of them was the greatest doesn’t seem so ridiculous to me. They were merely saying out loud what I valiantly try to mask. At least they weren’t hypocritical about it!

It was just before the Passover Feast. Jesus knew that the time had come for him to leave this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he now showed them the full extent of his love. The evening meal was being served, and the devil had already prompted Judas Iscariot, son of Simon, to betray Jesus.
John 13:1-2

But our jostling for position must put a dagger through Jesus’ heart. After all, isn’t the kingdom all about Him? There He sat at the table the night before He died, grieving over His impending suffering, savoring His farewell dinner with His friends, and predicting one’s betrayal, and all they could talk about was which of them most important.

The road towards greatness in God’s kingdom is paved by laying down my self.

The answer was staring them in the face. God was sitting there in the flesh, the Creator of the Universe passed them the bread. But rather than exert His position as Potentate of Time or rebuke them for their petty arguing, Jesus simply got up from the table and silently made His point.

Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God; so he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist.
John 13:3-4

He knew who He was. As painful as it was to be perpetually undercut by His leaders, misunderstood by His family, questioned by the masses, and even doubted by His friends, Jesus’ identity was firmly rooted in who the Father said He was. He didn’t have to put His disciples down to establish His worth. Because He was secure in His own position, Jesus could voluntarily lower Himself to elevate others.

After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him.
John 13:5

And that is exactly what He did. Jesus made His way around the table of squabbling subordinates, kneeling before each one and serving him in the most menial way possible. The hands that flung stars into space scraped the scum from between their toes. The back that would soon bear the weight of the world bent in bared effort before His uppity inferiors.

Jesus answered, “A person who has had a bath needs only to wash his feet; his whole body is clean. And you are clean, though not every one of you.” For he knew who was going to betray him…
John 13:10-11

Not even His betrayer was excluded from Jesus’ tender service that night. Who could fault Him for refusing to stretch out His neck before the man who had already sold Him to His murderers? But Jesus showed the full extent of His love by washing the feet of both His competing friends and His conniving enemy.

When he had finished washing their feet, he put on his clothes and returned to his place. “Do you understand what I have done for you?” he asked them. “You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet.
John 13:12-14

Having made His point with His hands, Jesus reinforced it with His words. Yes, He was rightfully their superior, and it was important that they all remember that. But His exalted position was merely a platform from which He chose to raise up those around Him. If His disciples wanted to honor Him, they would have to do so by imitating His example of honoring each other.

I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. I tell you the truth, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him.
John 13:15-16

And this is where Jesus’ words lodge with me. There is nothing wrong with desiring greatness. But I am going about it all the wrong way if I seek to promote myself at other’s expense. There is no room for that sort of competition in God’s Kingdom. If coming out first involves putting others down (even in my own mind), then I have effectively made myself last.

My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.
John 15:12-13

The road towards greatness in His kingdom is paved through the laying down of my own self. My pursuit of excellence in His eyes should lead me to wash my competitor’s feet, not trounce them under mine. Jesus calls me to pursue the enhancement of the whole Body, of which my fellow disciples are an integral part.

After all, I am not the Bride of Christ.

We are.

Originally posted on Bread for the Bride

Beyond Giving Tuesday: A Service that Can’t Be Bought

IMG_0834Am I my brother’s keeper?

In a Christian culture marked by boundaries and balance, we can start to sound like Cain in the way we ask the question. While we are quick to decry abuse, we feel minimal responsibility for those outside the scope of our immediate friends and family. Sometimes even that circle may be too broad. When the chips are down or our resources run dry, we look out for number one.

Of course, we aren’t completely heartless. We remember to include Giving Tuesday in our annual shopping binge. We donate to projects for feeding the hungry, raise awareness for victims of sex-trafficking, and pray for refugees. But somehow our care for our global neighbors manages to stay buffered enough to be safe.

Taking on projects protects us from loving people.

Taking on projects protects us from having to love people. Caring for media-mediated strangers buffers us from being impinged upon by those whose physical and emotional proximity might place unwanted demands on us. We want to manifest God’s love to a hurting world, but we want to do so without getting hurt ourselves.

“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand is not the shepherd who owns the sheep. So when he sees the wolf coming, he abandons the sheep and runs away. Then the wolf attacks the flock and scatters it. The man runs away because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep.”
John 10:11-13

Though our intent may be to act like Jesus, we end up acting like the hirelings He defined Himself in contrast to. These are the ones who do a good job of caring for the sheep as long as it doesn’t cost them too much. But when the stakes are raised and the job encroaches on their personal time, safety, or sense of well-being, they make excuses and run. At the end of the day, they would rather sacrifice the sheep than be sacrificed for the sheep.

Perhaps the reason we behave like hirelings is that we still think like them.

It was in that sort of crisis situation that Jesus proved the veracity of His love. He didn’t retreat from danger and leave His sheep to fend for themselves. He didn’t save His own hide at the expense of theirs. He lay down His life for those under His care because He saw them as irrevocably connected to Him. His long-term well-being was bound up in theirs. After all, they were His inheritance, not someone else’s.

Again Jesus said, “Simon son of John, do you truly love me?”
He answered, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.”
Jesus said, “Take care of my sheep.”
John 21:16

Perhaps the reason we behave like hirelings is that we still think like them. We see ourselves as servants of God, looking out for others on His behalf. And there is an element of truth to that. The people around us are His sheep, precious in His sight. Though we may struggle to value them the way He does, we still feel responsible to care for them out of a sense of obligation to our Master. We prove our loyalty to Him by the way we tend each other.

My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.You are my friends if you do what I command.

I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you. …This is my command: Love each other.
John 15:12-17

But the level of commitment God demands of us exceeds the limits of a mere servant. He calls us to love Him with all that we have and all that we are. And He calls us to love each other until it hurts, to take up each other’s financial, emotional, spiritual and physical burdens as if they were our own.

The point is that we are no longer hirelings. No amount of payment could make such personal sacrifice worth it. We are God’s friends, and what’s more, we are His kids. Our status as co-heirs with Jesus means that His sheep are our sheep, His inheritance our inheritance.

If you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any fellowship with the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and purpose.

Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.
Philippians 2:1-4

According to our new identity, we have a vested interest in looking out for each other’s interests. We are no longer many individuals each scrambling for survival. We are a conglomerate, individually rooted in and communally bound by God’s Trinitarian love. Whatever hit one of us takes for another, we all benefit from. Whatever need remains unmet in one of us, we all suffer the lack of.

Paradoxically, Cain’s question reverberates through the relational ages and finds expression in our own excuses. “Am I my brother’s keeper?” and “Who is my neighbor?” may get rephrased as “That’s not my responsibility” and “We need to look to our own national security,” but God’s answer remains the same.

As true children of our Father, we are called to look out for those around us as proactively and sacrificially as He does. We are responsible to notice the silently suffering member of our church, to provide for the financially struggling member of our community, and to protect the politically vulnerable member of our race—no matter what it costs us.

This kind of service isn’t for hire. It can only be generated and bound by love.