Tag Archives: Kingdom of God

Repent: The Gospel Message to Racism, Policing, and Me

John the Baptist, Cameroon

In a rising tide of fists and voices, the path of righteousness is increasingly difficult to find. Whose opinion do I trust? With whose grievance do I side? How do I even think about the events that are taking place around us? Whose narrative is right?

A nuanced understanding is necessary, and I think it is fair to say that no movement or group is going to get everything right. Rather than take sides in yet another polarizing shouting-match, or follow my algorithm-generated news feed (which scrupulously selects and reinforces the slant towards which it knows I lean), I am drawn back into the oddly stabilizing message of John the Baptist, which somehow managed to step on everyone’s toes with leveling conviction.

John said to the crowds coming out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.”

No racial group gets to claim special status or immunity from John’s scathing social commentary. In order to be “in” with the King, each had better start by examining where their own life fails to line up with His way of love. This gospel of peace works as an objective, outside perspective, enabling me to first look into it to remove the log from my own eyes, and then to look again to see where others might need to change too.

“What should we do then?” the crowd asked.
John answered, “Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same.”

The fruit of repentance looks like sharing whatever I have with those who don’t have it. No discussion of who they are, what they deserve, or whether they align with my particular perspective. No discussion of whether I am an oppressed minority or a privileged majority. We share. We tend and keep. We look out for each other. Why? Because as Jesus would highlight in the racially charged parable of the Good Samaritan, our core identity is as neighbors, not ethnic groups, religious affiliations, social classes, or political parties.

Even tax collectors came to be baptized. “Teacher,” they asked, “what should we do?”
“Don’t collect any more than you are required to,” he told them.
Then some soldiers asked him, “And what should we do?”
He replied, “Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely—be content with your pay.”
Luke 3:7-14

But John also had some pointed gospel applications for those “neighbors” with particular forms of power. To their credit, tax collectors and soldiers had come in humility, openly asking how they might align themselves with the way of the Lord. To those with financial power, John applied the law of love to taking only what was right rather than what they could get away with. To those with policing power, John applied the law of love to treating everyone fairly, which includes being careful to find out the facts before accusing anyone. Whether or not these soldiers saw themselves as powerful, the people whose lives hinged on their right use of law and careful use of force certainly did.

I am grateful for the police. I am grateful for the many officers who have corrected me, protected me, and helped me in times of need. They used their power for my good, to the extent that when I see a uniform, I feel safer. But not everyone shares my experience. The children in the community where my youngest child will be attending school tell of how the sight of a policeman strikes them with terror when they are playing in the street. Will this officer accuse them of something and take them away, as they have seen happen with their friends? Will a simple inquiry escalate into a violent arrest that costs them their life, as they have seen through their media feed? Fear and distrust breed reactive behavior, conditioning these children to a fight-or-flight response to the approach of any police officer, whether gentle or aggressive.

“There are few things more devastating than to have it burned into you that you do not count and that no provisions are made for the literal protection of your person. The threat of violence is ever present, and there is no way to determine precisely when it may come crushing down upon you.”

There is a talk African-American mothers have to have with their sons, the talk in which they plead with them to avoid any encounter with police and, if approached, to avert their eyes in deference and answer with a simple “yes, sir” or “no, sir.” I have never had that talk with my son, both because he has the experience of being unafraid of the police and because he has the luxury of likely being given the benefit of the doubt if caught in a questionable situation. I cannot imagine the crushing effect a talk like that must have on a young, budding soul. Howard Thurman commented, “There are few things more devastating than to have it burned into you that you do not count and that no provisions are made for the literal protection of your person. The threat of violence is ever present, and there is no way to determine precisely when it may come crushing down upon you.” (Jesus and the Disinherited, p. 39).

What change does the gospel require of me?

What is the gospel for these young people? What is the gospel for their mothers, for police officers, for you, for me? What answer would John give each of us if we were amidst the throng asking, “What should I do, then?” I suspect the general idea would be, “Stop fighting to protect your own way of life and start looking out for the interests of others!” That’s universally hard, both because it involves death to self and because it involves waking up to the “other.” It involves being willing to admit where I have fallen short, even when I feel I am being unfairly treated or belligerently accused. And it involves loving people whose agenda may be damaging to my identity, my status, and my way of life. Whoever my neighbor is and however much it might cost me, I don’t get a pass on love.

A certain ruler asked him, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” …
When Jesus heard this, he said to him, “You still lack one thing. Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”
When he heard this, he became very sad, because he was very wealthy.
Luke 18:18-23

The privileged young ruler came to Jesus with a similar question: What change does the gospel require of me? His unwillingness to pay the price for change led him to retreat to the safety of his own home, community, and newsfeed. But in so doing, the price he unwittingly paid was entrance into the Kingdom, where Jesus seeks to bind all people together in the radical way of love.

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.

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!

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!”

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.


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.

Redefining Greatness

attachment“What do you want to be when you grow up?”

Driving through the Scottish countryside for an anniversary getaway last weekend, my husband and I laughingly but seriously asked each other the question that we occasionally revisit in our life together.

As a child there were all sorts of things that I dreamed of being: the prettiest girl in the school, the fastest runner on the field, the smartest student in the class. Those aspirations have taken different shapes over the years, but they all boil down to what my father proudly called a “vision for greatness.”

Greatness is being God’s shadow.

That deep internal drive to distinguish myself, to be the very best in each area of life has been with me for all long as I can remember. A fellow student in the honor’s program at college once gently criticized me for the way it pulled me away from simply enjoying my friends, asking me why I was always so “driven.” At the time his question didn’t make sense. Weren’t we all pursuing the same goal of excellence and success?

Of course I recognized that my definition of success was radically different from that of the world. I wasn’t seeking fame or fortune. I wanted to be great in the kingdom of God. But for me that was still a matter of individual achievement. I threw myself into being the best teacher, the best cross-cultural communicator, the best champion of the poor, the best homeschooling mother, the best hostess, the best counselor, etc.

I thought that by being great in the roles God called me to I would bring greater glory to Him. But without realizing it, my headlong pursuit of greatness was actually all about my performance, about my setting lofty goals and then being publicly recognized for having achieved them.

Over more recent years God has re-defined my vision for greatness.

So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it…
Genesis 1:27-28

And just as we have borne the likeness of the earthly man, so shall we bear the likeness of the man from heaven.
1 Corinthians 15:49

Greatness is being His shadow. It’s copycatting His character and His work on earth, mimicking in the seen world what He is constantly up to in the unseen world. It’s living as an interactive image of the Creator, fleshing out in each mundane detail of life what He is actually like. This happens each time I give ear to the complaint of my frustrated child, each time I forgive the offence of an insensitive stranger, each time I respond to the distress of a silently suffering friend.

People were bringing little children to Jesus to have him touch them, but the disciples rebuked them. When Jesus saw this, he was indignant. He said to them, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. …And he took the children in his arms, put his hands on them and blessed them.
Mark 10:13-16

One of the greatest moments in my life was the time I was accidentally mistaken for Jesus. There was a high-end market in the South Asian city where we lived that I tried to avoid, partially because of the aggressive crowd of street-urchins that would hound me from shop to shop. The rare occasions when I did visit there were usually times when I wanted a special treat, an escape from the usual slog of work and ministry. As much as I wanted to ignore the grimy hands tugging on my clothes, God’s Spirit would prick my conscience, reminding me that He never indulges in a hiatus from caring for my needs. And so, albeit begrudgingly, I would buy packs of roasted nuts and distribute them around, sometimes also taking the time to bless each child in Jesus’ name.

…Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave–just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

As Jesus and his disciples were leaving Jericho, a large crowd followed him. Two blind men were sitting by the roadside, and when they heard that Jesus was going by, they shouted, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on us!” The crowd rebuked them and told them to be quiet…
Jesus stopped and called them. “What do you want me to do for you?” he asked. “Lord,” they answered, “we want our sight.”
Jesus had compassion on them and touched their eyes. Immediately they received their sight and followed him.
Matthew 20:26-34

On one occasion my husband and I, out on a special date, witnessed one of these beggar children chasing a potential benefactor across the street, right into the path of an oncoming car. We rushed over to the little body left lying in the street, pushing through the crowd of his buddies to check him over for injuries. As my husband scooped up the child to carry him to a hospital, he began to squirm and protest in terror, even more afraid of what this stranger might do with him than he was of the fact that he had just been hit by a car. His friends all reassured him that we could be trusted. “We know her. She’s helped us before. Remember? Her name is Jesus.”

At the time I was horrified to discover that I had failed in my repeated attempts to tell those children about Jesus, but in retrospect I realize that I had accidentally done something greater. I had shown them Jesus. This was the measure of my success: not that I had ended their poverty, not that I had founded a school or orphanage, but that I had faithfully lived as a reflection of Jesus in those seemingly insignificant, unintended encounters on the street.

“Her name is Jesus.”

Too often my big-picture focus and goal-oriented agenda cause me to miss the most obvious opportunities to achieve greatness in God’s kingdom. Thankfully God’s Spirit keeps drawing my attention to what my human way of thinking would otherwise miss.

Greatness isn’t distinguishing myself. It’s imitating God.

Be imitators of God, therefore, as dearly loved children and live a life of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.
Ephesians 5:1-2

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.

Antidote for a Servaholic

IMG_8717

Every once in a while I need to stop and take an upside-down theological exam. I’m not talking about a written checklist or statement of faith. I mean the sort of life evaluation in which I check my principles by my practice. How does my lifestyle betray what I truly believe?

If I am brutally honest with myself, I have to admit that I’m a servaholic. I find my kudos in working hard in service to God. I eat, sleep, work, and pray the Kingdom, finding it difficult to rest until it has come on earth as it is in Heaven. Who would fault me for that? And yet when I examine the assumptions that drive much of what I do, I see how very off I am in my understanding of what God wants of me.

I feel more comfortable waiting tables at the party than chilling out with the guests.

I am surprised to discover it of myself, but I am the older brother in the parable of the Prodigal Son. I don’t resent all those younger brothers who have taken God for granted and have blown their time and resources on pursuing worldly pleasure. I know well enough that those pleasures would never satisfy me and I am delighted when they come back to the Father whom I love and serve.

“The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. But he answered his father, ‘Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends.
Luke 15:28-29

The older brother and I share a different problem. We are afflicted with a faulty perception of ourselves and of the Father whom we serve. Without realizing it, we keep turning ourselves into His slaves instead of His sons. We singlehandedly shoulder the burden of all that needs to be done for Him, unintentionally stiff-arming Him from sharing it with us. We wear ourselves out doing for Him what He never intended us to carry alone. No wonder His yoke seems demanding and His burden anything but light.

I run into this the most when I try to stop and have fun. I can’t. I don’t know how to. I know how to work. I have learned how to weep with those who weep. But in a world of unmitigated suffering and unfinished tasks, I am at a loss when it comes time to party with those who rejoice.

As a slave I may surrender my body,
but as a son I surrender my heart.

So when my Father invites me in to celebrate with Him, I balk outside the party. Like Martha, I feel more comfortable waiting tables at the party than chilling out with the guests. But that is not where He is content to leave me.

” ‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. 32 But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ ”
Luke 15:31-32

God doesn’t want me as His slave. That’s not why He adopted me. What pleases Him is not my productivity nor my righteous rule-keeping. It is my sharing with Him all that He has and all that He is. He is not a rigid task-master, smiling only after the full harvest of the kingdom has been brought in. He is my Father, inviting me to run into His arms and be a part of His happiness just as all the younger brothers are.

Because you are sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out, “”Abba”, Father.” So you are no longer a slave, but a son; and since you are a son, God has made you also an heir.

…But now that you know God–or rather are known by God–how is it that you are turning back to those weak and miserable principles? Do you wish to be enslaved by them all over again?
Galatians 4:6-9

A part of me still hesitates. What if I get so relaxed in simply enjoying my Father’s party that I become lazy and presumptuous? Don’t I need some controls to keep me on task in the work He has given me to do?

But when I examine my hang-ups a little closer, I realize that they all have to do with control. As a slave I may surrender my body, but as a son I will have to surrender my heart. God is raising the stakes on our relationship. Can I trust His Spirit to govern me from within or will I still insist on my own rigid self-management?

Are you so foolish? After beginning with the Spirit, are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort?
Galatians 3:3

O foolish child that I am! Why would I want to remain in this exhausting, never-ending servitude? Why would I resist the invitation to come in and enjoy the good things my Father wants to share with me?

“But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. … When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing.
Luke 15:22-25

So what is the prescription for a recovering servaholic? I think I need to observe 40 days of anti-Lent, a season in which I practice a daily dose of pleasure. The point is not to try to have fun apart from the Father, a mistake which both younger and older brothers tend to make. Rather I want to daily set aside time, resources, and space to enjoy something with God.

God liberates His servaholic child
with an invitation to celebration.

Good-looking clothes. Delicious food. Beautiful music. Frivolous dancing. These are the things that the Father prescribed for both of his wayward sons.

Frolics in the sunshine. Lazy moments of lying around. Extra cream in my coffee. Reading a book just for the fun of it. This is the sort of celebration that He is inviting me into, as well.

Who knew pleasure could be a spiritual discipline?

Promoting Power

power-in-hand-300x200Power is definitely out of favor. It may have been yesterday’s fad, but today it is synonymous with egomaniacal villains, brutal military dictators, and decomposing nuclear reactors. Generations of abusive leaders and corrupt systems have trained us to fear power, automatically accepting the belief that power corrupts.

Our solution? Democratic processes. Separation of powers. Limited terms. Public accountability.

Who elected God eternal autocrat of the cosmos?

All of this falls apart when we try to apply it to God. Who elected Him eternal autocrat of the cosmos? What happens when public opinion polls plummet in response to the way He is running things? The idea of an indeposable, unlimited, self-appointed ruler should terrify us if absolute power corrupts absolutely.

But what if the corrupting component of power could be overcome? What if someone were able to use such power purely for good?

In spiritualized, Sunday-school mode we nod our heads and sing “My God is so BIG…”, but in cynical, real-world mode we shake our heads and mutter, “When pigs fly!” No wonder we have a hard time taking the parts of Scripture seriously that talk about God as King, not just over demons, cancer, and eternal souls, but over every piece of earth, every law of nature, every whim of man.

The One enthroned in heaven laughs; the Lord scoffs at them.
He will rule from sea to sea and from the River to the ends of the earth. …his enemies will lick the dust. The kings of Tarshish and of distant shores will bring tribute to him… All kings will bow down to him and all nations will serve him.
Psalm 2:4; 72:8-11

The Psalms describe God as the mighty King over all the earth, laughing at any opponent who would seek to be His rival. He instates and deposes rulers, making His enemies eat dust and His captives pay tribute. He comes across as a hard-core ace who knows what He wants and never fails to get it.

For he will deliver the needy who cry out, the afflicted who have no one to help. He will take pity on the weak and the needy and save the needy from death. He will rescue them from oppression and violence, for precious is their blood in his sight.
…the God of Israel gives power and strength to his people.
Psalm 72:12-14; 68:35

But what does He do with all that power? The same Psalms describe Him as the hero of the poor, the champion of the broken. He uses His power to help the helpless, protect the defenseless, and pick up the devastated. Better yet, He holds His power lightly, passing it on to His people with astonishing ease and in lavish portions.

Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go…
…”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.”

Exalted to the right hand of God, he has received from the Father the promised Holy Spirit and has poured out what you now see and hear.
Matthew 28:18; Acts 1:8; 2:33

Nowhere is this better illustrated than in Jesus’ redistribution of power just after His resurrection. Having taken on death and won, He had just achieved authority over all of heaven and earth. But rather than flexing His muscles and showing off the full extent of His awesomeness, He celebrated by dumping buckets of Spirit-power over His disciples’ heads. He took the power and authority that had been given to Him and used it to empower them. Their commission? The same work He had been doing: help the needy, heal the broken, and tell everyone the good news that He had set them free.

..his incomparably great power for us who believe. That power is like the working of his mighty strength, which he exerted in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms, far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every title that can be given…
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 led captives in his train and gave gifts to men.” …It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up…
Ephesians 1:19-21; 4:7-12

God is no Juan Peron or Mao Tse-tung, using His power to help the poor while clinging to it at all costs. He delights in sharing His power with His people. Yes, He is in the process of taking all His enemies down, but that is only a part of His greater effort to build us up. As He hands His power over to us one gift at a time, we are enabled to participate in developing and strengthening our corporate selves: the Body of Christ.

This is no one-man show. It’s true that history is all about God. But He turns it around and makes it all about Us.

God’s is a power that empowers.
With His power, ours can be the same.

As someone who has personally suffered and closely walked with others who suffer from abusive uses of power, I am initially tempted to recoil from the idea of God’s absolute power. But when I look at the track record of what He does with it, I am inspired to give myself to promoting His power.

I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ…
Ephesians 3:16-18

And I have to believe that as humans are increasingly filled with His Spirit’s kind of power, we too will be able to hold power in this way. Of course we will do so imperfectly, with selfishness and corruption forever tugging at our sleeves. God has built accountability and the division of gifting into our system, providing necessary checks on our use of power. But I am no longer afraid of power. It is, like any other gift from God, able to be used for great harm or for great good.

God’s is a power that empowers. With His power, ours can be the same.