Tag Archives: Jesus

a great nation

“A great nation”… thoughts on inaugurals past and present

In a great nation, it once was said, “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.”

Under the banner of making that nation great again, today it was said, “A nation exists to serve its citizens.”

In a book whose advice I value, it says, “Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant… 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.”

To “the greatest generation”, these promises were offered: “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat,” and, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

To our generation, this promise today is offered: “From this moment on, it’s going to be America First. Every decision on trade, on taxes, on immigration, on foreign affairs, will be made to benefit American workers and American families.”

In a book whose advice I value, it says, “Those who love their life in this world will lose it… for friendship with the world is enmity with God.”

What Google says the Bible advocates

Correcting what the World thinks “the Bible advocates”

I’m depressed. Go to Google, type “Bible advocates”, and see the popular suggested searches that appear: “violence”… “killing non believers”… “slavery”. You can’t even get “love” to appear. Type an L to try and prompt it, and you won’t get anything. Google just sits there, confused, not suggesting anything. Same with F (for forgiveness) and J (for joy). P (for peace) just gives you “polygamy” and “death penalty”.

So today, I am fixing it. Some of that stuff is treated in the Bible, but none of it is what the Bible is about. Here is what it is about:

Google suggestionWhat the Bible is really about
A“abortion”, “child abuse” Abundant life, Atonement
B(no suggestions) Baptism, Begotten son
C“child abuse” Christ, Carry your cross
D“death penalty” Divinity
E(no suggestions) Eternity
F(no suggestions) Forgiveness, Freedom, Father
G“genocide” God, Grace
H (no suggestions) Holy Spirit
I“inc” Incarnation
J (no suggestions) Jesus
K“killing” King of kings
L (no suggestions) Love, Lord
M (no suggestions) Mercy, Messiah
N (no suggestions) All things new
O (no suggestions) Only begotten son
P“polygamy”, “death penalty” Peace, Prayer
Q (no suggestions) Quiet
R (no suggestions) Redemption
S“slavery”, “stoning”, “socialism” Salvation, Sacrifice, Son of God, Sabbath, Service, Freedom from sin, Defeat of Satan
T“the bible advocates slavery, violence, genocide” Trinity, Truth
U (no suggestions) Unity
V“violence” Virgin birth
W (no suggestions) Worship, Will of God
X (no suggestions) Example of Christ, Crucifixion
Y“yelp”, “yale” Pray
Z (no suggestions) Zion
Can Christians vote for Donald Trump?

Why this white Christian male can never support Donald Trump

I am breaking my rule. Normally I never write about politics because (a) it’s a divisive topic, and (b) others incorrectly equate faith and politics, and I don’t want to be part of that. But the politics themselves have become so divisive now. That— more than any specific policy or candidate— is today’s topic.

The Christian Science Monitor summarized it perfectly. Reflecting on the previous night’s GOP debate, it asked, “Does GOP debate show Donald Trump has already won?” and observed that, “Belligerence was the order of the night. Trump himself said he would ‘gladly accept the mantle of anger.'”

Spoiling for a fight

I have many church friends who are ardent supporters of The Donald. To them, Trump channels their frustration and anger over losing twice to Obama— one describes it as “an 8-year reign of terror”— as well as a deeper anger that their values are being taken away: planned parenthood, same-sex marriage, etc. In Trump’s fiery rhetoric, they see the strong medicine that they feel our country needs.

But I cannot number myself among them. Something in me rebels against the notion that Christlike ends can be achieved by such un-Christlike means. Consider the warnings of scripture:

  • “A fool gives full vent to his anger, but a wise man keeps himself under control.” (Proverbs 29:11)
  • “Refrain from anger, and forsake wrath. Fret not yourself; it tends only to evil.” (Psalm 37:8)
  • “Blessed is the man who does not sit in the seat of the scornful.” (Psalm 1:1)
  • “Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, for man’s anger does not bring about the righteous life that God desires.” (James 1:19-20)

There are dozens more.

Some counter that righteous anger is the appropriate response to the apostasy of our times, and point to the model of Jesus getting angry at the temple merchants— and not only angry, but violent as well, fashioning whips and overturning tables. But even including that episode, I do not believe there is any honest comparison between the public persona of Donald Trump and the example and the teaching of Jesus Christ.

In a Republican field with a lot of very similar positions, Trump’s pugnaciousness has made him the stand-out among those who are spoiling for a fight. That instinct is perfectly natural. The problem is, scripture is often at odds with our natural instincts. For instance, there is nothing natural about forgiving our enemies, yet scripture repeatedly urges this, from Joseph reconciling with his brothers to Jesus praying from the cross.

Not-so-righteous anger

Jesus’ anger has this same element of reversing our natural instincts. The one thing that made Jesus angry was when the religious establishment, instead of leading people to God, used the weight of their influence to keep people away. (Clearing the temple was one example, the “woe to you!” verses of Matthew 23 are another.)

But today’s Christian anger is directed in a much more “natural” direction: not at our own religious establishment, but at all the outsiders, who are exactly the people that Jesus embraced. The central message of Christ’s life and sacrifice is reconciliation, and as Christians, we need to be striving toward that, not toward deeper division. Very closely connected to that is how we treat one another, and especially our enemies. If our society is sick, then “you who are spiritual should restore them gently,” urges the scripture; “gently” being the operative word.

Good governance, by these lights, is not about anger. It is all about seeking resolution of our differences. At its best, it is about functioning together as countrymen despite them. What we are seeing now on the national stage is nothing like that. Far from it: the personal insults, the battle lines, the ridicule— to the Christian, this is as close as I have ever seen, in my lifetime, to governance at its worst.

Victory: New Year's resolution

How a New Year’s resolution can rescue your soul

Some folks are down on the New Year’s resolution, but I am a big fan. At the heart of any resolution, there is a spirit of transformation, which is one of scripture’s favorite topics:

  • “The old has passed away. Behold! The new has come.”
  • “See, I am doing a new thing! I am making a way in the wilderness.”
  • “He said, ‘I am making all things new.'”

The sense that a new year brings new promise— a new hope, a chance to leave behind the mistakes of the past and start fresh— these are all principles that originated with Christ. Before that, there were two categories of people: the worthy, and the fallen. Once you had strayed from the path, there was no recovery, and the “worthy” took every opportunity to make sure you knew it. As my friend April Kelsey recently put it, “You became a cup of spit, a licked candy bar, a white sheet rolled in the mud. Consumed. Polluted. Spent.”

This view is still held today by the Pharisees among us who have missed the point of Christ. But that is my point: they have missed the point. If, today, you are one of the “fallen”— if you have made some mistake so horrible, if you have strayed from the path so far, if you are carrying some monkey on your back from which you can never be free— then there is good news: you can be free.

The “Big Book” of Alcoholics Anonymous opens with a letter from a doctor, describing a patient “…of a type I had come to regard as hopeless… He acquired certain ideas concerning… a Power which could pull chronic alcoholics back from the gates of death.” Many of us know of AA’s “Twelve Steps”, but the heart of the recovery that had been missed by so many before is captured in Step Two: “We came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.”

As I have written before:

Whatever may be wrong in our lives, don’t we say, “It’s my problem, it’s up to me to fix it?” But the truth is, no matter who you are, no matter how powerful and clever and creative you are, you didn’t create your sin by yourself, and you are not going to solve it by yourself… whatever is causing destruction in your life, more likely than not, there is a multi-billion dollar industry supplying it to you.

No matter what rut you are stuck in, another way is open to you. That was my story. My burden was sexual sin, and my cross was soul-crushing loneliness. When I finally encountered a true scriptural perspective… when I finally could understand that the Bible’s urgings against “sin” were not meant to control me and crush my spirit, but to offer me a way of escape from the very thing that was destroying me… when I realized that Christ had given his life to make that way available to me… that was a new day. That day was not like all the others where I simply determined to “do better”.

So this year, when you make your resolution, the same one you have made so many years before, when you grimly grit your teeth and resolve this time to succeed, “knowing” at the back of your mind that it’s all pointless, that it’s going to be just like all the other times, that you are going to fail… do something different. Quit treasuring up your secret shame and let in the outside air. Others have found the path, and so can you. You cannot find it by yourself. You cannot find it without faith that it is there. But it is there. I know it, because it happened to me.

This year, let your resolution be that you will find it too.

What to do with sinners

Jesus and the “ho”, or, what to do with sinners

Fifteen years ago, a friend shared an insight from scripture. I lay awake most of that night turning over what she’d said, and I’ve remembered it ever since, mostly because I profoundly disagreed.

She was talking about the story of “the woman at the well“. Quick recap: Jesus strikes up a conversation with a woman drawing water and reveals himself as the Messiah, first to her and subsequently to her whole village. My friend’s observation was drawn mainly from this line: “Jesus said to her, ‘You are right when you say you have no husband. The fact is, you have had five husbands, and the man you now have is not your husband. What you have just said is quite true.'”

“I read this story a bunch of times,” she said, “and this time it just hit me: Jesus is callin’ her a ho! He is totally in her face! We gotta confront people over their sin, because look what can happen if we do… she and her whole village got saved!”

Now first let me say, balancing Jesus’ message of grace and truth is a tricky business and none of us consistently gets it right. Maybe my friend had been way over on the side of ignoring damaging behavior, even among those close to her. Maybe, with this new conviction, she was emboldened to show them a better way out of their self-destruction (think of an alcoholic intervention). I do believe that, reading it as God intended in the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, scripture is alive and active, and different aspects of a story may strike different believers differently, depending on the word that God has to speak into their particular situation.

That said, here is how the story of the woman at the well strikes me. (For convenience, for the remainder of this post, I will refer to “the woman at the well” as “Allison”.)

Who is she?

To me, the first thing worth noting in the story is that confrontation about her sin (a form of social pressure) is the last thing that Allison needs. The social pressure on her is already turned to 11. How do we know? Just take a look at where Jesus found her:

So he came to a town in Samaria called Sychar, near the plot of ground Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired as he was from the journey, sat down by the well. It was about noon, when a Samaritan woman came to draw water.

Things to know:

Nobody goes to collect water at noon. Have you heard the expression, “Mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the noonday sun”? It originated in India, but it could equally well apply to the Middle East. Carrying a heavy water jug in the midday heat is lunacy. Instead, normal women go at the crack of dawn, all together. It’s fun! They chat, they socialize. The only way you’d go at noon is if you were such a social outcast that you couldn’t tolerate any of that.

She’s an hour outside of town. Jacob’s well was a mile and a half out into the middle of the desert from Sychar, about an hour’s walk. Lots of other wells were closer. Again, what is Allison doing out there? The most obvious answer is that she badly, badly wants to avoid running into anyone.

What she’s used to

Jewish men of the first century were not shy. Doubly so for a religious leader like Christ. Suffice it to say, when one of them called you a whore, you knew it. It didn’t take multiple close readings of the text to tease it out.

Most of the time, however, they said nothing at all, because Samaritans were their northern heretic cousins, so in their view, any Samaritan (and especially a woman) was simply beneath contempt. The text clearly reflects Allison’s astonishment when Christ even condescends to speak to her: “The Samaritan woman said to him, ‘You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?’ (For Jews do not associate with Samaritans.)”

They begin to converse somewhat comfortably, until Christ ventures onto a sore spot, bringing out an answer from Allison that is all half-truth and evasion:

He told her, “Go, call your husband and come back.”

“I have no husband,” she replied.

Much of the bible is culturally pretty inaccessible to us, but a world where a woman would rather walk an hour into the mid-day heat than see another person… that is not so far removed. Her story could just as easily have been set in Puritan America; she is only missing the scarlet letter. In a world like that, our heroine only meets two categories of people: those who know what she is and shun her, and those who don’t know what she is.

The Jesus surprise

In that kind of context, what do we make of the statement that seemed so confrontational to my friend? Is Jesus really “calling out her sin” and “getting in her face”? As I read it, the answer is no. Rather, Christ is pulling one of his favorite tricks and confounding expectations.

By restating the source of her shame in the gentlest and most non-confrontational language possible, Christ declines to fit into either of her pre-defined categories. He is something new, unexpected, revolutionary: a person who knows what she is but doesn’t shun her. That’s the point that blows the doors off, and it’s only ten verses later that the woman who was too ashamed to show her face at the watering hole that morning is running down Main Street announcing the coming of the Messiah.

Regular old confrontation, regular old judgment, regular old shame… we’ve had all these available to us for thousands of years before Christ. None of that is transformative; none of that was why Christ needed to come, and live, and die, and rise. We sell our birthright for pottage when we walk up to a stranger and casually condemn. Let us rather walk up to a stranger in unexpected love and grace and mercy; it is in that context that the message of Messiah can be spoken and heard. Remember John 3:17: “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.”

Other recommended posts: 

Jesus work, fabulous luxury

Doing Jesus’ work through fabulous luxury

Have you heard the saying, “Preach the gospel at all times; use words when necessary”? My pastor recently spoke about that. It used to be one of his favorites, he said, but not anymore; instead, he urged us to talk about Jesus, “no matter how uncomfortable it is.”

I was thinking about that this week as I took vacation time with my wife and daughter and some dear family friends. Some see vacation time as a fabulous luxury, but despite what my pastor said, I think we were doing at least three things that express God’s design for us— building relationship, creating sabbath, using our treasure— quite apart from the need for words.

Building relationship

Recently I have realized that vacation is not “one thing”, and how people like to enjoy themselves varies widely. For example, when my 70-something parents vacation, they like to go someplace new and exotic, and suck all the marrow out of life; where they get their energy from, I have no idea. When my sister’s family vacations, they like to go to an event, like a puzzle competition or a bluegrass festival. Whereas for our family, vacation is all about the “who”, more so than the “where” or the “what”. We like to “stay-cation” at a beautiful spot about 40 minutes’ drive from home, and the whole time is spent entertaining friends and family who drive up to visit us there. We swim, we cook out, and we celebrate time together.

Is it holy? Are we doing ministry? As I reflect on it, the answer, I think, is very much of a yes, even though most of the time, nobody is talking about Jesus. In Matthew 25, Jesus says, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father… for I was a stranger and you invited me in.” I have written before about the deep craving for relationship that is ingrained into each of us. Meeting this need for others, Christ says, is on a par with life essentials like food and water.

Creating sabbath

Our society is stressed out. A 2013 study by the American Psychological Association says that we are “a picture of high stress and ineffective coping mechanisms that appear to be ingrained in our culture”. Stress, the study says, impacts both our physical and mental health:

  • resulting in high rates of anger, irritability and anxiety
  • contributing to ailments ranging from digestive upset to heart disease
  • compounding depression and obesity

We see the examples everywhere. The Onion just satirized it with an article entitled, “Father Teaches Son How To Fly Into Rage Over Completely Inconsequential B*******”. This week when a friend’s dog escaped and ran into the street, rather than help, a nearby stranger began screaming unprovoked invective at her, moving her to tears. She was able to offer grace to her tormentor, concluding “Be kind. Everyone is doing the best they can. I know that angry man has some battles of his own.” But none of this is what God intended for us. Part of the reason we have so little patience for each other is that we do not honor our God-given rhythms of work and rest. Ann Graham Lotz went on record this week blaming the decline of American society on all the usual suspects, but nowhere does she mention our wholesale abandonment of the sabbath. Yet the biblical commandment to honor the sabbath and keep it holy is no less strongly worded, and the consequences are far more obvious and direct.

Into the midst of this kind of world, I believe, nothing is more important than creating margin for downtime. We relax, we renew, we replenish. We invest in our marriages and our children. Again, I think it is work God would approve of.

Using our treasure

There has been a lot of talk in the U.S. in recent years about “the 1%”, by which we mean the super-wealthy ivory-tower elite. But in a global sense, I am actually part of that top 1%, and so, quite likely, are you. (Find out here.) We have a lot to share, and God commands that we do so; otherwise we are like Jesus’ parables about the rich man (“This is how it will be with whoever stores up things for themselves but is not rich toward God”) or the unworthy servant (“So I was afraid and went out and hid your gold in the ground”).

We have nice things. We like to share them. We get to vacation in a beautiful place. Why should we keep that experience to ourselves? Once, a friend’s father was diagnosed with terminal cancer, and his kids pulled together to raise money and send their parents on the honeymoon they’d never had. We helped. Sometimes we are hosts on Airbnb, and have the privilege of helping to make that “pause from the action” happen in the lives of people we didn’t even know before. I think all of this is work that is pleasing to God, absence of a come-to-Jesus talk notwithstanding. Speaking of which…

About Jesus: uncomfortable?

When my wife was involved in Young Life, one of their core principles was “earning the right to be heard,” meaning that your advice to others is fairly meaningless and hollow if you won’t take the trouble to invest and walk alongside. The class Perspectives on the World Christian Movement makes the same point in the context of global missions. The gospel message is good news of freedom and reunion and redemption, soaked in a tonic of self-sacrificing love. It is hard to see how we have worked ourselves up into a state where talking about that should be seen as an uncomfortable chore. Jesus’ conversations about himself and the kingdom of heaven were a lot of things— transformative, miraculous, polarizing— but they were never simply socially awkward.

When our focus is on building relationship and investing in others in love, conversations happen naturally about who we are, how we live, what we believe and why. And that, after all, is what Christian faith is fundamentally about.

Related links

Be loved. I double-dog dare you.

Surviving years alone with God and “Into The Woods”

Relearning to love after we lost our baby

Compassion for “them”: relearning to love the people we were before we lost our baby

When you read about a horrible disaster— a doomed airliner, a tsunami, anything that suddenly shatters peace and calm and well-being— when you read an article like that, sometimes there are “before” photos. The people in harm’s way are normal people, just doing what normal people do: having fun, laughing, taking selfies… They’re enjoying themselves, and sometimes the photos survive and get published after the fact. You look at the people in those photos, and you can see it in their eyes: there’s an innocence, a naïveté, an uncomplicated trust. They have no idea what’s about to happen to them.

We have photos like that all over our house. They aren’t disaster photos. They are photos of our wedding. Of our family trips when our two oldest kids were small. Of us at the coffee shop, that time we snuck in a date night and my wife surprised me with a little white stick whose digital read-out bore the single word “Pregnant”. That was a good night. We were happy. We took photos.

From that day on, we rechristened our family as “Party of Five”. We bought bunk beds and a mini-van, and a gigantic double-stroller that we called “The Land Behemoth”. After the ultrasound, we started buying boy clothes. One said, “Little Rookie”. Another, we bought in Napa; it said, “Vintage 2007”. And then there was the picture my wife didn’t want to take. I scheduled our church directory sitting about a week before our due date; she wanted to do it after he was born, but the dates wouldn’t work, so we did it beforehand anyway. We didn’t know that was the last photo there would ever be with our entire party of five. We didn’t know there was already a kink in his umbilical cord. We didn’t know we were about to lose a baby.

When something bad happens to your children, part of you has a biological need to blame yourself.

When you look at the people in those pre-disaster photos, sometimes you want to reach through that lens and warn them. How much more so when those people are you? When something bad happens to your children, part of you has a biological need to blame yourself, and for a while, we were so angry at “those people” in our photos. They were so stupid and ignorant. They should have done more. They should have known.

Our baby boy (Boaz, we named him) would have turned 8 this year, and in that time, learning to have grace for “those people” has been an important part of our healing. Many of the lessons we learned from scripture have helped with that journey:

  • Matthew 24:38 says, “…and they knew nothing about what would happen until the flood came.” In the same way, we had to realize, there was no way we could have known. We did the same things that everyone else does; it was not our fault that it worked out well for them and badly for us.
  • Ecclesiastes repeatedly talks about things that are meaningless. We had fixated on finding the meaning: what was God trying to tell us (or being honest, why was he punishing us)? We finally had to let that go, realizing our need to “find the meaning” was a need to keep control. Instead, letting go and rejoining life was the legacy we wanted our baby to have. As Ecclesiastes finally concludes, “There is nothing better for a person under the sun than to eat and drink and be glad.”
  • For me, the greatest lesson was from 1 Peter 4: “Dear friends, don’t be surprised at the painful trial that has come upon you to test you, as if something strange were happening to you. Instead, rejoice as you share in the sufferings of the Messiah, so that you may also rejoice with great joy when his glory is revealed.” The redemptiveness of Christ’s passion was never so clear to me as in the midst of our own grief. His suffering was not wasted, and through our own suffering, the scripture says, we gain a unique partnership in that redemption.

I do not believe that God causes suffering, and I do not agree with the many people who say, “God did this to teach you… whatever.” We live in a fallen world, and we have to live here, because we are fallen too. Bad things happen here. That is not God’s fault, because this isn’t the place he designed us for. But he is here at work in this place too, finding ways to bring redemption out of the heartbreak that inevitably accompanies our life under the sun. As I became fond of saying in the midst of our loss: “Out of soil the devil has sown for evil, God can make many good and green and living things to grow.”

This article originally appeared as a guest posting at Me Too Moments For Moms.


What is sin? It’s not that simple.

It used to be easy to say what is sin. Then Jesus came along and messed it all up.

What is sin? In the old days it was easy. There was Hebrew law, and whatever was against Hebrew law was sin. The end. Theoretically, if you knew the law, you could follow the law and poof! No sin. If you didn’t follow the law, there were human consequences— anything from offering a sacrifice to stoning at the city gate. By the time Jesus was born, the teams were well established: sinners on the left, self-appointed righteous on the right, and let’s not think too much about the parts of scripture that say things like, “they all have turned away” and “no one does good; not even one.”

But then, everything changed.

Suddenly there was a prophet running around performing miraculous signs and wonders, only instead of saying the things he was supposed to say— like, “The love of God is upon the righteous, the pharisees; but the tax collectors and prostitutes will know the bitterness of his wrath,”— it was just the opposite. To the righteous he was saying, “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites!” while to the sinful it was, “Then neither do I condemn you.” To make matters worse, he said, it’s not just about human consequences any more, now it’s about all eternity, and once again, the worst news is for the A-students: “How will you escape being condemned to hell?” and “The tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you.”

What happened? What about those super clear bright-line laws, given to Moses, enduring for thousands of years? A big part of the last 23 books in the New Testament are an extended effort to try and thrash out an answer to that very question. Christ exhaled grace and truth together as naturally as the air he breathed, but the rest of us have been struggling with it for thousands of years now. Here are three things that, in our times, I think we tend to forget:

  • The law isn’t “whittled down”; it’s all or nothing
  • Sin still exists and does damage
  • There is no more bright line
Not whittled down

I sometimes hear Christ described as if he were some sort of “book-keeper in chief”. Like his coming to earth, his sinless life, his death and resurrection, all amount to some grand simplification of the tax code: strike a few confusing line items over here, close a few loopholes over there, shake out the dead wood, and there you have it: the “new law”. It’s basically the same arrangement as before, but now it’s non-Christians on the left and Christians on the right, and list of stuff we gotta do is somewhat shorter.

He didn’t come so we could go on condemning others and congratulating ourselves: he came to show us that in God’s eyes, we are all the same.

The problem with this line of reasoning is, Christ didn’t come to shake up and simplify the tax code: he came to abolish taxes. He didn’t come to whittle away at the law and make it easier to comply: he came to set us free from the law. He didn’t come so we could go on condemning others and congratulating ourselves: he came to show us that in God’s eyes, we are all the same.

That the whole law is still in effect, we have abundant evidence in scripture:

  • For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law. (Matthew 5:18)
  • For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it. (James 2:10)
  • Again I declare to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obligated to obey the whole law. You who are trying to be justified by the law have been alienated from Christ. (Galatians 5:3-4)

That we are free from the whole of it is also well supported:

  • It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery. (Galatians 5:1)
  • Through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death. (Romans 8:2)

Many of us live as if we are free from certain sections of the law, yet hold condemnation in our hearts for those who transgress against other sections of the law. In so doing, if we believe that only certain sections of the law are still “in effect”, then we ourselves are transgressing pretty seriously against one of the major points of Christ’s message.

The sin is still out there

The Hebrew laws are a favorite objection to Christian faith, because the world has changed a lot since they were written and few take the trouble to ponder how they would have sounded, or what they would have meant, to the original audience against a backdrop of Hammurabi and Draco (of “draconian justice” fame). But what’s clear to me when I read them are the grace notes of protection from the things that can harm us here on Earth.

Even though most of us no longer live under those laws, the potential for sin to harm us still carries all of its full force. For me, the entire initial draw of Christianity was the news that another way was open to me than the one I’d been on, that I could be free from the monkey of sin on my back. When scripture records Christ talking to a sinner about their sin, I’ve been there, and I can sometimes feel the waves of their relief rising from the page.

Far from the antagonistic talk of damnation and hellfire that many of us imagine, when done the way Jesus intended, a talk about freedom from sin should be a time of rejoicing for all concerned, as it was for Zacchaeus the tax collector, or for the woman at the well, or for the woman accused of adultery, or for me.

In my view, Christ urges us to help our brother remove the speck from his eye, not to make him more acceptable to God, but because having a speck in your eye is painful. And the process of having it removed is, in the main, a tremendous relief. If it turns into a combative process fraught with resistance, antagonism and hostility, it might be time for the doctor, not to blame the patient, but to question whether she’s doing it right.

No bright line

So, back to the original question: how do we know what is sin? So many of us want to answer this question with reference to Hebrew law, or some subset thereof. We have been trained to think that way by our culture and our pastors and our own study of scripture. But there are only two ways to reference Hebrew law:

  1. Certain whittled-down parts of it, which scripture does not support as discussed above, or
  2. All of it, which none of us live by.

Instead, the same New Testament scriptures that free us from the law give us some new ways of understanding what is sin:

  1. Sin is whatever causes damage
    “By their fruits ye shall know them,” says scripture. It’s talking about false prophets in Matthew, but it’s just as applicable to us (Luke 6:45) and our actions (Galatians 5:19-23). If something in your life is producing a harvest of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, then you want to think about that when evaluating whether it is a sin. Contrariwise, if it is producing hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like… well, then you want to think about whether it needs to go, no matter how outwardly pious it might seem.
  2. We each determine what is sin for us, and it’s nobody else’s business
    People get really mad about this one. You hear terms like “accommodating the culture” and “being lukewarm for the gospel” and “moral relativism” and so on. But for people who are mad about this way of defining sin under the new covenant, your beef is with folks like Paul and James:
    – “So whatever you believe about these things keep between yourself and God… everything that does not come from faith is sin.” (Romans 14:22-23)
    – “If anyone, then, knows the good they ought to do and doesn’t do it, it is sin for them.” (James 4:16)

I think the point of all of it is, there’s no more room for the pharisees among us in God’s not-so-new economy. If you want to know what is sin, it’s many thousands of years gone by since it was as simple as finding a verse and then pointing a finger.

How Jesus is like nonfat milk

3 Ways Jesus is like nonfat milk

Milk is a starting place.
Milk polarizes.
Milk explains why Jesus had to die.

I don’t have to tell you that when it comes to milk, people have strong preferences. In no other area of life will 1% of butterfat raise such ardent passions. Yet in so many ways, this familiar white beverage is like Our Savior. Milk is a starting place. Milk polarizes. Milk even explains why Jesus had to die…

Milk is a starting place

We are born, I believe, with a desire to seek God. Even many atheists will agree with this, though they offer it to explain why “people had to invent God”, whereas I believe it falls into the same category as all our other in-born desires like food and water and sleep— in no other area is our desire for something held out as evidence that it doesn’t actually exist.

Yet, despite our desire for God, to us in our natural state, he is not particularly accessible. People are as often offended by God’s purity and God’s power as they are attracted by it. Especially in the 21st century America, these qualities of God seem opposed to values like openness and democracy. It runs contrary to our DNA nowadays to simply trust the powers that be to have our best interests at heart (as God has).

Into a world like this, Jesus comes to render God the father into an accessible human shape. In my “faith” conversations with non-believers, they often want to start by talking about objections: “How could God…” and “Why should God…”  and “Why doesn’t God just…” and so on. These are all valid questions and I think that all believers wrestle with them, but they don’t make a very good starting place.

Christ has so much to teach, but in several places, the bible encourages us to start with our times tables before we move on to wrestle with algebra and trig. “I gave you milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready for it,” says 1 Corinthians 3:2, and 1 Peter 2:2 says, “Like newborn babies, crave pure spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow up in your salvation.” Far from insult or condescension, these passages simply reflect the fundamental truth that learning about the deep things of God is like any other area of learning: you have to start at the beginning if you are to make any sense of it.

Milk polarizes

We have it right in my own family: to my brother-in-law, whole milk is a rich, creamy treat, while nonfat is flavorless blue water. To me, nonfat is clean and refreshing, while whole is gloppy and clogging.

Jesus has a similar polarizing quality. The apostle Paul says, “For we are to God the pleasing aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing. To the one we are an aroma that brings death; to the other, an aroma that brings life.” (2 Corinthians 2:15-16) He’s talking about the incense burned in the parade when Roman armies returned in triumph, marching captives before them toward execution. To the Romans, the incense meant victory and life, but to the captives, it was the stench of their utter destruction. All this even though the smell itself never changes.

Milk explains why Jesus had to die

As I mentioned, I like nonfat milk on my cereal. Once, my family went camping, and the only milk anyone brought was whole. “Well,” they explained, “you can just add water to the whole milk.” I countered, “Then I’ll just have watery whole milk!” You see, the problem is, I don’t like the butterfat, and whole milk still has it no matter how much water you add.

I am sometimes asked, why did Jesus have to die for our sins? Some have even claimed that Christ’s death on the cross is evidence that God is cruel and vindictive. By this line of reasoning, the sins we commit should be balanced against the good things we do, and if the good outweighs the bad, then God should be satisfied.

The problem is, this is just like trying to turn whole milk into nonfat by adding water. If you do, it will just give you an unappetizing frankenbeverage. You can never turn one into the other by adding something (like water); what is needed— the only real solution— is to take something away.

You may have heard the joke that you’ll never find a perfect church, and even if you do, you’ll mess it up when you get there. God’s problem with having the likes of us with him in heaven is, we’d do the same thing. Heaven is characterized by what it has, but also by what it has not: “There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” (Revelation 21:4)

When Jesus gave his life for us on the cross, he accomplished that. He turned something unappetizing to God, clogged by gloppy sin, into something delightful and refreshing.

Spiritual lessons from Spirit Airlines

3 Spiritual lessons learned flying the dreaded Spirit Airlines

In Pride and Prejudice, when Mr. Darcy asks Lizzy Bennet to dance, she curses herself: “Why could I not think of an excuse? I promised myself I would never dance with him… hateful man!”

So, you can imagine how I felt when I recently found I had no choice but to fly on the poster child of all that is wrong nowadays with air travel and, by extension, our country: the dreaded Spirit Airlines. The Internet is crawling with Spirit Airlines horror stories, but booking last-minute, the only alternative would have been 5 hours out of my way for 3x the cost. So, I decided to bite the bullet, buy a ticket, and do my dance with the devil.

Since “forewarned is forearmed”, before flying I engrossed myself the ways that Spirit had victimized others and was likely to try victimizing me. In so doing, I had the opportunity to reflect. What would Jesus say about the business practices of Spirit Airlines? What makes people hate them so much? What would Jesus say about that?

The business of ungrace

The truth is, unmerited grace has never come from profit-driven corporations. Love expressing itself through sacrifice is a much likelier source of the real thing.

The number one complaint that people had about Spirit Airlines was this: I was in some kind of trouble, and they wouldn’t help me. I was late for my flight, I had different bags than I’d planned, there was bad weather or a pilot overslept– none of these things are Spirit’s problem and they don’t care who knows it. It is on you to solve all of these problems yourself, at your own (often considerable) expense.

Likewise, the number one response of Spirit’s defenders was, “You should have.” As in, you should have bought travel insurance, you should have arrived earlier, you should have planned better. Everything is your fault. Which is true— you could have done all those things. It’s just that saying so isn’t helpful to someone awash in stress hormones.

Compare and contrast with Jesus. In Jesus’s time, the guilty flocked to him for grace— the woman caught in adultery, the too-short tax collector, even Peter upon first meeting Jesus— none of them pled innocence. And still Christ offered each what they needed but had no right to expect.

In our age, people have ceased to look to the Church for grace, and rightly so in many cases, I’m sorry to say. Vanishing grace is all too real. Corporate America has filled the void, to such an extent that people become volubly angry at Spirit when they fail to live up to the perceived social contract. But the truth is that unmerited grace has never come from profit-driven corporations. Disney will take care of you, but only because you’ve paid thousands of dollars to be there. Love expressing itself through sacrifice as modeled by Our Lord is a much likelier source of the real thing. No matter how many in the church may lose sight of that, there still are a lot who remember.

Innocent and crafty

I, for one, am thankful for the many people who took the time to write up their experiences on Spirit, such as:

  • Paying $100 to carry on a purse because it was 1′ 7″ in greatest dimension instead of the requisite 1′ 4″
  • Trying to check in just 44 minutes before departure and finding their tickets canceled (there is a strictly enforced 45 minute cutoff).

Those people were a blessing to me, and allowed me to make my flight (I left the airport hotel at 5:50 a.m. for an 8:45 departure) without extra baggage fees (I had stuffed my briefcase into my checked luggage and carried my laptop loose in my hands). But I wonder what was in their hearts when they wrote those stories down.

Were they thinking of me and offering me a blessing out of love for their fellow man? Or, more likely in our times, were they simply trying to get even? God is very interested in the condition of our hearts; as it says in Luke 6:45, “Out of the fullness of the heart, the mouth speaks.” I have been ripped off before to the tune of hundreds of dollars. I have been robbed several times. I have known violent thoughts as a result of both. It is hard to let go of the anger and find peace, but it is a vitally important battle to fight. Just ask Anakin Skywalker.

I think it is very appropriate for people, even Christians, to write about negative experiences in order to protect others from the same fate; we just need to guard our hearts in the meantime. The same scripture that urges us to be as crafty as serpents also cautions us to be as innocent as doves (Matthew 10:16). Turning bitter leaves us no different from those who embittered us in the first place.

 Come near

Once at the airport and then on the flight, I have to admit I was surprised. No gate personnel or flight attendants went out of their way to be rude to me. My seat did not smell of puke or cause my knees to touch my chin. The climate on board was not uncomfortable. It was much like any other flight; not at all like going “in country” among a den of hated enemies. It did not feel at all like selling out the American way of life.

I still feel that it is a sadder world when businesses pursue low cost above all else; it leaves our society literally and spiritually impoverished. But regardless of the corporate policies they must follow, at the end of the day the employees are still regular human beings like the rest of us. Bottom line, what they want is to be treated nicely and have a good day at work.

We must remember that, regardless of how offended he was by the condition of the world and all of us in it, Christ came near. His name, Emmanuel, means “God with us”— not “God at a distance judging us”. He said, “Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing” (John 14:12). So if we are to be his followers, we do not have the option of keeping our hands clean and judging one another. His solution to the problem of sin was move in with the sinners and stay for 33 years. No one is asking me to do that with Spirit Airlines, but I am glad I went to see them in person for the span of at least one flight. Very eye-opening.

For the record, though, I still prefer Southwest.