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Category: Luke

The not-so-secret secret to a happy new year

And just like that, Christmas is over.

Living rooms now contain cold corners where Christmas trees once stood. Decorations have disappeared in homes and stores. Christmas music—the mere thrill of playing it in November—now feels a little stale. The pace has geared down to a trudge. Christmas goodies found on every aisle in every store are now crammed into a single space with giant 50%-off signs. The snow and chill of December often described as white and brilliant are now considered gray and bone-chilling.

The week after Christmas serves as a reality check that real life continues to roll on.

We attempt to extend the hope of the holidays one final time on December 31—New Year’s Eve. People will gather all over the world to count down the final ten seconds of 2022 before shouting, amidst a flurry of confetti: “Happy New Year!”

Then, the social construct goes, millions will drink their body weight in liquor and start kissing strangers.

And then, just like that, the celebration of New Year’s Eve is over (though millions will celebrate the start of 2023 with a killer hangover).

So why do millions scream out “Happy New Year” precisely at midnight?

Perhaps it’s just the thing people say.

Still, how many of us are actually conscious of the collective wish the moment we wake up the next morning?

Most don’t, and even won’t, think about it until the next December 31.

So why is celebrating the new year so important?

To some, welcoming in a new year is simply a sigh of relief; 2022 was a difficult year for them. While there may have been good times and blessings, overwhelming stress and loss seemed to predominate. They’re just thankful they made it through the sorrows and uncertainties. They see the new year as a blank slate, a fresh start.

Others see the new year as a challenge, a time to reassess their goals, improve their circumstances, or plan new adventures. The new year is a springboard to exciting new things. They proclaim that 2023 is their year.

Unfortunately, both of these approaches are doomed to failure. For the first group, stress and grief are not going to grind to a halt with the turning of the calendar year. Come January 2, the struggles will still be there. They will likely continue in one manner or another.

For the second group, they will find they are in control of nothing. Don’t get me wrong; goals are great and helpful. However, when we couch them as “resolutions” made traditionally on a single day, they’re forgotten by the end of the month, masked by the typical doldrums of life. Further, life is incredibly skilled at throwing curve balls when you least expect it. Whatever was the center of focus on New Year’s Eve goes out the window with the first setback. Members of this second group might even find themselves in the first group by the end of the year.

Ironically, those from the first group might even find themselves next December with an unexpected promotion or adventure.

The truth is, we just don’t know what 2023 holds for each of us.

So, does this make the “Happy New Year” an empty wish?

Not at all.

To have a happy 2023 has nothing to do with a clean slate or goals no matter how clearly defined. A happy new year is not about surviving loss or stress. Nor is it about accomplished resolutions.

Either one of those perspectives can be achieved yet neither automatically warrants a happy new year.

To live with happiness in the new year is to live with the prayer Jesus prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane the night before his death, “Not my will but your will be done” (Luke 22:42).

For me, this is one of the hardest prayers in the Bible.

For the group that celebrates the new year as a new start, it could mean the suffering will continue. Life will always carry suffering and grief. Who wants that?

What it does mean, however, is suffering knowing that Jesus will be in it with them.

For the second group, the idea of giving up control and letting God’s will be done is a little unsettling.

Whatever the case, a happy new year means living in the peace and strength of Jesus come what may.

2023 is staring us in the face. No one on earth knows exactly how it will end.

For true happiness in the new year, we must cling to the robe of the one who transcends time.

Jesus is the only certainty we have. And resting in the peace of Christ is ultimately that which will bring the happiness we all seek.

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Regaining your bearings when your kingdom crumbles

I tend to get into Christmas.

I mean really get into Christmas.

I am Clark Griswold. If I could cover my house in thousands of lights, I would risk my well-being to string them up. If I could find a tree too big for my living room, I would cut it down and figure out a way. I am proud of that identity. I own it. I have no inhibitions.

However, this Christmas feels a little more subdued. I still “don me now my gay apparel” (Oh, how I wish the original meaning of that word hadn’t been hijacked): Christmas tee-shirts, and neckties, and an over-the-top Santa hat. I watch Christmas movies like A Christmas Story, Christmas Vacation, and Die Hard (and, yes, it is a Christmas movie). I play carols incessantly without hesitation or shame (and those who constantly complain about Christmas music, I don’t care).

This year feels a bit different, more laid back. I still feel excited for the holiday. However, I felt I entered into this Christmas season more emotionally exhausted than anything else. I felt mentally spent, spiritually stressed out and tired.

The last few months were tough. Nearly everything in and around my house seemed to be falling apart. Our finances became frightfully stretched.

Years ago, the events of these previous months might have sent me into a meltdown.

My kingdom felt like it was crumbling.

However, thankfully, perhaps from experiencing the grace of God in my previous crises, as stressful as these months were, this time I never felt God had abandoned me.

I did not see my litany of mishaps as an absence of God or even as a divine punishment.

I can’t say I looked up at heaven from my pit bathed in a heavenly glow. The struggle with my flesh was present. However, I was able remember and believe that this was not my kingdom to begin with.

Further, at several points—even as late as last week–God wonderfully reminded my wife and I that he still sees us.

And that gave us peace.

This is how I entered into this Christmas season: with an odd mixture of exhaustion and peace.

The angels’ message to the shepherds also seemed meant for me: “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger” (Luke 2:10-12).

Do not be afraid. I bring you good news. The king has come.

When angels appear, they always start all their proclamations with “Do not be afraid.” It is these mighty beings who come to Mary and the lowly shepherds to announce the coming of the Prince of Peace. I find the angel’s assurance to not be afraid more than a little ironic. Angels are not adorable, chubby little infants, with rosy, red cheeks and dressed in diapers and wings. Try to imagine the angel guarding the east gate of the Garden of Eden with a flaming sword flashing back and forth as an adorable little two-year-old. It doesn’t jive. No, angels are powerful, intimidating and warrior-like entities whose presence evokes fear in those they encounter.

Yet their message is anything but threatening.

The angels are there to proclaim the arrival of the King of kings.

I have nothing to fear because in the middle of my own fragile, crumbling kingdom, Emmanuel has come to set up one that will never end. That is good news. It is reassuring to us in the midst of struggle.

This good news gave me the freedom not to wildly celebrate his arrival, but to rest in it. It’s like the angels said, specifically to me. “Do not be afraid. I bring good news. God sees you and has stepped into your crumbling kingdom and in doing so, brings peace. Now rest.”


Regain my bearings.


Rest in the knowledge God’s got this. Rest in the fact that no matter how big our problems, he has no equal. Rest in the assurance that, whether some miraculous miracle drops fire from heaven for Elijah or I wind up on the ash heap like Job, God is here, with us.



Sometimes we celebrate the arrival of Christmas with wild passion and joy. I have seasons like that.

But sometimes we just need to celebrate its arrival with the peace to rest.

Let Emmanuel—God With Us—wrap you in his arms and whisper in your ear: Do not be afraid. I am here.

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That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown


On November 30, 2015, the ABC television network aired the 50th anniversary special of “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” This annual animated TV show, based on Charles Schultz’s comic strip “Peanuts,” has traditionally aired shortly following the Thanksgiving weekend to kick off the Christmas season. It tells the story of Charlie Brown’s depression and angst at Christmas as he tries to find the point of it all amidst the shallow emptiness of commercialism.

The show is a big deal for me—so big, in fact, that I consider it the start of my Advent season. My tradition is that my Christmas tree and lights must be up and glowing before the program airs.

I want to kick of my Christmas celebration with the whole Peanuts gang.

That year, in 2015, the 50th anniversary special included a message from then-President Barak Obama. He said that this beloved Christmas program teaches us that “tiny trees just need a little love and that on this holiday we celebrate peace on Earth and good will toward all.”[1]

“A Charlie Brown Christmas” is about a tiny tree? Did the President miss the part where Linus walks onstage and quotes Luke 2:8:14?

That moment was pretty hard to miss. After Charlie Brown laments the stress and anguish of the holidays while staging a disastrous Christmas play, he cries out for anyone to tell him what Christmas is really all about. His friend Linus responds matter-of-factly, “Sure, Charlie Brown, I can tell you what Christmas is all about.”

Linus walks onto the stage and quotes the gospel of Luke:

“And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, ‘Fear not: for behold, I bring unto you good tiings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the City of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.’ And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God, and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.'”

He then returns to the stage wing and concludes, “That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.”

The bookends couldn’t be more clear. The speech starts with, “I can tell you what Christmas is all about” and ends with “That’s what Christmas is all about.” Further, Linus is on the stage by himself. A single spotlight shines down on him. The camera never cuts away from him. It’s as if Charles Shultz is saying directly to the audience: “Look here. Here is the message. Don’t miss this. Right here. This is the point I am making.”

Fifty years later, the President of the United States somehow managed to twist this into: No, it’s about a tree that needs love. One has to be impressed at the strength of the neck muscles required to resist the gravitational pull of the obvious.

It was a bizarre event, and a big letdown for me. (Still is—see, here I am still thinking about it four years later.)

What bothers me is that this is just another example of how we continue to misinterpret the clearest meaning of this season.

It’s about exchanging gifts, marketers say; but what if I can’t afford to give gifts, or my gifts are rejected by others, or I receive hurtful gifts or no gifts at all?

It’s about happy memories, friends, and family, society says; but what if all my memories are of family fights, abuse, and desertion, and I have no love or trust in my life?

It’s about peace on earth, the former President says; but what if we can’t make peace happen? Face it, look at the headlines—we’re light-years away from that elusive ideal.

Like Charlie Brown, without Christ I’d be depressed too. Truth is, as a kid I hated Christmas after my parents divorced—hated the feeling of being divided between them, hated that my mom and one sister weren’t around anymore, hated that we’d never be together as a family again.

But Christmas is about none of those things.

It’s about the birth of the One who came to save us. It’s not about “peace on earth,” but about the Prince of Peace who will finally make things right. It’s not about a tiny tree that needs love, but about a Savior’s love that heals his sin-broken creation. Ironically, a tree is what will later lift up that same Savior to die for that same sin.

Linus is absolutely correct: Christ is the meaning of Christmas, and he is the way out of our depression and darkness.

Your world, like mine, is broken. But I encourage you, during this cold, lonely month, to anticipate with joy the Savior who not only came to die for humanity, but will come again to “set right” all of creation.

Don’t let Christmas become a mere frenzy of gifts and activities—and don’t listen to the lie that it’s just a vague human wish for “world peace.”

Allow Christ to present himself to you this Christmas. Allow hope and anticipation of his arrival wash over you in the bleakness. Wait for him. Listen for him. Cry out for the Messiah—God in the flesh—to come and heal his people.

In the darkness of December, let the Light of the World enter your heart.

Then worship. Celebrate the coming of our King.

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Final thoughts: Jesus, his kingdom, and predicting the end of the world

Apparently, in a matter of hours, we’re all going to die.


According to a Christian Numerologist—whatever that is—September 23, 2017 is the day when an unseen planet known either as Planet X or Nibiru will come crashing to earth, creating tsunamis, volcanic eruptions, hurricanes, flooding, and—far worse—the widespread release of the movie mother! to a frantic public.

This will result in wide-spread panic, confusion, and other levels of mayhem.

There is already evidence of this: The Great Solar Eclipse, Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria, the flooding in Houston, and the Mexico City earthquake.

Even the Bible backs up this claim, Luke 21:25-26:

“There will be signs in sun and moon and stars, and on the earth dismay among nations, in perplexity at the roaring of the sea and the waves, men fainting from fear and the expectation of the things which are coming upon the world; for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.”

Clearly, if you omit the last total eclipse in 1999, the next one in 2024, the lunar eclipse/blood moon of 2015, the four blood moons, as well as Hurricanes Katrina, Hugo, Inike, Camille, Andrew, Ike, Patricia, etc., the tsunamis in Indonesia and Japan, the 1993 and ’27 Mississippi River floods, how can one not see these verses are referring specifically to September 23, 2017?

To my knowledge, the world ended in 2003, 2011, 2012, 2015, in addition to the coming apocalypse on Saturday. That’s just the twenty-first century.  And who can remember all the times the world ended in the last? I am still suffering from the doomsday apocalypse of Y2K. And these are just the Christian predictions.

As I count down my final hours before Nibiru appears as a fiery sphere in the sky, a couple of thoughts come to mind. Why are we in Christ’s body so obsessed with the end of the world? And is all this effort within the body of Christ to predict the end of the world doing anything to further the kingdom of God?

Make no mistake, I believe that Jesus Christ will come again. I believe the prophecies of Revelation will happen, although I am unsure exactly what they will look like. But I also know that Jesus states that no one knows the day or the hour of his return (Matthew 24:36).

So why haven’t Jesus’s words stopped us from trying?

It would be easy to simply blame the writers, speakers, and promoters of popular eschatology (the study of the last days), taking advantage of a multi-million-dollar industry. Who wouldn’t want a cut of those profits? The cynic in me could just stop there.

But I think there is more to it. These end-time entrepreneurs wouldn’t have a market if we, the Christian body, weren’t so obsessed with it.

So why the obsession?

One wouldn’t have to look too far beyond the headlines for the answer. Every day for the last couple of months, there seems to be yet another catastrophic hurricane out in the Atlantic, another forest fire, another earthquake, another incident of mindless violence, another reminder of the deadly stare-down with North Korea, or another terrorist attack. Humans no longer talk to each other; we scream, degrade, and if those don’t work, kick the snot out of each other. It is overwhelming. In the words of singer Randy Stonehill: “It’s a great big stupid world, and I’m feeling kind of queasy as it spins around…”

What is most troubling is the realization that all of this is completely beyond our control. We simply don’t know how to fix the universe. We look to science, reason, and government to stop it but to no avail. There is simply nothing we can do. There are powers far greater than the human mind. These horrible events are daily reminders of our helplessness.

For us Christ-followers, we look beyond the natural for meaning to the chaos. We search the darkness for something to cling to. Obviously, we turn to Jesus. This is not a bad thing. In fact, I highly recommend it. He is, after all, “the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6). He is the Savior of the world, the lighthouse in the storm, the loving shepherd and protector. Jesus is exactly to whom we should turn.

The problem comes when we turn our focus more on Jesus’s return than we do on the Jesus himself.

We don’t do this intentionally. We know that good wins over evil. The book of Revelation and the second coming point to an end of the suffering and chaos, an end which results in victory. And this focus brings relief. Knowing this, the next logical step is to turn our attention to when that will be. The when becomes the point of emphasis.

The when, however, is intentionally ambiguous. If the Son of Man doesn’t know, then how can we? Yet we continue to look at the Bible as a code, a numbers game, a treasure map. The Bible is the Word of God, the answer to all; therefore, the when just has to be in there somewhere. It is there simply for us to discover.

So, we scour the Bible for new clues. We read books that look to the sky claiming to have unlocked said clues. We attend seminars meshing current events to the Scriptures to understand.

I can’t help but to wonder if this is our attempt to run toward Jesus, to cling to someone bigger than ourselves.

The truth is, we are burning too much of our energy and resources trying to unlock the details about the end of the world. Instead, we should turn that energy to being the kingdom of God in the face of great suffering and chaos.

Whenever I see a headline of yet another Christian predicting the end of the world, I cringe. The truth is, end-time Christians who make bold, specific predictions about the end have never been right. After their predictions turn out wrong, they don’t reform themselves. They simply let enough time pass before they can figure out and write about the next celestial event that will most certainly spell the end.

But every time a failed prediction passes, the body of Christ loses a little more credibility. After all, if Christians are so wrong about predicting the end of the world, couldn’t they also be wrong about the deity of Jesus, the cross, and the resurrection? Why should the world accept the message of the cross when its followers get the end of the world so wrong so frequently? Why should we even be trusted?

These failed predictions do little more than affirm the world’s stereotypes that Christians are nothing more than superstitious buffoons. They put the Christian faith on the defensive and cheapen the message of grace the cross brings.

And the cross should always be our focus.



The joy of being found

I have been owned by dachshunds long enough to know three things. First, they do not ask for attention; they demand it. Second, the intensity of their midnight “potty urgency” corresponds directly to the depth of my sleep. And third, they have ADD.

Of my three wiener dogs, the one who most embodies these tendencies is Missy. One recent night she jumped off the bed – which means, “I gotta go now!” My wife heard her before I did, and went downstairs to let her out.

Soon after, my wife started calling, “Mis-sy!” (which sounds really loud at 3:00 in the morning). She then called to me that she couldn’t find Missy and needed help looking.

So I checked around to make sure Missy hadn’t slipped back upstairs (she hadn’t), and then went down to search for her.

As I walked down our long driveway, flashing my flashlight back and forth, I caught a small movement. It was Missy, wandering down the street.

I called her. Her head snapped in my direction, and she bolted to me.

I scooped her up and held her tight.

When we returned to bed she burrowed under the covers and pressed her body against me, shivering. All night long she clung to me, as if terrified of losing me again.

I surmised that while doing her business she got distracted by something, ran out to the street to check it out, and lost her bearings in the darkness. When I first saw her she seemed to be exploring different driveways, looking for the right one. When I called her she rushed to me, flooded with joy and relief.

It made me think: Do I remember what it was like to be lost? Or, even more important: Do I remember what it was like to be found?

I had just been reading one of  Jesus’s parables about “lost” things – the parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32).

In this story, a young man goes to his father and demands his inheritance – a very crude thing to do to someone who is still living. Basically, he is saying to his father’s face: “You mean nothing to me. I wish you were dead.”

But surprisingly, the father grants the son’s wish and gives him his inheritance. So the son takes it, travels to distant lands, and squanders it faster than a Powerball winner. He falls so low that he takes a job feeding pigs (unclean animals, to a Jew) and becomes so hungry that he craves the pods they are eating – yet “no one gave him anything” (Luke 15:16, NIV).

It dawns on him that although he has abused his father and destroyed his position of sonship, perhaps he could return to his father as one of the servants, who have food and shelter.

So he returns.

The most amazing moment in this parable is what happens when this young man’s scraggly carcass appears just over the horizon:  “But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him” (Luke 15:20, NIV).

Two observations catch my attention here. First, the father spotted him from a distance. This means the father had been watching for him, anxiously awaiting his return all this time. And second, the father is so thrilled at the sight that he runs to him. If the father’s character is that of God, then Jesus has just described the only time in the Bible when God ran.* 

This is an intense image. It shows how desperately God wants to blast through the obstacles between him and us.

The cross does that.

In Luke 16, the prodigal son has reached the end of the line, the bottom of the barrel. It seems he has broken his father’s heart beyond repair. So he is hoping for a chance to return home in some low position; he isn’t expecting much.

Think of his fear as he realizes just how lost and alone he really is. When he had money, I’m sure he had all the rich food, fancy possessions, and good-time friends he could want. But now, it’s all gone. He’s broke and hungry, with no money to provide even minimal safety on the long journey back home. At any point he could have fallen victim to an accident, assault, or even murder, never to be found again.

Being “out there” is scary when you finally realize how alone you are, how badly you need to be found, and how unlikely it is that the one you’ve hurt should ever take you back.

So imagine the son’s initial bewilderment, turning to incredulous joy as his father runs to him and calls for a giant “welcome home” celebration.

This story is perfect for Lent, during these weeks leading up to the cross. It reminds me of Missy bounding to me, overjoyed to be found by someone who loves her.

Do I remember the feeling of being found by the One who loves me?

Do I remember the joy of being plucked out of the dark – lifted from isolation into security? Do I cling to my Savior in relief that I am safe in his grasp? Do I remember the happiness that I am no longer lost, but am now found?

Or am I beyond that now because I am too educated, too mature, too independent to need him?

No. The cross daily reminds me that I am still a broken man who will never be beyond needing Jesus. I am still as capable as ever of getting lost in the cold darkness – and I still need to listen for his voice, calling me to him. I still will run to him, rejoicing greatly that I am found.

The cross is a reminder that there will never come a time when I do not need Jesus.


* See for Benny Hester’s 1985 song with this title.


The outsiders: Faith and exile in America

5130991619_5f2a3bd38d_zLately I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to live as an outsider, marginalized by society.

Being an outsider is the focus of a chapter I am currently working on for my next book: when I am not researching, I am writing and reflecting on the topic.

I have always struggled with a feeling of “outsiderness,” but the feeling has been getting stronger recently. I really don’t “belong” anywhere. Academically, I wear the scarlet letter of a failed PhD. Philosophically, I am a small-town Montana boy whose beliefs and values go against those of my city (Portland, Oregon). Temperamentally, I am an introvert in a society which prizes extraversion. And politically, I find the most popular candidates for president to be either childish and vulgar, or lacking in credibility, or both. So even in my own country’s political process, with “outsider” candidates capturing huge numbers of votes, I feel like an even bigger outsider than they are because I don’t understand what their supporters see in them. I don’t get it; I just don’t fit in. I keep thinking, Why am I so out of step with everyone else? What am I missing?

For most of my life I have been “on the outside,” but like most people I have never wanted to be – and I have wasted much time and energy fighting to get “in.”

I wasn’t always an outsider. In grade school, I was the “it” kid (whatever “it” is); my house was the happening place. I reached out to everyone, and every prepubescent person in our neighborhood congregated at the Hochhalters. At church I won every “bring-a-friend” contest, and each summer they sent a Vacation Bible School bus directly to my front door to carry all of the friends I invited (true, the bus did make a few other stops, but not many).

But after my parents’ divorce, everything changed. I became bitter, shy, and fat. I definitely wasn’t popular anymore. Kids no longer came over because I had “it”. They only came over because I had a BB gun.

I flunked sixth grade and started my journey as the reject, always dreaming about what it would be like to be cool again.

4268300971_baf56e495d_zAnd then I added yet another undesirable “outsider” trait to my already-long list: gradually, over time, I decided that I was serious about being a Christian. This choice has only increased my “outsiderness”. Culturally, I long to be accepted and live in the center; but—especially in Portland, one of the most “unchurched” cities in the U.S.—I am marginalized. The harder I resist being rejected for my faith, the more society insists that Christians like me are outsiders, relegated to the margins.

Yet as much as I dislike my “place” on the outside, at the edges, in the margins, I see that it is here where God is the most comfortable—the most intimate and redemptive. It is here where grace shines the brightest. It is here where Jesus lives.

Jesus is the epitome of an outsider. At his birth he is laid in a manger (Luke 2:4-7), certainly not the hippest choice for a crib. He grows up in Nazareth, a town held in low regard (John 1:45-46). He lives to upset cultural and religious norms (Mt 10:34-39). He dies as a reject (Isaiah 53:3). And he says that, in this world, his followers will experience the same. Instead of status and prestige, he promises us hostility, saying: “You will be hated by everyone because of me” (Matthew 10:22).

Not the strongest recruiting line I’ve ever heard.

Throughout scripture, God is always working in the margins. In Genesis, he chooses as his people a bunch of nondescript nomads who become slaves in Egypt (Exodus 1:8-14) and, to lead them, Moses – a fearful, stuttering individual (Exodus 3:11, 13 and 4:1, 10, 13) with anger issues (Numbers 20:9-12, 27:17). After Moses dies, the people inhabit the Promised Land and eventually grow into the great nation of Israel, led by a succession of three great kings – Saul, David, and Solomon. But their golden age of wealth and expansion as a superpower lasts only a couple of generations; then Israel fractures into a divided kingdom and ends in another form of rejection and outsiderness: exile.

While the Israelites are living in exile, as outsiders in pagan Babylon, God does not promise immediate rescue but instructs them to embrace their “outsider” status for the long haul:

“Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper” (Jeremiah 29:5-7, NIV).

During this time, God never tells his people to seek recognition or acceptance in the center of society. He never tells them to fight for their rights – not even the right to worship him. In fact, he almost seems to prefer the times when they live as nomads, slaves, and exiles. If so, I don’t know his reason, but it could be that those are the times when his people are the most humble, teachable, and dependent on him.

In our time, God’s people are again being pushed to the margins. Many previously “Christian” countries, including the U.S., are now post-Christian; Christians have lost the culture war. More and more, we are in exile. We are outsiders.

This reality, though painful, is not necessarily a bad thing. Like the Jews in exile, maybe we are meant to accept and thrive in our outsiderness – because it is on the outside, in the margins, where the church really thrives.

Political pundit and former presidential speechwriter Peggy Noonan writes:

Pagans have been trying to kill Christianity for two thousand years, and each day it dies, and each day it rises. Force it underground and you empower it. You draw rebels, real rebels, the kind society doesn’t acknowledge till half a century later, but powerful people nonetheless. The faith will not only endure but flourish, and, as it does in times of adversity, produce real saints.[1]

110631988In fact, the most powerful periods in Christian history are not when Christians are in the center, but when Christians are on the outside looking in – or better yet, looking up.

So we must develop a higher worldview – a kingdom worldview. Our instructions are actually quite simple, but somehow very easy to forget: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” (Luke 10:27).

It’s only natural to try to avoid rejection if we can; I’m not saying we shouldn’t. But I am saying two things: First, we must stop confusing hurt feelings with real persecution (for example, stop complaining about losing our “right” to say “Merry Christmas” – while Christians elsewere are losing their heads). And second, according to Jesus, we should expect rejection and persecution, and face both as he did – with grace and courage (Philippians 2:5-8).

So being an outsider, much as I resist it, is part of the terms and conditions of my faith. Therefore, instead of fighting so hard against my outsiderness, I believe it’s time for me to start embracing it and trying to understand God’s purposes in it.

Following Jesus is not primarily about winning court cases, getting the right politicians elected, or being accepted by the culture. It’s not wrong to care about those things – but it is wrong to make legal and political victories our primary goals, because those things are not what matter most; Jesus is. Instead of raging against our post-Christian world, we should be loving it as he did – yes, even if it hates us.

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Breaking a hard heart

Recently my church offered a time of prayer for healing. As I waited for my wife, who was praying for someone, an elder approached me and asked if I myself needed prayer.

I thought I didn’t, but my heart knew. Immediately I said yes, and when I was asked what to pray for, the words rushed out: “My hardened heart.”

05-19-2011I realized just how badly my hard heart did need healing prayer. After a wonderful advent season, as 2016 began I had started to feel deluged by political speeches, social media debates, and “awareness” campaigns over injustices about which I can do little, except worry over how little I can do. At such times, my old patterns of cynicism, sarcasm, and apathy tend to start sneaking back into my heart. After all, my flawed logic assumes, if I act superior or uncaring, then all of the bad things can’t bother me.

But this assumption is not true; those things still do bother me. And so my heart unconsciously hardens. I build a wall against the world—a defense against watching humanity make one bad choice after another, with evil flooding in wherever goodness seems weak or absent. At times I‘ve tried to deflect my feelings with humor, but sometimes that can offend people too. So withdrawal and apathy seem to provide better protection from the overwhelming feeling that the world is spinning out of control.

I begin to see myself as a detached, objective observer, sitting above other humans and mocking them as idiotic Neanderthals. However, my passion and emotion always seem to slip out as sarcasm, passive-aggressive put-downs, and biting comments. Though I try to stuff it inside, I seethe until I reach a boiling point. Then, I launch.

Unfortunately, the sinful choice to withdraw and harden my heart has serious side effects. The heart, as strong as we think it is, cannot completely close itself off from others. It cannot create an unbreachable wall. We angrily try to make sure no more pain gets in, but we cannot prevent our own corrosive bitterness and aggression from leaking out.

I’m guessing this is not God’s intended modus operandi for Christ-followers.

After all, when Jesus approached Jerusalem for the final time, scripture says that he “wept over it and said, ‘If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace—but now it is hidden from your eyes’” (Luke 19:41-42, NIV).

What brought on Jesus’s deep, unexpected emotion?

Simply put, his heart broke for the people.

In Jerusalem at that time, the Jews were hard-pressed on every side – taxed, abused, and marginalized in their own land by Roman occupiers. Seeking freedom from Rome, some Jews—one could even call them terrorists—issued stealth attacks against both the Roman oppressors and their Jewish collaborators. The city was in great turmoil and unrest.

But that wasn’t all. In addition to external oppression from Rome, the Jews also faced internal oppression from their own spiritual leaders, who had created a huge body of religious regulations governing every detail of life. Breaking just one small rule, intentionally or not, could lead to serious consequences and penalties – so everyone lived in constant worry and fear, trying to follow all of the rules. In about forty years, Jerusalem would be razed and its temple destroyed. And within a week, Jesus’s own fellow Jews, who would at first praise him as their king, would turn on him and kill him.

Yet his heart broke for them.

Me? Most of the time, I just want to shake my head in disgust and brush the dust from my shoes as I desperately seek a saner, less stressful life. “The world is going to hell in a hand basket,” I say to myself from my lofty perch. “Screw it. Let them. World, meet sin. Good luck. I will have no part of it.”

pulling stone heartBut I’m pretty sure my response is not the right one. I don’t need a tough, hard heart. I need a broken one—one that weeps for my city, my country, my world. A hardened heart wants to fight; a broken heart wants to heal. A hardened heart is selfish and stands apart to judge; a broken heart is selfless and jumps in to help.

So how can a hard heart be softened – or, better yet, broken?

Once I understood the process my heart took to become rock-hard, I realized that I cannot soften it through will-power. That’s what prayer is for. Only prayer and repentance can undo the damage.

In the last year, some political and spiritual leaders – even some Christian ones – have implied that praying is basically doing nothing. But these skeptics are blinded to the supernatural power found in prayer.

Prayer acknowledges our helplessness. It is a concession that despite all of our supposed knowledge, we cannot fix our problems but can only present them to a good and holy God and ask for his help.

Prayer includes our confession. It is an admission that we are—I am—responsible for breaking this world, which God created as good, and it forces us to see things through God’s eyes instead of our own.

Prayer restores our unity. It is an affirmation that I am not apart from the world God created; instead I am involved in it, both as part of the problem and as a living reflection of grace. And I definitely can’t reflect grace if my heart is hard.

Every heart must be broken. God can get us there in infinite ways—some very forceful and painful. However, having experienced some of those other ways, I do not recommend them. I think prayer is God’s preferred method.

Because becoming like Jesus requires that our hearts break over the world, seeing it the way he saw Jerusalem.

This is the world he died for.

This is the world he loves.

This is the world he invites me to love as he loves.

And that invitation to love starts with prayer.

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The New American Pharisee

When we think of a modern-day Pharisee, most of us immediately think of a stereotypical “us vs. them, holier-than-thou” legalist, pointing a judgmental finger at others and trying to force his or her narrow religious views on all of society. But lately I see a new kind of Pharisees emerging within the body of Christ, and though their fingers point back at that stereotype, they are every bit as judgmental.

Recently I saw a disturbing Facebook exchange about the scandal involving (tagline: “Life is short. Have an affair”). Sadly, the breach of this hookup website for married people exposed many subscribers who were Christians—even well-known pastors and other spiritual leaders.

Yet the Facebook posts which so bothered me contained not sadness but celebration. One poster crowed, “Folks: Evangelical celebrities are bankrupt…how many more examples do we need?” Another expressed his disdain for a famous preacher, and his hopes that this preacher also would be on the list of exposed subscribers.

I was horrified by the vitriolic glee of these self-identified Christians over the downfall of other Christians. These posters not only rejoiced over those who had fallen; they even hoped more would fall. (Note that I am not saying everyone should just “forgive and forget” about sin, nor am I saying we should sweep it under the rug to protect Jesus’ name from further scandal. Instead, I believe in a church-led healing process of reconciliation, accountability, and restoration. And I believe this healing process is exactly that—a process.)

Yet there was more to come.

Days later, I came across a social media video in which several young adults each proclaim, “I’m a Christian, but I’m not…” and then they fill in the blank with such words as: a hypocrite; homophobic; uneducated; judgmental; closed-minded; unaccepting.

Newpharisee2One person says that just because Christians subscribe to “a faith that has terrible people in it, does not mean that we’re all terrible.” Another adds, “A lot of people think Christianity ruins people, but to me, I think it’s people that are ruining Christianity. You never really see the good that happens; you only see the hypocrites that put themselves on a higher pedestal.” A third claims that he is not perfect—with two underlying implications: first, that he thinks some “other” Christians believe they are perfect; and second, conversely, that he expects them to be. In other words, even though he himself makes mistakes, those “other” Christians had better not make any—especially not the mistake of being judgmental, according to his own judgment.

None of these people seem to see that putting themselves “on a higher pedestal,” which they denounce in others, is exactly what they are doing.

The people in the video, along with the Facebook gloaters, sound an awful lot like a new American version of the Pharisee in Jesus’s parable (Luke 18:9-14, NIV), who prayed: “God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector.” But Jesus condemned that prayer, and praised instead the prayer of the tax collector—the lowest, most despised rung of Jewish society: “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

Origins of Jewish Pharisaism

In the Gospels, Jesus clearly condemns the Pharisees; yet originally, their movement had noble roots.

After centuries of sin and idolatry, the Jews fell under God’s judgment and, as a result, were conquered and carried away in exile. Decades later, when they finally returned to their homeland, they understood at a deep level that the exile had been their own fault, brought on by their disregard of God and his commandments. So, to prevent a repeat of that hard lesson, they vowed absolute obedience to the Law of Moses.

Sounds great, right? But then they went further. To be sure they didn’t disobey the Law, they began to create “buffer” rules—a kind of padding around the Law to make sure no one came even close to breaking it. For example, the Law of Moses forbade work on the Sabbath, so the Pharisees’ new rules spelled out things like exactly which tasks people could do, or even how far they could walk, on the Sabbath before work was being done. Anyone breaking these “buffer” rules was censured before they could break the Law itself.

In this way, the Pharisees became protectors and arbiters of both the Law and the new rules, trying to make sure everyone toed the line so the Jews would never again experience God’s punishment.

But all of these new rules were extremely intricate and hard to understand, or even to remember, much less to obey. So the Pharisees worked very hard at trying to track and follow them all. In fact, they tried so hard to stay pure and holy that eventually they came to see themselves as spiritually superior to everyone else. They became so proud of their own hard-won “righteousness” that by the time Jesus came, he had to directly challenge their arrogant, legalistic ways.

A brief history of American Pharisaism

A couple of thousand years later, on the other side of the world from the original Pharisees, a small group of Christians fled religious persecution in Europe to establish Christian colonies in the New World—but in the area of Salem, Massachusetts, some of those colonists soon began executing others on the mere suspicion of witchcraft. The persecuted had become the persecutors. Even the passing of two millenia and the crossing of an ocean couldn’t root out pharisaism.

In the early twentieth century, many American Christians believed liberal modernism was infiltrating the church, diluting Scripture and diverting attention from the person and work of Jesus. In response to this threat, a group of theologians wrote The Fundamentals: A Testimony to the Truth—a multi-volume series of essays which spelled out Christian beliefs and their differences from the beliefs of the surrounding culture. This movement came to be called fundamentalism. But eventually it splintered into factions, each one claiming to have the only true doctrine—pharisaism at its best.

In the mid-twentieth century, discomfort with fundamentalist separatism gave rise to evangelicalism, which tried to maintain a Christian identity while engaging the secular culture instead of avoiding or condemning it—but again, in some ways, traces of pharisaism crept in. Then, in response to the free-wheeling 1960s-70s, the 1980s-90s birthed Christian moralism. Like every other attempt to define and protect true Christian belief and practice, this movement was not necessarily wrong in itself—yet like all the others, it contained pharisaical pitfalls.

 The new American Pharisee

And now, as mentioned above, a new American Pharisee is emerging. I believe that those in this group, like their predecessors, sincerely desire to obey God’s commandments to “love the Lord your God…” and “…love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:30-31, NIV).

Still, though it seems nearly impossible to bring legalism into this commandment, these new Pharisees found a way to do so. Like every human, they too fall into the “us vs. them, holier-than-thou” trap. By claiming not to be judgmental, they judge those “other” believers who they think are – especially believers whose convictions are “unhip” and countercultural, even though Jesus himself was countercultural.

And if one of those “other” believers is caught in sin, they symbolically stone him or her—in order to prove to the world that they are, in fact, loving Christians.

Jesus’s solution

Let’s be honest: we are all Pharisees in one way or another. Jesus calls his followers to unite the church and heal its wounded; but Pharisees, no matter how well-intentioned, always end up dividing the church and executing its wounded.

Pharisees1 copyHowever, in the Luke 18 parable, Jesus shows us the solution to our own pharisaical ways.

What if those Facebook posters were to express sorrow over each exposed Ashley Madison subscriber and say, “I disagree with this guy on a lot of things, but he and his family really need our prayers”? What if they humbly admitted that they themselves are just as capable of committing terrible sins?

What if those video makers were to proclaim: “I am a Christian, and I am a hypocrite, and I am judgmental, and I am closed-minded, and I am unaccepting—especially of other Christians!… and I am in need of a Savior”?

What if we Pharisees, both old and new, were to abandon our attitude of spiritual superiority and cry out, like the lowly tax collector, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner!”?

Because Jesus said the tax collector, not the Pharisee, “went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted” (Luke 18:14, NIV).

Jesus made it clear: the penitent tax collector had a better understanding of sin and grace than the proud Pharisee beside him ever could.


A fowl reminder of grace

rooster-crowing-2A rooster’s crow aroused me from sleep during a campout / speaking engagement last weekend. Normally that sound is pleasant to me, but this time I was annoyed. This rooster’s morning song apparently was on Eastern time or earlier, because here in the Pacific Northwest it wasn’t morning; it was only 1:30 a.m. Not only was the day not about to break, but I was pretty sure the sun was still hovering somewhere over Europe.

So for about half an hour, I lay listening to a time-challenged bird, desperately hoping to get some sleep before I had to speak in the morning. Then I caught the irony: my topic was the apostle Peter—who, after insisting he’d die for Jesus, in truth was so afraid to die that he denied Jesus three times before the rooster crowed, just as Jesus had predicted he would (John 13:38).

Peter denied knowing Jesus to a servant girl.

Then again to someone else.

Then a third time.

Finally, in the night, as rooster crowed.

And Peter, knowing he was guilty, stood reprimanded by a dinner entree.

Whenever I hear a rooster crow, I always wonder how that sound made Peter feel after his three denials of Christ. Did it remind him of that shame? Did it make him feel condemned? Maybe even hopeless?

The stereotypic rooster image is that of a rooster perched atop a fence by an old barn, welcoming in the sun on the horizon, waking the world to the start of a new day. But like the rooster near my campsite last week, Peter’s may have been time-challenged because some texts imply it was still night when the rooster crowed (for example, in Luke 22:56, shortly after Jesus’ arrest, people were gathered around a fire to keep warm). That premature crow proclaimed the darkest hour of Peter’s night: the arrest and trial of his Savior, plus a triple failure in denying that very one.

Yet the rooster also brought clarity. During the previous three years, while Peter kept falling all over himself trying to prove what an awesome disciple he was, the only thing he proved was his ability to get in the way of God’s work. Now, the shrill cry of a rooster confirmed it: Peter was a screwup, a failure.

And for the remainder of that night, Peter could only stand alone in this condemnation. The Messiah was on trial and surely headed for execution. Now there was no one who could save Peter from himself.

But that crow, in the dead of night, also announced something Peter didn’t yet understand: a new day was coming. Like the sun, the Son (an old pun, but still true) would rise again!

And unlike Judas, Peter hung around for that event. The rising sun was not yet visible, but it was coming. And with it came the risen Son, full of forgiveness and grace, who met Peter on the lakeshore and asked him three times, “Do you love me?” And each time, Peter said, “Yes.”

Scripture says Peter was grieved (John 20:17) that Jesus kept asking the same question. But Jesus was giving Peter a do-over—three affirmations, one for each denial.

In fact, within just a few weeks, Peter the cowardly screwup was bravely proclaiming the good news of Jesus’ resurrection to thousands. He even confronted the same religious group who had crucified Jesus by telling them, after a healing: “It is by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified but whom God raised from the dead, that this man stands before you healed” (Acts 4:10).

What changed in Peter? Nothing, really. Peter was still Peter, a sinful screwup badly in need of grace. The only difference between Peter the denier and Peter the proclaimer was Jesus’ resurrection and forgiveness—a new day, announced by the rooster in blackest night.

After that, I believe that whenever Peter heard a rooster crow, he was reminded of his failure, but in a context of grace.

Fast forward two millennia, to a happy camper in a tent near Rainer, Oregon. At first I was annoyed that the crow of a stupid bird had awakened me from a deep, much-needed sleep. Then I thought of Peter, hearing that same sound during the worst failure of his life—and then hearing it again later, after Jesus’ forgiveness. And the crowing sweetened to a tune filled with grace. The same grace which had poured over a screwup like Peter.

I drifted back to sleep with a new song of grace in my ears.

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