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Category: Forgiveness

Claiming “Christ Alone” from the bottom of the stupid ditch

There’s a funny video going around social media showing a boy pulling a sheep out of a tight ditch. When the boy finally frees the sheep, the sheep excitedly bounds away and, possessing the average intelligence of a sheep, leaps into the same ditch. Often the caption is attached: “Some days when Jesus shepherds me.”

I am having one of those moments.

The last couple of weeks have not been my most stellar. I have not felt on my “A” game. In fact, I have felt I urge to be relegated back to the Peewee League of life.

Many nights, I have laid in bed this week, staring up at the ceiling and thinking, “I am a grown man. How did I miss this?”

I couldn’t even ask what I was thinking because clearly I wasn’t thinking.

What has been the most frustrating part was that I did nothing rebellious or intentional, just—well—stupid.

I have felt like the more I try to focus, the more thoughtless I have become. The more fires I try to put out, the more fires are started by my own hand.

If I was in the Bible, I would have been Uzzah walking alongside the ark of the covenant on its return to Jerusalem. I see it tip, reach out my hand to steady it, then–zap–I am remembered for my thoughtless blunder for all eternity.

That’s the kind week its been.

We all have times like this. Some of us have no trouble making amends, rectifying the mistake(s), and moving on.

Unfortunately, even after successfully doing the first two steps, I often have trouble with the last part–“moving on.” My tendency is instead to make sure I take ample opportunity to beat the crap out of myself for committing such a faux pax in the first place.

How could I let [insert latest faux pax here] happen? I question my abilities and even doubt my calling. I demand to know how I could be so stupid, or how I neglected to catch something so obvious.

Then I spiral.

Into full-blown depression.

It’s kind of the way I am wired.

This morning, I shuffled into church when I clearly would have rather crawled under a rock. A cloud of self-condemnation hung  over my head. Up to the point of actually entering the church, I entertained the thought of not even going this morning and just taking a drive to anywhere but here.

I crept in after the service started and found the furthest corner to sulk in.

I was pretty sure this would be a waste of time. I avoided eye contact as best I could. I didn’t want to worship today. I didn’t want to hear from God. I just wanted to beat myself up.

My attitude was sour. My filters were down.

Then Jesus pushed himself in.

It came through the second worship song:

My hope is built on nothing less
Than Jesus blood and righteousness
I dare not trust the sweetest frame
But wholly trust in Jesus’ name[1]

These words derailed my self-loathing. For the last several days, my entire focus has been on me: my stupid mistakes, my shortcomings, my self-pity. In other words,  the more I condemned myself for my stupid mistakes, the more I removed my focus from the Shepherd.

Of course I am going to be depressed.

The first line of this song, however, tore my focus from self and back onto Jesus.

Jesus alone has to be our source of hope. I have to place my hope in him and not in my performance and accomplishments.

Christ alone, Cornerstone
Weak made strong in the Saviour’s love
Through the storm, He is Lord
Lord of all.

Christ alone.

It’s an easy claim to make when life is rosy and lush.

However, it is another thing when you’re uttering those words ensconced head-first in the bottom of a ditch.

Through the storm. Lord of all.

I think when we beat ourselves up over our mistakes, bad decisions, and just plain carelessness, we are implying that life is not about Jesus but about ourselves. The world is all about me — my successes, my failures, my achievements, and my mistakes. Truthfully, though, the one who benefits the most from this kind of self-condemnation is the enemy.

Instead, Jesus sticks his head into the ditch next to my stuck body, says, “I got ya,” before pulling me out by the leg.

The truth is, I am likely going to wind up in that ditch again. I wish I could say otherwise. But that’s what it means to be human.

However, real discipleship occurs not by boasting how we can avoid the ditch but by how we can utter the words “Christ alone” while head-first within it.

Whether it’s the first time we’re there or when we stupidly find ourselves there again.

[1] “Cornerstone,” Hillsong Worship

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In a world of vitriol, a breath of fresh air

We live in a world of ugly vitriol. We spew hatred online toward each other, and we seem hell-bent trying to top ourselves every day. Social media websites, who claim the purpose of their companies is to bring individuals and communities together, are the primary tool we use for tearing each other apart. Facebook and Twitter have become poison. Although we tend to personally deny that we are a part of the problem, a quick search through our own social media accounts probably would reveal otherwise. Sadly, we all contribute to the fast-moving poison.

So what brings out this poison, this vitriol and hatred? Simple. We have different opinions.

Apparently, having a different opinion is justification enough to warrant personal attacks, prejudiced generalizations, character assassinations, and wishes for harm to befall our opponents in order to teach them a lesson.

All because they have a different opinion than ours.

But in this climate of corporate and individual thought control and character assassination, I saw a brief, fresh moment of humanity recently.

Allie Stuckey is a political blogger. She is young and conservative—the nickname for her website is “The Conservative Millennial.” She is very active on social media and frequently appears on national cable networks. Her website states that she hopes to educate and inspire other conservative millennials.

So, doing what political bloggers and commentators do across the nation, she tweeted her opinion about something. In the context of the sexual assault epidemic that has darkened the United States in the last several months, Stuckey recently threw her two cents into the ring, tweeting: “The #metoo movement is a symptom of a broken world.”

As a fellow Christ-follower (she openly is), I don’t disagree with Stuckey’s statement. It is true: everything wrong in this broken world is ultimately because of sin. If there was no sin, there would be no World Vision, Eyes That See, or International Justice Mission. If there was no sin, there would be no #metoo movement. There was no sexual violence or lust in the Garden of Eden. Sin is what causes us to hate. Sin is what cause some men to objectify and treat women as sex objects.

Stuckey in no way meant to minimize the problem of sexual harassment, but rather to magnify the real evil that it is. I am a Christian, and I agree that this broken, sinful world needs Jesus.

And it needs Jesus badly.

That said, whether you agree or disagree with me—or particularly Allie Stuckey—is beside the point. Consider it right or wrong, it is nevertheless Allie’s opinion, her contribution to the discussion.

Then an individual responded to Stuckey’s tweet, an individual sitting on the board of the Master of Science in Foreign Service (MSFS) program at Georgetown University. This individual specifically addresses Stuckey, stating: “Wishing you a #metoo moment. Maybe then you won’t be so insensitive.”

In other words, I hope you get sexually assaulted or raped so you’ll learn your lesson.

An odd thing to wish upon a woman in the name of supporting sexually-harassed women.

Stuckey called this man out: “Hi @Georgetown — someone on your MSFS board just told me he hopes I get sexually harassed or assaulted. Is this the kind of standard your university holds for your advisors?”

Many in the Twitter universe also responded to this man for his unthinking remark. Afterward, the individual doubled down on his initial statement, earning further rebuke.

Then the exchange went viral.

Until the individual attacking Stuckey suddenly deactivated all his social media accounts. Something was clearly happening behind the scenes. Shortly thereafter, a Georgetown University dean issued a statement that said the department had asked for and accepted this advisor’s resignation from the board. Though Stuckey’s attacker had eventually apologized to her, the statement said it could not tolerate one of its board members wishing harm upon another person.

Shortly after this bit of news, reports began to surface that the man got fired from his regular job for these comments. His career is destroyed. His personal empire crumbled to the ground.

Good, my flesh cheered. Some elitist who could be that stupid to tweet such obnoxious garbage had it coming. Oh, such poetic justice!

Then this young millennial taught me, a Christian for longer than she’s been alive, a lesson I should have long since gotten.

Stuckey posted a blog on her website entitled, “I won, but I don’t feel triumphant,” where she shares her perspective of the exchange.

In her blog, she doesn’t gloat or take a victory lap. Instead, she looks within and checks her own motives. She wonders if she did the right thing. She writes, “I don’t know if I handled it the right way. When he initially made the comment and then subsequently defended himself, insisting that I deserved it, I felt no remorse. But to watch him crumble from the backlash and then see the real-life consequences unfold, I feel guilty.”

Even though her attacker arguably deserved what he got, he is still one for whom Jesus died. Rather than maintaining defiantly that she had every right to bring this man down, she seems to be seeking Jesus first. She acknowledges the struggle between justice and mercy raging inside of her: “I’m battling now what I’m sure many Christians have battled before. On the one hand, calling out people for clearly inappropriate harassment is good and necessary: it prevents them from targeting someone else. On the other, where does grace come in?”

No time for a smug victory dance. Instead, she falls on her face wondering if she did the right thing. To Stuckey, what matters most is not political victory, but where she stands in her relationship with Jesus. This kind of humility is what all Christians—conservative or progressive—should take with us into the world of political discourse.

No political cause is worth the destruction of another person.

The goal in today’s vitriolic climate is to have a hand in destroying the lives of political opponents. This is the badge of honor for political trolls. After all, the ill-conceived reasoning goes, if any opinion disagrees with mine it will surely hurt someone, so it must be silenced.

In this game of Twitter cat-and-mouse, Stuckey scored the cheese. She won the battle. The big ugly ogre got his comeuppance. In social media, it is so easy to spike the ball in the end zone and celebrate. It’s easy to smack-talk and jeer the loser of the political joust.

But Stuckey took the high road. While she acknowledged this guy probably got what he deserved (this wasn’t the only time he had tweeted things against conservative women), she didn’t gloat.

She didn’t celebrate his downfall.

She thought about the bigger picture–the one with Jesus as king.

And for me, in such a poisonous climate, that honesty—that humility and inner struggle—is a most welcome breath of fresh air.

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Can we be sinners but not losers?

Since the release of my book, Losers Like Us, I have argued that the Bible does nothing to hide the sins, flaws, and blemishes of the people within. They are too clueless, too full of themselves, and too ordinary to be considered spiritual giants. So I have used the term “losers” to describe them—and also to describe all the rest of us who, each in our own stumbling way, try to follow the Lord just as they tried.

But many people have objected to the “loser” label by saying: “Yes, I am a sinner—but not a loser!”

Loser-Sinner1This response shows just how much people hate being labeled as “losers.” I think they mean that in Christ, we are winners, and I agree with that. Yet I see the sinner/loser distinction differently.

I began studying the Bible characters when I went through a time of darkness and failure in my own life, because I was desperate to see how God could or would use a failure like me for his kingdom. As I studied them, they became more to me than the flat, one-dimensional flannel-graph characters I remembered from Sunday School; they became real, fallible people – just like me. So I began to use the term “losers” to describe them, because their failures and ordinariness gave me hope. I figured that if God could use them in his kingdom, maybe he could use a loser like me too.

I know the word “loser” can sound like an insult, but it is not; it is simply an observation.

Allow me to explain.

 To me, except in the case of Jesus, “loser” and “sinner” are synonymous.

The word “sinner” and the word “loser” have similar definitions. Both mean someone who comes up short, misses the mark, fails to fulfill the standard of perfection. In this sense, only Jesus was not a loser. He alone lived a perfect, sinless life, and compared to him, everyone else is indeed a loser (Isaiah 53:6, Heb. 4:15). After all, there can be only one “winner.” In the real world, not everybody gets a trophy.

This truth is affirmed throughout the Bible. Quoting the Old Testament (Ps. 14:1-3, Ps. 53:1-3, Ecclesiastes 7:20), Paul writes in the New:

“There is no one righteous, not even one;
there is no one who understands;
there is no one who seeks God.
All have turned away,
they have together become worthless;
there is no one who does good,
not even one….

for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”

(Romans 3:10-12, 23)

So according to scripture, every person except Jesus is a sinner—and therefore, to me, a loser too.

 If “loser” and “sinner” are not synonyms, I’d rather be the first one.

Saying “I’m a sinner, but not a loser!” implies that being a loser is worse. 

But I see things the other way around. I think being a sinner is worse, because “loser” is just a human value judgment. “Sinner,” on the other hand, is a heart issue that keeps us from the presence of God.

However, neither sinners nor losers are beyond God’s grace; both are fully redeemable by him. 

And on the subject of grace…

The wonderful mystery of grace makes each of us a sinner and a saint at the same time.  We Christ-followers often misinterpret grace in binary terms, with sinners on one side, Christ’s grace in the middle, and saints (saved people) on the other side. We believe that once we move from sin through grace to salvation, we are no longer sinners.

But in truth, even after we are saved by grace, we still sin sometimes. For example, even David—“a man after God’s own heart” (I Sam. 13:14)—is shown to be a deceiver (I Sam. 21:13); polygamist (I Sam. 25:42-44, 2 Sam. 3:2); adulterer (2 Sam. 11:2-4); and cold-blooded killer (2 Sam. 12:9)—and all of these sins were committed after David’s life was dedicated to God. In fact, even in the New Testament, after receiving the Holy Spirit, Peter sinned by fearing the opinion of men more than the opinion of God—and Paul had to call him out (Gal. 2:11-21).

So even though we are forgiven and redeemed, sin is still with us.

Salvation is an ongoing process. Jesus works every day to chisel away our faults and sins as we submit to him, because following Christ is not about achieving perfection; it is about admitting our brokenness, and then being as obedient as we can so that God can build his kingdom through us anyway.

That’s why I argue that we are all sinners, and by default, losers. I can see why some might say that in Christ we are “winners”—but I say that Christ is the only winner. Compared to him, everyone else comes in dead last.

What is so amazing is that Jesus invites us into the winner’s circle to celebrate, party, and identity with him. 



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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Killing THOSE people


I killed a guy this week.

Oh, believe me, I was completely justified. He really had it coming. He was one of THOSE people.

I was already miffed because I had been delayed by two separate car wrecks and was running late for work. (Sidenote: Why do I always count my problem of being stuck behind a car crash as bigger than the problem of those being pulled from the wreckage?)

Anyway, even though I was behind schedule already, I still needed to make a stop at Plaid Pantry.

So of course I ended up behind a guy who had to slow down the line and make his problem, my problem. He started picking an argument, ranting at the clerk about having to show ID to buy cigarettes and raging against the idiotic law requiring her to ask him for it. He even tried to rope me into joining his crusade. Worst of all, he looked old enough to have been buying cigarettes for years and he finally did show his ID, so he must’ve known the routine and been through it before. Yet he had to start freaking out now?

On the outside, I hid my feelings. I tried to look as disinterested as possible, silently willing him to finish his stupid purchase so I could get out of there.

But inside I was deeply, deeply irritated.

So I killed him.

I didn’t kill him physically. (What am I, some kind of psycho?!) No, I killed him in the context of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount:

You’re familiar with the command to the ancients, ‘Do not murder.’ I’m telling you that anyone who is so much as angry with a brother or sister is guilty of murder. Carelessly call a brother ‘idiot!’ and you just might find yourself hauled into court. (Matthew 5:21-22, The Message)

Why does God always bring THOSE people into my life? I don’t mean the warm-fuzzy kind—the romantic soulmate, the trusted mentor, the BFF. No, I mean those infuriating drama queens and kings who worm their way into every nook and cranny of my business, who push my buttons and get under my skin, who bring chaos to the calm. People who, even if I am totally right, make me feel 100% wrong—and if I am wrong, they just tuck away that little demerit to use against me in the future.

God loves to let THOSE people cross my path.

Sadly, I find myself killing them all at some point.

I can say that about my attitude toward the guy at Plaid Pantry. And plenty of other people too.

It’s amazing how Jesus can take murder—which seems like such a huge, whopping sin that I’m pretty sure I’d never commit it—and bring it so close to me that I can feel my guilt oozing from every pore. Though I haven’t committed murder according to the laws of the state, I have committed it according to the law of God. I have harbored deep ire, even rage, toward others: that convenience-store crusader, that frustrating neighbor, that critical coworker, that former boss who refused to see any good in me. According to Jesus’ definition of the law, in all of these cases I stand guilty of murder. I am no different than Ted Bundy or Jeffrey Dahmer.

So now that I stand convicted of breaking the commandment against murder, is there anything I can do about it? Frankly, in practical terms, no. That is what the cross is for. Jesus’ interpretation of God’s law rips us from our pharisaical ruts and brands us with guilt. But that’s why Jesus came. We are holy not because we keep the Ten Commandments—according to Jesus’ words, we manage to break them daily—but because of his work on the cross.

I think God puts THOSE people in my life to force me to leave my comfort zone and show God’s grace to the world, as he has shown it to me. In truth, I’d rather stay dumb, fat and happy in my own little club of warm-fuzzy people who love me. But THOSE people keep chafing away at the callouses on my heart. Through trial and error—multiple errors—God softens and smoothes me more and more. Hopefully, in time, I will begin to see THOSE people through Jesus’ eyes—as treasured individuals for whom he died.

Just like me.


“Friends” on Facebook: To stone, or not to stone

stone in handI have finally come kicking and screaming into the twenty-first century: I am now on Facebook. I have resisted social media because: 1) I find the interaction to be somewhat superficial, and 2) I’ve never heard of journalists or potential employers checking a person’s social media and finding anything which raised their estimation of him/her. However, due to the upcoming book launch, my publisher asked me to start a Facebook page. So I pulled the trigger.

One important part of setting up a page (other than figuring out how to get the stupid thing to work the way I want it to) is to find “friends.” But that’s a broad term. On Facebook, sometimes getting “friends” feels more like feeding a narcissistic urge to see how many people remember me.

The first set of friends was easy: people in my family and church. The next was trickier: people from old jobs, alma maters, and other past chapters of my life. During this phase, I saw many “friend” names which stirred wonderful feelings and waves of nostalgia.

But a few names evoked memories which are not fully healed – memories of that spring when I lost both my PhD and my teaching job, each time suffering the “walk of shame” as I left. Those names remind me of painful days when I wished the ground would swallow me, of sleepless nights when I was wracked with humiliation and rejection.

Frankly, when I see those names, I’m overwhelmed by memories of feeling kicked when I was down. When I see those names, I don’t want to be their “friend.” No, what I want is to keep judging them for what I deem to be their sins, ranging from passive-aggressive manipulations to backstabbing to betrayal. What I want is to sit high atop my throne and watch them take their own “walk of shame” out the nearest exit. What I want is to blame them, hold them in contempt, make them feel the agony I felt.

But scripture has an annoying habit of holding up a mirror to the ugliness in my own life. I so badly want to judge others; like the Pharisees in the story of the woman caught in adultery (John 8:3-11, NIV), I find myself on the side of those just itching to cast stones.

Then Jesus’ words kick me in the teeth: “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone….” And with that simple statement, Jesus indicts me. My role suddenly changes from that of the Pharisee who cannot see his own guilt, to that of the woman “caught in the act” who knows her guilt all too well. Those names on my Facebook page, which bring to mind the supposed sins of others against me, now reveal my own passive-aggressive maneuvering, my own backstabbing and betrayal toward them.

“Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone….” Perhaps others have committed sins against me. But what about my own sins? I’ve sinned against them too. And not only against them, but against everyone from innocent bystanders to my strong supporters. The mirror of scripture broadens to reveal my sins against all of them. Jealousy toward those who, in my view, have never deeply suffered (why should they get off so easily?). Envy toward those who have achieved more than I, especially in academia (why do they get to have what I couldn’t?). And self-centeredness: when someone else mentions a personal tragedy, usually I’ve managed to turn it around to mine. After all, there’s only room for one in the pool of self-pity.

“Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone….” One by one the woman’s accusers leave her; I can see them unclenching their fists and dropping their stones to the ground as they walk away. And when they are all gone, he tells her: “[N]either do I condemn you….Go now and leave your life of sin.” With those words he redirects the focus from her past to her future.

Which brings me back to Facebook. On my homepage, the names keep coming at me. Occasionally I see one that gives me pause. At that moment, I have a choice to make: Will I take the part of the Pharisee, who sits in judgment because he sees only the sin of others – or the part of the woman, who bows in brokenness because she sees her own?

Each name brings hesitation, then reflection on which role I will play. And each click on the “friend” button is, hopefully, another stone falling from my hand.