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Category: Ministry

How the church lost our prophetic voice in 2016 (and how we might get it back)

On Friday, our next president will be sworn in.

The 2016 election ended the most bizarre, unsettling campaign season I’ve ever seen. Afterward I felt great relief, not because my candidate won (I couldn’t vote for either major candidate) but because it was finally over.

Thankfully, mercifully, happily over.

Then the protests and riots began—the most violent of them in my hometown of Portland, Oregon. The losers threw tantrums while the winners gloated.

My heart hasn’t stopped aching about the 2016 election season. However, what troubled me most was not the candidates, but the body of Christ. I consider 2016 to be the year the church lost its prophetic voice.

Both progressive and conservative Christians took their eyes off God’s simple requirement: to act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with God (Micah 6:8). Each side seemed to have a sickening case of tunnel vision, condemning vile behaviors in the other candidate while overlooking equally vile behaviors in their own. God’s people could have called for justice and repentance without scrambling down into the mud with everyone else. But we didn’t. So we lost our prophetic voice.

What do I mean by prophetic voice?

Consider King David.

In 2 Samuel, David had just committed a string of terrible sins. First, he sleeps with the wife of Uriah, one of his top warriors. Then, when she gets pregnant, he craftily calls Uriah back from the battlefield for a little—ahem!—“R&R” with her, to hide who the father is; but Uriah won’t enter his own home because doing so would dishonor his fellow warriors, who are still fighting and can’t enjoy such luxuries. Thwarted, David resorts to premeditated murder. He commands his general to put Uriah on the front lines and then withdraw the troops, leaving Uriah to be killed.

The plan works; David gets away with both adultery and murder.

Until the prophet Nathan shows up to tell the king a story:

“There were two men in a certain town, one rich and the other poor. The rich man had a very large number of sheep and cattle, but the poor man had nothing except one little ewe lamb he had bought. He raised it, and it grew up with him and his children. It shared his food, drank from his cup and even slept in his arms. It was like a daughter to him. Now a traveler came to the rich man, but the rich man refrained from taking one of his own sheep or cattle to prepare a meal for the traveler who had come to him. Instead, he took the ewe lamb that belonged to the poor man and prepared it for the one who had come to him” (1 Samuel 12:1-4).

Hearing this tale of injustice, David rages: “As surely as the Lord lives, the man who did this must die! He must pay for that lamb four times over, because he did such a thing and had no pity” (12:5-6).

Only then does Nathan close the trap: “You are that man” (12:7).

This story can help us understand the prophetic voice, and also how we lost it.

The prophetic voice speaks truth to power. Nathan had to deliver a stinging rebuke to a king. Although David’s kingdom was ruled by God’s law (the Torah), in a monarchy the king is the arbiter of the law, and can essentially do whatever he wants. Though David was considered a man after God’s own heart, he did not hesitate to commit sin and then hide it.

I admit I can get pretty starry-eyed around “kings” (people who have wealth and fame – like when I used to do on-air interviews of musicians, politicians, and other celebrities at a Christian radio station). In fact, who doesn’t? For some reason, most of us want rich, famous people to think we are cool. However, if God so instructed, would I have the courage to speak God’s uncomfortable truth to power? Nathan did, even knowing it might cause his political downfall or possibly his physical death.

It took great courage for the prophet to deliver this rebuke to a king. But the prophetic voice must speak God’s truth to whomever God instructs, no matter how powerful and no matter what the potential consequence.

The prophetic voice must transcend our own political agenda. Nathan could have convinced himself that maybe he didn’t hear God correctly, or that David’s sin wasn’t all that bad. After all, David was doing some great things: establishing a beautiful capital in Jerusalem, bringing the ark of the covenant back home, and defeating some pretty bad enemies of Israel. He was a good king overall, so why care about his personal life? Why bother with his sins (or “mistakes”)? After all, bringing him down would d– evastate not only the palace and royal family, but the entire nation as well.

When my alma mater’s president posed next to then-candidate Donald Trump with a Playboy cover on the wall behind them, I cringed. I know he didn’t pick where he stood in Trump’s office, but that photo seemed representative of what was going on among Christians at that time: we were more than willing to overlook sin if it benefited our political agenda. Maybe Trump was our guy because he preached pro-life, so we didn’t care about his playboy lifestyle; or maybe Clinton was our gal because she preached benefits for all, so we didn’t care about her unethical practices; or maybe Sanders was our guy because he preached social justice, so we didn’t care that he doesn’t even really believe in God.

So we lost the moral high ground. Or, as Judge Judy says, we accused without clean hands. We found that we cannot call out the splinter in our opponent’s eye when we have a plank in our own.

The prophetic voice should lead to a repentant heart. Nathan approached David not just to spew vitriole or delegitimize his kingship, but to call David to repentance. And David immediately responded, “I have sinned against the Lord” (12:13). Psalm 51 beautifully expresses his repentance:

Create in me a pure heart, O God,
and renew a steadfast spirit within me.
Do not cast me from your presence
or take your Holy Spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation
and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain m
(Psalm 51:10-12).

True, David was a true follower of God who cared deeply about God’s opinion, while many of today’s politicians and pundits aren’t. Still, we don’t even try to do what Nathan did: confront them directly and call them to account, led by God with the purpose of effecting repentance. Instead we confront them indirectly on social media, led by our own silly passion—pointlessly mocking them, repeating wild rumors about them, and insulting their followers. That’s the world’s methodology, and we are not being God’s prophetic voice when we imitate it. Our objective must be repentance—which, by the way, always includes our own.

So, under a new president, can the church regain its prophetic voice? Or will we keep practicing the world’s ways of jeering, rejecting, and tearing down without building up?

I hope we’ll do the former. But we’ll have to look within. Will we try to speak God’s truth, in love, to everyone or just to those with whom we disagree? Will we seek justice for all, or only for those we personally deem oppressed? Will we pray for our president, not for him to grow a brain or roll over dead but to humbly repent, seek reconciliation, and lead our nation with wisdom and grace?

Nathan’s gentle, truthful approach softened David’s heart to hear God’s words. We too must maintain a gentle spirit of repentance for ourselves, our opposition, and our whole society. God’s kingdom must come first; no political party, preference, or agenda is more important.

To regain our prophetic voice, we must be brave, loving, and consistent, or else remain silent.

I am pretty sure silence is not an option.

We must do better.

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The gift of “angry eyes” on Halloween

I love fall, and that includes the guilty pleasure of Halloween.

When I was a kid, Halloween was a great community event. I have fond memories of trick-or-treating on crisp, windy nights in a town where every home was filled with light and candy, ready to greet small visitors whose costumes were mostly covered by winter coats to block the Montana chill. The coats weren’t in character, but then again, neither were shivering zombies.

So, a few years ago, I decided to get in the spirit: I turned our house into a “monster house,” with two angry eyes to watch over the neighborhood at night.

Our house has two upstairs dormer windows, so I illuminate each one with an orange outline, a red iris, and a scowling purple eyebrow. This year I also outlined the garage door below them in a clumsy attempt to make a mouth. Then I replaced our two white porch lights with red ones, right about where the dimples should be. (Do monsters have dimples?) The resulting monster face is crude and unrefined, but I enjoy it and so do the trick-or-treaters.

Here’s my best photo, as an amateur photog, of our Monster House. 🙂 The reflections below the eyes are unintentional.

However, this year the project turned into a headache. I was swamped by other household chores and business matters, and frustrated because my well of possible blog topics had run dry. The last thing I wanted to do was to feel the October sun beating down on the rapidly-expanding bald spot on the back of my head as I crawled around on my roof with cords and tools, wrangling strings of lights and screwing them into place.

And on top of that, this year the process did not go well. I had forgotten the cardinal rule of plugging in and checking the lights before attaching them to the roof. After I got them all up and plugged in, I saw that one eyebrow and half of one iris wouldn’t light. So I took them down again, only discover the problem: I had not plugged them in correctly. After fixing that problem, I put them up for a second time and everything was fine – until I learned we had to caulk all of the windows and doors before winter. Once again, the lights had to be taken down and then put up for a third time.

I really was not thrilled about my Halloween decorations this year. And every time I had to crawl out onto the roof yet again, my grumbling about it became more and more pronounced.

So why do it? What’s the point? Aren’t there better things I could be doing?

I never asked that question until this year. And this year I asked it many, many times – each time with more, shall we say, gusto than the last.

I didn’t have an answer until I finished the job for the third time, all sweaty and cranky and sore.

I called my wife outside to look.

As we stood in the dark, looking up at that silly, cartoonish monster face, she commended me for choosing to put it up three times and then said, “You’ve brought a gift to the neighborhood.”

That’s when it suddenly made sense why I went through all the trouble.

You see, we live in one of the many neighborhoods, more and more common these days, which has earned the nickname “Felony Flats.”

Far from the hip, trendy parts of Portland, this neighborhood is dotted with junk cars, drug houses, shouting matches, and occasional police raids. In fact, shortly after we moved in, just after Halloween and before we got an alarm system, our own house was robbed of whatever the robbers could carry, including that year’s leftover Halloween candy. Ironically, though, I don’t feel unsafe here – partly because the drug dealers (whom we greet by name as we get the mail or take out the trash, and who may or may not know that we have observed their drug dealing) try to keep the neighborhood crime and disturbances to a minimum since they don’t want the cops coming around.

So Halloween is different here than it was where I grew up. Here, most houses remain dark and unwelcoming, with the occupants turning in early or going elsewhere to avoid the constant doorknocks. Yet despite my dream of living someplace less crowded, noisy, and stressful, I am coming to the conclusion that—at least for now—this is where God wants me. And when I get beyond my own selfishness, it is not hard to understand why: Jesus loves the people here. He died for them. He is the light in their dark world.

And that is why I climb up on the roof every year to hang the lights. Despite my constant  complaining, even in past blogs, about living in this neighborhood, I choose—in a moment of spiritual enlightenment—to be a gift to our neighborhood. The local kids don’t have much, but our house is one of the few which deliberately invites them in. Families escort their children from blocks away to trick-or-treat here. Under the glow of the eyes, they waddle up our driveway in a long, comical parade. The rule is, no candy until after they show us their costumes, so we can “ooh” and “ahh” over them, and ask them to tell us their names and where they live. After many smiles and much laughter, they and their parents grab handfuls of chocolate eyeballs and other body parts from our big candy bowl, and go happily on their way.

We’ve been told that visiting the “monster house” is an eagerly anticipated event, for kids and parents alike.

In the entire scheme of things, decorating my house doesn’t seem like much. Some people do much greater things to serve others. However, in God’s kingdom, any gift to others – no matter how small – can be used.

When my wife reminded me that this effort is a gift to the neighborhood, I realized that it is an act of love. Jesus wants us to be a gift to our neighbors

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Imago dei … even when I don’t want to

Jesus said the first and most important commandment is to “love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength” (Mark 12:30) – and coming in at second is to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:31).

The first one is pretty easy—at least, it is pretty easy to make an appearance of loving God. Whether it is real or not, only God knows.

The second commandment, however, is a little harder to fake. Merely saying I love my neighbor doesn’t mean much; I have to live it out. Jesus didn’t just say “I love you” to humanity; he put himself on a cross to show it.


Last weekend, my dodge of this second commandment was painfully exposed. My church participates in “Love Portland” – a Saturday in August when we prepare local schools for the students’ return. The work involves mostly simple tasks like trimming, weeding, and painting, which these under-resourced schools don’t have the staffing or funding to do; If we don’t do it, the campuses simply remain untrimmed, unweeded, unpainted.

The purpose of this event is put hands and feet to loving our neighbors, expecting nothing in return. The underlying desire of the organizers and participants is give a gift of service to our community.

In my case, however, my underlying desire was to avoid giving that gift. I had my reasons, some of them legitimate. First, I work graveyard on weekends, and big events like this tend to get me stirred up so that I have a hard time sleeping to prepare for work. Second, the temperature was supposed to hover in the upper 90s that day, and I turn into a real crab-bucket at anything over 80. Third, the wind was full of smoke from raging forest fires some miles away, and the news kept warning everyone to stay inside and avoid breathing it. Fourth, I have a bad back, so I always try to avoid activities that might tweak it.

Unfortunately, beneath all of those reasons—or excuses—for not loving my neighbor hid the truth: I just didn’t want to.

Once again, Jesus’ command to “love my neighbor” came down to an ultimate cage-match between my spirit and my flesh (sin nature). I didn’t want to be inconvenienced. I didn’t want to leave my comfort zone. I didn’t want to share another’s burden. To which Jesus responds: “Love your neighbor.” And then, as if to seal the deal, he adds: “as yourself.”

Jesus’ words launch an inescapable circle of reasoning inside my head. I do love God, I insist. Then show it, he says. How? I hedge. Well, he repeats, by loving others exactly the same way that you love yourself.

Every day, I expend an ocean of effort to get my own needs met, look out for myself in the name of self-preservation, and pump up my Facebook profile to impress everyone else. And that ocean is the amount of love I am called to pour out on others.

Wynants_Jan-ZZZ-Parable_of_the_Good_SamaritanIn other words, as much as I don’t want to be inconvenienced—that is how much I am to love my neighbor. As much as I don’t want to leave my comfort zone—that is how much I am to serve others. As much as I don’t want to share another’s burden—that is how much I am to come alongside the needs of my community.

Just because God—who I say I love—commands it. And loving God is loving my neighbor.

Suddenly, as all my selfish excuses fall flat, these two commands combine to trigger another spirit-versus-flesh battle within. I think Jesus intends it to be that way. These are not commands with which to impress others; they are internal. They create a struggle between the self-centered desires of my flesh and the God-centered desires of my spirit.

This struggle between my flesh and my spirit went on for an entire week before the service day. But two things helped my spirit win out.

Self-awareness. We must be aware that we consist of flesh and spirit. After we put our trust in God, our spirit desires to please him, but our flesh still wants to please itself. So ignoring our flesh, and pretending it isn’t there, gives it the advantage of stealth: we never see it coming. Instead of engaging us in a full-frontal assault, it can sidle up next to us and woo us with sly arguments. I believe this lack of self-awareness is how I can rationalize away bad choices and even sin.
Last Saturday, I was completely aware of the source of my resistance. I knew full well that it was my flesh which was copping the attitude. And the Holy Spirit used this awareness to show me just how self-centered I was being.

Accountability. In my case, accountability came through my wife. She encouraged me to join her in serving the schools, but she also allowed me to talk through my objections, helping me get to the bottom of my resistance. She even gave me the freedom to back out. All of this processing helped turn my heart away from selfishness and toward loving my neighbor.

It’s no secret that Jesus called his followers to be in community with one another. We need close friends who will challenge us to fight against our own flesh, give us the freedom to reach our own conclusions, and pick us up during those times when our flesh wins the day.

Fortunately, on that hot, smoky Saturday last week, my spirit won out: I did participate in the event. My flesh kept screaming its displeasure even as I walked into the school; but my spirit fought back and did what was right.

But how about the next time I am confronted with the opportunity to carry out the second greatest commandment? Will my flesh gain the upper hand or will my spirit win? The battle between flesh and spirit will continue as long as I live. Starving the flesh and feeding the spirit is an ongoing process. I will take the wins whenever I can get them.

For now, I will be grateful that this time, Jesus helped me choose to love my neighbor. In his name.

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The disciple who played second fiddle


This post is adapted from my book, Losers Like Us – Redefining Discipleship After Epic Failure. Download the eBook now for only $2.99! For details, see my book page.

Question for ya: Name the three disciples in Jesus’ “inner circle.”

Answer: It’s got to be Peter, James, and John. They were close to Jesus at key moments when the others weren’t – for example, on the Mount of Transfiguration and in the Garden of Gethsemane.

Now, think fast! Who was Peter’s brother?

Did you have to think for a minute? It’s Andrew – the disciple who lived in Peter’s shadow. All of his life, he played second fiddle to his famous brother.

How many sermons or lessons have you seen or heard about Peter? How many about Andrew? In fact, every single mention of Andrew in Scripture is phrased as either “Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother,” or worse, simply “Simon Peter’s brother.”

I rest my case.

Unlike Peter, who seems to be on every page, Andrew has only three main “scenes” in Scripture—bringing Peter to Jesus, bringing the boy with the loaves and fishes to Jesus, and bringing some Greeks to Jesus—but in each case, he is introducing someone to Jesus.

First, Andrew is a natural evangelist, but without fanfare. He hears John the Baptist point out Jesus as “the Lamb of God”—and Scripture says, “The first thing Andrew did was to find his brother Simon and tell him, ‘We have found the Messiah’ (that is, the Christ). And he brought him to Jesus.” (John 1: 41-42)

Here, Andrew announces the fulfillment of all the hopes and longings of the nation of Israel, down through the centuries, in just five words: “We have found the Messiah.” Compare this delivery to Peter’s long, expressive speeches (such as in Acts 1, 2, 3, and 4) and try to imagine Peter simply stating, “We have found the Messiah.”

Go ahead, try it.

And yet in this passage, it’s because of Andrew, the second fiddle, that Peter meets Jesus.

That blows my mind. Think of Peter—all his stories, all his drama, all his antics. Then consider this: if not for Andrew’s simple introduction, Peter might never have met Jesus.

The next time Andrew appears, he is again acting as a facilitator.

Jesus notes that the crowds following him are getting very hungry (John 6:5),  and Andrew responds: ‘Here is a boy with five small barley loaves and two small fish….’” (John 6:8-9)

Think about it—would that little boy have offered his lunch to any other disciple? As I look at the disciples’ reactions to children at other times (Matt. 19:13–14; Mark 10:13–14; Luke 18:15–16), I imagine they might have said something like, “Beat it, kid! Jesus is far too important to bother with silly suggestions from a squirt like you.” Maybe Andrew thought so too but lacked the nerve to say so. Maybe the only reason Andrew brought the boy to Jesus was because he couldn’t think of anything else to do.

What matters is, he did it. And the rest of the Scripture passage reveals the miracle that followed: the feeding of the five thousand.

Andrew’s third scene confirms that, perhaps from his experience of living in Peter’s shadow, he has shifted gracefully to dwelling in the shadow of the Savior. In this scene, a group of Greeks ask to see Jesus, and Philip and Andrew deliver the message: “Philip went to tell Andrew; Andrew and Philip in turn told Jesus.” (John 12:22)

This passage reports that Andrew and Philip told Jesus about the Greeks, but not what they actually said. If the Greeks had made initial contact with Peter, I’m sure Peter would have been quoted—because in Scripture, Peter is always saying something quotable; his personality is just too big to keep on the sidelines. By contrast, Andrew seems content to turn people over to Jesus and fade into the background.

True, society may celebrate people with big personalities, and the bigger the better; but to many of us, they seem out of reach. Something about their bigness makes us feel smaller.

In Scripture Andrew, the shadow-dweller, does not have that effect on people.

Andrew is not intimidating. He is safe, trustworthy, approachable. People who want to see Jesus are attracted to Andrew.

Wouldn’t it be great if the same could be said about each one of us?

Think about other shadow-dwellers who have sparked great miracles and movements in the church. For instance, who introduced Billy Graham, the best-known evangelist of the twentieth century, to Jesus? Who mentored Martin Luther, John Wesley, Dwight Moody, Jonathan Edwards, Martin Luther King Jr., and scores of others in their spiritual journeys? Through research, we could find out—but they certainly aren’t household names. Like Andrew, each of them was a shadow-dweller who paved the way for someone greater.

Andrew reveals a pattern throughout Scripture and church history: somewhere behind every great spiritual leader, there is usually a spiritually sensitive shadow-dweller.

Just look at the ripple effects from Andrew’s introductions of others to Jesus:

  • Peter is presented in Acts as one of the great leaders of the church, standing up to the Jewish leaders who crucified Jesus and preaching to thousands throughout Jerusalem and Palestine (Acts 2:14–41; 4:8–17).
  • The little boy (John 6:8) becomes known throughout history as the one whose lunch miraculously fed five thousand people. We don’t know what became of him, but surely he was changed by this amazing event and went on to tell others.
  • The Greeks must have talked about Jesus to everyone they knew, especially if they were present to hear the voice that came from heaven immediately after they asked to see him (John 12:20–33).

All of these effects took place because Andrew, the shadow-dweller, stepped back and introduced others to Jesus.

LosersLikeUs1Andrew does not have Peter’s power to evangelize huge crowds (Acts 2:14-41), but he has the power to motivate Peter to get up and go meet Jesus in the first place. He has the power to make a little boy feel safe enough to offer one tiny lunch to Jesus. He has the power to welcome a group of Greeks—Gentiles—who might have been rejected by Peter (Peter had trouble with Gentiles, as seen in Acts 10 and Galatians 2).

Composer Leonard Bernstein put it this way: “I can get plenty of first violinists, but to find someone who plays second violin with as much enthusiasm … now that’s a problem. And yet if no one plays second, we have no harmony” [quoted in Charles R. Swindoll, Improving Your Serve (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1984), 24].

This forces me, as a shadow-dweller, to rethink my place in God’s kingdom. I may not be a charismatic shadow-caster like Peter or some of my prominent friends—but maybe I do have a key part to play, after all.

This post is adapted from my book, Losers Like Us – Redefining Discipleship After Epic Failure. For details, see my book page.

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Four mistakes that keep me from loving my neighbor

It’s no secret that I have felt out of place in the Portland metro area where I live. I’m a Montana boy in a big city, and after living here for 17 years, I still fight the culture shock—and the fact that despite my wish to live elsewhere, I seem to be right where God wants me.


I crave peace, quiet, and elbow room, all of which are virtually nonexistent in my densely packed neighborhood with its traffic-clogged streets. And the neighborhood is visibly deteriorating.

My inner turmoil reached critical mass recently as I walked my dogs. It’s a beautiful time of year, but I couldn’t enjoy the warm sun or budding flowers. I didn’t even notice them.

Instead, I was flooded with an overwhelming sense of disgust. It wasn’t because anyone had wronged me. It was about aesthetics.

My whole neighborhood looks like a junkyard.

I live on a small flag lot, wedged in behind some other houses, and the neighbor in front of me recently parked a decrepit old 24-foot travel trailer with covered windows in his back yard. So this eyesore now fills my view from my front porch. I think he is renting it out. I hope he’s not doing something worse.

As I passed his trailer and walked down my driveway, I noticed the neighbor across the street has followed suit with his own travel trailer—only far bigger, grimier, and uglier than the first. Again, I hope he is just renting it out, but I suspect he is doing more.

Trailer2Another neighbor has started up an auto repair shop in his home garage. And business must be really good because both sides of the street are packed with broken-down vehicles in need of a mechanic. Since my street has no sidewalk, all of the parked cars leave no place to walk except in the street itself.

Finally, I witnessed a drug deal. Unfortunately, our neighborhood is dotted with drug houses (and maybe trailers). People park, run up to a porch, and exchange cash for packets of goods. Then they get back in their cars, drive around the corner, and light up their pipes. My other neighbors have reported seeing this activity too, but it is not easy to document all the evidence required to stop it.

The longer I walked, the angrier I became. I was angry at my neighborhood and everyone in it. I could see that the whole place is going to seed, and I just wanted to get home, shut the curtains, and pretend I live someplace else.

But for now God has me here.

True, I may have legitimate concerns about the people who live around me. I could call their landlords or other authorities and report evidence that they are subletting their trailers (which, on these rental properties, I suspect is illegal), starting an auto repair business in a private garage (which, in this residential zone, almost surely is), and making drug deals (which definitely is). And I don’t think it is wrong for Christians to support what is good in our neighborhoods, and push back against the bad.

But this time, I realized after my walk, perhaps I’m called to “love my neighbor” in a different way.

As my anger cooled toward my unneighborly neighbors, I began to identify with the disciples James and John. These two “sons of thunder”— offended by some similarly unneighborly Samaritans—asked: “Lord, do you want us to call fire down from heaven to destroy them?” (Luke 9:54)  – as if they themselves actually had the power to do so. But in response to this grandiose and vengeful suggestion, the Bible says Jesus rebuked them (Luke 9:55). We don’t know what he said, but I’m sure it was sharp. In their arrogance and pettiness, they completely missed Jesus’ whole message of love and grace.

Then I thought of Peter—who, when commanded in a vision from God himself to eat “unclean” animals lowered down in a sheet, boldly declared, “Surely not, Lord! I have never eaten anything impure or unclean (Acts 9:14).” To Peter’s haughty statement, God replied: “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean (v. 15).” Similarly, God seemed to be showing me a vision, too, about how he sees people—not as clean or unclean, but as lost or found.

These scriptures are just another reminder that the big picture, the Story, is not about me and my concerns. It is about God and his.

So, with hat firmly in hand, I took some time to reflect on my response to my neighborhood, and four personal mistakes that keep me from loving my neighbor.

Mistake #1: I fail to remember that there’s no escaping the corporate effects of sin. Sin is collective; each person’s sin affects everyone else—maybe not immediately or directly, but corporately. All sin affects humanity as a whole, and no place on earth is untouched by the fallout. In a cleaner, wealthier community the specific sins might look slightly different, but they are still there. So even if I move to a different neighborhood, a different town, or a different country, I can never escape the “junkyard” created by sin. Our job is not deny or ignore the sin all around us (and inside us), but to join Jesus in healing it.

Mistake #2: I see my neighbors through a “me vs. them” lens. It’s easy for me to look down on my neighbors because what they are doing disgusts me and makes me uncomfortable. But the Lord never tolerates that attitude in his followers. He soundly corrected Peter, James and John for looking down on their neighbors—because his focus is loving one’s neighbor. In a “me vs. them” mentality, love for my neighbor is often the first thing to go.

Mistake #3: I don’t see my neighbors through God’s lens. The houses and apartments around me are filled with people whom God loves just as deeply as he loves me, and many of them are dealing with far greater challenges and far fewer opportunities than I. Am I more concerned about my own comfort than about the souls in those homes? In the entire scheme of things, the universe doesn’t revolve around me and what I judge to be disgusting. My neighbors and their problems are more important than my prim sense of aesthetics. Maybe I’m being called to remember that God seeks not to condemn all of these people, but to save them (John 3:17).

Mistake #4: I forget that even if I try to run away, the common denominator is me. Sometimes I delude myself into thinking that I “have it all together.” But the truth is, in the same way that I have felt disgusted by my neighbors, they could just as easily feel disgusted by me—because like them, I am filled with brokenness and sin which often hurts others. So some of my disgust is caused by my own sinful attitudes and responses—not theirs—because wherever I go, all of that baggage goes with me.

Jesus loved my neighbors enough to die for them. They are neither good nor bad; they are just lost. Maybe one day I will live somewhere else. But if I can’t learn to reflect Jesus right here, right now, in this time and place, it’s a good bet I won’t be able to reflect him in any other.

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Ice bucket justice


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August 2014 was a rough month.

Israel and Hamas exchanged missiles. The ebola death toll in Africa cracked four digits. ISIS slaughtered Iraqi Christians and started beheading journalists. Russia invaded Ukraine and claimed the video footage of their advancing tank columns came from a video game. A St. Louis suburb exploded in race riots, with some elected leaders promising more if the system doesn’t go their way.

And Americans responded by dumping ice water on their heads.14848289439_dfbc1f961f_z

It was difficult not to feel paralyzed by all of the insanity. Instead of dousing my head with ice water, I wanted to bury it in the sand like an ostrich. I was worried about all that was going on, and frustrated by my own smallness. What could I possibly do to affect even one of those headlines?

Should I tweet something—the twenty-first century equivalent of passing out flyers? Post a shocking photo on Facebook and express my sadness? Join a street march? Or perhaps send money?

But send money to whom? We don’t always know.

I understand that people of faith must respond to these crises, must work toward social justice. However, on some of these issues, I am not exactly sure which parties to support, or how. I believe our response should be based on the truth, but sometimes the truth isn’t easy to ascertain. So what can I do to bring good to those around me?

This brings my back to the ALS ice bucket challenge. At first, I dismissed it as pointless and superficial. I mean, what’s the point of over two million people braving a bucket of ice? And what are the odds that ALS will be forgotten again by Halloween?

But then, like a photographer adjusting a camera lens, God adjusted my focus. I saw that in a world of seemingly unsolvable problems, these chilled folks at least did something. What they did was small, but heartfelt. They didn’t do it to assuage their guilt, or to show their moral superiority. They simply turned on video cameras and poured ice water on their heads. That was it.

But together, their individual acts raised over a hundred million dollars (

I felt as if God was saying to me, “I’m in control. I’ll worry about the big stuff. Just do what you can for those around you.”

This is how I as a Christian can advance God’s kingdom on earth: not by measuring other Christians to see if they are doing “enough” by my yardstick, but by doing something myself.

In the middle of all the craziness last month, I was impressed by something that happened in Ferguson, Missouri. As tensions flared white-hot, the police asked local pastors and church leaders to step in and help calm the situation. I have no idea what any of those pastors felt about the events leading up to the riots—perhaps some were just as angry as the protesters. However, each chose to imitate Jesus and bring peace. I deeply respect their simple acts of love that were underreported by a media hungry for explosive violence.

We will never be able to stop every crisis or heal every disease. And if we try, we will quickly feel overwhelmed and burned out – as I did in August. But we can each reflect Jesus to our own little corner, whether by bringing peace into chaos or by dumping ice water on our heads.

We can still accomplish great good—one ice bucket at a time.

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Falling from towers to trenches

Mad_Men+FallingThe activity of writing, especially writing something longish like a book, requires extended periods of time alone, so it’s a good fit for an introvert. And that’s what I am: an extreme introvert, one who feels happiest and safest when I am alone at my computer. In order of magnitude, think: introvert…hermit…recluse…me.

But recently, this introvert was stopped short by a brief comment in a minor scene in a movie about something else.

The movie was “God’s Not Dead” (yes, I finally got to see it) – which, as I said, is about something else. But in a subplot, a pastor bemoans doing mundane ministry in the U.S. while his visiting friend does real ministry “in the trenches” of Africa. When the two encounter a weeping girl in need of help, cast out by her Muslim family for converting to Christianity, the African tells the American: “Well, you said you wanted to be in the trenches…”

That’s all he said.

Yet those words, like an X-ray, exposed an inner fault: my reluctance to leave my haven of solitude. What does it mean to be “in the trenches”? Do I really want to be there?

It’s easy for me to pray, “God, use use me for whatever you want” – and then tell myself he is doing so, even while I keep doing whatever I want. It’s harder for this introvert to be willing to be with people. In fact, it’s a challenge for me to be around people who “have it together.” Will I be able to be around people who don’t?

But God is redefining my trenches. In fact, as shown by my past, he has violently redirected my whole future away from achievements in postgraduate education (where I thought I was headed) and toward a new focus on failure. Instead of bright ivory towers where academic people reach for dreams, my new future seems to be geared toward dark bloody trenches where broken people reach for any shred of hope. Those trenches aren’t as safe and sanitary as the faculty lounge, but at least I won’t have to learn as many big words.

My wife, also a writer and an introvert, asks me, “Is this what you really want?” She understands that if I bare my brokenness to others, they may respond in kind. In fact, they may even want to connect with me on various levels. Am I ready to associate with other losers like me? Am I willing to stand with them in their heartaches? I am ashamed that this piercing X-ray, this fragment of dialog in a fictional movie, has uncovered my inner hesitation. But I don’t want to hide or pretend the hesitation isn’t there.

In truth, I wonder if that may be one reason my academic career went south. Maybe I just needed to fall into a big ol’ steaming pile of humility. To reach broken people, I can’t perch above them, spouting a five-step plan for picking up the pieces. Instead, I must join them where they are—down in the muck.

I don’t know exactly what that will look like, but I suspect it will continue to involve sharing my own loser story and supporting others in their stories too.

So, can God use introverts to help others? Can he use them in the trenches? And is that where I really want to be? I’m starting to suspect (though I have no idea how all of this might play out) that the answers are yes, yes, and yes.

I want to join others down in the trenches of brokenness and look up, not for easy answers but for God’s hand of grace.

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