Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, we must get rid of every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and run with endurance the race set out for us
Hebrews 12:1 (NET)

Are you serious?

This question is most often uttered with a tone of incredulity, as in, do you actually believe the nonsense that just came out of your mouth? Are you really so stupid that you actually did what you I just saw? Surely there is a joke here somewhere, and I’m waiting for the punchline.

Five hundred years ago this week Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the All Saints Church in Wittenberg. The initial reaction of the theological establishment was a form of “are you serious?” Luther’s challenging of the status quo, with particular impact on the pockets of the sellers of indulgences, was unthinkable. A year later he was put on trial for heresy, and ultimately excommunicated from the Catholic Church.

Today, we celebrate his boldness and the Reformation that gave rise to Protestant Christianity. In the hindsight of history, few even think to question. Yet Luther himself said that had he known what would follow from his actions, he probably wouldn’t have taken them.

There is a second, more probing form of this interrogative. It calls into question your commitment, your dedication, your willingness to sacrifice to achieve the goal. In one form or another, probably every athletic coach has challenged the athlete to give more, push harder, commit more completely.

Similarly, students engaged in rigorous academic study may be questioned on their commitment. Any time hard work is required, the casual adherent is likely to fall away; only the most dedicated stay the course. Let’s face it, hard work is no fun; there are less costly and more pleasing uses for my energy.

The leaders of the American Revolution, signers of the Declaration of Independence were under no illusions about the significance and the consequences of their actions. The last sentence of the Declaration states their commitment: And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.

Recently I have found myself being challenged in my faith. I remember as a young man in college searching for the meaning of life. My question to God was, “Am I just supposed to be a good person, love and provide for my family, or is there something more you are calling me to?” At the time, I found myself encouraged to be radical, steeped in the words of Leonard Ravenhill, David Wilkerson, and Keith Green. If these names are not familiar to you, they are worth getting to know. They are each dedicated men of God with an unwavering commitment to His kingdom and glory. I concluded that such a radical love as Jesus demonstrated to me in purchasing salvation demanded a radical life in response.

But along the way of living life, loving and providing for my family, I fear I have slipped into being just a good person. It is said that “life is what happens to you while you are making other plans.” Other things, other interests, other desires fill my mind and my heart, leaving little room for knowing, pursuing, loving my savior.

I look around me, and I don’t find many role models pushing me harder, encouraging me to live radically. The pretty good facade I have developed seems to be about all that is expected, even in the church. If someone were to ask for more, expect more, demand more, I probably could give it. But this sure is comfortable.

I hear a voice from the recesses of my heart, in that place where the Holy Spirit is still welcome, coaching me quietly, insistently, probingly, challenging me to dig deep, to give my all. Maybe you’ve heard that voice too.

Are you serious?

But If Not…

Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego answered and said to the king, “O Nebuchadnezzar, we have no need to answer you in this matter. If this be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of your hand, O king. But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up.”
Daniel 3:16-18


I am stirred by bold declarations of faith in God. My most favorite Bible vignette is when David comes to the battle lines to see the army of Israel hiding in fear from the giant, Goliath. Filled with righteous indignation, he declares, “Who is this uncircumcised Philistine that he dares to defy the armies of the living God?”. His jealousy for God’s glory intersected with his faith in God’s power and resulted in a great victory for the nation and the beginning of his ascent to the kingship.

Similarly, my hero is Elijah the prophet. I would love to have been there when he challenged the prophets of Baal to a showdown. The premise was simple, if improbable: whichever god answers his servants by sending fire from heaven to consume the sacrifice is truly God. This man of God had great faith; it had already not rained for 3 years at his word, and now he was challenging the reigning religion to a “God-off”. As the story unfolds, Baal is predictably absent but the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob reveals himself in spectacular power. It gives me goose bumps!

Just slightly behind David in brazen declaration is the story of the three Hebrew children, taken into captivity. Hauled away from their home as teens or young men, Daniel and his friends Hannaniah, Mishael, and Azariah (their Hebrew names) resolved to hold firmly to their faith in God. They did not assimilate into the Babylonian culture, but maintained their ritual and dietary purity in obedience, faith, and worship of the God of their ancestors.

Later, Daniel and his friends are promoted to positions of high influence in the empire. Yet, there comes a time of testing. The king set up a massive golden idol and sent out a decree that whenever the music played everyone was required to fall down and worship the idol. The penalty for failure to comply was to be immediately thrown into a furnace. The story of Shadrach, Mesahach, and Abednego (their Babylonian names) in the Fiery Furnace is well known to most Sunday School children. Yet there is a depth to this story, leading up to their profound declaration of faith that is not often exposited.

Babylon was a fundamentally multicultural society. As the armies conquered a people, the native people would be deported and the land eventually settled with other people. In the case of Israel, the best and the brightest were brought to the capitol to join the cultural elite. Sociologically, it was a brilliant strategy, simultaneously crushing the identity of a conquered people and integrating their intellectual capital into the society.

This multiculturalism necessarily fostered polytheism. Every society had its own religious practices and deities. As they were integrated into society, they brought their beliefs and customs with them. Such polytheistic societies are actually inherently atheistic. Intrinsically, we know that all beliefs are not all true. In fact, multiple conflicting beliefs cannot all be true. Yet the willingness to accept them is based on an implicit understanding that none of them are really true. But “just in case”…

The people of Israel threw a wrench into the monkeyworks. Although deported and dispersed multiple times since Joshua first took possession of the promised land, they retained their identity as God’s chosen people and (with varying degrees of devotion) maintained their belief and worship of Jehovah. So it was with these young men. They maintained an unswerving devotion to the God of their ancestors. That devotion absolutely proscribed worshiping idols.

Malicious men whispered in the king’s ear that these Israelites refused to obey his command. The king, of course, was outraged. These weren’t random strangers but trusted officials. If the men in his cabinet could not be counted on to obey his words, how would the people react? He called them in for a reckoning, and gave them one last chance, including this ultimatum:

“But if you do not worship, you shall immediately be cast into a burning fiery furnace. And who is the god who will deliver you out of my hands?” (Daniel 3:15b)

This is the context in which they make their famous declaration. Now, understand that preceding this encounter, they had already made up their minds that they were not going to bow before the idol. They knew the penalty was death, and they were prepared to pay the price. This was the depth of their faith, that they would rather die than disobey God. And as they well called in to the king, they were surely thinking, “this is it” but steeling their resolve not to turn away from their faith.

But when the king rages at them and says, “who is the god who will deliver you out of my hands”, I believe the Spirit of God came upon them and stirred them up even more. The king was basically saying, “I’m the most powerful person on earth. You will obey me or suffer the consequences and no one can stop me.” Their response to this arrogance is to the point. Our God is able to deliver us from you. You may be the most powerful man on the planet, but our God made the planet and allows you to reign. He is greater than you and can stop your plans if he wants.

This is David-level stuff! When faced with an insurmountable (humanly speaking) obstacle that stands in defiance of God’s holiness and glory, the man (or woman) of God is justified in drawing themselves up to the full height of their faith and staring down the obstacle. Giants? No problem. All-powerful king? Inconsequential. Fiery Furnace? Walk in the park. Literally.

But the most powerful declaration of faith is the one they walked in with. Yes, I know God is able to deliver me from whatever situation seems hopeless in my eyes. But even if he doesn’t… I will still trust in him. Selah

You see, the lesson in this story is not that God will never let you burn. Rather it is two-fold. First, that there is no circumstance that is too hopeless for God to overcome. He’s just that big. Facing a mountain? God is bigger. Lost in an ocean? God runs deeper. Surrounded by enemies? God is more powerful. Nothing is too great for God.

Second (and more important) is that our faith should not be conditional. The object of our faith is the one true God, creator, sustainer, and redeemer of the universe. In the end, his glory will be magnified. Our confidence is in his power, yes, but more so in his character. As servants of the true King, we are willing to be spent for his purposes. If that means suffering persecutions, we will rejoice and be glad. If it means facing shame and disgrace for his sake, we look forward to a heavenly reward.

Got your own story of brazen faith? Share it with me. This is what gets me going!

Broken Together

Music is the narration of my life. I can think of an applicable lyric fragment to nearly any situation, and certain songs still have a visceral effect on me, as they evoke strong feelings from past events.

Music has a way of touching us deeply like no other expression. Music imprints itself upon our consciousness. How many of us used a song to memorize otherwise useless information, like the periodic table (no, I never did actually memorize that)? Really though, chances are much higher that you remember the lyrics to some song than a book you read or movie you saw. Soaring strings can lift your spirits and dissonance can make you feel uncomfortable.

Many years ago, I made the decision to listen primarily to Christian music. This wasn’t based on theology or conviction, but a simple observation. As I drove daily through Houston, I found myself much more tense when listening to the Top 40 station than when I listened to the Christian station. I really don’t care if it’s music or teaching, I just feel more peaceful when hearing the things of God.

However, my critical nature is difficult to keep in check. Some songs are on very shaky theological ground. Others are, as Twila Paris put it, “bubble-gum pop” with nothing of substance. Others are simply “7/11s”, with the same seven words repeated 11 times.

Since I am so hard on so many artists (and for the most part, this is an inner conversation that I don’t subject others to, except on occasion my wife), I thought it would be worthwhile to celebrate some of the truly excellent music that has touched me in recent years. From time to time I will write a blog like this where I highlight a song that is excellent in its composition, arrangement, performance, and theology.

First on my list is “Broken Together” by Casting Crowns. This song is rich in so many dimensions. The first time I heard it my heart was gripped by the gut-wrenching honesty and vulnerability of a man admitting his failure and renewed dedication to his wife.

Musically, the persistent, insistent, repeated note in the left hand of the piano creates a tension which is reflected in the lyrics. As the emotion is poured out, the tension builds until finally resolving in the chorus when the words change gradually from pain to hope. This is a marvelous example of music that is perfectly suited to the lyrics.

Also, the simplicity of the arrangement places the emphasis squarely where it belongs, with the lyrics. The piano provides sufficient foundation with support from a lone cello at times, and understated strings in the chorus. As a side note, if the violin is the voice of the orchestra, the cello is the soul. The prominence of the cello in this piece is appropriate to its soulful subject matter. I love everything about this orchestration, as the different instruments blend flawlessly to carry us along on this difficult emotional ride.

Mark Hall’s performance is honest and unassuming. It doesn’t feel like he is performing, but rather that he is pouring out the hurt, fear, and hope in his heart. This vulnerability adds to the discomfort of being included in a conversation where we don’t belong, which in turn allows us to connect to our own failings.

There is no deep theology here, just common human experience. Too many people come into marriage with an idealized notion that their spouse will fulfill all their needs. Too many marriages devolve into separate lives lived under the same roof as that reality sinks in, and fulfillment is sought in other avenues (work, children, recreation).

The theological truth is this: I’m not perfect and neither are you. But if we come together to the God who is, he can give us the strength to bear with one another and be more together than we are separately. That is, when I stop trying to “fix” you and accept all of your strengths and weaknesses, and especially accept that God is working in your life to conform you to the image of Christ, just as he is in mine, and when I humbly confess to you my failings and imperfections and stop pretending like I am perfect and can do no wrong, THEN perhaps I can love you the way you need to be loved, and you can do the same for me. But none of this is possible apart from the power of God working in our lives.

New Year’s Resolution: Remember

Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like someone who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. But whoever looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues in it—not forgetting what they have heard, but doing it—they will be blessed in what they do.
James 1:23-25

I got a dash cam for Christmas. You know, a video camera that looks out of your windshield and records continuously. Once the sole purview of law enforcement, they are now the preferred yuppie (is that even a thing anymore?) toy. I believe that one day they will be built in to all cars as standard equipment.

Dash cams are great in the event of an accident or other traffic incident. Having a video record of what actually happened can go a long way towards proving your innocence (or guilt!). My model has a built-in accelerometer that detects a collision and locks the recording so that it can’t be overwritten.

I wanted one because my daily commute takes me through a beautiful canyon alongside a minor creek where the foothills rise up on either side and the foliage is lush and colorful. On occasion the deer and (rarely) elk will compete for right-of-way on the road. The red rocks rise powerfully, insistently from the earth and the skyline is defined by the sharp ridge of a hill just above the tree line.

I catch glimpses of this beauty as I drive, but my attention is necessarily focused on the road, and I can’t appreciate it fully. So I wanted a camera to record my trip so I can look at the wonder of God’s creation in the safety and comfort of my office, at my leisure. I’m excited to try it out when I return to work.

However, after the initial installation a sobering realization came over me. What if my camera reveals just how bad of a driver I am? I mean, I think I’m a pretty good driver, but then 70% of Americans think they are above-average drivers (do the math, let that sink in). I’ve never had an at-fault accident and I have no tickets on my record. We are all the stars of our own show, and the screenplay of my life is written to cast me in a favorable light. To be me is to like me. I’m the hero.

But the truth is, I’m aggressive. I have decided how fast I want to drive, and when someone in front of me hasn’t come to that same conclusion, they need to be encouraged to either speed up or get out of the way. I am quick to judge people who don’t live up to my standards of decision making (which mostly means, getting out of my way). I can delude myself and rationalize my behavior to maintain the fantasy of my skill and competence but what will the harsh reality and objective truth of the video recording reconcile with my screenwriting abilities? I’m a little nervous.

A lot of people have a love-hate relationship with the mirror. When you look in the mirror, the person looking back is often not as tall, slim, good looking, or young as who you think you are. Maybe they have less hair than you remember (or hair in the wrong places). Maybe there are bumps and blemishes in obvious places that just aren’t there in your mind’s eye.

Often, we look in the mirror with a micro-focus on the task at hand, such as putting in a contact lens, or brushing teeth, or even applying make-up. In these times, we see the detail but fail to comprehend the whole. And for many of us the cognitive dissonance between who I think I am and what I see in the mirror is so great that I just can’t comprehend the image before me.

You see, when it’s just a matter of my memory or my perception, I can always come out in a good light. My brother likes to tell “sea stories” and he has adopted the line, “This may not be true, but it’s the way I remember it.” Isn’t that the way most of us tell the story of our lives? Everyone else on the road is an incompetent, inconsiderate jerk, but I am a paragon of virtue.

In the same way that a video recording will reveal the truth of my driving, God’s word is the objective standard for how we live our lives. As long as you never look into it, you can continue to enjoy the screenplay you have written for yourself, hero or heroine deluxe. Or, you can look at it and feel the twinge of conviction, but then walk away and resume your regularly scheduled programming. After all, there are dragons to slay and damsels to rescue.

But for those who will commit to engaging with the word, and who refuse to twist it to match their preconceptions, but rather allow it to transform them into the image of Christ, the result will be amazing and the rewards incalculable.

I’m not sure how my driving will change as a result of the incessant tattle-tale on my windshield. But I do know that this year I will continue to search out the truths of God’s word, allowing it to convict me of sin, challenge the limits I place upon God, and inspire me to live a life worthy of the calling to which I have been called.

What mirrors will you look into in this coming year? What will you allow yourself to see?

The Tax Man Cometh…

This is my least favorite time of year. I dread Tax Day with a passion, mostly because we are pathetic in our record keeping. So every year, I have to recreate the previous year’s financial activity so I can file my taxes. It’s painful, and causes no small amount of stress in our marriage. But… tetelestai … it is finished… paid in full (actually, I’m getting a refund :). But reflecting on these things, I offer the following.

Show me the coin used for paying the tax.” They brought him a denarius, and he asked them, “Whose image is this? And whose inscription?”
“Caesar’s,” they replied.
Then he said to them, “So give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.”
Matthew 22:19-21

I play computer games on-line (a LOT). One of the things I find appealing is the social aspect of working together as a team to accomplish a goal. When a group “clicks”, it’s very satisfying. And… I like to blow things up.

But there are the other people on-line. The folks who need to hear themselves talk to validate their self-worth. Mostly, I ignore them, but on occasion I feed the trolls and engage in… interesting… conversations.

One particular player I’m thinking of is a piece of work. He tries to validate himself by bragging about his sexual conquests, making lame, degrading jokes at other players’ expense, and similar middle-school fare. The only thing I can think about him is that he is playing the wrong game, by the wrong rules.

In the time of Jesus, the Jews were looking anxiously for a Messiah. Chafing under Roman rule, they longed for the glory days (at least the stories they had been told) of David and his kingdom, and Solomon, when Israel was a nation to be reckoned with. They were ready for the kingdom to be restored.

But Jesus didn’t quite fit their expectations, In fact, he threatened the status quo, and the leaders feared for their power. So they tried to set traps for him, to trick him into saying something that Rome would find offensive, so they could eliminate him and keep things the way that they were.

It was in this context that the experts in the law sought to trap Jesus by asking him if it was right to pay taxes to Caesar. Of course, someone who was trying to restore the kingdom of David would oppose the oppression of Rome. And someone who submitted to Rome would be rejected by the people. They had to be impressed by their cleverness.

But Jesus’ response, besides defeating their clever plans, exposed a whole other truth that they were not prepared to accept. They were playing the wrong game, by the wrong rules.

The kingdom of God is not of this world. Surely, God is sovereign, and his rule extends into this world. But the kingdom of Heaven that Jesus was proclaiming was not an earthly kingdom, and it is not measured by material things. People who chase after those things have missed the boat.

The kingdom of God is any place where God is honored, served, and worshiped as king and as lord. This earth, this world system, the power and authority structures, the wealth and all the things valued by men are all going to pass away. And those who chase after them are playing the wrong game. By the wrong rules.

Let Caesar have his due. It’s all going to burn anyway. But whoever lays up for himself treasures in heaven will not be disappointed.

Who You Gonna Call?

For we know that since Christ was raised from the dead, he cannot die again; death no longer has mastery over him.
Romans 6:9

I live with a fair amount of physical limitation. I can’t walk very far, or carry heavy objects (except on my back … the back is a wonderful burden bearer, but that is for another blog). And I can’t reach above my head. Because of this, my world is quite a bit smaller than most people’s. If it’s more than about 4 feet off the ground, it doesn’t exist for me, because there is nothing I can do about it.

Then there are the things that I can do, I should do, on some level I want to do, but that I just don’t do. My desk is an example of this. It is covered with papers that need some attention and disposition. I know what to do with each and every one of them, but I just don’t. In some respects, I can’t. No one can help me with this, and I don’t want to be reminded of my failures, so I put it out of my mind. I defend my failure by calling it a “vertical filing system” but I know better. I live in despair of my desk.

So when my daughter noticed the mold on the ceiling, my immediate thought was, “above 4 feet, it doesn’t exist”. A couple of days later, when my wife noticed it, I took the desk approach. “We probably need to get that taken care of.” She said that she was capable of cutting it out, and we let it go. A problem deferred is a problem solved.

A couple of days later I thought it was getting bigger, so I said to my wife that we really need to do something about that, sooner than later, and a remarkable thing happened: we did (and by we, I mean she got the mask and gloves and utility knife and plastic). When she started cutting into the drywall, it came off in pieces, clearly wet and damaged.

Once all the moldy parts were gone, we looked up into the hole and saw that the source of the water was a shiny copper pipe with the tell-tale bluish green of corrosion. We were not going to be able to deal with this on our own.

Fortunately, I have a friend who is a plumber (everyone should have a good plumber, auto mechanic, and small appliance repair guy). He knew just what to do, and he was able to come over, cut out the defective part and replace it with a good part and quality workmanship, and my leak was fixed.

There are a number of analogies that come to mind as I write this. The leaky pipe is the sin in my life. While it was originally designed and intended to fulfill a function, defects in the material or workmanship gradually caused it to be distorted in its function, just as the sin nature that I bear keeps me from completely reflecting the glory of God as I was created to do.

Sealed up in the drywall of the ceiling, the pipe dripped for some time, unnoticed. I can hide the sin in my life from others (and even myself) for a long time, by putting on my mask, pretending that everything is ok, or just taking a defensive “desk” attitude about it. Unfortunately, like the mold that ultimately erupted from behind the drywall, our sin will not stay hidden.

Sin is less about specific things that we do or don’t do than it is about a flawed nature that pits us in opposition to God, in rebellion against his ways and jealous for his glory. That is the root issue that needs addressing. The bad things we do are like the mold. If I just dealt with the mold and not the leak, the mold would certainly come back.

My plumber told me that mold never really dies, it just goes dormant. He said that mold needs three things to grow: food, moisture, and air. You can make it go dormant by treating it with a bleach solution, but if you don’t remove one of the three, it will come back. Similarly, even the redeemed retain a sin nature. If we feed it, it will flourish. That’s why we long for our ultimate redemption and new, heavenly bodies that are free from sin. In other words, God is going to remove the mold from our lives one day!

But the key point I wanted to make was that the only solution to this problem was to call upon someone who could deal with the root issue. I don’t have the knowledge or the ability to deal with plumbing issues. Who you call makes all the difference. There was no question but that I needed to call someone who had what I lack.

Asking for help requires humility and vulnerability. It is a declaration that I am not up to the task, I am limited, I am weak. Many of us have a hard time with it. You can probably think of a problem in your life is staring you in the face like my desk, or the mold on my ceiling. You know it needs dealing with, but you either pretend it will go away, or you roll up your sleeves and decide to fix it yourself, in your own strength. Either way, that is no chance that you will ever let someone know that you don’t have it covered.

But sin is a much bigger issue than a messy desk or a plumbing leak. Whether you take the “desk” approach of ignoring sin, or think in all your DIY glory that you can fix it yourself, the problem will only get worse until you call upon the name of Jesus and trust in his atoning death on the cross to save you from that which you cannot save yourself.

How did I know that my friend was able to fix my leak? Well, I didn’t really (until he did). But I know him, that he is a man of character and integrity, and I know he has been a Master Plumber for decades, and I’ve had some experiences with him fixing minor plumbing issues for me, so I chose to trust in him, the he could do what he said he could do. And frankly, I was desperate. I had no one else to call. I took a chance and he didn’t let me down. The next time I have a plumbing problem (there’s always a next time), I will have more experiences to draw upon, and I will have even greater confidence in him.

How do you know that Jesus is actually able to deal with your sin problem? Well, you won’t (until he does). But his resurrection from the dead is proof that when he cried out “paid in full” on the cross that it really was. So ultimately, you will have to trust him, that he can do what he says he can do. And frankly, you are desperate. There is no one else to call. What I do know is from my experience, Jesus has proven faithful in dealing with every problem I’ve taken to him. So the next time I need to deal with sin (there’s always a next time), I have greater confidence in him.

Now if you will excuse me, this desk isn’t going to clean itself…

Holy, Schmoly?

“Do not come any closer,” God said. “Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground.”
Exodus 3:5

Holy Week. Suddenly, I was struck by the oddity of that term. What makes a week holy?

In the Old Testament, there are two conflicting concepts, uncleanness and holiness. A number of things make a person ritually unclean simply by coming in contact with them. An unclean person was required to perform a cleansing ritual before coming into contact with others in the community or entering God’s presence to worship. The penalty for violating this requirement was steep, as God wanted his people to be very cognizant of how they were called apart, and to not take worship for granted.

The concept of uncleanness is intuitive to us. One time, a plumber friend was installing a new toilet for me. After he finished caulking around the base of the toilet, he washed off the excess caulk from his fingers in the toilet bowl. Even though I intellectually knew that the toilet had never been used, and was therefore “clean”, still inwardly I said “ewwww”. We know what toilets are used for and that they are therefore “unclean”.

On the other hand, the things in the temple, where God dwelt, were considered holy. The temple was surrounded by a wall, separating the building from the commotion of the rest of the city. Even this area was divided into different areas, the outermost area being as far as Gentiles and women could go. The next area was where men could go to offer sacrifices through the priests. In this place was the altar of sacrifice. Within the building was the Holy Place, where only the priests could go, to burn incense, care for the lamps, and replace the bread of the presence daily. Beyond that, separated by a thick curtain, was the Most Holy Place. Here, the presence of God dwelt between the cherubim on the ark of the covenant. Only the high priest could ever enter, and then only once a year to offer the blood of the atonement sacrifice. The holy things were set apart from the common things, and were not entered into lightly.

Through the sacrifices, we have a powerful picture of the power of holiness. Once an animal was killed, skinned, and cut into pieces, it was placed upon the altar to be burned. Because this altar was holy, dedicated to the sacrifices of Jehovah, anything that touched it was also holy. In fact, simply offering an animal to be sacrificed made it holy. The portion given to the priest was holy, and could only be eaten by members of the priest’s family who were ritually clean. The clay pot in which the priest’s portion was cooked was holy, and had to be broken after use, to ensure it could never be used for any other purpose.

Here is the mystery and the majesty. While touching a dead animal would make a man ritually unclean, the priest was able to kill and sacrifice an animal and rather than becoming unclean, the animal became holy. Coming into contact with uncleanness makes one unclean, but coming into contact with holiness makes one holy. Holiness is more powerful than uncleanness.

Just as the dirt on the side of the mountain around the burning bush was made holy by God’s presence, so this week, the week of the Passion, is made holy by the intersection of God’s presence with creation. The triumphal entry, the teaching in the temple courts, the last supper, the betrayal, crucifixion, and ultimately the resurrection were the final acts of the incarnate God fulfilling purposes set in place before the creation of the world.

The Passover Seder begins with the youngest child asking, “why is this night different from any other?” In other words, why is this night holy? The Seder goes on to tell the story of how God delivered the Israelites from Egypt in great power, and passed over their houses because of the sacrifice of blood that covered them. God’s power revealed to Israel makes that day holy.

But Passover is just a picture of what God was going to do through Jesus. The blood of the Passover lamb caused the angel of death to pass over the houses of the Israelites, delivering them from the death of the firstborn, but only those who put their faith in God and remained in the houses marked by blood were protected. In the same way, the blood of Jesus causes the judgement of God for sin to pass over those who put their faith in God by claiming it for forgiveness. The deliverance of Israel from Egypt pales in comparison to the deliverance of all mankind from the power of sin and death.

If God’s presence in the temple made it holy, and God’s purposes for the sacrifices made them holy, and God’s power at Passover makes it holy, then how much more is this week made holy by God’s presence in Jerusalem in the person of Jesus, his purposes revealed in his atoning death on the cross, and his power revealed through the resurrection? Yes, this week is indeed holy. Let us not enter into it lightly.

The Star of the Show

“You shall have no other gods before me.”
Exodus 20:3

We see the world through the flimsiest of lenses, constructed of our wishes, desires, and beliefs (but rarely constrained by reality). “All the world’s a stage,” begins one of William Shakespeare’s most famous monologues. We see ourselves as the star of the show performed on the stage of our minds, played out with the background narration of our self-talk.

Whether you are brash and arrogantly obnoxious (like me), or demurely self-deprecating, your thoughts and your actions betray the intrinsic ego-centricity that is the human condition. In your world, the spotlight shines steadily and unflinchingly upon your performance as the Star, surrounded by various supporting characters.

While this is the way I see myself, I am not the star of anyone else’s show. My illusions of my own significance were unceremoniously shattered when my son told me of his plans to get married. Of course, we were delighted and couldn’t wait to meet his intended. She did not disappoint, and is the most delightful and complimentary mate my son could have chosen. I found myself desperately wanting to know her, in the intimacy that introverts require, and in the way I know my own daughters, who have lived under my roof for most of their lives.

The harsh reality is, I’m just not that important in their world. When she looks at him, her eyes sparkle and there is barely room for anyone else on the stage. As much as I’d like to have a bigger part, it just wasn’t written for me. When I think the the relationship I have with my in-laws, and that of my wife with my family, I realize that I will, at best, have a minor supporting part in their play. And I’m humbled.

I shared this insight with my high-school daughter, and she really resonated with it. When you think of all the drama that makes up the high school experience (who likes whom, who said what, who did or didn’t do what), the reality is that we have a much smaller role on someone else’s stage than we think we do. They just don’t think about you nearly as much as you think they do. They don’t care what you wear, they don’t care what you say (unless it’s about them), and they don’t care what you think. They are much more preoccupied with their illusion of their significance in your performance.

Now here is the rub. We actually are all players on God’s stage and He is the star of the show. As the saying goes, history is His story. When I think I’m the star, I sin against God. We tend to simply call it selfishness, but in reality it runs much deeper. I have become convinced that selfishness is the root of pretty much every sin. What did the serpent say in the Garden? “You will become like God…” Wanting to take God’s place was Lucifer/Satan’s rebellion; it is actually idolatry worshipping the created thing instead of the creator.

Many people think the Ten Commandments are proscriptive, keeping us from doing what we want to do. In reality, they are a part of God’s blueprint for living. I have tried this God thing, and I’m not very good at it. So when I realize that I am a supporting player — dearly loved, bought with a great price, but not the star — I am freed from the pressure of trying to make everything turn out all right. Letting God be God is not a burden, it is liberating.

In my household, my wife and I have different roles. I make the money, and she spends it. It is an arrangement that exploits our strengths and minimizes our weaknesses. I have a skill that is very marketable, and she is a gifted shopper. If we tried to play each other’s part, it would not end well. I don’t shop, I buy (and I hate doing it); my wife despises rush hour traffic and workplace pressures. But when we each fulfill our role, play our part, together we make a successful household.

So it is in the spiritual realm. We each have a part to play, just not the main part. It has been said that the first two rules of human enlightenment are: there is a God; and you aren’t him. So stop trying to be.

Put the spotlight where it belongs. And walk in freedom.

For Theresa

What should you do then, brothers and sisters? When you come together, each one has a song, has a lesson, has a revelation, has a tongue, has an interpretation. Let all these things be done for the strengthening of the church.
1 Corinthians 14:26
In our Sunday School class, we were encouraged to write a personal psalm, as a different form of expression of our worship to God. As I pondered the concept, I realized that there are different kinds of psalms, written on different occasions and for different purposes. There are different styles, different voices, different moods. But one thing they have in common is a raw, earthy, visceral honesty about the things we face as we go though life on this earth. Unjust attacks by enemies, our own sin and guilt, wisdom on how to live godly lives, and simple, unfettered praise to God. So what would I write?
My neighbor is suffering from hyperemesis gravidarum, or HG. This is her second pregnancy, and her suffering was quite severe the first time. If anything, this time seems to be worse. The disease takes a heavy physical and emotional toll on her and everyone around her. Although there is joy in the expectation of a new baby, right now that is too abstract a thing to think about. So I wrote this, to give voice to pain and desperation. I hope it communicates to you.

The road is hard before me.
My way is steep and full of obstacles.
The rocks bruise and cut my feet.
My strength is gone.

My companions have forsaken me.
Each of them has fallen away in exhaustion.
My loved ones do not understand my sorrow.
They are little comfort to me.

I am encircled by betrayal
My own body fails me and turns against me.
Like an enemy camped around me
I am assaulted from every side.

I take no delight in my food.
It does not nourish me.
Oh that even water would refresh me.
The days bring me no joy.

But you, oh God, sustain me.
I have no other hope but you.
Your mercies are tender towards me
In you I find rest.

You are worthy of praise.
From the lips of babes and nursing infants
Your praises will be declared.
Even my own lips will praise you once again.

If you are suffering, don’t be afraid to cry out to God. Express the reality of your hurt, your anger, your suffering. He understands and he cares. And he will always be there to walk through each and every situation with you.
If you have a friend or loved one who is going through something you can’t comprehend, don’t try. I’ll tell you a secret. It’s actually much easier to be the one suffering than to watch one you love suffer. Don’t be afraid to endure the ugliness of another’s pain. Just be there. Let them know that, no matter what, you love and support them. Your presence means more than anything else, proving that you are not scared away by hurt, discomfort, or even bodily fluids.
As another friend said, we don’t know what the future holds, but we do know who holds the future. 

Right or Righteous?

We are all like one who is unclean,
all our so-called righteous acts are like a menstrual rag in your sight.
We all wither like a leaf;
our sins carry us away like the wind.
Isaiah 64:6

Anger is not a primary emotion. It is an expression of another, deeper feeling, such as disappointment, fear, hurt, etc. A powerful generator of anger in my life is offense against authority. When my kids fail to do what I tell them, I get angry. If someone were to break into my house and steal my stuff, I would get angry. And (being the spiritual guy that I am), when God’s laws are transgressed, I get angry.

Each one of us is motivated by our personal code of conduct, which fundamentally defines what is “right” and what is “wrong”. We act in accordance with this code, and while it is comprehensive, it is not necessarily consistent. That is, when I do something, it is “right” and when you do the same thing, it may be “wrong”. This is because what I decide is “right” is really defined by “what I want”. If you want the same thing, we are going to have a problem. Let me illustrate with an example.

Now, let me preface the following by stating up front that most drivers on the road today are idiots. At least, that’s my personal observation. I’ve heard that 70% of American drivers believe their skills are above average (and 82% of all statistics are made up).

I’m really annoyed by people in the right lane on the freeway who are going much slower than me but decide that they need to change lanes in front of me because someone in front of them is going too slow. In other words, their sense of “right” (I don’t want to be behind this slow car) impinges on my sense of “right” (I don’t want to be behind this slow car). In response to their offense against my code for the world (everyone should stay out of my way), I get angry.

The problem is that too many of us (or maybe it’s just me) have substituted our code for God’s. In effect, I put myself in the place of God. God does have a standard of right and wrong. And unlike you and me, God is objective, consistent, and impartial. Sin is sin, and it doesn’t matter who commits it.

But here’s the thing: being guilty is not the same as being condemned. Like the little kid whose face is covered with melted chocolate chips and cookie crumbs, our guilt before God is self-evident. Even, when we think we are doing good things, compared to the perfection that is God, our good is as disgusting as a used tampon (if my choice of words is shocking, consider that the Hebrew of the above verse is equally explicit).

Now, sometimes I (surely, I’m the only one) might point out the cookie crumbs on your face to deflect attention from the cookies falling out of my own pockets. After all, if you are guilty, then we can all focus on that and no one will pay attention to me. Or, as is popularly said today, “don’t judge me because I sin differently than you.” But this deflection misses the very crucial point.

The issue is not how we sin, it is that we sin. God’s standard of righteousness is utterly and absolutely pure. Any sin at all irreparably damages the whole. It is why James says “For the one who obeys the whole law but fails in one point has become guilty of all of it.” (James 2:10) And why Paul says “For the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23)

Since we are all hopelessly flawed, does God’s definition of right and wrong go out the window? Of course not. It was for this reason that Jesus came into the world, to deliver us from the power of sin and death. And rather than simply putting a bandaid on a severed artery (like I tend to do), God dealt with the issue at its source. The sin nature had to die, so that those who believe could be reborn as new creations.

There is much more to be said on that, and the new life in Christ is a prerequisite to even having this conversation, but it isn’t my point for this post. My point is that I need to set aside my personal code that has my self-interest at the center, and stop judging and holding people accountable to me, and instead live in whole-heartedly surrender to God’s new creation in me, living according to the new nature of “son of God” that has been given to me.

This is an evolving journey for me. A while ago, I was set free from the need to defend God. This means that when people transgress God’s law, or believe things contrary to his word, I don’t have the compulsion I used to have to make them agree. God is a big boy; he can defend himself. I am just a witness to the truth.

My next step has been to release anger, and not let the offenses of others rob me of the joy of my salvation. When I focus on the wrong suffered, my offense and anger are fueled. When in focus instead on all that I have been given in Christ, “these light momentary afflictions” pale in comparison. I’m still working on this.

Recently, God challenged me: “What would it look like if you released all judgement?” Meaning, rather than condemn the idiot in front of me for failing to drive in a manner conducive to my expeditious and impediment-free commute, I don’t even criticize their failings. This is a God-sized challenge for me, as anyone who has driven with me can attest.

What about you? Are you still intent on holding the world accountable to the law of “you”, where everyone is judged by your standards? Or have you humbled yourself before the holiness of God, to live your life according to his standards? I’ll tell you a little secret: being the judge of the universe is an exhausting job, and one for which you are not qualified. It is enough for me to just be obedient.