Grumbling, Serpents & Your Gaze

There is this strange little story in the Hebrew scriptures. The children of Israel are walking through the desert and they begin to complain about the food. They hate manna. Manna was something God sent everyday. It was given to them directly, miraculously, and was a daily testament to God’s provision. Even though it was their lifeline, overtime they had come to detest it. So they are complaining. Then, into the camp comes these venomous serpents. When the serpents bite someone, the person becomes feverish with an unquenchable thirst and then they would die. When this troublesome situation comes to the people, they cry out to God and to their leader Moses and repent for their grumbling and complaining. God tells Moses to make a bronze serpent, put it on a pole and when someone is bit and becomes sick, all they need to do is LOOK at the bronze serpent and instantly they are healed. You can read about this crazy story in Numbers 21:4-9. 

These snakes are like a physical picture of what happens inside our souls when sin sets in. The people were dying on the inside from all their grumbling, and when the serpents came along they started experiencing externally in sickness and death what they had already been experiencing internally through all their complaining. 

Just like the people were sick, we too suffer from a sickness. What is our sickness that needs healing? In one word it is sin, but often it presents as discontentment. Just like the people in the wilderness, often our sin manifests itself in complaints and grumbling. Here you have the people of God receiving all they need from God via manna everyday, but despite this daily provision and gift, they are grumbling, they are discontent, it isn’t enough. This is what sin does to us. All the way back in the garden of Eden we see human beings in paradise – it is a perfect place – but the serpent comes along and says, “this isn’t enough, God is keeping something from you.” Once the venom of the serpent’s message penetrates a soul, that soul becomes feverish with an unquenchable thirst that cannot be satisfied by anything this world offers. 

In every single one of us is a raging thirst. I only need to look inside myself to see its ongoing impact in me. Each and every time I come face to face with this raging thirst, an invitation is present. The invitation is to repent and look again to the source of my healing and wholeness. Sin makes us feverish with an unquenchable thirst and it eventually leads to death. Sometimes it seems that this raging thirst inside of us progresses faster if you experience great success in life. The more successful you are, the more quickly you become aware of this infinite vacuum inside. 

For example, there is this predictable pattern in our world when it comes to the accumulation of wealth. The progression goes like this: MORE, BETTER, DIFFERENT. When you first start earning money you get a little rush from being able to have MORE things, but then over time you don’t just want MORE stuff, you want BETTER stuff, higher quality stuff. After awhile BETTER is no longer good enough and you want DIFFERENT things — unique things, stuff that is one-of-a-kind, designer, or very rare. We all have this infinite vacuum inside and sometimes super-successful people simply see the vacuum more quickly, because they’ve attempted to fill it with so many pursuits and come to realize that even at the height of having it all, they still find an emptiness inside. Eventually (if it is not dealt with) this thirst will leave you unsatisfied and profoundly empty. We can be surrounded by the best things and still be irritable, still be discontent, still be unthankful. 

Some of Jesus’ most famous words come from John 3 where he is talking to a man named Nicodemus. While most people know John 3:16, what few people realize is that just before this famous passage, Jesus references this weird story from Numbers 21. Jesus says, “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.” Jesus is basically saying: what that bronze serpent was, I am. I became sin so that you might simply LOOK at me and be instantly healed. Jesus is saying: I took the venom of the snake so that you might have the medicine. I became sin so that you might experience healing from sin.

Just as the people looked upon the bronze serpent and were made whole, so you must look at Christ to be made whole. Wholeness is not found in the next fad diet, financial investment, or latest and greatest podcast. Our healing and our wholeness come from gazing upon the One who knew no sin yet became sin, so that we might become the righteousness of God. 

May we turn our gaze upon Christ lifted up today. 

Cranky Church People

Here is why churches are sometimes full of cranky people: because churches are full of people who are trying to get closer to God. Often in trying to get closer to God, these folks are trying to be good, and trying to be moral, and trying to work hard. Basically, these are people who are trying to prove that they are holy enough to earn the favor of a holy God. 

But we do not come to God by doing everything right. In fact, that is religion. That is not the gospel of Jesus. 

Religion says “I am going to get to God through my own merit.” In other words, “I’ll get to God by doing things right.” When I don’t do things right, I will be cranky and I will try harder next time. Over and over, the cycle continues. It goes like this: try to be good, fail, feel shame, become cranky, try harder to be good. The gospel of Jesus says the only way to God is through Christ. The only way to get to God is to do it wrong and say, ‘Lord have mercy on me a sinner.’

See, when we come near to a perfect, holy God, we know we are unworthy. In fact, one of the ways you know you’re getting close to the real God (and not a god of my own making) is that you do actually feel your unworthiness. I know this is not popular, but it’s true. Jesus’ solution to our feelings of unworthiness was never to say to you and I, “try harder.” His solution was to say ‘I am the only way. Surrender, submit, repent, believe, receive.’

You cannot live the Christian life; you can’t, and neither can I. Jesus never asked us to live the Christian life. Jesus is the only one who can live the Christian life! The invitation of Jesus is not to try harder, it is to die. It is an exchanged life where Christ lives his life through me. Thankfully Christ has no problem living this life, so my role is to be a surrendered vessel.

This is why the scriptures say, “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” (Galatians 2:20)
May it be so. 

What is your view of God?

Sometimes I hear people say something like, “you know I like to think of God as this, ” or “I prefer to think of God like this.” Usually, they fill in the description with some sort of sentimental feeling that makes them feel good. For example, “I prefer to think of God as a tender father, or a caring brother, or a gentle shepherd, or I prefer to think of Jesus as my boyfriend”. While it might feel cozy to think of God however I wish, the real question is who is God really? If you want to know what God is like look at Jesus. Jesus is God in the flesh. And while it might feel cozy and sentimental to prefer certain images of God, those are reductionistic at best if they do not embody the Jesus we meet in scripture.

Here’s a question: why would we treat God differently than we treat all of the rest of reality? For example, consider a simple reality that you face all the time. Let’s say you are driving to the mountains and the road is winding and turning and you come upon a section that curves to the left and right in front of you is a huge cliff. Do you say to yourself “I just like to think of this road as straight,” or “I prefer to see this road as having no curves?” “I just like to think of this road as straight so I don’t have to keep on turning.” Do you do that? No, that would be crazy! Rather what I do is I submit what I might like or prefer to the real, actual shape of the road. If I don’t, I drive off the cliff. In most of life, that is what you do with reality. You might not like that the road is windy, but you conform your likes to reality and you accept reality. Even if reality is disturbing you, or not what you prefer. You see that the road is windy, and you adjust the wheel of your car to conform to reality. 

So why would we treat God any different? You don’t make demands of the road, the road makes demands of you. You conform to the reality of it. That is how you live, and survive and thrive.

If we are to follow the actual Jesus of scripture, and not some modified version that we construct, then it seems to me this Jesus will regularly be disturbing us. We will feel the need to submit to a different way than the way of the world. We will have to conform to a different path than the one presented by our culture. The way of Jesus will disturb our commitments to comfort and money.  We will regularly be bumping up against our personal prejudices and social understandings of things in light of the kingdom of heaven. If you are just following a religion then you can follow the god that you make up in that religion. Usually, that god will resemble the things your culture already cares about.  This view of god can stay on your terms of comfort because you actually formed god in your own image. But if you are following Jesus you are following a person who actually lived and we can learn about and who resides in you. 

So if Jesus is never disturbing you, if he is never bothering you, if he never seems to be calling you out of your comfort zone – then it is probably worth wondering – am I following the real Jesus or just the Jesus of my own making? How do you know if your God is real or made up? Is God constantly challenging your biases and expectations? Following Jesus is like this invitation to constantly be changing your mind on things.  This is what it means to be conformed to the image of Christ from ‘one degree of glory to another’ day by day.  

“And we all, with unveiled faces, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.” (2 Corinthians 3:18) Thanks be to God, what a gift!

To Live in the Kingdom of God

To live in the kingdom of God is to have God as my king, my ruler, my Lord. To live in the kingdom of God is to have all the scattered parts and pieces of me come under the Lordship of Christ. Our thoughts & feelings, actions, and desires all need to come under the rule and reign of Jesus. Thomas Aquinas taught that there are three aspects to a person: your beliefs, your actions and your affections. In other words, what you think, what you do, and what you desire.

American Christianity has a long history of focusing on right beliefs and right actions, with very little concern for the affections or the desires. The problem that can develop when you disregard affections or desires is you can end up with a nation of cultural christians. These folks may say “I believe Jesus died and rose again, I’ve invited him into my heart, and I go to church every week.” These are good, moral people with the “right” beliefs and the “right” behaviors. But if you could peel back the layers you would find stadiums full of people who wear the “christian” label but whose real desires are all wrapped up in the American dream — not the kingdom of heaven.  If you could peel back the layers you’d see where our affections truly lie — that they are all too often wrapped up in desire for power and money and fame and security and comfort. Maybe we have the right beliefs and maybe we are seeking to do the right actions, but our real affections, our real desires are far from aligned with the values of the kingdom of heaven. 

Truth comes to you and me in the person of Jesus and says these affections matter. Your desires matter. Jesus comes to us and says, I want to heal and cleanse you from the inside out so that you live with both feet in the strong and unshakable kingdom of God. 

Let us pray for a new way forward

Hello friends.

It is Thursday morning and I’m here in my office at church. Yesterday afternoon, we witnessed a terrible thing happen in the United States. We watched angry people storm the Capital, push through barriers, break windows, attack law enforcement officers, and replace American flags on poles with Trump flags. The people who did this believed their actions were patriotic. They believed they were fighting for their nation. In fact, they were doing a terrible, terrible thing.

I think perhaps the most disturbing part for me as a follower of God in the way of Jesus was watching the news coverage and seeing flags that said “Jesus 2020.” I don’t know what faith those flags represent, but they do not represent the Jesus we see in the ancient scriptures.

Wednesday afternoon and evening was scary. We saw ourselves at our worst. That event showed us what thugs and bullies look like. It showed us what white privilege looks like. A woman lost her life. Law enforcement officers were seriously injured. It is imagery that broke our hearts and, I believe, deeply grieves the heart of God. 

So now here we are today…where do we go from here? Let us pray for a new way forward.

Today, we claim anew the promises of God. Today we embrace again the noble path of Micah 6:8 that says, “What does the Lord require of you? But to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.” 

Psalm 30:5 says, “Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning.” Wednesday was for weeping. And now today we return to the hard work of loving our neighbors as ourselves.

Today, we resist the urge towards tribalism.

Today, we remember that Wednesday was not who we are. We are better. We are kinder. We are braver.

Today, we stop and catch ourselves each and every time we start to caricature the “other” in our minds. 

I dropped the kids off at school the other day, and I was walking around Wash Park, and my loop that day was about 45 minutes, and when I got back to my car I realized that I had spent my entire walk having an imaginary conversation with a family member who I used to be close to, but currently find myself in a bit of a silent strained relationship with because of our differences in perspective on race, religion, and politics. When I realized that I had wasted 45 minutes in an imaginary conversation, I wanted to cry. The hot tears behind my eyes felt like tears of confession. Because here is the thing, we were not actually talking with each other. And my time thinking about this person was not time spent in prayer for them, it was time spent in an imaginary argument. Assuming that I knew exactly what they’d think and say because of the labels I have placed on them. That is not right and that is not fair. People are complex, and people do not always fit into the smug little boxes we have for them. 

So today, we stop that. We do not vilify the other. We reject the pressure of our world that seeks to caricature “the other” by placing a label on them and thinking we understand them. You and I do not know what it is like to walk in someone else’s shoes. It is not your job to control or change others, it is your job to love others. It is our job to love others as we have been loved by God. God did not love me because I deserved it. So I do not love others because they deserve it. I love others because God has loved me. And sometimes, just sometimes, that love transforms and surprises us.

Today, we stop the tribalism and divisive rhetoric, and we choose justice and mercy over fear and hate.

Today, we give so much thanks to the law enforcement officers, reporters, and peace activists who stepped into the danger on Wednesday for the sake of the common good.

The truth is, we need faithful followers of Jesus on both sides of the political aisle. We need faithful followers of Christ who will live with integrity and seek truth even when that means departing from whatever their party or tribe is saying. Our primary allegiance is not to an empire, or platform, or ideology. Our allegiance is to a crucified and risen Savior. Today we choose our word of the year, which is peace.

May the peace of God permeate all I think, say, and do today.

Today, let us remind ourselves that there is more – much, much more – that holds us in common than divides us as a people.

Today, we seek to walk the way of faith, hope and love again.

We may have hard days ahead but we will find our way through them together. May we not forget what we have seen and may our disturbance lead us to holy action. May God’s spirit be before you and beside you and around you and within you in these coming days, and may we walk the way of love, that is the way of Jesus together.

Amen.

You Are Your Brother’s Keeper

Since the Fall of man people have been disclaiming responsibility for others. It was Cain’s excuse after he murdered his brother: “Am I my brother’s keeper?” (Genesis 4:9) But in Christ, we have no more excuses. We have to answer “yes” to Cain’s question; we have become our brother’s and sister’s keepers. What they do very much matters to us because Christ has reversed the curse of Cain – where Cain sought to separate himself from his biological family, Christ has bound us together into a spiritual family; the people with whom we will spend eternity.

Since we’re responsible for one another we’re called to help each other out. The goal is to get to what Jesus describes in verses 19-20: “When two or three are gathered in my name…” It’s in that gathering that the Father promises to answer our prayers and Jesus promises his presence among us. So James instructs us to “confess your sins to one another “ (James 5:16), and that “if anyone among you wanders from the truth and someone brings him back, let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from his wandering will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.” (James 5:19-20; cf. Galatians 6:1)

Jesus’s family matters to us, and we’re stronger and closer to Jesus together. So whenever someone is threatened by sin, we’re there to help one another in love.

The Enemy-making Machine

Human beings are good at making enemies. The Hatfields and McCoys are a case study; the two families engaged in a decades-long blood feud that claimed a dozen lives. The point of contention? One lost pig of Randolph McCoy in the fall of 1878, blamed on William Anderson Hatfield. It’s easy for us to put people into categories, to think of them as either friends or enemies, and treat them accordingly. Unfortunately, this enemy-making mentality has seeped into the church throughout history as well.

But Jesus wants to demolish that kind of thinking among his disciples and replace it with something better. In Matthew 18:15-20, Jesus outlines a process for dealing with sin among the church, a passage that has too often been abused by our friends-and-enemies thinking. This text is really about moving past the boundaries of friends and enemies to consider and treat one another like family.

Who might Christ be calling you to treat as family today?

Privilege, Power, & the Gospel of Jesus

There is a lot of talk about privilege in our world right now, especially white privilege. So often the conversations are loaded, filled with either defensiveness or shame.

Part of the problem seems to be that we tend to think of power in terms of position only, and we have a sinful tendency to only think about power in an upwards direction. We readily see ourselves as “less powerful” than those above us, but rarely think about how much power we have to serve those who are weaker. 

Jesus came and laid down his life for the healing of the world. Each week when we gather around the table of communion we remember that Jesus (who was all-powerful) willingly laid down his power for the sake of others. To follow in the way of Jesus is to, like Jesus, be taken-blessed-broken and given for the healing of the world. It is in the bread that is broken and in the wine that is poured out that true life and redemption are found.

We must recognize that no matter our position or privilege, we all have power.  We all have power within relationships to subvert or support, to destabilize or stabilize, etc., as well as other types of power like wealth or status. Humility and service aren’t about randomly giving up that power, but about using that power to serve the interests of others. As the ancient scriptures say, “Let each of you look not only to your own interests but also to the interests of others.” (Philippians 2:4) Becoming a servant is not about becoming less than ourselves, but using our full self to serve the needs and interests of others.

Failure of Nerve vs. Failure of Heart

There is a wonderful leadership book called Failure of Nerve, which is all about having the courage to leave the status quo and lead change when necessary. It’s a really great book about adaptive change.  Right now, in our world, however, I don’t think our problem is a failure of nerve. We are all embracing adaptive change, we have no choice. We are adapting. We’ve learned to pivot. One pastor I know said, “I think I can learn adaptive change, I just don’t know if I can survive it!” I think that gets at the heart of this moment. I think our problem is not a failure of nerve, it’s a failure of heart. Many of us are wondering if we have what it takes to survive, we are wondering if it is worth it, or if we should abandon the job, the town, the house, the plan, or the school and make a big change. It is tempting to make a big move in part because it gives me a temporary feeling of control in a time when so many things feel out of my control.

I know some of you will be called to make a big change right now (and I support those Spirit-led courageous journeys into the unknown!) But I also want us to consider that sometimes re-arranging the furniture on the outside deck of my life keeps me from some house cleaning on the inside. Many of us are not all that developed in life endurance skills because we have had the luxury of so many distractions. When things get hard or uncomfortable, we just move or change rather than endure. If you tackle a big change in life right now, it will take a lot of your attention to do that, and it may give you a temporary feeling of control, but it also may distract you from an inner journey invitation. So for those of you who are weary and losing heart, and looking to distract yourself by grabbing the reins of something you can control by making a big change in life…hear the words of this ancient sacred text and consider Christ.

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart. – Hebrews 12:1-3

Remember dear friends, the one who endures, resides in you. May you not grow weary or lose heart. 

Here are a couple of inner life questions to ask yourself right now:

  1. What key spiritual practices and rhythms are going to sustain me in this season?
  2. What key relationships are necessary to build resilience as things won’t be getting easier anytime soon?

I know that so many things feel outside of your control, and they are. Please know that you, my dear friends, are being held up in prayer before our ever-present loving God. May you rest in knowing you are fully known, fully loved, with no fear of rejection. Right now. Right here. Just as you are.

Hello, Anxiety

Anxiety

an ever-present tightness in my chest

a worry in my head

a companion I ignore and push away

deny is real

run over, past, around

but rarely through

rarely talk to. 

 

So today I say

Hello anxiety

I see you anxious one

I see that tightness in your chest

That story you are making up in your head

Rather than scold you, I invite you to sit down for some tea because, 

“Compassion directed toward oneself is true humility.” (Simone Weil)

 

“Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you.” — 1 Peter 5:7