Swiping Through Life

Not smart enough. Not pretty enough. Not original enough. Too contrived. Too air-brushed. Too personal. Too conservative. Too liberal.

Like. Dislike. Love. Swipe and continue.

It’s 7am, I’m still in bed and I’ve already passed judgment on at least thirty people. I’ve looked at them, I’ve examined them, and I’ve found them wanting. Some of them are friends. Some are family. But some are people I’ve never met in person. Yet I’ve judged them. Through the power of the almighty swipe I’ve pounded down the gavel and dismissed them from my courtroom. But it’s OK. I’ve got a full docket today. And as new photos and stories fill my feed I continually render judgment, deciding who is and who is not worthy of my time, and upon whom I will deign to reach down and bestow the power of the holy grail: The elusive LIKE. Many are called but the chosen are few, and if you want validation from me then you better WOW me. Otherwise I’ll simply reach down, and with a flick of the finger make my determination: Not good enough. Next.

Approval.

We all crave it. We all want it. We all seek it like crazy. Deeply-woven into the fabric of every human being is a desire to be appraised and valued by our peers. We crave the approval of others, and we’ll spend hours photo-shopping and curating our social media accounts to get it. We hit POST…and then we wait. How many people will read my article? How many people will appreciate that clever turn of phrase? How many people will LIKE my video? And when the number isn’t quite as high as we’d hoped–what happens then? When our Facebook approval rating plummets and our value as human beings drops proportionally,  there’s clearly a lot more at stake here than we thought. This is the darker side of social media. What was once a game has turned into a sinister, insatiable quest for the approval of others. We must continually defend ourselves in order to justify our existence and prove our worth as human beings.

This quest is exhausting. It’s an endless treadmill. And it leaves us bankrupt every single time. When your identity and worth as a human being is tied up in the judgment of others–you’re in deep, deep trouble. Because, however well-curated and photo-shopped you life may be, sooner or later someone is going to look at you, they’ll swipe, and they’ll move on. Verdict rendered. Approval lost.

But what if there was another way? A way that didn’t involve this endless treadmill? A way that didn’t require the approval of others at all?

The Apostle Paul says this:

Am I now trying to win the approval of human beings, or of God? Or am I trying to please people? If I were still trying to please people, I would not be a servant of Christ (Galatians 1:10).

This is bold. What he’s touching on is that it’s literally impossible to please every human being. Not just hard. Not just difficult. IMPOSSIBLE. Completely and utterly impossible. And not only that, but it’s impossible to seek the approval of God and human beings at the same time. You can’t simultaneously be a people-pleaser and a God-pleaser. If you spend your life chasing after the holy grail of the LIKE and you sacrifice your blood, sweat, and tears to the god of human approval, then you’re going to miss out on something important. Something key. Something astounding.

The only reason Paul can stake his claim so boldly is that he knows a truth that the rest of us often forget: The only approval we need–the only approval we’ve ever needed–we already have. In Christ Jesus, God appraises you and He finds you well-pleasing. And His verdict is ironclad. It doesn’t apply only when you behave. Like when you happen to have a pretty good day and you remembered to make your wife a cup of coffee and you didn’t mouth off to your boss and you didn’t overindulge at the office party. No. God is NOW and ALWAYS will be well-pleased with you. His approval of you is not conditional upon how well-coiffed and perfectly-curated and morally-upright your life is. God isn’t looking down from Heaven with his binoculars, giving you a round of applause on your “good days” and booing through His megaphone on your “bad days.” No. His approval of you is UNconditional, based not on your performance but upon the perfect performance of His Son. And you need to hear that. Nothing in the world could cause God’s approval rating to drop. He rejoices over you. He can’t stop smiling. He can’t stop applauding. And He couldn’t be prouder.

That is the power of a verdict. Most of us fear the word “judgment,” imagining chains and prisons and anguish. But for the one declared “innocent and free,” there is no sweeter sound in the world than the dropping of the gavel!

“It is finished.” Judgment has been rendered. The gavel has dropped.

And one day, my friends–soon, very soon–all swiping will cease. Lord haste the day!

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to check and see how many people have LIKED this post.

 

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Let There Be Silence!

When was the last time you experienced quiet in your life? Not a quiet moment scrolling through your Facebook feed. Not a quiet night in with your hubby and some Netflix. Not a quiet evening enjoying nature while you livestream that beautiful sunset.

I’m talking about genuine, extended silence. The kind of silence where you can hear yourself think. The kind of silence where you actually (God forbid) pause to smell the roses. The kind of silence when you STOP–really STOP–long enough to recognize that you are a human BEING and not a human DOING.

Been a while, huh?

Ours is an age of distraction, and it’s no surprise that, with the ever-growing cacophony of voices out there, silence is becoming an increasingly rare commodity. We’re constantly on the move, constantly stimulated, and constantly looking for ways to fill even the thirty spare seconds in line at the grocery aisle. We’ll do anything to avoid being alone with our own thoughts…but why?

What does our utter inability to be alone with our own thoughts say about the condition of our souls?

What does our insatiable desire for constant digital distraction indicate about our hearts?

What is our need to be endlessly entertained doing to us and–more specifically–what is it doing to our ability to hear God’s Word?

Here’s what Kierkegaard says in Provocations:

In observing the present state of affairs and of life in general, from a Christian point of view one would have to say: It is a disease. And if I were a physician and someone asked me, “What do you think should be done?” I would answer, “Create silence, bring about silence.” God’s Word cannot be heard, and if in order to be heard in the hullabaloo it must be shouted deafeningly with noisy means, then it is not God’s Word; create silence!

This was over 150 years ago. Just think what he would say today.

Weaponizing diversions to ward off the harsher realities of life is nothing new. Writing two hundred years earlier than this, Blaise Pascal pinpointed the insidious underbelly of our need for constant distraction. Pascal recognized that filling our lives with noise is just another way to keep from thinking about how empty and painful life is. Here’s how he puts it in Pensees:

If our condition were truly happy we should feel no need to divert ourselves from thinking about it.

What both of these guys recognized is that our distractedness is actually just a symptom of a deeper spiritual malaise. When our greatest fear is spending five minutes alone with our own thoughts–without Facebook, Netflix, Snapchat or any of the countless other diversions to take our mind off of the present moment–we have a serious problem. We demand complete sensory overload, 24/7, and without it we feel lost.

We’re addicted to the noise, and in the midst of the hullabaloo, we cannot hear God’s voice.

As a kid I attended Bible Camp. I loved learning about God. I loved digging deep into the Scriptures. And my self-conscious, introverted self even came out of its turtle-shell to make a few friends here and there. Heck, I remember returning home from Bible camp in 3rd grade to boldly dump my “girlfriend” (named Chelsey) for another girl I’d seen across the baseball field at Bible Camp (also named Chelsey)–but whom I had yet to talk to (and never did). Bible Camp was a wonderful, magical place. What I did NOT look forward to, though, was the hype. Every year, as the car pulled up the long, windy drive and I saw the wide-eyed, uber-exuberant counselors holding up signs and frothing at the mouth with love for Jesus, I started to get a little nervous. Add to that the typical camp shenanigans, enough mandatory fist-pumping and cheering to rival an NFL locker room, and the all-around screaming and yelling that I just assumed was inseparable from the Gospel, and you get a taste of what I mean. Why–I remember wondering as a kid–is all of this noise necessary? And what in the world does it have to do with the God of Scripture? I apparently failed to see the obvious connection between loving my neighbor and diving headfirst down a slip-n-slide filled with whipped cream.

Why do we find silence so terrifying? Why do we feel the need to fill every waking minute with more and more noise and then–if there’s NOT noise–to manufacture it?

The very things we think will give us rest actually fill our hearts with restlessness. The things that are supposed to divert us and entertain us and relieve the tension of the moment actually fill us with anxiety. And yet we pursue the noise, knowing full well it will never satisfy. We’ll do anything to avert the silence…to avoid the terrifying prospect of genuine reflection. We’re DOers. And to not DO, but just BE–even for a moment–is death.

That is partly what Augustine meant when he said, “Our hearts are restless until we find our rest in you.”

And, as another a wise man once said, “Only ONE thing is necessary” (Luke 10:42). And that one thing doesn’t require you to do anything.

Are you weary, today? Weary of the noise? Weary of this overstimulated and diversion-obsessed world which tells you that to stop is to die?

What if I told you that the doing was DONE? What if I told you that it truly is finished (John 19:28)? And what if I told you that there is someone in whom you can find rest from all of the noise?

So how about you reach over to that endless treadmill you’ve been running on…flip the power switch…breathe deep…and stay a while? How about you kneel down at the feet of Jesus and hear His words to you today, “Come to me all you who labor and are heavy-laden, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28). And how about you–just this once–pull out your earphones, turn off the noise, and step into the silence.

Who knows? It might not be as bad as you think.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Myth of the Liminal

There’s a pernicious lie that’s made its way into our hearts, homes, and churches. Like all effective lies, it comes disguised as piety, cloaked in self-righteousness, and topped with a bright shiny bow. And, oh yeah—it looks great on bumper stickers!

The lie is this: God’s Got a Plan for Your Life.

Now, first of all, let’s put all of our cards on the table.

Yes, God loves you (John 3:16). Yes, he has ordained all of your days (Psalm 139:16). And yes, he has even prepared good works in advance for you to do (Ephesians 2:10).

And there is also, of course, a sense in which God’s hand is sovereignly at work, guiding everything toward his saving purposes and making all things new. His end game is clear, and he is continually working to restore and redeem a lost and broken world through the shed blood of His Son. That is “THE” Plan, and there’s nothing secret about it.

But that’s not what we typically mean when we use the word “plan.” What we’re talking about is a personalized blueprint on which every square inch of our life is mapped out. Every decision. Every job. Every dating relationship. It’s all there, and—by God—we better follow that blueprint to a “T” if we don’t want the whole house of cards to come crashing down! So we sweat and we pray and we tread water as the tides of anxiety rise, hoping against hope that our Architect God will step out of His air-conditioned office long enough to affirm that we’re following His plans correctly.

That’s a lot of pressure!

Consider Jeremiah 29:11, possibly the most oft-quoted (and misquoted) passage of Scripture in the entire Bible:  “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord. “Plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you a hope and a future.”

What we so conveniently forget is that Jeremiah’s listeners are captives in a foreign land, some of whom will never got to see the “future” or “hope” that the prophet speaks of—the return to their homeland.

So what were God’s plans for them?

What are God’s plans for us? The exiles. The ones who wait. The ones caught in some in-between, transitional stage of life.

Where is God in these liminal spaces?

Transition is the new norm in our day-and-age. According to a recent survey, the average millennial expects to stay at their job less than three years. That adds up to 15-20 jobs over the course of a lifetime! That’s a lot of in-between. That’s a lot of liminal.

Whether it’s hunting for a job, waiting on test results, or once again setting an extra place at the table as we wait for the return of our Prodigal, these in-between seasons are all too familiar. Often they’re painful. Sometimes they’re tedious and last longer than we think we can bear. Yet we know God has a plan, and so we endure.

But what if this “plan” that we’re waiting for God to unfold…this “plan” that we’re hoping he’ll soon reveal…this “plan” that he’s going to eventually put into action…what if this waiting room that we think of as “liminal” or “transitory” or “in-between” WAS the plan? What if the hope that the prophet promises isn’t just a flickering flame at the end of the tunnel, but is here and now in THIS moment—not just future tense, but present? What if God isn’t just preparing us for the next thing? What if this IS the thing? How would that matter?

The ones who need plans are those who don’t know what to do next. The offense looks to the quarterback for the game plan when they need to know the next play. The students look to their teacher to provide a daily lesson plan. The patient looks to their doctor to prescribe treatment plan—because they’re utterly clueless as to what steps they should take next.

But God hasn’t left us without a clue. In fact, he has revealed—quite clearly—what we are to do. Micah 6:8: He has shown you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.

 What is God’s plan for your life? It’s this, plain, simple, and clear. How exactly you go about doing it—that’s up to you. That’s what Christian Freedom is all about.  That’s what friends and family are for. And that’s why He gives us the gift of godly wisdom.

Not the answer you were looking for? Maybe not.

Boring? Possibly.

But that’s what typically happens when sinful, finite human beings blurt out our childish mumblings to an omniscient, omnipotent God. We don’t get the answers we want because we don’t even know what questions to ask! Like Job, we sift through the dirt while God answers us from the whirlwind (Job 38:2): “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?”

We’re like two-year olds, waddling around in diapers and trying to do calculus.

And while were kicking and screaming and demanding to see beyond the veil, God quietly, humbly came down from Heaven and provided another way. A scandalous way. A way that we would never in a million years expect or accept or fathom.

This is a different kind of God. A God who works through reversals and scandals and wrestlings and whales and spit and clay. A God who gives an answer we don’t want to a problem we don’t think we have in a shape we don’t like: The Cross.

But it is here at the Cross that all of our questions are finally answered. Not in the form we want. Not in the form we like. But in the form we need. And it is here in the Liminal—as He hangs between Heaven & Earth—that the Liminal itself is finally brought to an end.

The curtain is torn.

The way to the Father is bridged.

And you and I—dear brothers and sisters—have a past, present, and future that is secure as the Cross itself.

That’s the plan, and I’m sticking to it.

When Bad Guys Win

If you still haven’t seen Avengers: Infinity War, do yourself a favor right now: Close your browser, buy a ticket, and head over to your local movie theater. You can thank me later.

(WARNING: Spoilers ahead)

Infinity War isn’t your average superhero movie, namely because the villain isn’t your average villain. His name is Thanos, and he’s out to conquer the universe. This isn’t some street thug jeopardizing the safety of Peter Parker’s beloved Queens. He’s not trying to oust Tony Stark from his billionaire playboy throne. And he’s not here to bury the hatchet over an old grudge with Cap’. This is serious stuff. Playtime is over. Thanos has his sights set much higher. His quest for the Infinity Stones is driven by an insatiable desire for power, and he won’t take NO for an answer. His maniacal, psychopathic behavior is a force to be reckoned with, and we feel the weight of it bearing down on us with each passing minute of the film. The stakes here are incredibly high, and it takes the combined efforts of every last superhero and then some to attenuate the onslaught.

Following the formulaic Marvel plot, the forces of GOOD and BAD clash in one epic, climactic battle for the soul of the universe. And then, just when all hope seems lost…just when it seems like the Bad Guy might win…he does. Thanos acquires the last Infinity Stone, snaps his fingers, and—just like that—half of every life form in the universe is snuffed out. And that includes the Avengers.

In one particularly moving scene, we see Tony Stark cradling a young Peter Parker in his arms as the boy cries out to him, “Please, Mr. Stark, I don’t want to go! I don’t want to go!”

The movie ends. The credits roll. And you’re left in stunned silence.

There will be no deus ex machina today.

What are we to make of this? This wasn’t how it was supposed to go down. What happened to “Good always beats evil,” or “Light always pierces the darkness?”

Infinity War forces us to come to grips with an uncomfortable reality: Sometimes, the Bad Guys really DO win.

Now, of course there are ways around this. There are ways we can console ourselves. Movie buffs know that you should never leave a Marvel film without sticking around for the closing credits, because there’s usually some hidden gem that reveals what’s coming next. So, it is possible to find some comfort in the fact that we know this isn’t the end of the story.

But here’s the thing: The Avengers don’t know that. The people of earth who just lost their loved ones don’t know that. For them, in that awful moment of horrific pain and confusion, the Bad Guy really did win. They don’t have the luxury of knowing that another movie is just around the corner, and that some of the wrongs will (in all likelihood) be made right.

In life as in the movies, sometimes the Bad Guys really DO win, and it’s important to affirm this.

Sometimes cancer really does kill, robbing a young wife and child of the husband and father they assumed they’d spend a lifetime with. And in the grief and loss and utter bewilderment of the moment, try as they might, they cannot see beyond the veil. The bad guy won.

Sometimes divorce really does happen, violently tearing asunder the lives of two people that God seemed to have so intricately woven together. Another victim lies on roadside from Jerusalem to Jericho, naked, robbed, and broken—with no Good Samaritan in sight. The bad guy won.

Sometimes layoffs occur. Sometimes prodigals don’t return. Sometimes depression and anxiety come back, and the joy is sucked from our marrow.

This side of Heaven, sometimes the Bad Guys really DO win.

And when these moments arrive, it’s tempting for us to jump over them.  It’s tempting for us to say, “I know things may be rough right now, but trust me—God’s got a plan for all of this!”

The problem, though, is that when we tell someone in the midst of such a situation, “Look, I know it may feel this way right now, but…” (fill in the blank with your favorite Bible verse or platitude), what we’re actually tell them is, “It’s not REALLY this way right now.” We’re telling them we know better. We’re saying that, as big and scary as the Bad Guy might seem to them—he’s really not all that bad. And by the way, don’t worry, because there’s a sequel coming! In short, we’re trying to tell them that the Bad Guy did NOT win when, in fact, he actually did.

When we ask people to think canonically (big-picture) about their pain, it belittles the suffering of the present moment, and it severs the vocal cords of the prophet crying in the wilderness, “O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not hear? Or cry to you ‘Violence!’ and you will not save?” (Habakkuk 1:2).

Those in the tumult of pain don’t have the luxury of knowing what’s coming next, and we shouldn’t presume to know either.

In our efforts to get to the joy of Easter, it’s important that we not skip over the fear and trembling of Holy Saturday. The disciples sure didn’t! They didn’t have the luxury of cracking open their NIV’s to see exactly what was coming in the next chapter of the Gospel of Matthew, because they were living in the midst of it! They didn’t get to say, “Wow. This sure sucks now. But hey, at least Easter is coming, right guys?!”

Sometimes we’d rather quote the end of the story than enter into the middle of a chapter someone might be struggling through—and we often do this more for ourselves than for the good of the one who is suffering. It’s just easier to keep that level of pain at arms-length, and in doing so we can escape the brutal reality of the moment.

It’s easy, for example, to quote Isaiah 40:31 (But those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles. They will run and not grow weary. They will walk and not be faint) to someone in the throes of despair.

But—as well-intentioned and even Biblical as such attempts may be—they can actually do great damage. Because what such an attitude conveys is that the Bad Guy isn’t really as bad as he seems. Sometimes words intended to be hopeful, then, actually spring from selfish motives. We’ll do anything to avoid entering into the pain with them.

Of course, we know we’re called to mourn with those who mourn (Romans 12:15), but the prescribed time for that season of mourning is about thirty seconds or so—right? Anything longer is just excruciating.

We’ll go to the greatest of lengths to avoid chalking up an actual win to the bad guy.

But if things truly aren’t all that bad and are instead just little roadbumps on the way to our glorious destination, then there’s no need for a rescue…is there? If Thanos didn’t really win, what need would there be for a sequel?

It’s at this point that the Cross must be allowed to speak, because only the Cross provides a framework big enough to support the pain of the moment. At the Cross we join our “Why’s” with those of Jesus, who too cried out in the midst of His pain and confusion: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” In the crucible of suffering, our voices merge with those of the Crucified One and spiral upward in a Heaven-rending cacophony to the Father—a Father who manifested His infinite love in the most foolish shape imaginable: A Cross. And it is in this very Cross—which seemed at the time to be an instrument of torture—that we ultimately find salvation.

In the Cross, we discover the skeleton key which unlocks the hidden dimensions of our Heavenly Father’s loving heart. Our hurt is his hurt. Our loss is His loss. Our grief is His grief. As it says in Hebrews 4:15a: For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses.

The Cross might not provide the personal meaning we were hoping to find in our pain. It might not give sense to the sheer senselessness of the moment. And it might not tell us that something good is always just around the corner.

But it does tell us that we are not alone. And not only that, but we have an Advocate who fights for us, and who will never leave us nor forsake us.

Sometimes the Bad Guy really does win.

But when we see things through Cross-shaped lenses, we see them differently. Now we know that the Bad Guy winning is NOT a sign that God has abandoned us. When the Bad Guy thrusts his spear into the heart of the Good Guy on the Cross…the Good Guy really is killed. But remember: This Good Guy is for you, and ultimately, YES, He will overpower the Bad Guy.

But for now, he walks beside you. He reminds you of His promises. And He reminds you that the pain you’re feeling right now…He’s felt it too.

You have an advocate. You are not alone. You are loved unconditionally. And that is enough.

Plus, without the Bad Guys winning, we wouldn’t yearn for that sequel, would we?

And of course, as we all know, everyone loves a good sequel.

Confessions of a Shepherd-in-Training

Shepherding sounds romantic, doesn’t it?

You commune with nature, spend your nights camping under the stars, and fill the rest of your glorious hours on grassy hillsides, keeping an eye on your docile sheep and—in your spare time—writing poetry and taking naps. There’s nothing to harry the life of a shepherd. You don’t have the hustle and bustle of an anxious world to crowd out your thoughts. It’s just you, your sheep, and the wide open countryside. What could possibly go wrong?

I recently made the vocational switch to pastor (a.k.a. a spiritual “shepherd”) and I must admit, I found those greener pastures particularly enticing.

The vocation of a shepherd seems straightforward enough. You care for your sheep. You feed them. You watch over them. You keep the wolves at bay. You bring back the strays. And to do all of this, the shepherd has his two trusty tools: The rod and the staff. The rod is a short club that he keeps at his waist, while the staff is a longer instrument with a circular “crook” on the end. When a sheep is stubborn and endangers the flock, the shepherd uses the force of the rod, so the rod is an instrument of discipline. But if a sheep is wandering, the shepherd uses the staff to gently guide them home, or he might apply the crook to lift them free of a small gully. The staff, then, is an instrument of rescue.

Two instruments; two distinct purposes. You’d THINK it would be obvious which one is required for each situation. Is the sheep trapped in a ravine? Grab your staff. Is the sheep leading the flock astray? That’s what the rod is for. Easy-peasy…right?

Perhaps for a more experienced shepherd that may be the case. But for a shepherd-in-training who has yet to learn how to properly wield his tools—not so much.

Sometimes a sheep needs gentle guidance, but instead of providing support, the shepherd-in-training pulls out his rod and roughly raps them over the head. Or maybe the situation is reversed. There might be a genuine danger which calls for the use of some force, but the shepherd is more comfortable gently trying to guide the sheep with his staff.

The right tool is needed for the job, but for the shepherd-in-training, this decision is not always obvious. And that makes the learning process painful for the sheep, who have to patiently wait by while the shepherd-in-training learns how to properly do his job, accidentally leading the flock into dry pasture, forgetting to watch for predators, and bonking perfectly good sheep over the head for no reason at all. The struggle is real!

My wife and I recently acquired a shepherd-in-training of our very own—a miniature Australian shepherd, to be more precise. Pilgrim is a year-and-a-half old now, and he recently began training to become a therapy dog. Any illusions we may have harbored for an easy training process, however, were quickly shattered. To be fair, there ARE a few things he consistently does well; namely sitting and eating. But beyond this, he’s pretty much a loose cannon. Sometimes he comes when we call his name—but not always. Sometimes he drops the pieces of trash that he swipes from the garbage when we tell him to do so—but only if he feels like it. Sometimes he sounds the alarm when the UPS man arrives (a useful habit), and other times he barks at absolutely nothing (a particularly UN-useful and annoying habit). We’re praying that his future therapy “patients” will at least have a sense of humor. In the meantime, our shepherd-in-training ambles around the house completely unruffled, chest held high, having no clue how far he has to go.

But there is grace here. There is grace for the shepherd-in-training. Because, when he makes a mess, there’s always a second chance…and a third…and a fourth. There’s always forgiveness. When he tears a sock to shreds, his trainers are always there to clean up the mess and give him a fresh start. And within thirty seconds he’s happily trotting around again like nothing happened in the first place.

That’s what grace does. It bestows forgiveness when none is deserved. It wipes the slate clean. And it doesn’t count our sins against us.

Grace does not distinguish between deserving and undeserving. It is poured out equally and lavishly on all.

There is grace for the sheep.

There is grace for the shepherd.

And thanks be to God that there is even enough grace left for the shepherd-in-training.

For that, I am eternally thankful.

In Praise of Monotony

It’s that time of year again!

Time for New Year’s Resolutions. Time to put everything from the past twelve months out of sight and out of mind.

The past is history. What’s done is done. It’s old news.

And in order to make way for the NEW, we’ve got to bulldoze the OLD. After all, the OLD is what’s holding us back, and the NEW possesses the key to the future. Out with the OLD, in with the NEW! In the words the great prophet Bob Dylan, “Your old road is rapidly aging. Please get out of the new one if you can’t lend a hand, ’cause the times they are a-changing.”

In our day and age, there is an unquenchable thirst for novelty. If it’s been done before, then it’s not worth doing again. Ideas valued above all other are those that are fresh, new, and unhampered by the archaic traditions of the past. We need to break new ground, take the road less traveled by, and blaze a bold, progressive path forward…a path that has never been taken before. And for that, we need bold, visionary leaders ready to break with the OLD in order to go where no man has gone before.

In a world like this, the cardinal sin would be to say or do something un-original; something that might even be labeled (God-forbid) “old hat!” You might as well be a leper if the message you have to speak is one that has already been spoken.

As a pastor, I’ve seen this thirst for novelty infect the ministry. No longer is it acceptable to simply preach a sermon…now it needs to have all the pomp, flash, and sexiness of a TED-talk. No longer is a wooden Cross and stained glass sufficiently reverent…now the pulpit must be pushed aside to make way for stage lights, a sofa, and a coffee table. And no longer is a simple liturgy enough. After all, people demand excitement, innovation, and spice in their worship services! The single most dangerous pitfall that the church must avoid isn’t being unbiblical; it’s being boring. Anything that smacks of tradition (i.e. the OLD) is toxic, and we should flee from it as fast as our legs will carry us.

To be sure, I understand the fear here. Really, I do. Rote traditions done simply for tradition’s sake always runs the risk of becoming cold and dead. There is a very real danger that “going through the motions” will quench the Spirit, and we need to guard against this.

But I’d like to suggest something else. Maybe…just maybe…something that is NEW is not necessarily something that is better. Maybe what we need isn’t something NEW at all, but rather something OLD. Something ancient, tried, and true. Something that has (GASP!) already been done before and needs to be done again. Maybe what we need isn’t to blaze a NEW path, but to hack away at the undergrowth until we find the OLD, hidden one. As author and artist Andrew Peterson advises us: “Go back, go back to the ancient paths, and lash your heart to the ancient mast. If love is what you’re looking for, the old roads lead to an open door. And you’ll find your way back home.”

Deep down, what we’re all longing for is this kind of “home.” And a home like this isn’t something new.  It’s something deeply, deeply old. It’s a place we know well. In fact it’s somewhere we’ve been many times before. It’s the summer porch where we drank lemonade and shared laughs with friends and family. It’s the living room where we tested our strength while wrestling with Dad on the shag carpeting. It’s the tire swing in the old oak out front where each underdog elicited a fresh squeal of delight. “Again, again,” you screamed, your excitement building–not declining–with each repetition of the OLD, exact, same motion.

In his book Orthodoxy, G.K. Chesterton illustrates this concept beautifully:

Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, ‘Do it again’; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, “Do it again” to the sun; and every evening “Do it again” to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.

In our heart of hearts, what we long for isn’t something NEW, but something OLD. Something ancient that has withstood the test of time. What we long for, in fact, is the steadfast monotony of a God whose faithfulness is as constant and predictable as the rising of the sun. A God who, as Josh Garrels describes, is “ever-ancient, but never old.” A God who joyfully re-enacts the same story over and over again. A God who never ceases to delight in His children as he winds them up for another underdog and, with a smile on His face and love in His heart, says, “OK, one more time!”

The Midnight Light

He stood beneath the oaken door,
it’s haunting frame on high.
His cassock frayed and dirtied o’er,
dark mud stains on his side.

With mouth agape and widened eyes,
he gazed upon the stone.
The thickened walls of looming size,
hewn years and years ago.

He raised his torch and by its light,
the darkness now dispelled.
A fortress deep in sacred night,
its story soon to tell.

The monk could not believe it still:
The tales they’d told were true.
For deep within these wooded hills,
a prophecy renewed.

His breath, it came in shallow gasps.
He dared to raise his hand.
To touch the wood, to feel the glass,
the mortar and the sand.

But through the shadows deep, behold:
A light within the house!
Springs suddenly, new life from old.
A hope where once was doubt.

A mighty wind, the door flew wide,
it beckoned him, “Come near.”
With trembling frame, the rising tide,
he knew nought else but fear.

“Can only fly, can only fly!”
His thoughts could find no ground.
But just as soon a voice drew nigh,
and bade him turn around.

So deep was he within the dark,
could scarce bring pause to tread.
But spirits whispered, calming, “Hark!”
And broke the spell of dread.

The dead leaves crunched beneath his feet,
the wind it howled anew.
But fear and light this night would meet,
and find out which were true.

So onward trod he, toward the light,
as heart and throat grew near.
Through shaking knees he fought the fight.
His mission now was clear.

The door drew nigh, the fortress called,
his heart could naught but ache.
As longings deep in hallowed walls
caused bones long-dead to wake.

And as he neared the sacred space,
he could not help but feel
that in some way he knew this place,
old dreams had now come real.

As finally, the threshold nigh,
he could not help but quake.
The blinding light, now deep and wide
would soon himself unmake.

He’d heard the words a thousand times:
He knew “All would be well.”
And tears sprang to his desperate eyes,
as hope fills empty shells.

With each step on, his feet grew light.
His walk turned to a run.
Away from dark and demon’d night,
and toward the rising sun.

No longer could he hide the joy
that thrummed within his breast.
He felt himself a little boy
who’d turned from East to West.

His cloak it dropped from weathered frame.
No more he’d need to hide.
No masquerade, no fear, nor shame
could stem the rising tide.

And as the rays of searing light
burned all he was away,
His flesh and heart and soul and mind
were turned from night to day.

Yet as he passed the oaken door
and stepped into the room,
he saw it there upon the floor–
And not an IT, but WHOM!

The child was sleeping deep within
the manger, sod, and hay.
His tiny cries they raised a din
on this most Holy day.

The monk he gazed upon the child.
The source of all this light
was anything but meek and mild,
The one who wrong made right.

This light it burns the old away;
the death of sin and shade.
First Adam killed, his moldy clay
shall one day be re-made.

Yet greater still, this manger-King,
The Phoenix soon to rise.
The light has dawned, the bells now ring.
The risen one: The Christ!

Rescuing Santa From the Manger

He’s omnipotent.

He’s omniscient.

And he knows ever single good deed and bad deed you’ve ever done. We all know whom I’m talking about. God, right?

Wrong.

The fellow I’m referring to wears a fuzzy red cap, has a full white beard, and sports a paunch that jiggles down to the depths of his jolly old soul. I’m talking, of course, about Santa Claus.

We all know the lyrics by heart: He sees you when you’re sleeping. He knows when you’re awake. He knows if you’ve been bad or good, so be good for goodness’ sake!

Let’s take these one at a time.

He sees you when you’re sleeping. OK. Creepy, to be sure. But Sant Claus is no Peeping Tom. Somehow his is able to gaze upon your resting form as you quietly drift off to dreamland, yet all the while he’s still at the North Pole. He’s all-seeing and ever-present. Sounds a little god-like, wouldn’t you agree? Sounds a little like someone else we might know: “The eyes of the Lord are in every place” (Proverbs 15:3a).

He knows when you’re awake. So, not only is Saint Nick omnipresent, he has now become all-knowing as well. Whether he’s at the north Pole or in the sleigh or in his workshop with the elves, he’s still got his eyes on you and he knows EXACTLY what you’re up to. Santa never blinks. Santa never sleeps. And Santa knows you better than you know yourself. Sound familiar? Psalm 139:1-2 comes to mind: “O Lord, you have searched me and know me! You know when I sit down and when I rise up.” Apparently two people know us this well, now: Santa & God.

But then comes the kicker: He knows if you’ve been bad or good so be good for goodness sake! Good grief! Is there no escaping this deified, maniacal gift-giver?! Santa has been keeping track of our good and bad deeds all year long: He’s making a list. Checking it twice. Gonna find out who’s naughty and nice. Santa is keeping a separate spreadsheet dedicated to each and every human being. It’s a simple spreadsheet, with only two columns, and at the tops of those two columns are the words GOOD and BAD emblazoned in big, bold letters. And when he totals those columns up at the end of the year you’ll either be rewarded or punished based on how well you’ve done. If the GOOD column is higher, you’ve earned yourself a gift! If the the BAD column wins the day, though, it’s nothing but a stocking filled with coal for you!

This whole paradigm reveals something troubling about the way we as human beings are wired. Deep within our DNA is a desire to build our identities on our own performance. When Santa Claus bestows punishments and rewards based solely upon how well we did over the last twelve months, this further reinforces the belief that our identities rest squarely on our own works. Maybe the year was GOOD or maybe it was BAD, but either way–at the end of the day, all that really matters is the final tally on that spreadsheet. The natural inclination of our hearts is to build our identities upon how well we perform.

And here, dear friends, is where Kris Kringle and Yahweh part ways. While Santa keeps track of every last good and bad thing you’ve ever done, God doesn’t make lists. He doesn’t add up spreadsheets. He doesn’t count at all. In fact, he stopped counting a long time ago. Specifically, on a hill called Golgatha in Jerusalem about two thousand years ago. And because of what happened on that hill, God dropped his pen, put away the ink, and burned all records of everything wrong that you ever did or ever would do. He doesn’t even remember them. Psalm 103:12 says this: “As far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us.” In other words, they’re out of site, out of mind, and they’re never coming back to haunt us.

So the grand total in your BAD column? Zero. Nada. Zilch. He has forgiven you everything, and your identity is now based not on how well YOU perform, but on HIS perfect performance.

While Santa was carrying a bag of presents around the world to reward GOOD people, Jesus was carrying a cross up a hill to die for the BAD ones. That’s you. That’s me. We are rewarded for his perfect obedience and not our own. We didn’t earn it. We didn’t deserve it. But He loved us so much that he took all of our lists and numbers and columns and spreadsheets, tore them to pieces, and spilled His own blood to blot them out.

There’s no more “naughty” and “nice.” There’s only one man. In a manger. On a Cross. For you, and for me.

I can’t imagine a better gift than that.

Decisions, Decisions!

“How do I know I made the right decision?!”

Have you ever asked yourself that question? It’s a scary thought, and one that has the power to generate a lot of unrest and anxiety. But it’s a question we’re all prone to ask, and once we go down that road it’s hard to do a u-turn. “How can I know FOR CERTAIN that the choice I just made was the right one? What would have happened if I had gone with the alternative? Would the results have been different? Why didn’t I choose to go in that direction instead?” We second-guess ourselves. We worry. We ponder. We project. And in the end we’re left more tangled in knots than we began. It’s nearly impossible to shake the deep sense of unrest when we begin to indulge in the infinite “What if’s.” The anxiety is real.

Especially around the holidays, we’re dogged by these kinds of questions. Shopping in and of itself has greatly multiplied the sheer scale of options available to us. No longer do we each simply write out our Christmas lists and give them to Mom so that she can make a day trip to the mall and maybe pick up a few special items at Target and Fleet Farm (Yes, I grew up in a rural Midwestern town in northern MN. Carhartts were usually—and NON-ironically—on the list. Don’t judge). With the advent of the Internet, the range of choices available to us is staggering. Amazon, Ebay, craigslist, and other third-party sellers now have ads that plaster my home screen. Not to mention the fact that each Big Box store also has its own online platform as well, typically with its own offers and codes, some of which are redeemable at the nearest retailer and some not. And of course, once you actually log in to the site you have to decide what you want, add the item to your wish list, and then share it with others. And God help you if Christmas rolls around and you don’t actually have a need for anything, because then you’ll have to create a need!

While this entire process is designed to streamline the shopping experience (which, to be honest, it does, on a number of fronts), it also greatly increases the array of options available to us. And the more choices we have available, the more likely we’re going to make the wrong one. Ironically then, the more decisions we have to make, the greater our anxiety. While we might think we should applaud the fact that we have so many options, the reality is that our sense of unrest grows with the buffet line of choices arrayed before us.

Soren Kierkegaard, the 19th-century Danish philosopher, coined the phrase “The Dizziness of Freedom” to describe this kind of phenomena. While we often celebrate the fact that we have freedom to make completely un-coerced decisions of our own, Kierkegaards says that this kind of freedom actually does the opposite of what we imagine. Instead of setting us free; it creates a sense of dread (or “dizziness”) within us.

To use an illustration, it’s like walking up to the edge of a precipice and looking down into the dark, yawning abyss below. You don’t know what’s down there and you can’t see bottom. There are truly and infinite number of decisions we can make, and the more possibilities available, the more we become unstable, dizzy, and unable to know whether we chose correctly; and the more likely we are to topple over the edge.

Here’s what Kierkegaard says: “Anxiety may be compared with dizziness. He whose eye happens to look down into the yawning abyss becomes dizzy. But what is the reason for this? It is just as much in his own eyes as in the abyss…anxiety is the dizziness of freedom.” One author puts this into layman’s terms: “Anxiety is the reaction to the idea that you have freedom to choose from millions of options but you have to eventually choose one and act on it. Now, it’s interesting. This freedom that we have can be both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, we’re free—Hooray! We can do anything we want! On the other hand, I’m free to do anything—What if I make a mistake?”

Here’s an example. After a long day of work I flop down on the couch and turn on Netflix. I’m excited to unwind, turn my brain off, and just veg for a while. But then the opening screen pops up and already I have to make a decision: Do I want Comedy or Drama? Should I watch a movie or a TV show? Should I start a new series or re-watch an oldie but a goodie? Oh, but if I watch a new series, I’m going to need to do a little research, watch some trailers, and read a few reviews. Then again, after all of that work, who knows if the show is even going to be worth it? There are literally tens of thousands of titles to choose from! And that’s BEFORE I get bored with Netflix and switch to Hulu or Amazon to see if they have anything better. And by the end of it all, 15 minutes later, I’m usually so disgruntled that I give up, turn off the TV, and go upstairs to complain to my all-too-gracious wife that there’s nothing good on television. We usually end up just reading a good book instead.

The more choices we have, the more worried and anxious we tend to be. Because, the more decisions we have to make, the more likely it is that we’re going to make the wrong one.

Is there anywhere we can find rest for our souls in the midst of all of this choosing?!

In John 15:16, Jesus says this: “You did not choose me, but I chose you.”

STOP. I mean it. Really STOP, and think about that for a minute. Who chooses whom, here? Who is the one making the decision? “YOU did NOT choose me, but I chose YOU.”

It’s not us. It’s definitely not us, because left to our own devices—people with selfish, inwardly-bent hearts—we’re going to choose the wrong thing. We’re going to make the wrong decision. When it comes to God, as much as we would like to imagine that our hearts are free and neutral, the Biblical picture that emerges is not so rosy-colored: “The human heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?” (Jeremiah 17:9). Our hearts then, are bent and warped. And so are our decisions.

And that’s why Jesus’ words here are such good news! When it comes to God, we don’t have to worry about whether or not we made the right decision. We don’t have to question or second-guess whether we chose to serve the right God. Because we didn’t choose at all. He did.

Who decided to send His son to be born of a virgin in a manger in Bethlehem? He did.

Who decided to live a perfect life, fulfilling all of God’s righteous requirements on our behalf? He did.

Who decided to save us by shedding His blood on Cross on that hill in Jerusalem, 2000 years ago? He did.

And, thanks be to God, He didn’t consult us about whether He should do any of those things.

So in a world literally overflowing with options and choices and decisions, this Advent and Christmas season, may we find rest for our souls in the knowledge there is one less decision for us to make.

The Gelded Gospel

The Gospel is never tame. It has always been a voice on the fringes, speaking prophetically from the hinterlands of the wilderness. This is where wild-eyed prophets roam the desert, the muck of the Jordan becomes a makeshift Baptismal font, and the perfume of prostitutes substitutes for anointing oil. The Gospel cannot be grasped from the comfort of the hearth. It is not suburban. It is not safe. In fact, it is very, very dangerous. It is far from the well-manicured, perfectly-coiffed, cul-de-sac existence that we sometimes find so compelling. The Gospel is a lion; reckless and free. And in order for the Gospel to do its work, Aslan has to be un-caged.

But setting a lion loose sounds terrifying: “Safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe!” It sounds like something we can’t control; once he’s out of his cage who knows what he’s going to do next? Those claws look strong and those fangs are sharp. So instead of setting the Gospel free to do its work of bringing dead sinners back to life, we herd it into a nice little fenced-off area where we can control it, keep an eye on it, and make sure that it never gets out of its pen to run amuck. We let the Gospel do what it does as long as we can handle it with bit and bridle, but above all it must be safe and manageable. None of this kicking and bucking and unpredictable behavior. It’s too wild, powerful, virile. So let’s give the Gospel a sedative, let’s take our scalpel to it, and let’s turn this stallion into a gelding.

For those of you urban/suburbanites out there, a gelding is a castrated horse. The gelding procedure is pretty common and there are numerous benefits to it. It changes the horse’s temperament, making them calmer and more predictable. Geldings are quieter, gentler, and more docile than stallions, making them significantly better-behaved and a lot easier to handle. And above all, a gelding has lost all of its virility.

That is the temptation we face as well: To geld the Gospel. To empty it of all potency. To water it down until there’s no real Gospel left. When we use the word “Gospel” (which, by the way, means “Good News”) without speaking of the death and resurrection of one man on a Cross two thousand years ago FOR YOU and FOR ME, we’re not speaking of the same Gospel that the New Testament authors did. When “the Gospel” means “living a moral life” or “helping others” or “celebrating God’s diversity,” we’ve emptied the Cross of its power, and we’re left with the bitter dregs. We’re left with something tame and gentle and manageable. But whatever it is, it’s not the Gospel.

So what is the Gospel? The Apostle says it this way in 1 Corinthians 15: Now, brothers and sisters, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you…that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures.

This is the beating heart of Christianity. This is the Gospel, in all of it’s raw power, pumping blood and life throughout the rest of the body. Without this beating heart—without the forgiveness of sins via the Cross—everything else we do is in vain. Completely and utterly in vain. With the Cross, we have a stallion. Without it, all we have is a gelding—a beautiful creature, to be sure, but with no power to reproduce and no hope of spreading its seed.

The gelded Gospel is shiny and attractive and compelling, and we can perform the procedure in a couple of different ways.

We might slice to the right, transforming the Gospel of Jesus Christ into a morality-based creation of our own making, distilling the salvation narrative down to bite-sized pieces of pious living. We can learn to live “the victorious Christian life.” We can ascend the ladder of sanctification one step at a time as we make our way heavenward, turning the teachings of Jesus into a how-to manual for virtuous living. “10 Steps to Becoming a More Godly Mother.” “7 Ways to Become a Man of God.” “12 Steps to Becoming a Disciple and NOT Just a Follower” (I think Jesus’ disciples could have benefited from this last one). This kind of “Gospel” is safe. It’s something we can measure, monitor, and keep tabs on. We can self-assess and check our progress, making small adjustments here and there but always pressing onward. In this way, the Cross becomes a springboard to better living. We need Jesus to be sure, but once we’ve progressed sufficiently along the road of self-improvement, we can toss Him away like a crutch. He’s a means to an end, and the Cross becomes a starting point rather than something we need to return to day after day. There’s no room for stallions in this pen.

Or, we may slice to the left. This is what some have termed (for better or worse) “The Social Gospel,” and it distills Christianity down to a set of social programs. In other words, the Christian faith is useful ONLY insofar as it is able to bring meaningful improvement to people’s earthly lives. This gelded Gospel isn’t primarily concerned with the Biblical meta-narrative of sin-fall-redemption. Rather, the earthly supersedes the eternal, and humanitarian action is substituted for salvation. And, to be sure, after the gelding wakes up from this procedure, it’s a very beautiful animal which is still by all appearances a stallion. It can whinny. It can trot. And people from from all walks of life—religious and non-religious—love it! It’s a horse that everyone wants to ride. Who doesn’t believe in helping the less fortunate and working for justice and clothing the homeless? These are urgent needs in our day and age, and—after all—isn’t this exactly what Jesus did? This is a tempting way to reason. Yet, as people of the Word it is always to the Word we must return, and when we go back to Paul’s description of the Gospel in 1 Corinthians, we realize that he never defines the Gospel in terms of OUR action at all. It’s all GOD’S action; that’s monergism by definition. It’s a divine, one-way rescue. And without the Cross—without the shed blood of another to cover over all of our failed attempts at doing good deeds and seeking justice—there is no Gospel at all. It’s great to give someone who thirsts a cup of water, but Oprah is also fully capable of doing that. In fact, she can probably do it in much greater quantities and to a much greater effect than we as a church can. If we don’t give that cup of water in the name of Jesus, then, the Gospel is a gelded one.

But the true Gospel cannot be tamed. It brings forth streams in the wilderness, bread in the midst of famine, rain in the midst of drought, and life into a world of death. And that power, life, and virility comes only from the veins of one man, spilled on a wooden Cross that day in Jerusalem. Only this Gospel brings forgiveness. Only this Gospel sets captives free. And only this Gospel, unleashed in all of its raw, unbridled power, can give what it promises.

So let’s open that pen, and let the stallions run wild.