Monthly Archives: December 2013

An Open Letter to My Heroes

I’ll admit this right up front. Today I’m doubting. Today I’m struggling to hold onto hope. Today it’s hard to believe that there’s a real connection between the theoretical verticality of the gospel relationship and a practical tangibility lived out between real people in real time. Today I’m tempted to think it’s all been a lie. That happens from time to time. Today I decided to write about it.

I’m calling you out today, Scott Sauls. You too, Tim Keller and Scotty Smith. Tullian Tchividjian, I’m looking at you. I’ll not limit it to the living. Henri Nouwen, Brennan Manning, and Rich Mullins, you’re on the list as well. I really only have one question for the lot of you: “Did you sell me snake oil?”

Scott, sitting under your teaching changed my life … literally. You really only ever had one sermon. It was always “How would a better understanding of the gospel change the way I ______________?” I learned that wrestling with that question must define Christian living. It’s because of you that I am coming to believe that God is truly not mad at me. You taught me that really living out the gospel incarnationally will ALWAYS be messy. The extent to which I’m okay with that I owe to your faithfulness with the Word.

Tim, you taught me that the difference between religion and the gospel hinges on how willing I am to surrender control. You taught me that the first necessary step toward truly trusting Christ is choosing to distrust myself. You have provided for me a humbling example of how to vigorously and intellectually contend for the gospel while treating your audience/opponent with a grace that makes them hope that you’re right.

Scotty, … wow … I’m not sure where to start. From you I’ve learned that the gospel = Jesus = the Kingdom. I’ve learned that brokenness and weakness, because of Jesus, will never be the same as dysfunction and shame. You’ve taught me that if I let Him, Christ will meet me in the middle of my struggle, that He is present and working in my hurt.

Tullian, of all the people on my list (with the possible exception of Manning) you would be the one with whom I’d most want to sit down for coffee. You articulate grace in a way that speaks life to really bad sinners like me, that makes me hope. You’ve taught me that considering faith a journey from weakness to strength is counter-intuitive to the upside-down nature of the Kingdom. You’ve gentled my restless and belligerent spirit with the exhilarating/terrifying news that God’s love for me requires nothing whatsoever from me but my desperate need.

Henri, you taught me so much about the inside-out/upside-down nature of the Kingdom. You taught me that servanthood must be the hallmark of the true believer, and that true freedom will always draw people.

Brennan, I don’t think any other author has made me cry more. Your firmly (and frequently) stated belief that Jesus’s heart is rabidly and relentlessly toward the worst of us is slowly eroding my need to pretend that I don’t belong in that category. I believe (more and more every day) that my identity as God’s beloved far eclipses any other flag I would fly.

Rich, above and beyond your status as the biggest fly in my “Christian music sucks” ointment, you taught me wonder. I learned that the fury in a pheasant’s wing can and should tell me that the Lord is in His temple. I’m beginning to be okay with knowing that we are not as strong as we think we are.

You are all very different. One thing, though, that each of you believed and passed on to me was this: that the vertical realities of the gospel must transform the horizontal practicalities of our everyday lives. At least that’s how I’ve distilled your teaching. Maybe I misunderstood, but what I thought I heard each one of you say, at least implicitly, is that the Cross changes everything about how we live on the horizontal, especially how we live with regard to each other. I’ve devoted my life (poorly) to the exploration of what this could look like. But today I’m afraid I have to admit that I’m wondering if I’ve been wasting my time.

I don’t think anyone’s doing this. Yeah, I get that the gospel means that Christ’s sacrifice is sufficient for our inability. And I certainly acknowledge that what we’re called to is difficult. Being merciful as our Father in heaven has been merciful with us? Forgiving as we’ve been forgiven? Loving like Jesus loved us? Hard? More like impossible! It’s not in us. But there it is, nonetheless. By this will all men know that you are My disciples, Jesus said. Love like I’ve loved you. Give yourself. Don’t hold back. Be spent for the sake of the gospel in others. Yeah, I don’t think anyone’s doing this.

I think we’ve all agreed to relegate these ideas to the back burner and deal with them when we’ve figured out the weightier matters of the law like defeating gay marriage, securing the border, eradicating the death penalty, or making sure everyone has access to affordable healthcare. I think what we’ve done is we’ve looked at the clear teaching of scripture, recognized that giving ourselves to the pursuit of such would be extremely inconvenient and detrimental to a lifestyle that focuses on “me and mine/us and ours first,” and decided to classify the mercy-love-forgiveness verses as unrealistic. We have grown far too comfortable living in the gap between our perceived inability and God’s clear call on our lives.

This is not something we can accomplish as a checklist. It’s impossible to muster the gumption to love well under our own power. But part of what the gospel offers us is a confidence and self-disregard rooted deeply in understanding of God’s everlasting love for us. That confidence will short-circuit our insecurities and fears and drive us into others-focused service and love. It will be come a lifestyle, not a checklist

At least that’s how I think things are supposed to work. And they don’t. I don’t work that way. There are no less than three of my friends who are struggling with substance abuse issues. They have each let me in, showed me their brokenness, and asked for help in their own way. Most often, I sit paralyzed, overcome by my self-doubt. I don’t ask the hard questions. If I do, I do so from a comfortable distance. Certainly don’t want to get any of someone else’s mess on me. And if I stepped too deeply into theirs, well, then there’d be the expectation that I would really let them into mine, right? Let’s not get hasty. Let’s be realistic about this.

Last week, I celebrated my first Christmas as a divorced man. My ex-wife celebrated with her parents in Florida. I spent time with my family in Missouri. I wanted nothing more than to be with her. Instead, I began to settle into the role of the divorced guy. The one who fits into travel plans wherever there’s an extra seat, who gets to sleep in the spare bedroom until the married couple shows up to take it over, the one you’re never quite sure how to introduce to people because he’s not part of a unit anymore. It hurt like hell. Exactly two of my friends said anything about it, both via text message. I appreciated the thought, and I’m sure there were people praying for me and loving me from afar who didn’t contact me. But I was still very, very alone, even though I was surrounded by family. I was cut off from my soul mate, from my best friend. And my community, the only substitute I have, was all far away, connected to their own soul mates, best friends, and families. It’s selfish, I readily admit, but it should probably have played out differently. Living horizontally in the light of the vertical should probably make us think about others before we think about ourselves.

But it doesn’t. It’s just not how we live.

So is it snake oil, Scott? Is this really possible? Tullian, does one way love really mean that we can live outward-focused lives? Does the gospel really free me to be that focused on the needs of others, Dr. Keller? How about it Scotty? Does this rhetoric translate into reality in your life better than it does in mine? If so, can I come see it work? I need to see it work. I need to believe it’s real.

Right now I really need to know that somebody somewhere is living this.

Because I’m not.

What The Manger Means, Pt. I

A couple of weeks ago, my pastor preached one of “those” sermons. You know the kind. The ones that you can’t deny are exactly what you needed to hear, no matter how much it stings. It was part of his Advent series, and he was talking about how most people missed the point of the Messiah when He showed up.

Looking back with the clarity of hindsight, we see the reasons why. The shame and the pain of Roman rule, the crushing apathy borne of the laying aside of the most basic elements of their worship, and 400 years of silence since the last prophet’s mouth had fallen silent in death — no small wonder that the idea of Messiah meant little more to the masses than political deliverance. He would crush Rome. He would enter into Jerusalem, triumphant over her enemies. He would take his seat on David’s throne and He would rule forever. Of the increase of His government of peace there would be no end.

How wrong they were. How “right side up” they were in contrast to the upside down nature of the Kingdom He was bringing. How shortsighted and temporal was their thinking. It’s so easy to sit here, thousands of years later, and shake our heads at their naiveté. They were so focused on their own wants and desires, they could not see the nature of what the Incarnation meant.

But then he dropped the bomb. My pastor said that we shouldn’t probably let ourselves off the hook so quickly, hindsight or no. Wanting something from Messiah that fell short of what He came to give isn’t exclusively the domain of folk in the first century. We should ask ourselves this diagnostic question, he said. We should ask ourselves “If God told me that He would change one thing (without restrictions) in my life if I asked, what would that thing be?”

Would it be a relationship? I got divorced this year, and I miss my wife every day. Being home for the holidays without her rips at my soul.

Would it be friendships? There is brokenness and awkward silence in some of mine that I wish would go away, but not enough to do the hard work to heal them.

Would it be health-related? I have a friend from high school who is likely spending his last Christmas with his family. Unless God does something spectacular, cancer will take him home to Jesus within the year.

Would it be a job? Would it be financial? I have unemployed friends, friends who are losing their homes, friends who are underemployed and whose Christmases were short on presents this year.

All of those are good things to want. Healing of relationships, of sickness, of want and need — we aren’t wanting wrongly to desire those things. But we aren’t wanting best.

My pastor’s next statement felt like a gut punch. He basically said that of all the problems and hardships in my life, if there were any that bothered me more than my sin, I was just as shortsighted and wrong about the nature of the Kingdom that showed up in Bethlehem that night. If there is anything that feels like a more pressing need than the sentence my sinfulness has given me, then I don’t comprehend what the manger means. I believe the direct quote from the sermon was that “If I don’t deeply understand the deadly nature of my sin, then I will never understand the joy of Christmas.”

I’ve been thinking about it since then, and today it comes home hardest.

Mild, He lays His glory by
Born that men no more may die
Born to raise the sons of earth
Born to give them second birth

Hark, indeed! Sing with the angels, who marveled at this gift while we sat (and still so often sit) dimly unaware of the priceless gift given. Christ is born in Bethlehem, come to do something about my deepest problem. Come to fix it. Come to make me new.

Christmas Itself Is By Grace

The lovely old carols played and replayed till their effect is like a dentist’s drill or a jack hammer, the bathetic banalities of the pulpit and the chilling commercialism of almost everything else, people spending money they can’t afford on presents you neither need nor want, “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” the plastic tree, the cornball creche, the Hallmark Virgin. Yet for all our efforts, we’ve never quite managed to ruin it. That in itself is part of the miracle, a part you can see. Most of the miracle you can’t see, or don’t.

The young clergyman and his wife do all the things you do on Christmas Eve. They string the lights and hang the ornaments. They supervise the hanging of the stockings. They tuck in the children. They lug the presents down out of hiding and pile them under the tree. Just as they’re about to fall exhausted into bed, the husband remembers his neighbor’s sheep. The man asked him to feed them for him while he was away, and in the press of other matters that night he forgot all about them. So down the hill he goes through knee-deep snow. He gets two bales of hay from the barn and carries them out to the shed. There’s a forty-watt bulb hanging by its cord from the low roof, and he lights it. The sheep huddle in a corner watching as he snaps the baling twine, shakes the squares of hay apart and starts scattering it. Then they come bumbling and shoving to get at it with their foolish, mild faces, the puffs of their breath showing in the air. He is reaching to turn off the bulb and leave when suddenly he realizes where he is. The winter darkness. The glimmer of light. The smell of the hay and the sound of the animals eating. Where he is, of course, is the manger.

He only just saw it. He whose business it is above everything else to have an eye for such things is all but blind in that eye. He who on his best days believes that everything that is most precious anywhere comes from that manger might easily have gone home to bed never knowing that he had himself just been in the manger. The world is the manger. It is only by grace that he happens to see this other part of the miracle.

Christmas itself is by grace. It could never have survived our own blindness and depredations otherwise. It could never have happened otherwise. Perhaps it is the very wildness and strangeness of the grace that has led us to try to tame it. We have tried to make it habitable. We have roofed it in and furnished it. We have reduced it to an occasion we feel at home with, at best a touching and beautiful occasion, at worst a trite and cloying one. But if the Christmas event in itself is indeed-as a matter of cold, hard fact all it’s cracked up to be, then even at best our efforts are misleading.

The Word become flesh. Ultimate Mystery born with a skull you could crush one-handed. Incarnation. It is not tame. It is not touching. It is not beautiful. It is uninhabitable terror. It is unthinkable darkness riven with unbearable light. Agonized laboring led to it, vast upheavals of intergalactic space, time split apart, a wrenching and tearing of the very sinews of reality itself. You can only cover your eyes and shudder before it, before this: “God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God . . . who for us and for our salvation,” as the Nicene Creed puts it, “came down from heaven.”

Came down. Only then do we dare uncover our eyes and see what we can see. It is the Resurrection and the Life she holds in her arms. It is the bitterness of death he takes at her breast.

Frederick Buechner, from Whistling In The Dark

Isaiah 9:2-7

The people who walk in darkness
Will see a great light;
Those who live in a dark land,
The light will shine on them.
You shall multiply the nation,
You shall increase their gladness;
They will be glad in Your presence
As with the gladness of harvest,
As men rejoice when they divide the spoil.
For You shall break the yoke of their burden and the staff on their shoulders,
The rod of their oppressor, as at the battle of Midian.
For every boot of the booted warrior in the battle tumult,
And cloak rolled in blood, will be for burning, fuel for the fire.
For a child will be born to us, a son will be given to us;
And the government will rest on His shoulders;
And His name will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Eternal Father, Prince of Peace.
There will be no end to the increase of His government or of peace,
On the throne of David and over his kingdom,
To establish it and to uphold it with justice and righteousness
From then on and forevermore.
The zeal of the Lord of hosts will accomplish this.

Grace Is A Rescue Camel

“If you are called it is grace that calls, if you have the will and courage to respond it is grace that enables, if you are saved today you are a trophy of God’s grace. If you are arrogant about how blessed and special you are because of grace – just stop it already. It’s possible to boast about grace in such a way that you leave the impression you are really something super spiritual because you know the grace language. Grace is an amazing rescue camel. It’s not a high prancing horse with bells and shiny medals to make the rescued rider look more self-sufficient and spiritual.”

- Wayne Sams

He Took To Himself A Body

I have Tullian Tchividjian to thank for introducing me to Robert Farrar Capon. He included a snippet of the Capon quote I posted recently in the first chapter of his book One Way Love. There was an element of that quote that undid me the first time I read it. It continues to knock the legs out from beneath me.

The speaker asks for the restoration of “the comfort of merit and demerit,” begs to be shown that “there is at least something we can do, that we are still … the masters of our relationships. … But do not preach us grace … We insist on being reckoned with … spare us the indignity of this indiscriminate acceptance.” My pastor spoke this past Sunday of our incessant bent toward trying to work and accomplish much so that our Father will rejoice over our goodness. We are trying to buy with our childish efforts that priceless gift that He has already freely given with no strings attached.

One phrase in particular in the Capon quote sticks in my throat. “We insist on being reckoned with.” Reckon is an old word. I sometimes use it solo when I don’t know just how to respond to something I’ve been told. It has to do with transaction, with a settling of accounts. It’s about counting, measuring, and declaring value. I insist on being measured. I insist on having value. I insist on being reckoned with.

It’s more than just passive disappointment at my inability to measure up. It is arrogant, chest-swelling posturing. I stand on my pile of refuse, lift a filth-stained fist to the heavens, extend a middle finger toward my Maker and God and shout Him down. Angry screams tear into the night.

“You come down here!”

“How dare you sit on Your throne and judge me unrighteous!”

“You come down here and treat with me, do business with me, wrestle with me. Deal with me. Reckon with me!”

“I demand a hearing! I demand a chance to prove my worth and value!”

“Come down, if You dare!”

I stare into the darkness. All is calm. I wait a few moments, somewhat resigned that this time I might’ve gone too far. Silence. Nothing. Convinced that I’ve called His bluff, I lower my eyes and cast around for Capon’s few shreds of self-respect to congratulate myself upon. Then a single, small sound on the cool, night air. Human. Indistinct. Perhaps a baby’s cry. Perhaps a mother’s soft singing. Maybe a shepherd beginning to believe.

A friend of mine and I meet every week, going through Tchividjian’s book together. I sat in a Panera early one morning a few weeks back with tears welling up in my eyes.

“He came,” I said. He came down. I screamed treason to heaven and mocked my Lord to His holy face. I told Him to prove Himself, to deal with me … and He came. Not with armies. Not with wrath and judgement. Not with all that I deserved.

The Church Father Athanasius in his treatise On the Incarnation, wrote:

He saw how the surpassing wickedness of men was mounting up against them; He saw also their universal liability to death. All this He saw and, pitying our race, moved with compassion for our limitation, unable to endure that death should have the mastery, rather than that His creatures should perish and the work of His Father for us men come to nought, He took to Himself a body, a human body even as our own.

He came down. He came down and took to Himself a human body like mine. He came down after me.

I Need To Be Right

Realized something nasty about myself today.

I realized that I really really need to be right. Like to a disgusting level, I need to be right.

No matter how much I have to distort and put “right” through the wringer, I need to be right. No matter how much I tell you that I want to know if I’m wrong, I need to be right. No matter what it might do to our relationship, no matter what the costs may be, no matter whether or not I’m acting like Jesus, I need to be right.

I debate even posting this, because most often, even when I’m confessing something it’s because I need to be the guy who confesses things. That’s the right thing to do.

Jesus spent almost no time defending Himself. He came in the flesh to receive all of my wrongs. He was falsely accused and killed for my wrongs, in order that I might get credit for everything that He did right.

That wasn’t fair. In the face of all time’s ultimate example of unfairness, He was silent. He didn’t have to be seen as right. He was willing to be seen as wrong … for me.

God, help me to believe the gospel. Help me to know that it’s true. Help me to know that it says that I don’t have to defend myself. Help me know that it says that I don’t have to be right.

Originally posted to my Facebook page, September 18, 2012.