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.

Only Do Not Force Us Free

Restore to us, Preacher, the comfort of merit and demerit. Prove for us that there is at least something we can do, that we are still, at whatever dim recess of our nature, the masters of our relationships. Tell us, Prophet, that in spite of all our nights of losing, there will yet be one redeeming card of our very own to fill the inside straight we have so long and so earnestly tried to draw to. But do not preach us grace. It will not do to split the pot evenly at 4 a.m. and break out the Chivas Regal. We insist on being reckoned with. Give us something, anything; but spare us the indignity of this indiscriminate acceptance.

Lord, let your servants depart in the peace of their responsibility. If it is not too much to ask, send us to bed with some few shreds of self-respect to congratulate ourselves upon. But if that is too hard, leave us at least the consolation of our self-loathing. Only do not force us free. What have we ever done but try as best we could? How have we so hurt you, even by failing, that you should now turn on us and say that none of it makes any difference, not even our sacred guilt? We have played this game of yours, and it has cost us.

Where do you get off suggesting a drink at a time like this?

Robert Farrar Capon, from Between Noon and Three: Romance, Law, and the Outrage of Grace

I Can Quit

“Jesus came to liberate us from the weight of having to make it on our own, from the demand to measure up. He came to emancipate us from the burden to get it all right, from the obligation to fix ourselves, find ourselves, and free ourselves. Jesus came to release us from the slavish need to be right, rewarded, regarded, and respected. Because Jesus came to set the captives free, life does not have to be a tireless effort to establish ourselves, justify ourselves, and validate ourselves.”

Tullian Tchividjian, from One Way Love

Death, Be Not Proud

Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;
For those whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow
Die not, poor death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be,
Much pleasure; then from thee much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee do go,
Rest of their bones, and soul’s delivery.
Thou art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell,
And poppy or charms can make us sleepe as well
And better than thy stroke; why swell’st thou then?
One short sleep past, we wake eternally,
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.

– John Donne

You Wouldn’t Love Me If You Knew Me

I’m afraid of being known and so are you.

I talk a really big talk about vulnerability and transparency much of the time. I believe that a commitment to really knowing and being known by the people God has put in my life is critical to loving well. I genuinely believe all of that, but down deep … I’m terrified.

I know that if I had a speaker attached to the back of my head that blurted out the things I think as I go through my day, or if there was a TV screen on my back that displayed the things that play through my head on a daily basis … that I would have no friends. None. People would recoil in disgust. No one would want to mess with that level of “broken.”

We all “manage” how well we are known, even with those closest to us. There is no friend that you have with whom you are completely transparent. We pretend and pose as naturally as we breathe. It is what we do.

Why? Because we have come to believe a lie. We have bought the lie that we can either be fully known or fully loved, but we cannot be both.

I believe it for very good reasons. I know very well just how much of a failure I am. I know that I make a total mess of the most simple of demands to do good. I know that my heart is full of self-protecting, me-worshiping devotion to Rick. I know that I think, say, and do things hundreds of times a day that need forgiving. I know that my life is a vivid demonstration of man’s desperate need for the Cross. I know this. Even when I’m trying very hard to deny that it’s true, I know. The really terrifying reality is that I am also known. I’m found out, stripped naked, and laid bare. I have nowhere to hide. He knows me.

Psalm 139 says it gorgeously this way:

O Lord, You have searched me and known me.
You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
You understand my thought from afar.
You scrutinize my path and my lying down,
And are intimately acquainted with all my ways.
Even before there is a word on my tongue,
Behold, O Lord, You know it all.

He knows it all. All of it. Everything. Every secret thought. Everything I embarrass myself by letting slip before I’m able to take it captive. Every thing I’ve said behind another’s back. Every gesture and muttered word in traffic. Every image I’ve ever placed before my eyes. All of it. I am fully known.

And here is where the tragedy happens. I let the lie inform my thoughts about God, rather than allowing His revealed truth to speak to the lie. I carry the knowledge that it’s impossible to be both fully loved and fully known into my relationship with God. I know that He knows me. Thus, I assume that He cannot really love me. He must be angry. He must be distant and aloof. He must be sitting somewhere in a comfortable room, perhaps even unaware and unconcerned that I’ve been away. No way possible that He’s been sitting on the front porch every day, watching for my return. No way that could possibly be Him running down the road toward me all undignified-like.

The Cross shatters the lie. Jesus breaks it in pieces.

He says to me “I know all your ways and your thoughts. I know every word before it is on your tongue. Your frame was not hidden from me when I was making you in secret. I saw your unformed substance and have known every day I have ordained for you before the first one every happened.”

He also says to me “I have written your name on my hand, you are my beloved, and I have loved you with an everlasting love. Nothing can ever separate us. I will be with you and you will be with me forever.”

I’m slowly starting to believe Him. It’s changing everything.

 

I’m Not Pretending, I’m Practicing

I was talking to a friend of mine online last night and he was asking me how I was doing. I told him that things were hard but that I believed God was faithful and that the battle for me was in fighting to be satisfied in Christ for all the areas where the pain makes me want to give up.

He said something about that showing who I was and that I was an example to him. I realized I was being super “Jesusy”, and I tried to set him straight.

I told him that this was desperation for me. I told him I was at the bottom of things, that my life hurt. That the degree of rejection and agony I was feeling frequently made me really mad at God. I told him that I yell at God. I cry. I sob. I scream. But that at the end of the day I find that all I’ve done is walk a giant circle around Him, sometimes beating my fists in anger against His chest, sometimes holding onto Him like a terrified child, but always … always in a circle with Him in the middle. Because there’s no one else worth it. Because there’s nothing else that can take that level of abuse and desperate need. I run to God because that’s the only thing that works.

I believe that He allows us to fall into these times of discipline, where He lets us suffer the consequences of our actions. I know that’s where I am right now. I’m beginning to get to this place where I can see this as a mercy, Him saying “I won’t let you go farther down that road because I love you, because I’m putting limits on what access your enemy has to you.” This burden I carry is heavy, but it could be heavier. His mercy is new every morning, even when He is allowing me to go through excruciating pain. It is for a purpose, and that purpose has at its heart His eventual glory and my eventual good.

This is a gift, if I allow it to be.

A friend of mine last week posted a FB status that said “I’m not pretending, I’m practicing.” I’m still not 100% certain what it meant to her, but it means tons to me. In the past week, I’ve been accused of falseness, of hypocrisy and pretense. There are a couple of folk who thought I was posting about pain in my life in order to curry favor, to make people think more highly of me. I’m not sure what to say to that, except to use the words of my friend: “I’m not pretending, I’m practicing.”

When I talk about the beauty of the gospel in the middle of a divorce, when I write about truth and glory in the middle of my soul’s darkest night, when I quote scripture when everything in me wants to scream in pain … I’m not pretending to be something I’m not. I’m not pretending to have it together. I’m not pretending that I’m a “good Christian”. I’m not pretending that I don’t struggle everyday to believe, to hope, to trust.

I’m practicing. I’m practicing mercy instead of hoping for justice. I’m practicing grace instead of trusting the law. I’m practicing giving what I want to be given, saying what I want to hear, and doing what I want done to me. I’m practicing surrender instead of attempting control. I’m practicing being satisfied in Christ instead of trying to manage and provide for the wounds in my heart on my own. I’m practicing to be the man I hope God is turning me into. I keep hoping that enough practice will develop patterns. So far, the results are meager.

I’m in training. I don’t have this figured out. If you thought that’s what I was saying, I’m sorry. I don’t.

I am guilty and broken and prideful and sinful and lost.

Originally posted to my Facebook page, April 22, 2013.

Vulgar Grace

“Some have labeled my message one of “cheap grace.” In my younger days, their accusations were a gauntlet thrown down, a challenge. But I’m an old man now and I don’t care. My friend Michael Yaconelli used the phrase unfair grace, and I like that, but I have come across another I would like to leave you with. I believe Mike would like it; I know I do. I found it in the writings of an Episcopal priest Robert Farrar Capon He calls it vulgar grace.

“In Jesus, God has put up a “Gone Fishing” sign on the religion shop. He has done the whole job in Jesus once and for all and simply invited us to believe it- to trust the bizarre, unprovable proposition that in him, every last person on earth is already home free without a single exertion.: no fasting till your knees fold, no prayers you have to get right or else, no standing on your head with your right thumb in your left ear and reciting the correct creed- no nothing… The entire show has been set to rights in the Mystery of Christ- even though nobody can see a single improvement. Yes, it’s crazy. And, yes, it’s wild and outrageous and vulgar. And any God who would do such a thing is a God who has no taste. And worst of all, it doesn’t sell worth beans. But it is Good News- the only permanently good news there is- and therefore I find it absolutely captivating.”

“My life is a witness to vulgar grace – a grace that amazes as it offends. A grace that pays the eager beaver who works all day long the same wages as the grinning drunk who shows up at ten til five. A grace that hikes up the robe and runs breakneck towards the prodigal reeking of sin and wraps him up and decides to throw a party no ifs, ands or buts. A grace that raises bloodshot eyes to a dying thief’s request- “Please, remember me”- and assures him, “You bet!” A grace that is the pleasure of the Father, fleshed out in the carpenter Messiah, Jesus Christ, who left His Father’s side not for heaven’s sake but for our sakes, yours and mine. This vulgar grace is indiscriminate compassion. It works without asking anything of us. It’s not cheap. It’s free, and as such will always be a banana peel for the orthodox foot and a fairy tale for the grown up sensibility. Grace is sufficient even though we huff and puff with all our might to try to find something or someone it cannot cover. Grace is enough. He is enough. Jesus is enough.”

– Brennan Manning, from his memoirs

Love Doesn’t Rule My Heart

I like to think of myself as a loving person. Love is one of my top priorities, but when I’m honest, I place a much higher priority on being loved than I do on loving well.

I am convicted when I read things like I Corinthians 13, which tells me that love is more important than having great knowledge, fantastic communication skills, awesome faith and charity. It tells me that sacrifice, even to the point of martyrdom is worthless without love. It tells me that when I love rightly, I will be patient, kind, not jealous, humble, above reproach, not selfish, not reactive, forgiving, and rejoicing in truth and not unrighteousness. It tells me that I will bear and endure all things, with belief and hope.

In John 13:34-35 and 15:12-17, Jesus makes it clear that to love one another as He has loved us is a commandment, and is tied inextricably to our testimony of Him. Ephesians 5:2 further unwraps it, as Paul tells us to “be imitators of God, as beloved children; and walk in love, just as Christ also loved you and gave Himself up for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God as a fragrant aroma.”

I’ll readily admit to you that I have no idea what it means to love someone, even those closest to me, like Jesus loves me. Jesus loves me completely unconditionally. I was not just neutral toward Him, I wanted everything He wasn’t and nothing that He was. He loves me with no regard to my sin. He loves me sacrificially, to the point of death. He knows more about me than anyone, every dark, bitter, lustful, angry thought, and He still loves me on a level that isn’t humanly comprehensible.

I am called to love like that. Whether I’m capable of it or not, I am commanded to do it. Most often I rest in my inability and ignore the call because it’s hard.

God, help me to be Jesus to the world around me. Help me to understand what it means when I say that, that Jesus came to bear the world’s wrongs in His holy self and demand no return on His investment. Help me to see that love that is Christ-emulating will always place another’s need before my own, will always consider others as more important than myself, and will always seek new and creative ways to deny myself for their benefit. Take up the slack between my inability and Your call. Help me walk into the impossible.

Originally posted to my Facebook page, September 21, 2013.

A Prepared Vulnerability

I had an acquaintance once. It would be a stretch to call him a friend. As my father used to say “Whoever it is you’re thinking of, it’s someone else.” Suffice it to say, this happened years ago.

At any rate, this guy taught me something about honesty, but probably not in the way that he would have hoped. He showed up at the metaphorical front door of my life speaking a language I’d spent most of my life waiting to hear. He spoke of authenticity and vulnerability, of living life naked in the face of a world that demands that we cover our brokenness and difficulty. He was bold and brash and full of ideas that he wanted to talk about loudly.

I was all in. Not only had he shown up at a time that I really needed realness, he was able to articulate and describe the culture’s resistance to authentic living in ways that inspired me and made me want more. I latched onto him and said “Yeah! Let’s DO this!”

He didn’t respond well.

In retrospect, part of his reaction was probably due to the zeal with which I pursued living the kind of life with him that he talked about. I can be pretty zealous. I reached out, he pushed back. I revealed, he shut down. I was ultimately left empty-handed as he bolted. I’ll readily admit that my response to his reaction was less than Christ-like. I’ve since repented and asked his forgiveness.

After a while, when the initial hurt had faded, I began to understand something about the guy. I understood that he was young. I understood that he was full of ideas that hadn’t been tested yet. I realized that he was probably one day going to be much, much better at this than he’d been when we met. I started to cut him some slack. At the same time, I started to take up some of the slack I’d given myself. Ultimately, I learned something about the way I do transparency in a dishonest manner.

I painted a word picture of it in my head. I called it “a prepared vulnerability.” The picture consists of me as the owner of a house. It’s an old house with a nice, big front yard, a wide front porch, and a deeply dark basement. The basement is a loss. It’s awash with mess, refuse, and horrifying embarrassments I’ve been throwing down the stairs for decades. The only thing that has kept the city from condemning the place is the whitewash and air freshener I employ liberally. At all costs, I have to keep things looking plastic, shiny, and unsuspicious.

But I need to be “real.” Authenticity has become a buzzword, and there are so many books that all my cool friends are reading that mention it. In order to fit in, I really need to make an effort to display some honesty.

So, I square my shoulders, take a few deep breaths, timidly open the door to the basement and venture a few steps down the stairs. I squeeze my eyes tight shut in a grimace of disgust and plunge one hand beneath the surface of the fetid pool of filth, grasp desperately, and quickly run back up the stairs. I slam the door shut, lean against it breathing heavily and look at the results of my efforts. This is good. A little cleaning up and these will work.

I wash them off in the kitchen sink, removing most of the stink. Real, authentic sins. There, some pride. Here some struggles with lust. Maybe that’s some doubt. Admittedly a little nondescript and vague, but real examples of missing the mark nonetheless. I scrub and scrub to make sure no hint of the real nature of where they came from remains. Then I take them out into the front yard. I erect small pedestals and artfully arrange my sins beneath glass cases. I put little brass plaques beneath them very clearly describing each one.

Now I’m set. When people from church or work or other arenas of life stop by, I’m prepared. When they come to the front gate, I can call them in. I can be real. I can say “Hey, welcome! This is me. This is where I live. This is the genuine article!” I’ll point to the multiple cases on their scattered stands and say “See? Bonafide sins! Real, actual instances of wrongdoing, transgression, and offense. See how disgusting they are! I’m the real deal!”

But I don’t walk with them through the display. I have to call out to them and guide them through from a distance. That’s because I’m doing something very important. I’m sitting in a chair placed squarely and deliberately in front of the triple-locked front door to my house, and I have a shotgun across my lap.

The reality is that you can walk through the display in my front yard as long as you want. Heck, you can live here. I’d love nothing more than to really “do life” with you and “walk with you” as long as this is all it costs me. You there amid the material that I’ve carefully prepared to represent me as the kind of noble sinner I want to be seen as, and me here making damn sure you don’t get anywhere near the basement door.

That’s not vulnerability. It’s not authenticity. But it’s what passes for such in plastic circles. It’s sadly what passes for such in much of the church.

I don’t want to be that guy.

I want to be the guy who meets you at the front door holding a couple of shovels, not even proud enough to apologize for the smell coming through the open basement stairwell. I want to be the guy who hands you a shovel and says “Come on down, if you’re willing. I should warn you that I have no idea what’s even down here, but I need some help.”

God’s Little Helper

“Tonight I have nothing to offer You but weakness and fear.”

I wrote that two days ago. It was night and my heart was breaking … again. My world doesn’t look like I want it to look. I’m alone and lonely a great deal of the time. People I love don’t always love me back. Growth trajectories stagnate and plateau. Brokenness and pain and suffering seem to thrive in the lives of those around me. I ache for “all things new”, an end to this.

And so, in the middle of it, I cry out … and say stupid things to my Father.

“… I have nothing to offer You but weakness and fear.”

As though, on my good days. I have more to offer Him. As though there is anything of any value that I could possibly add to the solution.

The picture that jumps in my head this morning, in the light of day, is that of a dad assembling a gift for his toddler. He delights at the giving of a gift that will bring joy to his child. He sits on the floor amid sheets of hieroglyphic instructions, tiny plastic bags full of screws, bolts, nuts, and very specifically-sized hex keys. He struggles to hold two pieces of wood in the right configuration with only one hand so as to line up pre-drilled holes for a long bolt held just so in the other. He is working. He is creating something for the good of his beloved.

And his beloved? … his beloved is toddling awkwardly around the playroom trying to “help”. He squats gingerly and grabs hold of a wooden block with the letter “G” on it. A fluffy under-stuffed rabbit catches his eye, and he grabs that with his other hand. He wobbles back to his feet, confident that the tools and resources he has acquired will assist his father greatly. He makes his halting, stumbling way across the floor to his daddy and holds out his offerings with grubby hands. He says what he’s sure means “Here.” He waits.

His father fiddles with the noncooperative bolt for a moment longer, then stops. He looks into his son’s eyes — eyes that gleam with the anticipation of praise and validation — and then he drops the bolt and the two pieces of wood. He reverently takes the alphabet block and the toy rabbit, immediately granting them an honor that has nothing to do with their intrinsic value, and certainly nothing to do with the helpfulness of his assistant. In that moment, a block and a stuffed animal become half of a one-sided transaction that only happens because one party decided to be both giver and recipient. The father reaches out and pulls his boy onto his lap, sets the block and rabbit before them, and says “Can you help me, buddy? Let’s do this together.”

So yeah, I say stupid things to my Father … and He doesn’t care. Because His heart toward me is not the heart of a bookkeeper with lists of my near constant wrongdoings. His heart toward me is the heart of a father who loves his ridiculous, helpless, and beautiful son.

He’s making something glorious and amazing for me, He said so. Sometimes He lets me think I’m helping.

Originally posted to my Facebook page, September 10, 2013.

Listen to the Words

I have an acquaintance who recently visited a drive-through Christmas light display at a local park. I know that she visited the display because she was very vocal about how offended she was that there was no mention or depiction of Christ anywhere in the production. She’s kind of an angry Christian. I’m pretty sure she’s at her happiest when she has some Godless element of modern culture to decry. I’m not sure that’s really what Jesus was thinking of when He said “By this will all men know that you’re my disciples,” but that’s probably for another post.

I of course wish there was more Jesus in Christmas. I wish there was more Jesus everywhere and everywhen. But I guess it doesn’t surprise me as much as it does her when secular, unbelieving culture fails to give Christ His due.

I tell you what does surprise me, though. It surprises me that one time a year, I can walk through the mall and hear lyrics like this blaring from hidden speakers:

Veiled in flesh the Godhead see
Hail the incarnate Deity
Pleased as man with man to dwell
Jesus, our Emmanuel

Light and life to all He brings
Ris’n with healing in His wings
Mild He lays His glory by
Born that man no more may die
Born to raise the sons of earth
Born to give them second birth

Go back and read them again, and try not to sing the melody in your head. Just read them, and listen to the words.

See the Godhead veiled in flesh, hail Deity incarnate. This is Jesus, Emmanuel, come to live as man with men. Bringing light and life, with healing in His wings, He lays aside His glory to be born in flesh. He comes to raise us, comes to give us new life.

That’s theology ringing through the halls of shopping centers. That’s the gospel being proclaimed and sung and celebrated. Even with the secularization of the holidays, Christmas is a pretty awesome time to be a Christ follower.

Forgiveness Is Not A Transaction

I don’t think forgiveness is a transaction between me and the person who wounded me. I believe that forgiveness is a transaction between me and God. Rather, I believe that forgiveness is an internal acquiescence and recognition of a transaction between me and God that has already happened.

When someone sins against me, confesses, repents, and asks for forgiveness, what is my duty? Clearly to offer that forgiveness. Colossians 3:13 says that “as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.”

But what is happening to the weight of that sin that was committed against me? Do I take it from the shoulders of the one who has sinned against me and put it on my own? Can I carry that weight? No, the idea that I get to grant forgiveness in a legal sense gets blasphemous pretty quickly. There is nothing I can do or not do that will add or subtract in the slightest from Christ’s all-sufficient work at Calvary.

I believe that when I choose forgiveness, what I am doing is acknowledging the forever all-sufficiency of the cross of Christ. Choosing to no longer hold accounts of wrongs done with those who have hurt me means that I am admitting that Christ’s death was sufficient for their sin as well as mine. It is me admitting that holding unforgiveness in my heart is tantamount to telling Christ that this particular sin will require a little more payment, and that I’ll work it out between me and the one who wounded me, thanks.

Forgiveness is not me lifting a weight from a friend’s shoulders. It’s me telling a friend that it’s okay to drop it at the foot of the cross and leave it there.

Originally posted to my Facebook page, September 15, 2012.