I Am Sure Glad Genghis Khan Wasn’t the Messiah!

I’ve recently begun playing an “empire building” game… mostly because my laptop cannot run anything more recent than 2007. Besides the game’s AI playing a horribly ironic prank on me (making my chosen world leader, Genghis Khan, start on an island with no exit…), it’s been an interesting exercise in considering how I would run a civilization. My tendency is to play defensively and work toward world peace and unity… except with the Genghis Khan playthrough, because that wouldn’t make sense, would it? I do pause and consider my actions before attacking another city…

That aggressive method of world diplomacy goes directly against what I’ve been reading in Zechariah. In between all of the promises of blessing, encouragement to complete the work on the second temple, and charges to live faithfully in regards to one another, one passage jumped out at me. On my first reading, I found myself shocked at the mention of Judah being given so much compassion and mercy by God that they would weep at what their hands had done in fighting off the nations around them and beg for God to spare those same nations that had threatened them.

I sat and meditated on that idea for a while. What kind of compassion would we need to have within us to weep for our enemies… as if they were our only child? What kind of compassion and forgiveness would we need to weep for a terrorist killed in action? Or an abuser, oppressor, or someone else who has harmed us? What kind of heart change is that?

We hear of stories where families forgive the murderer of their loved one. That family may go as far as to fight against the death penalty for a lighter (albeit still severe) sentencing. I wonder what that struggle to forgive looks like… Maybe God still has some work to do on me, but the idea of weeping over that person’s misfortune seems so far out as to seem absurd.

And yet, God’s compassion and mercy are so great that we celebrate His generosity every Christmas with the gift of Jesus. Unlike my Genghis Khan, God chose to inaugurate His Kingdom with a child, with a living testimony, with a sacrifice, and with a resurrection. As powerful as God is, the picture He gives to us is a King entering on the back of a donkey, a King coming to conquer with peace, humility, and liberation. As I look at my own daughter, with her beautiful blue eyes, I wonder how hard Joseph’s world was rocked holding Jesus for the first time. Joseph held a King, a Redeemer, the Messiah.  All the hopes, dreams, and prayers of the Jewish people leading to this. Was it what he expected?

And Mary… was her compassion big enough to weep for those who had crucified her son? Did Joseph have enough to forgive those who called his son crazy, or demon-possessed as Jesus began his ministry?

How is God molding you into a picture of His love and grace, compassion and forgiveness? How do you model compassion to your children?

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Christmas Is Coming…

Advent has begun.

As I write this, it is mid-November, and I have been listening to Christmas music for half a month now. This year our church has decided to be a little more low-key about the Christmas season. Our huge Bethelehem Walk is on a break, so for this year I get to savor Christmas. I’ve also had two cups of coffee in quick succession this morning, so I’m pretty excited about life!

The original advent lasted hundreds of years, and not just a month before Christmas. The Jewish people were resting all of their hopes on God’s promises of freedom and an end to the exile. Sure, the physical exile was over, Jews once again lived in Judea and Galilee, and there was a Jewish king on the throne and a high priest in the Temple. But things weren’t right… all the way. The king wasn’t from David’s line. The high priests were a wealthy family who had a hand in politics. Oh, and Rome had its grubby little (well, not so little) paws all over the territory. Rome had a special interest in this region of the world because of Egypt and the surrounding area’s ability to grow wheat to feed a gigantic empire. There was peace on earth and goodwill toward men… so long as you stayed in line, were actually a man, not a slave, and had the coveted status of Roman citizen. So, maybe the Pax Romana had a few caveats…

The Jewish people languished under Roman rule. What did it even mean to be Jewish under Roman rule? How long would God wait to overthrow the Romans and reestablish His Kingdom on earth? Hadn’t the seventy sevens been completed? Hadn’t the time arrived for the anointed one to appear, who would lead Israel to freedom and power, and create a new world where the nations fell under God’s generous rule? Maybe if they followed the rules even more strictly, something would happen. Maybe if they created monastic, apocalyptic communities to purify themselves, something would happen. Maybe if they prayed enough, or sacrificed enough, or were faithful enough, something would happen. But all they could hear was the deafening silence…

One young lady, though, received a visit. She was told to not fear, to find joy in the favor God had given her. She was given an opportunity. And, unlike many of the men of Scripture, she asked one question, and accepted her mission. What was that mission? She was to carry the Son of God. She was to give birth and raise a child who would grow up to be both king and high priest, who would represent Israel in Himself, who would shoulder the burden of the curse of the Law in order to break its power. This child would be God with His people – a more concrete presence than Israel had ever experienced, a walking, talking Temple.

Last year at this time, I was waiting with broken heart to hear two words, “I’m pregnant.” I, too, was anticipating a child, but one who hadn’t been promised. I was heartbroken, feeling exiled myself. I wondered what I needed to do to get God’s attention. I knew where God was, though, present with me as He has always been with His people. He sat with me as I wept, angrily pleaded, and finally accepted my situation. He listened, and let me continue waiting. What are you waiting for? What has you feeling exiled, broken, oppressed?

This year, though, is full of joyful expectation as I look forward to celebrating my little girl’s first Christmas. Don’t read into this that God always grants our requests. Read into it that I had hope over three years of trying and waiting. And my hope did not disappoint. Hope and trust are our greatest gifts, our greatest tools for dealing with the difficult times of life.

We must, like the 1st Century Jewish people, continue to hope against despair. We must stare into the face of the oppressive forces of this world with hope and trust in God firmly in our hearts, minds and hands. We must work and carry on, and day, one hour, one step at a time.

I encourage you to find time this Advent to stop and rest in God’s peace. This time of year can be a struggle, but look for the peace. Look for the moments of quiet anticipation. Maintain hope. Maybe, like Mary, you too can carry Jesus with you through this season.

Do your Christmas plans make time for calm, stillness, and peace? How does your family’s holiday schedule form your child’s priorities?

Your Kid Is A Theologian

While I was praying the other day, I was struck with deeper meaning to a verse I had read over and over again, but something new rose out of the old. The verse was Genesis 1:27 “God created mankind in his image; in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” This is going to come as a shocker, I know, but kids are made in God’s image, too. (I’ll wait while you pick your jaw up off the floor.) It seems obvious, but what didn’t seem obvious to me was the implication that kids have the ability to teach us about God as much as we have the ability to teach them. (I would argue, though, that perhaps they have much more to teach us.)

My first example is an elementary-age girl in my children’s ministry, whom I will call Lana for the sake of safety. Lana is so full of love, energy, and enthusiasm, that she cannot help but throw her entire body at the objects of her love in a kind of linebacker-style tackle that, if you’re not ready, could easily knock a fully grown man to the ground. Her boundless love, and preferred method of showing it, reminded me of the story of the prodigal son, when the young man’s father runs at full tilt, crashing into his son with all the force of longing and love built up from sorrow and expectation. I expect God is like this whenever any of his children turn back to Him – smothering them in a love that has all the force of hurricane-strength winds.

I learned about the simplicity and effectiveness of prayer from a little girl named Michelle (again, name changed for safety.) Even at around 2 years old, she got the concept of praying. She would pick up her toy phone and say, “Hello God? Kissy, Alex, Baby Re-re. Bye.” (Let’s take a moment to collect ourselves after that level of depth and adorableness on display.) This little girl understands that God hears us – and that God cares about what we care about. We had so many people praying for us the week my daughter was born, but I was absolutely humbled by the prayers of this little one. Luke encourages us, often with pictures of nagging neighbors and widows, to continually pray and to not let things go. Regardless if I have the words to say, I know that even a two-year-old’s prayer can be more effective than hours of prepared words.

I see Jesus’ compassion in one of our young men, named Jeffrey. Jeffrey is the kind of kid who can be crazy, bold, and exude more energy than several kids his age at a time. And yet, I have seen him put others first in more than one occasion. I watched him help every other child obtain a candy bar before he attempted to reach his own. (I had taped them just out of jumping reach to get them to help one another, and he did so without prompting.) I’ve watched Jeffrey tip his own Easter egg basket to let eggs fall out behind him when he saw little ones show up late to our church Easter egg hunt. Paul, in Philippians, says that Jesus did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself humble, taking on the very nature of a servant. He became obedient, even to death on the cross. Jeffrey reminds me, often, of what it means to show Jesus’ compassion, humility, and servanthood to others.

Finally, my daughter has taught me vulnerability. She depends on her mother and I for everything in life – safety, food, cleanliness (because diapers don’t change themselves.) Little Bit is a perfect example of how we live before God, vulnerable, dependent on Him for all of our needs – as we pray “give us today our daily bread.” Our dependence on God is no weakness, as the Israelites knew, and often forgot, but rather our greatest strength.

What have your kids taught you about God? I, for one, am looking forward to learning so much from my daughter as she continues to grow with each day.

Get Out of the Lifeboat and Storm the Gates!

I have odd collections of associated images when it comes to the phrase “storm the gates.” For starters, old black-and-white images of soldiers leaping off of ships onto the beaches of Normandy come to mind, their terror and determination coming through in a way only those cameras can capture. Many of those pictures were taken by one war photographer, Robert Capa, that ran onto the battlefield at Normandy armed with nothing but his trusty camera. So, he was shooting his own side, but ironically in a frantic bid to preserve those brave soldiers as they stared down machine gun nests and the rising tide of the Nazi forces waiting beyond that point.

Next, I see grizzled Aragorn and the remaining Fellowship of the Ring riding with all of their might toward the gates of Mordor, their battle cries ringing clear and sonorous off of the Black Gates. Each soldier fully expected to die a painful death, or spend an eternity as a prisoner of Sauron. And yet, they miraculously survive due to the efforts of a few small hobbits exploring a volcano deep within enemy territory.

I bring the idea of storming the gates to your attention, because I think Christians have had a wrong mindset for years when it comes to evangelism and the world in general. The way many Christians talk about dealing with the world and the unchurched is by speaking in terms of a lifeboat. “Come with me if you want to live!” We say in our best Arnold Schwarzenegger voice before handing over a tract on salvation and inviting our friend, or a complete stranger, to church. There is a fear that this whole planet could spontaneously combust at any moment, leaving those outside of the “Jesus Lifeboat” stranded swimming in a river of fire and death.

Now, regardless of your views on the afterlife, this sounds like a retreat mentality, not the mindset God desires of his people. This isn’t Dunkirk, everyone, this is Normandy. We don’t have a lifeboat, except to ferry us to the battlefield!

When Peter made his confession in Caesarea Philippi, Peter stated clearly that, “You (Jesus) are the Messiah[…] You’re the son of the living God!” (KNT) Peter made a bold claim that day, and bolder than you may think. See, “son of god” was a term used by Romans for the emperor. So in a way, Peter is proclaiming that Jesus has more claim to rule the world than Caesar, in a place named after Caesar! And before that, Peter claims that Jesus is the Messiah, not just any anointed king, but the hoped-for ultimate King sent by God, who was God, who represented His people and would free them from sin and exile! Again, Peter in other company would have drawn some sharp gasps from Romans and Jews alike. And Jesus responded with: “and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell won’t overpower it.”

So the gates of hell. Gates, if you know, are part of the defensive structures of a city or fortress designed to let in allies and keep out enemies. Let me say again, gates are defensive structures, not offensive ones. I’m saying it twice because the idea struck me harder than a sack of old hammers. On the cross, Jesus already destroyed the power of sin and death, he rescued his people from oppression and exile. So the great commission is not so much a cruise ship’s warning alarm to fill the life boats – it’s the trumpet call sounded “CHARGE!” We’re not pulling people into life boats and giving up territory for destruction, our marching orders are to bravely move forward taking enemy territory in the name of Jesus Christ. And we take territory through acts of compassion, mercy, justice, charity, kindness, honesty, truth, and perseverance.

Consider what God called the Israelites to do after freeing them from slavery: to march ahead and capture land. So if God has freed us from slavery to sin, our next move is to do the same.

We can’t afford to retreat. As the church retreats from compassion and charity, what casualties are left behind? Who picks up the slack that the church leaves behind?

Be strong and courageous. Do not lose hope, do not be discouraged. The Lord your God is with you, wherever you may go. Joshua 1:9

What can you do to begin playing offense with your compassion and love? What gates do you need to storm in Jesus’ name with justice and generosity? What steps can your family take to begin impacting the community around you?

Photo Credit: “Face in the Surf” by Robert Capa

Not Even Once

If you haven’t heard lately, the latest actually troubling news concerning a drug epidemic is taking place in lower income white families with the advent of increased use of opioids. The things about these drugs is that they are usually prescription, meaning that drugs typically used to control pain are being found and used or traded from inside the house. You know, that old horror movie chestnut: “It’s coming from inside the house!” I don’t write this to create more fear, only awareness that there is an issue. Also to point out that most families do not store these medications properly. Opioids are highly addicting and have caused many problems for those simply wanting to ease chronic pain who end up needing more and more of these substances to achieve the same effect.

I’m not particularly at risk for this issue because of my deathly allergy to codeine, which is an opiate. Having my respiratory system nearly fail again is not high on my list of things to do today… or any day for that matter. So, literally, between my asthma and opiate avoidance, my personal list of drugs I could use recreationally is short… meaning there’s nothing on the list.

That said, I had a thought the other day, about drugs and sin. No, probably not the thought that you just had about how drugs lead to sin or vice versa. More like how sin behaves like a drug. See, sin has this effect of deteriorating our humanity. Sure, it’s not very noticeable at first, but the effects become more pronounced over time. Small lapses of morality pick up steam usually. The picture I always seemed to have growing up was that sin was making holes in the lifeboat to heaven, and only Jesus could fix it. But what if sin had much more immediate, and destructive effects.

The first 11 chapters of Genesis show clearly the dehumanizing effects of sin, and how humanity sank further and further into its own self-glorification and away from God’s order. Romans 1-2 use the context of Genesis 1-11 to detail how God’s created order is disrupted by sin, how truth and morality become distorted and confused. As sin eats away at how God created us, we can see an analogy in how hard some drugs are on the human body. The body ages, cracks, scars, and decays as the drugs take their toll. Sin twists our perspective, damages relationships, and drives us away from God.

And we all have taken sin. We’ve all fallen short of reflecting God’s glory, we have all given over our loyalty and authority to objects or people instead of God, and we have all felt the sting and decay of sin that leads to destruction. And this is where the new life of Jesus changes everything. God restores us by granting us the life to come now in anticipation of the age to come when God will restore all of His creation. We become truly what we were made to be: the image of God reflecting praise to God and God’s glory and order into the world.

Have you had a conversation with your kids about making wise choices with medication and drugs? How do you model the life to come in the way you forgive, apologize, and show love to your family and others? What does it mean to you to be a restored, complete human made in God’s image for a purpose?

Quit Being So Wretched

Have you ever found yourself frustrated at someone because they continue apologizing long after you’ve forgiven them? I certainly have. Sure, the first heartfelt apology is good, clears the air, and paves the way for a restoration of relationship. The second shows that the person is truly contrite, illustrating that they have thoroughly thought through their actions. The third begins to show cracks in the thin veneer of genuine repentance and begins to point to a person’s focus on reputation rather than relationship. The fourth tends to lead toward resentment, and so on.

There are so many Christians who consider themselves wretched, unworthy insects being dangled over a fire by an angry God. (Points if you got that reference.) It does seem odd to me, though, how someone who has been chosen out of love for a grand new kind of life would continue to view themselves as wretched. See, the wretchedness of sin was something we used to live in. It is something we still struggle against, just as we do the dark powers that continue to strive for our worship and allegiance, but it no longer defines us. Paul even says distinctly, after describing the life of sin, that “you were that.” (1 Corinthians 6:9-11) Paul uses the past tense because these things no longer define us.

Consider this analogy: Would you allow a child, spouse, friend, or even a passing acquaintance to continually put themselves down? Would you allow your child to continually say, “Daddy, I’m so unworthy to be your kid. I’m a terrible person”? Would you allow your spouse to say, “I’m a wretched, ugly human being. Why do you love me?” Does the thought of your spouse or child saying these things to you daily make you sick to your stomach even a little? Now consider what God must go through every day.

If we continue to claim the sin that used to define us, what separates us from those of God’s people who longed to return to Egypt? Those men and women were tasked with wandering for forty years and dying out partly because they allowed their former slavery to define them. Instead of reveling in their new freedom given to them by the God that chose them, they instead continued to see themselves as slaves. They were, in effect, continuing on in their wretchedness instead of their God-given freedom.

As followers of, co-heirs with, and adopted family of Jesus, we have also been chosen and given freedom by God. We, who are in Christ, have become a new creation – the old is gone and the new has come! (2 Corinthians 16-18) We are called out of the world to be a witness to that same world. And as a serious question, if the world looks into the life of a Christian and that Christian is calling himself or herself by these low names, what kind of hope will that portray to those looking in? Is there any joy or hope to be achieved in following Christ if all that person can see is an endless repetition of self-abasement?

Repentance is one thing. It is an act that involves acknowledging our wrong attitudes and actions and returning to the way God has set out for us. It is an action primarily focused on God, and our relationship with him. Self-abasement seems more focused on us, and punishing ourselves to appease our own sense of rightness.

We are more than conquerors and are currently sharing in the victory of Jesus over sin and over death. He has defeated the dark powers and is on the throne. His Kingdom is here, and is coming. We are ambassadors of that Kingdom, with the freedom and authority provided by that position. We bow no longer to the power of sin, and our old identities are no longer valid. We gave those up when we came up out of the water that day we we renounced all other allegiances. Our identity is children loved by a Heavenly Father, redeemed by our King, and guided by a wise Comforter. We are no longer slaves.

I cannot give as balanced a view on this in one blog post as is probably necessary. But I will ask the question: how do your words and actions reflect God’s character? Does your life of victory look inviting? Does it look worth the challenge and sacrifice? Or does it seem dreary and not worth the effort?

What do your kids hear when you talk about God? What do others infer about God’s character from the way you talk about Him? How does your family’s life reflect the victory of God over sin and death?

When Your Ass Won’t Cooperate (Numbers 22)

Working in a church means you have two times a year when you get to use a “naughty” word: preaching on Balaam and his ass (donkey) and at Christmas when at least two songs talk about asses being at the manger. Of course, I am a children’s minister, and so I have to chuckle a little inside as my inner 5-year-old finds this hysterical.

I read this passage a week or so ago and was reminded of the absolute absurdity of the whole ordeal. Balaam is hired out by a king named Balak to do some cursing of his own – against the Israelites, no less. He consults God and receives a stern rebuke not to go with the king’s men and after a couple more asks (and a substantial raise) Balaam agrees to go with the men. God, however, does the thing my parents used to do when they were sick of me asking about doing something, replying, “Fine… Just do it…” Implied in that statement is the dire warning of a parent who foresees danger, but is willing to let a child learn a harsh lesson.

So Balaam is riding down the road and three times his ass refuses to cooperate, veering off the road, crushing his leg against a wall, and finally stopping. Balaam absolutely beat that donkey senseless, which ironically cued God to allow the donkey enough sense to talk and ask, “Why are you beating me? Do I normally do this kind of thing?” Balaam responds curtly, but his outlook changes, literally, when God reveals the heavenly guardian with the gigantic sword barring Balaam’s path. The guardian then reminds Balaam to say nothing except what God would give him to say. The sword reminding us that God will protect His people.

So, isn’t the donkey the good guy in this story? Well, yes, but I’m talking about another ass. See, Francis of Assisi coined a lovely phrase when he referred to his own body as “brother ass.” In a sense, he understood that there were two dueling natures in us, the natural and supernatural, the sinful and the godly. St. Francis saw something of what Paul was getting at when Paul described beating his body into submission as if training for the Olympics – self-discipline would lead to a more godly life.

I learned recently that the male body is an odd thing. For around 3-6 weeks after receiving the announcement, “I’m pregnant,” from his partner, a man’s body begins to flood his system with the hormone cortisol. Cortisol is the “stress” hormone that triggers a human’s “fight-or-flight” response. So at the same moment a man is feeling pride, excitement, and joyful expectation, the man’s body reacts by screaming “Get out of there or punch something!”

And honestly, this is the Christian life. Jesus is continually calling and leading us closer to God, into becoming more like Christ,and therefore more like ourselves. At that same time, our sinful nature is screaming, “Get out or attack someone!” And all at once we realize that we have become the proud owner of an uncooperative ass.

And so, like Paul, St. Francis, and many others, we begin to apply discipline to our lives to bring brother ass into line with God’s new life and our baptismal vows. We work out our faith with fear and trembling, mostly because trying to move an uncooperative animal takes a lot of coaxing, pushing, muscle, and exertion. (Ever tried to lift something too heavy and find yourself shaking like a destabilized washing machine?)

So if you find yourself confused about how difficult following Jesus is, find comfort in the fact that everyone else is thinking the same thing. We are all on the same road, with similar struggles, trying to find the best way and disciplines in order to bring ourselves into alignment with God and His way of living. And Jesus sympathizes with that. Remember, he lived among us for a while,  (and technically still does) and watched friends make fools of themselves, felt betrayal, watched as people stumbled and picked themselves back up again. God is rooting for us. He’s not like a spectator at a hockey match or a NASCAR event, hoping for a disaster. He’s a father, watching his child perform a balancing act, tensely hoping that she will make it all the way across this time without falling. And if she does, running over and picking her up.

How do you handle self-discipline in your own life? How do you model bringing yourself under Christ’s way of living? What habits are you developing in your children that will allow them to better evaluate and correct their lives?