Just Do It

One day my pastor invited me to join him on a pastoral visit to a nursing home. I wanted to please him, so I said I would go. I had no desire to be there. I didn’t know this woman we were going to see, but I knew once we got that out of the way we would go to lunch and we could discuss theology.

I have never liked nursing homes. In high school and college it seemed like I was always connected with some group of people who wanted to go Christmas caroling at “the old folks home.” I loathed that time. The place was depressing. The old people sat there in their wheelchairs staring out into nothingness or nodding along silently clapping their hands. The places also smelled. They smelled “too clean.” They were always so institutional and if you had been in one, you’d been in them all.

This day with my pastor we walked into the room. It was filled with pictures. It was quiet and the sun was streaming in the windows. I could barely see the woman in her bed. She was simply bones wrapped in skin buried under a pile of blankets. I will never forget her eyes. As she saw Pastor Bob they gleamed. He knelt next to her, eye to eye, and spoke with her.

“How are you?” he asked gently and quietly.

Unable to speak her eyes fell. The pain apparent on her face. When she opened her eyes the glimmer was gone and replaced with sadness.

“Do you want to be with Jesus?” he asked ever more gently.

Again her eyes closed and when they opened there was an unadulterated joy in her countenance. Her eyes glimmered with a hope that went beyond anything I had ever known before.

He prayed. He prayed for her to be able to join her Savior, where there would be no more pain, where her tears would be wiped away, and that she would be made whole.

Her eyes were so full of joy and peace.

My mind was spinning a million miles an hour. I was both offended and moved by the prayer. I was confused. I didn’t know what to expect walking in and I didn’t know what to think or even feel as we left.

Something was changing in me though. I was not the same person I was fifteen minutes before, or was it an hour. To this day, that experience felt like a dream.

We got back into the car and he looked me in the eye and said, “That is pure and undefiled religion, Dan, being there with her in these moments. This is what it is to minister like Jesus. (James 1:19–27)”

There was silence for a while.

Looking back on that day I realize that God began a work to help me understand that faith was more than intellectual ascent.

Faith is lived. Real faith is displayed in our bodies in the physical acts that we live out every day.

“Faith not works!”

“Don’t be a Pharisee!”

“Grace!”

“Faith not feelings!”

These are the ideas that have dominated much of my Christian life. I grew up into my faith in the Evangelical and conservative stream that has shown itself to be empty. These ideas, while not bad in themselves, created in me a very real dichotomy between the mind and the body.

I understood my faith to be primarily an intellectual activity. There was little in the way of a physical connectedness in my faith. What I did didn’t matter as much as what I said I believed. If I could argue from the Bible my theology and show I was right, then my life didn’t matter that much.

This was particularly true because I was spending my days arguing for Christianity with non-Christians. A worthwhile and noble cause that freed me from caring about people beyond their minds.

That day was years ago and only recently am I understanding the significance of it. Why? Because I didn’t have words for what I experienced. I couldn’t say what it was that I experienced that day. I didn’t have words for what I was beginning to experience as I mobilized people to serve others. I didn’t have words for the hours of being there with my friend as he died this fall.

I have words now.

Embodied loyalty.

This is how one of my colleagues, Chris Winans, defined faith recently. This small phrase has given words to my experience of the last few years. This idea of faith being embodied loyalty has opened up a reality of what faith is. It has unified the grace and works divide that I have struggled with for years.

Faith is embodied loyalty.

What we do matters. Our feelings matter. The physical world matters. Here matters. This place matters.

When we begin to come to terms with faith as an embodied loyalty then faith becomes “real.” For me, it has opened my life to what is happening around me. The here and now-ness of faith demands my presence in the lives of people. It demands me to show up and be with folks. Prayer becomes something I do on the way and is not the end.

Faith is an embodied loyalty that makes all creation sacred.

So, when it comes right down to it, faith demands us to “Just Do It.

“In Accordance With The Scriptures…”

I believe that the Scriptures are something more than a nice book or a collection of myths. I have come to the conclusion that “the Scriptures” are authoritative for my life. All of us have given authority to something or someone to shape who we are (even if it’s ourselves). For me it is the Scriptures.

Writing that feels odd. I don’t really know why, but it does. I think it’s because over the last few years I have really wrestled with the Bible and the way that many in my tribe worship it as a god or god. I have struggled with things that I have read in it and worked through questions in the Greek and Hebrew. There are still questions that I have, but I have come to the conclusion that at the very least, the Scriptures are the best way for me to learn and know about Jesus.

Yet, this question has haunted me, “What does it mean to live in accordance with the Scriptures?”

There are stories of people trying to “live biblically.” Basically, they try to follow every command in the Bible for one year. I don’t think that’s the answer. For some reason that seems really shallow when I read that things like, “If you love me, you will obey my commands.” Love of God drives the obedience to the Scriptures, so if it’s just following rules apart from relationship that, I think, misses the spirit of what the question is getting at.

I am coming to a few conclusions though. First, to live “according to the Scriptures” is to have a desire to live a life that looks like Jesus. I am beginning to think that this is the crux of “obedience” in light of loving Jesus. If I don’t have any desire to be like Jesus in my life, then why would I want to live in “accordance with the Scriptures”?

Second, it is to have the narrative of the Scriptures in you. This sounds a little weird. Too many people in the evangelical subculture treat the Bible like a textbook or an owner’s manual. It’s neither of those things. The Scriptures are living, active, and they speak to us. Not in some creepy or weird way, but in a similar kind of way that a great album might. Recently, I have been listening to a podcast where people are talking with an artist about his newest album. They are sharing their resonance and dissonance with it. It is beautiful. His music and lyrics are impacting their souls. The Bible is like that too. When it gets in us, it shapes us, it speaks to our deepest sense of self. Our lives begin to reflect the narrative arc of the Scriptures that progresses from union with God to brokenness to shame to exile to redemption to union again with God. To live a life that reflects this reality in our relationships with others and self moves us from isolation to communion and from shame to wholeness.

Finally, to “live in accordance with Scriptures” is to live with a sense of mystery. The Bible doesn’t have all the answers. The reality is that it speaks to the human experience up to the point where it stopped being written. There are principles to be learned and embraced that can and should help us navigate our world. But, that doesn’t mean that it is some sort of “Magic 8 Ball” or talisman that will open before us the secrets of the ages. When we live “in accordance with the Scriptures” we live a life that embraces the mystery of the moment. We see ourselves as part of a grand story where the final is still being written.

I’m still working through all of this. But, at the very least, I know that I want my life to look like Jesus, I am trying enter into relationships along that narrative of the Scriptures, and I am embracing mystery. As I’m doing these things, I am finding it easier to love, easier to listen, and easier to care about others. Is this because I’m living “in accordance with the Scriptures?” I’d like to think so. I’m asking different questions and in the midst of embracing mystery, it’s easier to come alongside others with humility.

I’m curious, how would you answer the question?

Why Carry a Cross?

A missionary who has given his life to serving God and people is diagnosed with cancer. A loving father who is at the beginning of his journey of walking with Jesus develops what turns out to be an incurable infection. The child of a pastor who is highly regarded because of her faithful service to the community and Jesus dies of cancer before his life even begins. A woman with a gentle and quiet faith who prays and serves wakes up one day alone because her husband left her for another.

These brief snapshots are real life stories of people who I love and care for. They are all people who are authentically trying to follow Jesus. These are not people who are false or who simply sit in the back of worship service to be entertained. These are people who you want to be around and whose faith would cause you to stop and wonder about their God. These are the people of who it is said, “Why do bad things happen to good people?”

“God loves you and offers a wonderful plan for your life,” so begins an invitation to follow Christ that I have shared with hundreds of people. Is there anything inherently wrong or untrue about that statement? No. But, at the very least it is incomplete. It is missing something that is very important to an invitation into following Jesus. It doesn’t say anything about what that “wonderful plan for your life” might include. What happens when that “wonderful plan” includes pain and suffering, a cross.

For many years in my ministry I functionally believed that I needed to help the gospel out. I functionally believed that I needed to give it some PR because Jesus was a horrible salesman.

Jesus said these kinds of things:

“There is still one thing lacking. Sell all that you own and distribute the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” (Luke 18:22)

“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.” (Mark 8:34-38)

“Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” (Matthew 8:20)

Who would want to follow someone like this? This hardly sounds like a “wonderful plan.”

You might think that the first generations of Christians would have helped Jesus out a bit. As I read the Bible I discovered that they didn’t. The authors of the letters that were written to churches in that first generation of Christians said “…when you suffer…”

What the heck? What happened to a “wonderful life”? Seriously, suffering and pain and losing my life doesn’t sound much like a “wonderful life.”

How can the Bible writers say things like this and we in the 21st century turn around and say that “God loves you and offers a wonderful plan for you life”? It simply can’t be true, can it? Pain, suffering, loss of life, how can these things be “wonderful”?

My mentor, Bob Smart, has written extensively on Christian identity formation. In his book, Embracing Your Identity in Christ: Renouncing Lies and Foolish Strategies, he discusses the work of Charles Taylor, A Secular Age. Taylor lays out “five conditions of our age.” One of them is that we, as a culture, are “encased in Chronos.” Chronos is simply time, the tick of the clock without a recognition of anything beyond it. There is a second kind of time that Christians have long embraced known as “kairos.” This is when we recognize that God is breaking in and we are able to get a glimpse from a “God’s eye view”, so to speak. When we only see things from a chronos perspective there is no meaning in suffering or pain. It’s just another tick of the clock.

In his little book, How to Survive a Shipwreck: Help Is On The Way and Love Is Already Here, Jonathan Martin writes, “People try to offer us an explanation; God offers us a Eucharist.” What he means is that in our suffering we often are looking for “why” and that “why” can be hidden from us. But, what we find with God is care, empathy, and provision.

Martin writes,

“This fits the pattern of how God responds to human suffering: We come looking for answers; God sends a hot meal through a warm body. We come looking for reasons for our hunger; God sends provision to feed us. We come looking for a sermon that will explain the complexity of the cosmos to us and satiate our desire for understanding; Christ responds with, “This is my body, given for you; this is my blood, shed for you.”

In the Scriptures, the writer to the Hebrews says it like this,

“Since, therefore, the children share flesh and blood, he himself likewise shared the same things, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death. For it is clear that he did not come to help angels, but the descendants of Abraham. Therefore he had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make a sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people. Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested.” Hebrews 2:14-18

Suffering is part of our experience it is not something that we can escape. Following Jesus doesn’t pull us out of the world and help us to escape pain and brokenness. The “wonderful plan” of the gospel is that as we follow Jesus, as we bear our own crosses, he who bore the cross of the world is with us and will carry it with us. He is able to empathize not simply look on us with compassion. Because we know that God loves us and that he has a “wonderful plan” a plan that imbues all of life with meaning and purpose we are able to experience a peace that transcends understanding.

We do not simply suffer under the weight of a broken world. No, we carry a cross, we enter in with Jesus and he enters in with us.

A friend of mine reached out to me a couple weeks ago and asked me to train with him for a “Murph Challenge.” This is a physically grueling challenge where you run a mile, do 100 pull-ups, do 200 push-ups, 300 air squats, and finish by running a mile. I’ve never done a pull-up, ever. I currently can’t do a “real” push-up. I don’t know how I can accomplish this. He asked me to do this with him because, “I want to do this…I am so unbelievably far away from this and need someone to embrace the suck of it with me. Keep each other accountable and work towards it together. And then when we are ready meet up and do it together.”

Why do we “carry a cross”? Because as we do we are embracing the “suck of it” with Jesus. It’s not just suffering. There is so much more to it. It is part of a plan and purpose of God. Ultimately that plan and purpose will result in God’s glory and our joy, this is what we call providence.

As I enter into my own suffering and in the suffering of others, I am grateful that I know it is not without purpose and that I am not alone. I enter in with Jesus the one who bore the cross perfectly “for the joy set before him.” The “wonderful plan” is that in that in the midst of the suffering we will somehow glimpse that same joy because we are not alone we are with Jesus.

 

 

 

Why the Cross?

There are some really weird things about Chrstianity. First among them is how we rejoice in blood. We sing songs about blood. Blood this and blood that.

Blood, blood, blood.

I remember one of the first times I heard the song, “Nothing But the Blood of Jesus,” and thinking that it was a little awkward singing about blood.

When we take communion we talk about eating the flesh and blood of Jesus. The first century Romans accused the early Christians of being cannibals as a result. Of course they also accused Christians of being incestuous and atheists too. But, it wasn’t lost on those early folks that this new sect of Judaism had a weird fascination with blood.

When Christianity was beginning animal sacrifice was a normal part of most worship in most religions of the time. Some were even sacrificing their children.

One would think that God, in Jesus, would have figured out a different way of doing this whole salvation thing than through blood.

As I was pursuing my minor in religion at Central Michigan University there was a conversation that took place often about, “the Christian God’s cosmic child abuse.” It showed up in many of my classes. It was one I thought was somewhat silly, yet, as I worked to understand the thinking of my classmates I was able to begin to see where their thinking was coming from.

Is the cross divine child abuse? Are Christians predisposed to violence with our constant talk about blood? Ultimately, what is going on with the cross?


Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death — that is, the devil — and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death. For surely it is not angels he helps, but Abraham’s descendants. For this reason he had to be made like them, fully human in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for the sins of the people. Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.

Hebrews 2:14–18

I think this little passage is really helpful in understanding the cross.


First, a word about blood. Blood in these times was viewed as life. It was often referred to as “life-blood.” This is why Israel was forbidden to eat meat with blood in it (Leviticus 17:11–16).

Blood was life.

When God brought the people out of Egypt from slavery he had them put some blood over their doors during the last plague. The angel of death would passover the homes with blood over the doors, this marked them for “life.” Blood as the symbol of life allowed for them to be passed over and protect the lives of their firstborn sons.

What’s fascinating is that on the day of atonement the scapegoat is not killed (check out Leviticus 16). The scapegoat was a goat that the high priest laid his hands on and confessed the sin of the people over. This goat symbolically took the sins of the people and was then released into the wilderness. This goat took the punishment for the people by being exiled on their behalf. But it was not killed. Blood is not about death, it is about life, blood was needed for passover but not the atonement of the people’s intentional sin. The High Priest did make a “sin offering” using blood, but a sin offering was for the unintentional sin of the priest and the people. The blood in this case brought life where death had snuck in and made it so that God could meet with his people at the “mercy seat.”

If you’ve read this far you’re probably thinking, “thanks for the history lesson, but seriously, can we get back to the original question?”


Why the cross?

From the passage in Hebrews above we learn four things about why Jesus went to the cross for us.

First, he was fully human. He was one of us. He was not a bull or goat or lamb. He was human and as a result he was able to be our perfect representative. A goat was never able to fully represent us because it is not an image bearer. Only a human could be our perfect representative.

Second, his death broke the power of death and the fear of death. Remember, blood is life. His blood brought life where death had held sway. Just like on the passover. Where Jesus’ blood is there is no death. He is our champion. Like David, the champion of Israel, defeated Goliath; so Jesus, the ultimate champion of humanity, defeated the power of death (which is the devil). By defeating death humanity is freed from fear of death. Jesus said, “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full. (John 10:10).”

Third, he became a high priest for humanity. One that is merciful and faithful in service. What was the reason for this? So that he could make atonement for the sins of the people. Remember, atonement was needed for the unintentional sin. Jesus’ act of atonement was not because we were in rebellion but because sin snuck in to kill and destroy. We have all “sinned and fallen short of the glory God (Romans 3:23).” God’s law, Paul says in Romans 3:20 makes us conscious of our sin. We can see it and therefore we fear death. Nevertheless, Jesus, our high priest makes atonement for our sin. Through his blood, which is life, he destroys death and sin, so that we don’t have to be exiled but we can be in the presence of God for eternity. He is our representative, our substitute.

Finally, he is able to help us in our suffering and temptations. We are not alone in a world filled with suffering and temptation. Jesus is not looking at us saying, “Suck it up buttercup.” No, he empathizes with us because he knew what it was to suffer. Through the cross he experienced ultimate suffering. Through his life he faced temptation, “yet was without sin.” Because he knows suffering and temptation he is able to enter in with us not as one who is unfamiliar with our pain but as one who knows it all too well. Jesus is the ultimate “wounded healer.”

I am learning that the Christian fascination with “blood,” rightly understood, is a fascination with life. Jesus is our life, not in some metaphorical sense but in a very real and ultimate sense. He tangibly gave us life by becoming one of us and defeating the power of death. Because Jesus is our representative, our substitute, we don’t have to experience death. Jesus experienced death for us, conquered it, and now gives us life.

Why Church?

Sundays are a really hard day for many people. Particularly people who have been hurt by the “church.” It’s a day where Christians gather for corporate worship and community. It is supposed to be a day of celebration. Yet, for many it is a day of shame, guilt, anger, self-protection, and anger.

Not long ago there were many people who were writing about their stories of leaving church. They simply stopped going. Some of these folks are high profile Christians. Sunday gatherings were vapid and empty, the community was shallow, and it all “felt inauthentic.”

So, they simply stopped.

Church, they said, could be experienced anywhere. In nature, alone, in a coffee shop, or the pub.

What these people wrote resonated with me in a significant way. I thought, “I could easily walk away. There is more authenticity at the ball field than in the ‘church’ on any given Sunday.”

I stand by that thought.

The ease with which I could walk away and never again enter into a building with the word “church” on the shingle could be unmatched, by anybody, anywhere. I’m not even kidding.

Over the last 18 months I have become so disgusted with much of my spiritual family. It horrifies me to watch a man who sexually assaulted a teenage girl to receive a standing ovation in his church. I am astounded by those who “go to church” that were willing to set aside their integrity for “a seat at the table.” The arguments and conversations that I have been witness to have left me in shock at how many people place their agendas over their commitment to Jesus.

Even though I would love to walk away I won’t.

Quite simply, I can’t.

Why? How? What? This is the typical phrase I hear talking with friends outside of the church who simply cannot understand why I won’t leave.

If “church” was simply a worship gathering I would be long gone. But “church” is not a worship gathering. “Church” is not a building. “Church” is not an experience. “Church” is not something you do or go to.

“Church” is a people. “Church” is a who. They are a people who have become my family. You see, God the Father adopted me. He adopted me into his family and made me his son. I didn’t do anything to deserve to be adopted into this family. I was part of another family. The family of “self.” In a very real sense I was living an existence of exile. I lived for me, even though I was a good person, my life was selfish. I was moral. But, that morality was driven by self and not by anything more.

My family of origin is not perfect by any stretch of the imagination. On both my Mom’s side and my Dad’s side there is messiness. We are a people of big personalities and desires. We drive hard in all we do whether that is work or play. This results, unsurprisingly, in lots of success, fun, and brokenness. Some of our family stories will make your eyes water with laughter and sadness.

It turns out that this new family that I’m a part of is similar. It’s called, “Church.” The “called out ones” and from the beginning it has been a mess of a people. Just give Genesis a quick read, particular the stories about Abraham and his son and grandsons. Oh my…

Just like I would never walk away from my family of origin, I can’t walk away from this family either. I will fight for them both.

I have to.

You see “Church” is often referred to in the Bible as the “body of Christ.”

This new family of mine is more than some sort of social gathering. It is to be the ongoing embodiment of Jesus in the world. If this is the case then, I have to fight for it. I have to fight for it because, in some sense, it is where Jesus is.

To fight for this family, this church, means that I must speak into it and challenge it when it begins to go wrong. As someone who has been called as a pastor, it means that I have to lead the change that needs to happen. It also means that I must celebrate it when it does right! It means that I embrace with joy when it is beautiful.

Over the last 18 months or so the failures of the last thirty years have been exposed. We have traded discipleship for showmanship. The church has offered its soul on the altar of power. We are reaping what we have sown.

The choice before me, before us, is this: Stay and fight or walk away. I understand people walking away. But, this is my family. I can’t. So, I will stay and fight. I will challenge the structures and institutions that are broken. Where modern day Pharisees show up, I will call them to account. Where sin seeks to devour and destroy, I will preach grace and live mercy and embody truth.

Why Church? It’s my family. But more than that, it’s where Jesus is. So, that’s where I want to be too. It’s just that Church needs to look more like the table at Matthew’s house (check out Matthew 9:9–13) than a sanctuary (or the synagogue of Jesus’ day). But, like Jesus I need to be present in both, because in both are where my family is and in both the gospel needs to be proclaimed.