Category Archives: Faith

the smartest man

Church can be awkward.

One Easter Sunday a woman behind me started screaming, “It’s about forgiveness! It’s about new life! Today!” And then, as if that were normal, she sat back down.

I’ve never forgotten that, just like the folks in the Gospel never forgot the day a man with an unclean spirit burst into their worship service.

Jesus is teaching when the man cries out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus? Have you come to destroy us?”

Can you imagine? This isn’t awkward. It’s frightening.

Demon talk makes us squirm. Maybe the Gospel writers didn’t understand mental illness? Maybe when they said “possessed” they were describing something they didn’t understand?

Maybe.

No doubt there was confusion in the ancient world about mental health, just like there is today. We have a long way to go until we understand that anxiety and depression are just like diabetes and cancer. Some of us have it. Some of us don’t. And this has nothing to do with character.

If you’re dealing with any of that, I want you to know something. God is with you. And the church, while flawed, is behind you and for you.

The trouble with explaining demon scenes away is there are too many of them.

What’s interesting about this scene is that we don’t know what Jesus is saying, only that people are astonished, for he taught with authority and not as the scribes. The scribes were teachers who interpreted scripture. What Jesus is doing is different. He isn’t appealing to authority; he’s being authority.

“I know who you are,” says the demon. “Have you come to destroy us?”

“Be silent, and come out of him!” Jesus replies.

And it did. That’s authority.

I wore a uniform in high school, but there were special days when I was allowed to wear my own clothes, even hats. On one of those days I walked into the chapel with a hat on. A teacher  told me to take it off. Without missing a beat I said, “Jews wear hats to pray.”

(I would have slapped teenage me.)

I don’t love being told what to do. But the older I get the more I realize I need to be told, because I don’t always know what’s best.

In the ordination process you get asked lots of questions. Somebody asked me this one: What does it mean for Jesus to be Lord and Savior of your life?

“He’s my Savior,” I said, “because he saves me. Not just from sin and death but daily. He comes to me and rescues me. Every single day.”

That part came easy.

“He’s my Lord,” I continued, “because I do things for him I don’t want to do. But I trust He knows what’s best.”

And I felt like a fraud. Because for all my talk, I want to be my own Lord.

But I need a Lord. 

Here’s the deal. We’ll never make Jesus our Lord unless we believe he knows more than we do. Because, as Dallas Willard used to say, “it’s not possible to trust Jesus, or anyone else, in matters we don’t believe him to be competent.”

Would you fly with an incompetent pilot? Let an incompetent surgeon cut your chest open? Do you give authority to anyone you don’t believe is smart?

I doubt it. Do you believe Jesus is smart?

We talk a lot about Jesus’  love, but what about his competence? Does he know how to help us be good engineers or good parents? Does he know what it takes to run run a business or keep a marriage alive?

The earliest Christians believed He did. He was divine, which meant he couldn’t be dumb.

I think it’s tough to claim Jesus as Lord until we’re ready to claim he’s smart. And not just smart, but the smartest man who ever lived.

I was in a doctor’s office some time ago getting a physical. I was going through a rough time and really stressed. As the doctor examined me my blood pressure shot up.

“Do you smoke?” he said.

“No.”

“Drink?”

“Yeah.”

“How much?”

(I told him, but I’m not telling you.)

“Work out?”

“Duh.”

He took the reading again. Still high.

He took the cuff off my arm. “Your father tells me you like to read.”

“I do.”

“What?”

I told him and we talked about books and life for an hour. Then he took the reading again. “You don’t have a blood pressure problem,” he said. “You’re stressed.” He smiled. “Relax.”

And I did, not just then but in the days that followed. His words had power because I trusted his authority. I believed him to be competent.

We may not be demon possessed, but all of us — from time to time — get possessed by something.

Anxiety. Money. Regret.

When this happens, we need a Lord to cast it out.

Don’t be afraid to make Jesus your Lord. He won’t abuse the position; he’ll use it to set you free. From sin. From death. From yourself.

“I know who you are,” says the demon. “ Have you come to destroy us?”

“Oh no,” Jesus says. “Just the opposite.”

we never dance alone

“Jazz class,” she said to me. “Intermediate Dance. It’ll be fun.”

She was my college sweetheart, and the jazz class she spoke of represented the final credits I needed to graduate.

“I don’t know,” I said. “Will there be actual dancing involved?”

“It’s a dance class.”

“Right.”

I should have shut it down. I didn’t need this headache. I needed one class. But you know how love works. She batted her eyes.

“Well,” I said, “maybe we should sign up for Beginner’s Jazz. Intermediate sounds serious.”

“Are you calling me a bad dancer?”

“No,” I said. “I’m calling me a bad dancer.”

Her eyes stopped batting.

“I thought it’d be special to take this class together. But if you feel differently, that’s fine.”

A week later I found myself in Intermediate Jazz.

The professor handed out the syllabus. I read my execution orders. FINAL EXAM: EACH STUDENT WILL CHOREOGRAPH AND PERFORM A SOLO DANCE.

My very first panic attack.

I tried to walk out, but you know what happened. Those eyes started up again. So I stayed, hid in the back row, and tried not to think about stepping out from the group and dancing on my own.

In the Gospel, Jesus constantly asked people to step out from the group.”Follow me,” he said, “and I will make you fishers of men.” In other words, “Come with me and I’ll teach you the ways of God.”

And people did. And they changed the world.

What I love is that it was never supposed to happen.

Jewish Rabbis didn’t go looking for students. Students went looking for a Rabbi. And only the best were allowed to follow. A Rabbi recruiting random students was ridiculous.

It’d be like Harvard Law admitting the first 50 people who liked their Facebook page. It’s not how these things work.

But it’s how Jesus worked. And it’s how he works today. He calls everyone and accepts anyone who’s interested.

The great Irish theologian, Bono, said, “It used to shock me that the Scriptures are brim full of hustlers, murderers, cowards, and adulterers. But now it’s a source of great comfort.”

Me too, Bono. We should hang out.

What a relief that the Bible isn’t about perfect little angels who do everything right. If it was, I couldn’t read it.

Thank God it’s about people—damaged, guilty, scared—whom God sweeps into His arms, heals, and uses to change the world.

Jesus wasn’t turned off by the rap sheets of his first disciples, and he isn’t turned off by yours either. One of the more destructive lies we tell ourselves is that we don’t deserve to be used by God, that something in our past disqualifies us.

No. We serve a God of second chances, a God who uses broken things to make the world whole.

I was talking to a young girl who’d been called some ugly things. I tried to tell her about the good I saw in her, but she stopped me and said, “If you knew the things I did, you wouldn’t like me.”

It hit me: that’s how we feel about God. We believe He loves us, but we don’t believe He likes us. At least not enough to use us. He has priests and missionaries for that, people who aren’t quite so broken.

But it’s not true. Jesus used regular, flawed people to set the world on fire with love.

God doesn’t just love you. He likes you. He chose you. And He’ll use you. The only question is whether you’ll let Him.

Following Jesus doesn’t mean abandoning your life and moving to Calcutta. It can be done right where you are.

“But I don’t know how,” you might say.

Me neither. That’s why Jesus said, “Follow me and I will make you fishers of men.” That’s the good news. We don’t do it on our own. We can’t, which is why we follow.

Which brings me back to love, because when you love someone you’ll follow them anywhere.

Which brings me back to Intermediate Jazz and my final exam.

I’ve never been a shy person but that day I wanted to find a rock and die under it. But I couldn’t, because I needed to graduate.

So I stepped out from the group and danced alone. And for a minute or two, it was OK. But then it happened. My ears stopped working. I couldn’t hear the music. I froze and felt so stupid.

But then someone started clapping to the music. And she kept clapping until I found the beat and finished my dance.

That may seem trivial to you, but it isn’t to me. She rescued me and I’ll never forget it.

Following Jesus will take us into uncomfortable territory. We will be stretched.

But here’s what I know. The God who calls us, goes ahead of us. And when we lose the music, and can’t find the beat, a pair of hands will appear.

And they will clap.

And they will clap.

Until we all finish our dance.

do what you can

In college a buddy and I were standing in line to order dinner when a deaf woman approached us, hands out. Clumsily, I tried to tell her I didn’t have cash.

Meanwhile, my friend did something unexpected. He began using sign language.

I had no clue what was being said.  But I understood what happened next. They finished their conversation and hugged. The woman walked away, smiling.

“What was that?” I said.

“What?”

“The sign language?”

“Oh, that. I’ve noticed that woman hanging around. She looks lonely. I thought I’d do something about it.”

“So you learned sign language?”

“Trying to,” he said. “I’m not fluent, just doing what I can.”

Who does that?

A few weeks later, my landlord stopped by my house. The same buddy was with me. My landlord spoke English but was more comfortable in Spanish.

My buddy did it again.

Without warning, he started speaking Spanish.

At this point I figured he was a spy.

Afterward, he confessed he’d been learning Spanish so he could talk to the underprivileged kids in our neighborhood, most of whom spoke only Spanish.

I was confused. Why was he going to all this trouble for strangers?

It was beyond generous.

The Gospel tells of a woman who reminds me of my old friend. A woman who did what she could. A woman who gave so generously it caused confusion and even anger to those around her.

Near the end of his life, Jesus and his disciples had dinner at the home of a leper.

A woman appears. Anonymous and silent, she walks in with an alabaster jar filled with nard, an expensive perfume. She shatters the jar and pours the entirety of the perfume onto the head of Jesus.

Close your eyes and imagine it.

Jesus sitting at the table. He is exhausted from three-years of ministry. He has travelled incessantly, been rejected in his hometown, silenced demons, and brought the dead back to life. His back aches. His feet are calloused. His heart burdened by all he has seen.

This woman blesses him. She spreads the nard into his hair. Her fingers massage his scalp. Her hands work his neck and shoulders.

 She is focused. She takes her time. 

His breathing slows. His eyes close. He allows the only woman in the room to grant him a respite from his troubles.

The peace is broken.

“Don’t waste the ointment!” the disciples say. “The nard could be sold for a tremendous amount of money, money that could be given to the poor! How dare you?”

The woman says nothing. She sees only Jesus.

But the disciples have a point. This perfume had the value of a full year’s wage.

The median income in the United States is $51,000. Imagine someone walking into a dinner party and uncorking a $51,000 bottle of wine and offering it to one person at the table? That’d raise eyebrows, especially if the guest drank one glass and poured the rest onto the floor.

I was once in the home of a fabulously wealthy man. He went to great lengths to show me his possessions. And I have to admit, it was fun.

By the end of the tour, however, I was conflicted.  I couldn’t help but wonder how else his wealth might have been used. How many children can be fed for the price of a Lamborghini?

I don’t know. The United Nations reports that 1 in every 8 humans on earth goes to bed hungry. That’s 870 million people a day who don’t have enough to eat.

This is what the disciples are thinking. The perfume could be sold and used to bless the lives of others. Instead, it’s poured on the head of Jesus and left dripping onto the floor.

Like my buddy learning foreign languages for the benefit of strangers, this woman strikes me as excessive. What should we make of her?

“Let her alone,” Jesus says. “Why do you trouble her? She has done a beautiful thing to me.”

What is it about this that’s beautiful to Jesus?

She sees him. She notices his pain. She does something about it. 

But the disciples, blinded by their good intentions, miss it.

I wonder how many people I miss?

I was jogging a few years ago when I tripped and fell. It was the bad kind. The kind where you go all the way down and say things unholy while you do.

As I lay on the ground, bloodied, in pain, and embarrassed by the onlookers, a teenager appeared above me. I had seen him across the street seconds before the fall.

“Are you all right?” he asked. He offered me his hand and helped me to my feet. “Do you need a lift home?”

He could have pretended not to see me. It would have been easy. But he didn’t. He crossed the street. He drew close to me.

It seems like a small thing. But it’s not.

He saw me fall and he did what he could.

That’s beauty.

The disciples weren’t wrong. Their instincts were good. Nobody expects the woman to shatter a $51,000 bottle of perfume over the head of Jesus.

But she did.

And Jesus liked it.

Likewise, no one expected the Son of God to lay down His life for us, but he did.

My old college buddy did what he could. He still does.

This woman in the Gospel did what she could.

But I worry about me.

What about you?

I like to imagine that as Jesus hung on the cross, his mind escaped to the memory of this woman’s hands on his head. I like to believe her blessing eased his suffering, if only for a second.

There are people in need all around us, but do we see them? Will we do what we can?

I don’t know. But I can’t think of anything I’d rather hear Jesus say about my life than what he said about that woman.

She did what she could.

And it was beautiful.

finishing what he starts

When I was 13 I reported to the weight room for my first workout. Sixth grade was over and I had the summer to prepare for junior high football. The first order of business was to “max out” so the coaches could determine an appropriate weight-training program for me.

There were a plethora of humiliations that day. Here was the worst. The coach tells me to lie down on the bench press and get warmed up by pumping the bar a few times. “Don’t put any weight on it,” he says. “Just the bar. Something easy to get you loose.”

“Right, no problem.”

I lie back on the bench, grip the bar, and lift it off the rack. Shaking, I lower it down to my chest and heave. Nothing happens.

I try again.
Nope.

By the time the coach rescues me from death, all eyes are on the kid who can’t lift 45 pounds.

I wanted so badly to be strong.
And I wasn’t.

Have you ever longed for a strength you didn’t have?

In the Bible, St. Paul says that the God who began a good work in us will see that it’s completed.

Which means we are all a work in progress. We are all still becoming.

Have you ever looked in the mirror and thought, “I’m not the person I imagined I would be?”

I have. It feels awful. If you feel that way today, know this: God’s not done with you. There are days to become what He has called you to be.

Some guy said me, “It’s only a matter of time until the world blows itself up. Watch the news! People keep getting worse. There’s no saving us.”

“I’m not so sure about that,” I said.

“Why not?”

“Because,” I said, “God finishes what He starts. And when He created us, He said we were good. And when we got off track, He came to redeem us and give us a second chance.”

But this takes time. Faith isn’t a steady climb toward perfection; there are valleys and deserts along the way.

The key is to walk on through them.

After that first day in the gym I never wanted to go back.
But I did.

Because I couldn’t lift the bar the coach had me take one of the circular weight plates, which weighed less than 45 pounds, and use it for my exercises.

It was humiliating.

A popular kid named Jack walked in, saw what I was doing, and said, “No, Ryan, you’re supposed to take the weights and put them on the end of the bar. Here let me show you.”

“I know but coach told me to do it like this.”

“Why?”

“Because,” I whispered, “I can’t lift the bar. This is all I can do.”

Jack eyed me a long moment, glanced at the other boys, and said, “Yeah, of course.” He slapped me on the back. “Keep it up then. You’re doing fine.”

Keep it up. You’re doing fine.

If you keep moving toward God in the valley, either in sprint or in crawl, you will make it.
I promise.

How do I know?

Because.
God finishes what He starts.

God of the Dark

What are you afraid of? We’re all afraid of something. Illness? Unemployment? Mental math? There are certain existential fears we all share: death, abandonment, the college football rankings. Some fears are universal but many aren’t. Talk to ten people about fear and you’ll hear ten different stories.

We’re all wired differently, which means our fears are too. When I was a kid I had one particularly haunting fear: small spaces. More than once my mother had to reassure strangers that she wasn’t actually kidnapping me, it was just necessary to drag me onto the elevator. Oh, how I hated those chambers of death. Small spaces—dark rooms with no escape—these were the contours of my nightmares.

Years ago I fainted in the middle of the night and awoke on my bathroom floor in total darkness. I couldn’t see and, for a moment, I couldn’t move. I wigged out. My wife remembers. We were dating then and I called her and said, “Get over here, I’m dying!” She came, took care of me, and then told me to stop being dramatic. She tells me that about once a week.

Darkness can be scary. And in a way that is unique to it darkness unnerves even the bravest among us. To enter a dark house, to walk through a dark wood, to wade into dark water, requires infinitely more courage than it does under the safety of light.

But darkness is where the Christian New Year begins in December, that month when our days get short and our nights very long. Advent is the time we prepare for the coming of a baby whose life will burn so bright it’ll light the whole world. But Advent begins—where we all begin—in the dark.

Consider this Advent reading from the gospel of Mark: “But in those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. Then you will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory.”

Most of us, myself included, spend Advent drinking eggnog and buying stuff we don’t need. But Advent offers darkened moons and falling stars and shaken heavens. Why? Because Advent knows that our lives, like the month of December, will get darker before they see light.

One of the people I love most in this world has had a hard year. She said to me, “Ryan, I want to pull the covers over my head and wake up on December 26th.” “Yeah,” I said. “I know that feeling.”

I think Jesus knew it too. Which is why he spoke of darkness. We’re like servants, Jesus says, tending our master’s house while he’s gone. And he might come home at any moment. So we wait and we watch. And there will be days when we do pull the covers over our heads.

And that’s OK. But here’s what we don’t do. We don’t stop believing. We don’t stop hoping. We don’t stop watching for the light. Rob Bell was asked why Advent still matters and he said, “Because cynicism is the new religion of our world.” Which means we better not get our hopes up because it’s never going to get any better.

It’s easy to feel that way when we see the violence in Ferguson and are reminded of how far we still must go if we’re ever going to love one another as brothers and sisters. Sometimes what I fear most is that the darkness will never end.

But then I remember what Jesus said about the sky falling and the heavens shaking and how it would be then that the Son of Man would come in great power and glory. The whole earth may crumble, Jesus says, but the One whose hands fashioned that world, will do no such thing.

I think that’s the heart of Advent. Yes, it’s dark. Yes, it’s easy to believe we’ll be let down in the end and there’s nothing worth waiting for. But Jesus says, “Hold on. Wait. Watch. Because I am coming and I am worth the wait.”

I don’t know what lurks in your darkness. But I know something about it. It’s scary. I also know it might not go away soon. Advent reminds us of that. But Advent says something else. This: God may be light, but He comes in the dark.

There is no dark water He won’t wade into; no dark night He won’t spend at our side. We may be afraid of the dark, but He isn’t. He made the dark and it He moves.

As a teenager I was still frightened of small, dark places. So my dad decided he and I were going to learn to scuba dive. Because if there’s one thing a claustrophobic kid wants to do it’s breathe air out of a tiny hose a hundred feet under water. But we did it.

To pass the course we had to dive in a cold lake with visibility often no more than a few inches in front of our faces. Near the end of the dive, our instructor led us to a tunnel and pointed at it. It was pitch black and I couldn’t see where it ended.

I knew what I had to do. I swam toward it and entered the darkness. And kicked like crazy until I came out the other side. My dad has always praised my courage that day. He was so proud that I went for it. But I’ll tell you the truth. I was scared out of my mind.

The only reason I swam into that tunnel of death was because my father was behind me. I knew that whatever happened, I wouldn’t be alone. I couldn’t see him but I felt him. He was there and I knew he’d be there until we reached the other side.

Christmas is coming. The Christ Child is on His way, coming to bring light to our weary and darkened world. But today is Advent.

So may we experience the season, trusting that our Father in Heaven does not wait to meet us on the side of light, but walks with us now, this day, in the dark.

I Need Help. You?

Dan Clendenin says that “one of the most dangerous spiritual places we can live is in the deluded notion that we are a fully sighted person.”

There’s something to that.

The Westboro Baptist “Church” is famous for protesting the funerals of American soldiers and making hateful statements about all kinds of people. I’ve often wondered what drives those people to such extremes? Probably a lot of complicated factors. But at least one has to be the deep-rooted belief that they see the world rightly. Because folks don’t treat others as worthless unless they actually believe they are.

It’s easy to get into trouble when we think we’ve got it all figured out. We may not spout hate speech but we have our plans and ambitions. Why consult God in prayer? We know who to vote for. Why listen to another perspective? We know what’s right and wrong. Why bother reading scripture?

We know. We know. We know.

But you know what I’ve been learning? The healthiest people don’t just admit they don’t know, they celebrate it. The wise readily admit, “I. Don’t. Know.”

A newspaper once asked, “What’s Wrong with the World?” G.K. Chesterton wrote back, “Dear Sirs: I am.”

If we hope to see by the light, we must first acknowledge we’re in the dark. The first step in any recovery is admitting there’s a problem.

Jesus said he didn’t come for the healthy but the sick. A healthy person doesn’t need a doctor. A sick person does.

The righteous can keep on being righteous. But sinners? We need help.

May today be the day we ask for it.

Bottling God

I remember being in church once and really sensing the presence of God. You know that feeling? Your singing a song, or saying a prayer, and you know in your bones—God is here. I felt that and thought, “If I could just bottle this, and take it with me, I’d be a much better Christian.”

Because the reality is that most of life isn’t mountaintop moments. It’s waiting in line at the grocery store, it’s being told I don’t have a job, that my blood work doesn’t look right, that my expenses are exceeding my income.

And what I’ve found is that if God isn’t with me in those moments, the church stuff doesn’t really matter. Pump me up on Sunday, but if I can’t find God come Thursday, I’m in trouble.

What I’ve been learning is that I didn’t need to bottle up God in church so I could take Him into the world. What I needed to do was open my eyes and see that He was already there.

sorry.

I heard of a woman who received a nice settlement from a lawsuit. Afterward, she was still furious. Her lawyer asked, “What’s wrong? What you got was more than fair.”

“What I wanted,” she said, “was for somebody to look me in the eye and say, ‘I’m sorry this happened.’”

We all know this.  But saying sorry is hard, isn’t it?

In a book called Being Wrong, author Kathryn Schulz writes: “As a culture, we haven’t mastered the basic skill of saying ‘I was wrong.’”

Think about that. We fly robots to Mars. We cure disease. We’re the most advanced people in the history of humanity.

But we can’t say sorry.

Why? Maybe it’s because our culture is upside down on the issue. There’s a famous line from the movie, Love Story – remember it? “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.”

Uh, what?

Love means having to say you’re sorry all the time. Preferably every fifteen minutes.

There’s a thousand answers that could be given for why we don’t do it, so let me focus on one: pride.

Pride trivializes God’s mercy in our lives.Pride makes it hard to appreciate what God has done.

We’re like the young rich man who can’t follow Jesus because his heart is consumed by wealth. He’s spiritually blind to his need for Christ. Why follow Jesus when you already have what you need?

Dorothy Day said the closer she grew to God the more she could acknowledge her sinfulness because she saw that God never abandoned her to sin but repeatedly extended his mercy.

That’s the secret. Drawing closer to God allows us to see ourselves for who we are: fragile creatures in need of grace.

It’s tough to say sorry when we’re doing life on our own. Easier when resting in God’s mercy.

It comes down to pride. We don’t apologize because we see it as weakness. But it’s not.

A recent study on leadership found that admitting fault and apologizing creates solidarity, innovation, and openness to change.

So, saying sorry literally makes us more creative and successful. Sorry isn’t weakness; it’s power.

When we need to say sorry, who keeps us from doing it? Nobody.

We hold all the power. And that’s the problem, because our tendency is to address our weaknesses and struggle with them. But there is often little moral effort where we are strong.

But in scripture sin resides not so much in our weaknesses but in our strengths. Because God doesn’t kick us when we’re down. He lifts us up.

Think about Jesus with the adulteress, refusing to condemn her, daring others to throw the first stone. He whispers something hidden in her ear, then says, “Go and sin no more.”

Scripture is filled with a God who grieves with us in our weakness and offers grace to help us overcome.

It’s when we sin in our strength that God drops the metaphorical hammer. When we simply don’t bother to do what we can.

The rich man could have followed Jesus and given his money to the poor, but he doesn’t. In the parable of the Good Samaritan, the priest and the Levite could have cared for the wounded man, but they don’t. In the last judgment scene of Matthew’s gospel, those who are condemned are told their fault lies in their unwillingness to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, and clothe the naked.

The story of sin, like the call to repentance, concerns those areas of our lives where we could have tried harder, precisely because we were able to do so. Christ judges not the weak heart that struggles, but rather the strong heart that does not bother.

We hold enormous power over one another. We can withhold an apology and wreak havoc. Or, we can trust God’s mercy, lay down our pride, and offer this little word of healing.

The choice is ours.