When I see the world, it’s justice I want.
But when the world sees me, my thoughts turn to mercy.
And I’m happy the gospel isn’t fair.
When I see the world, it’s justice I want.
But when the world sees me, my thoughts turn to mercy.
And I’m happy the gospel isn’t fair.
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?
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.
(I told him, but I’m not telling you.)
He took the reading again. Still high.
He took the cuff off my arm. “Your father tells me you like to read.”
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.”
“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.”
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.
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.
“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.
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.
I was talking this weekend with a man who read had Centurion. He loved the book, which is always fun to hear, but he was very worried about the ending. It turns out he didn’t know the story would continue in Book 2. I’ve actually had this conversation a couple of times with folks, so I just wanted to put it out there: it’s not over. So if you’ve been up at night worried about Maria or Deacon or the Teacher, fear not, there are more pages to come.
As always, I’m ridiculously grateful for those of you who’ve read the book and taken the time to let me know how it’s impacted you. It means more to me than you know. Thank you.
On another note, I’ll be giving a short talk this coming Sunday at 10:15 at Church of the Incarnation on the book. I’m going to discuss why I reimagined the gospel as a thriller and why I plan to keep using fiction to imaginatively engage with the gospel.
Peace and Love, y’all.
It’s been three weeks since Centurion was published and I just want to say . . . thank you.
I’ve been totally overwhelmed by the support the book has received. To all of you who’ve purchased the book: thank you, thank you, thank you.
I wish I could put into words what it means to have you sit down and read a story I’ve written, but I can’t. I just can’t. That kind of gratitude springs from a well too deep inside me; I can’t get my hands on it. Not yet. It’s something I can feel is there, something I know is true, but can’t quite grasp its fullness. Sort of like being in love or describing an experience with God. I fumble around, do my best, but in the end feel as though I never quite made it there. Never quite did the beautiful thing its justice.
But that’s no excuse. Because life is too short to not tell people how we feel. If we love someone, we should tell them. If we think they’re cute, we should tell them. If they inspire us, we should tell them. If we appreciate them, we should tell them.
Because it all goes by too fast. I only have so many days and I may not accomplish a lot during them, but I’ll be damned if I don’t tell people how much they mean to me and how much value I see in their lives. So, I’ll keep working on expressing my gratitude to readers, but until then, please accept a humble, thank you.
A lot of people have asked me how things have gone this month, so here are a few highlights.
All that being said, I’m so excited to keep on keeping on. Please keep sharing your experiences with me, and if you like the book, post a review on Amazon for everyone to see!
Lastly, if you or your church or school or reading club or gang (if you’re a nice gang) are interested in having me come speak about the book, please let me know. I’ve been getting more and more of these invitations and I’m thrilled to do it. Moreover, if you think your church bookstore would want to carry the book, it can be ordered through Ingram.
Please don’t hesitate to hit me up on Facebook or firstname.lastname@example.org for anything and everything.
Peace and Love.
You can buy the book here!
I spent three years teaching religion to high school students.
Teenagers aren’t the slack minded creatures they’re often depicted as. In fact, I found them to be wildly curious, loyal friends, hilarious, and enormously sensitive to spirituality and the world of religion.
I like teenagers. A lot.
But one barrier I’ve encountered is that many teenagers, like a lot of adult Christians, aren’t terribly excited about reading scripture.
Don’t get me wrong. They want the content. They clamor for wisdom. They cherish the debates and discussion. But they don’t necessarily want to sit down, open their Bibles, and read the narratives.
Because they’ve already read it. They know the story. They’ve been taught the lessons. Why read it all again?
After all, Netflix is waiting. And if not Netflix — Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook. You get it.
Let me tell you a story. When I teach courses on the Old Testament the first homework assignment is to read Genesis 1 and 2 — the opening pages of the Bible.
The next class I ask the students if they did their homework. All the pretty little liars nod, smile, and say: “Yes, of course!”
I ask them to tell me how many creation narratives they found. The students answer almost unanimously: “One.”
I ask them to open their Bibles. I repeat the question.
Same answer is given.
I ask if they were honest about doing their homework. The tension rises. Eye contact is avoided, which I don’t mind because now they’re at least looking down at their Bibles. I ask again.
Then I tell them all is well; I know they didn’t read it. I knew they wouldn’t. We share an awkward laugh.
So I ask them to do the reading now, in class. I want to know how many creation narratives they find.
It takes an average of 21 minutes before the first kid realizes there are two narratives within Genesis 1 and 2.
These are smart kids. The problem isn’t that they can’t read. The problem is that they think they already know the story, so they don’t read.
We, all of us, need to read the story again.
Especially the gospel.
How much do we miss because we think we already know the story?
Here’s what I’ve done:
I reimagined the Gospel of Mark as a dystopic thriller. Basically, I hid the Jesus story within the framework of a larger, action-packed, three-book saga. Which, I know, sounds insane — but it’s not.
Without giving away too much . . . here’s the set up: The United States has fallen. In its place stands an oppressive Kingdom led by the handsome but vicious King Charles who controls North America with an army of foreign mercenaries. After decades of war, the king has finally tamed the once mighty shores. And the young king will stop at nothing to protect his reign – no matter how many Americans he must hang on a Kingdom cross.
I want to light a spark in people to read scripture by showing them just how thrilling, passionate, and page-turning the story of Jesus Christ actually is.
Think it’ll work?