Prophets In a Dismissive Culture

It would be difficult for anyone to deny that our culture is an argumentative one, too often marked by uncivil discourse and a deep sense of polarization. Our debates are typically not debates for the sake of seeking truth or understanding; they are one-sided speeches, filled more with rhetoric and labeling than with substance. Our goal is to win, to silence the opposition, or at least scream louder than they do. It is the fuel that drives political campaigns, the tool of special interest groups of all kinds, and the key to big radio and television ratings. We love to fight and argue, and we do it well. What we don’t do well is listen.  Those who dare to challenge our position, offer a different opinion, or just raise a question, are immediately tagged as unreasonable, hostile enemies and their words dismissed. Driven by our obsessive need to be right and to win at all costs, we have created a culture of deafness.

When this deaf and dismissive culture is allowed to influence the life and spirit of the church, we find ourselves in the dangerous place of denying something we claim to affirm. In our talk of spiritual gifts, the different roles of ministry, and the various ways people are equipped to serve the church and the world, we recognize the place of the prophet. Prophets are those who challenge us to be more of what we should be; they call out the things that are not in line with the Kingdom, they confront us when we lose our way, and they shine light into the dark places we would rather keep hidden. Prophets challenge our status quo, raise the questions that need to be raised, and tear down our excuses and rationalizations. In other words, they are the people our argumentative, need-to-be right culture labels and dismisses. And when the church becomes like the culture around us, we end up dismissing our own.

Oh, the church likes our prophets – up to a point. We’re good with them shining their light of correction and calling out the wrongs, as long as their message is pointed in the right direction. Of course, the right direction means out there and away from us. Israel and Judah could cheer on the prophets as long as their words of judgment were aimed at Edom or Moab, but when they became the target – well, that was a good way for a prophet to get killed. Nathan tells a great story; that is, up until the point he says, “You are the man!” We recognize and even honor the role of the prophet, as long as their attention is given to the culture around us and the easy targets of blatant sin. When the tables turn, however, and the message calls out the more insidious, hidden sin that can exist within our religious circles, there is often an abrupt end to our appreciation for the prophet.

Our culture simply dismisses their “opposition” with degrading labels or attempts to drown them out by the sheer volume of the rebuke. The world has, sadly, worked its influence within the body of the church, and now those who dare to bring a prophetic word of challenge or raise the difficult question face the same reaction. We have taken our direction from the world’s bottle:  Label. Attack. Dismiss. Repeat. Rather than receive the message or question with a spirit of reflection, discernment, and genuine humility, we react out of the impulsive, defensive posture of our culture. We write people off as nothing more than mean-spirited critics or cynics, all in an attempt to avoid an uncomfortable truth. In the process, we cheat ourselves out of an opportunity to experience the grace of God at our point of weakness and the possibility of becoming more of what we can and should be.

Are there those who are simply critics, cynics, or haters, who hide and excuse their attacks with the guise of “prophetic concern” for the church? Sure. But to instantly cast that judgment on all those who bring a difficult message or raise the hard question is unfair and detrimental. There are those who have hard conversations with me, not because they want to be critics, but because they love me; there are those who challenge the church, not because they hate the institution, but because they love it and want it to be more of what God has called it to be. I cannot allow those who are not genuine to become an excuse for dismissing any and all who may push me forward with a message I would rather not hear.

Personally, I am on a journey and have not yet arrived. Recognition of that calls me to humility, and humility keeps me open to words of correction. The same is true of us corporately. As long as we travel the road of this life, we will live in the tension of the church being the Body of Christ on the one hand, and a flawed human organization on the other. The reality of that tension makes the occasional prophetic word a necessity. Confrontations that call us to become more than what we are, both personally and as a community of faith, are not easy, but they are needed. And they are good. Our dismissive and deaf culture may indeed offer an easier path; but our goal is not the easy path – it is Christlikeness.

Millennials, My Church, and My Hope

As someone who turns 50 years old in a matter of days (which I confess painfully), I certainly don’t fall into the Millennial category. I’m not a Millennial, but many of my friends are. As a father, my two sons fall into that classification. As a district superintendent, I have Millennials serving in a variety of roles on my district. And you know what? Even though I’m almost 50, I not only love them – I really like them. I appreciate the way they wrestle with the difficult questions, unwilling to accept simple answers to complex issues. Their penetrating and valid questions have pushed me to think more deeply and grow in my own understandings. So many are bright, gifted, and passionate about God’s mission of redemption, and I have watched with admiration as they lead ministries that are creative and kingdom-building. Most of the ones I know honestly love the church and simply want it to be all that Christ has called it to be. Personally, my relationships with Millennials have made me better. I am grateful to them and for them, and I also believe my church needs them.

I love my church as well. The Church of the Nazarene has been my church since the day of my birth, and I stand as the third generation of my family to call it home. As with any other body of people, there have been moments of disappointment and the occasional episode of ugliness, but all in all, my life and experience in the church has been one for which I am grateful. It was in the Church of the Nazarene that my relationship with Jesus was initiated and nurtured. Through the embrace of this community of faith, my life was blessed by godly people who cared for me and my character was shaped by leaders who invested in me. The church has been an instrument of God’s grace and a family to which I am glad to belong. I love my church; I am loyal to my church.

But sometimes love leaves us in a hard place, and that’s where I find myself as many of my Millennial friends are now struggling in their relationship with the Church of the Nazarene. Recent months have been marked by issues and events that have, for some, created a sense of suspicion, raised questions of institutional transparency and relevance, and deepened feelings of disconnection. There’s no point in rehashing the events that have taken place – every Nazarene with a Facebook account is already aware. It would also be inaccurate to suggest that only those in the Millennial group have struggled or raised questions through all of this. My Millennial friends, however, have been open about their concerns, and some are genuinely wondering whether or not there will be a place for them in the church.

There are those who quickly dismiss all of this as nothing more than the whining and unfair attacks of a generation that simply doesn’t care or have any respect for institutional structures. Some will point to those who have voiced their opinions in a less than healthy or appropriate manner as justification for ignoring all of them. None of us, however, would want to be judged by some perceived characteristic of our particular generation. None of us would appreciate it if our concern was simply ignored because someone else raised the question, but did so with a bad attitude or wrong spirit. To turn a blind eye to the questions and thoughts of Millennials with sweeping, generalized labels is unfair, inaccurate, and inappropriate for the body of Christ. Most of my Millennial friends love the church and desire the best for it. And yet, despite their willingness to serve, some are asking if there will be room for them in the Church of the Nazarene. As a family, we should care enough about that to listen.

At the same time, I have no intention of calling into question the heart or motives of those church leaders who made the controversial decisions. Leaders are often faced with difficult situations that, regardless of the direction chosen, will inevitably leave someone unhappy, hurt, or angry. There are circumstances when the whole story cannot be told publicly for one reason or another. That has been my experience as a pastor and a district superintendent, and in all honesty, I have messed up more than my share of decisions. I respect the role of church leaders and recognize the difficult positions in which they often find themselves, so I will not cast judgment on their intentions. As a family, we should care enough about our leaders as people, as brothers and sisters in Christ, to treat them with respect and understanding.

But without judgment or accusation toward any side and with the highest degree of respect for all, I believe we have come to the place that we must admit there is a problem.  Intended or not, some feel that the events of recent months are sending a message; whether it’s accurate or not, a perception has been created. From the conversations of which I’ve been a part, it is clear that some of our young leaders are feeling uneasy about their place in our church. They sense that there is a circling of the wagons, a drawing of lines to protect the institution as it has been. They fear there is a redefinition taking place of what it means to be a Nazarene, reducing it to a more narrow and restricted form of “Nazarenedom.” The perception is that those who ask the tough questions will be shut out and those who differ from popular opinion will be disciplined. Now, some – despite their true desire to be loyal to the church – are uncertain as to whether or not they have a future serving in the Church of the Nazarene. You can call it a breakdown in communication. Call it a generation gap issue. Call it a matter of misinformation or misperception. Call it whatever you want, but let’s admit that the rising wall exists.

The issue will not be resolved if we come to the table with daggers of accusation or hostility, but neither will it be resolved by blind-eyed silence. We will not find a way forward if our only aim is to win a battle, but the way forward will also elude us if we are content to simply ignore what is between us. Telling others not to ask questions or to be quiet and toe the line will only deepen the divide. We do not need the fake and hollow appearance of peace that comes from denial. What we need is genuine peace and resolution, the kind that is forged by the sometimes difficult but necessary work of honest conversation. And it’s not only what we need – it’s what we are called to as the body of Christ.

And so, to the church that I love I would say:

Please find a way to engage our Millennial leaders in genuine, honest, and humble conversation. Affirm their place among us; assure them of our trust in them and our need for them. Extend to them the grace, honor, and consideration of hearing their voice, listening to both their concerns and their hearts. Let your responses be marked with transparency, authenticity, and a spirit of love.

I would never ask us to compromise the essentials of who we are and what we believe, and I am in no way suggesting that we alter our beliefs for the sake of placating anyone. Maintain and guard the boundaries, but within those boundaries, let’s reaffirm the freedom we have always known in the Church of the Nazarene. Alleviate the fears that the borders are being narrowed, and assure this generation that we still believe in liberty in the non-essentials and charity in all things. Unity does not require uniformity in all matters of thought and opinion.

Do not view questions with fear or resentment, but receive them as an opportunity to grow in our understanding together. Working through difficult situations or complex questions can make us stronger; challenges can shape us into a community that is better, more loving, and more effective in our mission. On the other hand, reactions of fear never serve us well.

Remember that systems and structures are not to be protected at all costs. Such things have always changed and always will. Holding tightly to a particular form or structure will only suffocate it, leaving in gasping in the shadows of irrelevance. Affirm that we are open to change for the sake of our effectiveness in mission.

If we lose this generation of gifted, mission-minded leaders for the wrong reasons, we may very well jeopardize the vitality of our church for years to come.

And to my Millennial friends I say:

I expect you to uphold the essentials of our church, guarding those things central to what we believe and who we are. I also expect that, within those boundaries, you will continue to challenge us to think more deeply and to seek greater understanding. Do not allow us to settle for simple or insufficient answers to the complex questions of life, faith, and ministry. Help us to articulate our faith for a new generation; teach us to communicate the truth of love made perfect in a language that is relevant, understandable, and compelling.

I would ask you to voice your questions and concerns in a truly Christlike spirit, demonstrating love and respect for our leaders, one another, and our church. But I will not ask you to be silent. Call and challenge us to be more than what we are; do not allow us to settle for less that what the body of Christ should be. What we hold in common is stronger than the things that would divide us; our love should provide us the confidence and ability to handle the questions and our differences with grace.

Remember those who have gone before you, showing gratitude and respect for the foundation upon which you build. Remind us, though, that we do not look to the past in order to live there. We find in the past the courage to move forward, encouraged by the witness of those who trusted in and experienced the faithfulness of God. Push us forward in faith, hope, and the profound optimism of His grace.

Continue to shape the ministry of the church, helping us to minister more effectively in our ever-changing context. Keep us focused on our mission and purpose, and call us out when our methods become idols and a source of bondage. And as time passes, do not allow yourselves to become enslaved by your own methods and preferences. Remember to extend the same freedom to those coming behind you.

Finally, keep in mind that our church, and every church, is imperfect and marred by our weakness, and will be until His kingdom comes. Until that day, we will always live in the tension of what the church is and what the church can and should be. Be honest enough to confront the shortcomings of the church, but also courageous enough to stay and work in love to make it more of what it should be.

And hopefully, my friends and my church can move forward together, unified in love and in purpose, always working to become a greater expression of Jesus in our broken world.

When Conversations About Peace Aren’t All That Peaceful. . .

In a time of shock and disbelief, I found myself seated at a table with several other pastors from my area. It was right after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and we, like so many others across the country, were planning a community prayer service. The horrific and unforgettable scenes of that day brought a sense of unity and connection, our shared sorrow pushing us beyond our denominational labels and individual congregations. And yet, strangely, the same event that brought unity also revealed deep and significant differences of opinion that existed among us. At one end of the table was a Baptist minister, preparing a call for war, the enforcement of justice, and a prayer for victory over our enemies. At the other end of the table was the Mennonite pastor. He spoke words of forgiveness and non-violence, and was making plans for participation in a rally for peace. Neither one could understand the other, and it seemed that neither had any desire to do so.

Since then, I have seen that same picture play out many times in the church. It has been clearly displayed in recent months as we have witnessed the evil, violent acts of ISIS. The images of innocent people unjustly tortured and murdered have left us stunned and angry. The martyrdom of fellow Christians devastated us, leaving us with a sense of helplessness and heartache. But despite our common grief and unanimous condemnation of these acts, there exists among the followers of Jesus a difference of opinion in regard to our response. Some call for war, seeing it as clearly justifiable; others renounce war, calling us instead to pursue the path of the peacemaker. And once again, there are those in each camp that cannot understand the perspective of the other, and it seems they have no desire to do so.

Much has been written and said from both sides, and every related article, blog post, and Facebook status is met with strong and passionate responses. The sharp comments often convey, in so many words, the attitude of “How can you even think that?” and ” Why are we having this discussion? My position is clearly right and unquestionable to anyone with any semblance of a brain.” Hitting closer to home for me, this issue made the social media rounds recently in regard to my own alma mater, where the chaplain preached a sermon raising some challenging questions about being peacemakers in a culture of violence. Following the sermon, he was relieved of one of his positions with the university, which – at the very least – created the appearance that he had been censured. I cannot say the sermon was, in fact, the reason for the change, but the resulting comments and reactions have once again revealed the deep differences of opinion that exist. They also reveal that for some, the topic is not even up for question or discussion.

Ironically, our conversations about peace end up being anything but peaceful.

To be honest, I’m not troubled by the fact that Christians have differing opinions when it comes to an issue like this one. What does trouble me is the apparent inability to at least acknowledge the validity of the question. I am not unsettled by the reality that we can think through some complex issues and arrive at different conclusions; I am concerned when we think that our conclusion is so clear and obvious that it does not merit further discussion. Living out the claims of the Gospel in this broken, fallen world should raise any number of challenging questions for each of us. We have little hope of navigating the complexities if we make no room for the questions raised by those who might disagree; we will not move forward as individuals or as a community of faith if we cannot engage in honest and respectful discussion.

The horrible acts of violence and war that seem to flood every news cycle should leave us wrestling with difficult questions and legitimate points to consider on all sides. How do we reconcile the words of Jesus about loving our enemies and turning the other cheek with life in a dangerous world? Does a failure to respond with force simply allow greater evil to occur, causing more innocent people to suffer? We know God’s kingdom does not come by force, but by way of the cross and sacrificial love. But how do we live out the values of His kingdom when faced with the present reality of violence and evil? Do we simply accept a different set of values for nations and governments than what we hold personally? At what point do the lines become dangerously blurred between earthly, political agendas and the agenda of the kingdom? There’s probably no end to the list of questions we could raise. And they are valid questions. They are difficult, complex questions.

And that’s the point.

Difficult questions should cause us to approach the conversation with a spirit of humility. When faced with complicated issues, it should not surprise me that some will come to an opinion that differs from my own, even though we share the same faith and values. In my response, love and humility does not mandate that I change my opinion, but it does compel me to acknowledge the validity of the question and respect the view of my brother or sister. And something tells me if we cannot hold a respectful conversation and allow for the questions of those who differ in viewpoint, then we are not very secure in our own position. Just maybe our particular conclusion is not as clear and obvious as we want to believe.

Depression, Guilt, and Grace

It’s my nature to be a private person, to be guarded in what I reveal, and to express few of my innermost thoughts. I have always, in particular, been hesitant to share my many faults and struggles, seeing them as the marks of weakness and insignificance, embarrassments that diminish me in the eyes of others. But Paul’s words to the Corinthians push me out of my hiding place, turning conventional wisdom on it’s head by declaring that we should boast of our weaknesses, believing that in weakness God’s power is revealed. It’s a truth that is difficult for me to learn, and one that is even more difficult for me to share, but I realize growth does not happen within the confines of my comfortable space. So, I choose today to “boast” of my weakness, hoping to encounter the grace of God in those things I would rather keep hidden.

Those who know me well know that I struggle with depression and anxiety. It’s a part of my family history, and whatever its cause – genetic or otherwise – it has been and continues to be a part of my personal journey. I wish I could say that things have improved over the years, that somehow with time and maturity I have gained more control over the comings and goings of my depression. I would like to say that, but I can’t. The truth is, the very opposite seems to be the case. The older I get, the longer and deeper my periods of depression become. It’s a heaviness that many carry, and I would never to presume to speak for anyone else and their experience, but for me personally, one of the most painful aspects of depression is the sense of guilt that so often accompanies it.

I feel guilty because I cannot explain my depression or give any rationale for it. Typically, its waves wash over me for no apparent reason. No one died. I didn’t lose my job. No tragedy occurred. It doesn’t come at a particular time of year or during a specific season. That kind of depression makes sense to people; it holds some kind of justification. My episodes of depression come when they choose, usually without warning and without obvious reason. With no circumstance to point to and lacking any explanation that makes sense to others, I assume the blame for my depression, taking on a mantle of guilt for my weakness.

I carry a sense of guilt for how my depression impacts those around me, particularly those I love the most. Depression causes me to disconnect, to become inattentive, to be short and unthinking in my responses. It keeps me, at times, from being the husband and father that I should be and desperately want to be. Given my family history, I am painfully aware of the impact depression has on a household. As difficult as it is for me to walk through a season of depression, it hurts me to know that it unfairly drags my family through stress and confusion as well.

Sometimes I experience guilt because I think that I’m simply not grateful or thankful enough. After all, if I were truly aware of how much I have and how blessed I am, I wouldn’t be depressed, right? And how dare I be depressed when there are so many in our world who are truly suffering, facing heartache and tragedy that has never touched my life? What kind of self-centered person does that make me? Guilt.

In the grip of depression, guilt creeps in and whispers its accusations, the charge that I am denying the joy and peace of God I profess, betraying my faith, and casting a poor witness as a follower of Jesus. Guilt upon guilt.

And the guilt deepens the depression as the depression increases the guilt.

In the middle of this mess, I am trying to learn from Paul’s words, to recognize my weakness as a place of encounter with the immeasurable grace of God. Rather than allow the guilt to push me further down the well of depression, I want it to drive me into the arms of the One who calls me by name, sees my brokenness, and still loves me. Jesus remembers my humanity and knows my struggle; He understands my battle with depression far better than I do. And in response, He offers patience, compassion, and perfect love. In the tiresome and draining cycle of depression and guilt, He provides grace upon grace. I cannot tell you that it ends my struggle or makes the battle disappear. It hasn’t. My personal “thorn in the flesh” continues to make its noise, trying to distract me from the grace that is mine. But I am trying to rest in that grace, knowing and trusting it is there, even in the moments when I cannot see it or feel it.

There’s a good chance you know and love someone who lives the struggle with depression. If I could ask one thing of you, it would be this: Make it your goal to be a reflection of God’s grace to them, reminding them that He understands the struggle, knows where they are, and loves them all the same. If you are one who battles depression, I just want to remind you that our weakness intersects with God’s grace. Your fight may continue, but even at the deepest point, trust that Jesus remembers with compassion our humanity and our brokenness. He offers you nothing less than perfect love and the fullness of grace, and your struggle will never diminish how much He cherishes you.


Some Things Don’t Have A Reason

Some things are so commonly repeated that we come to simply accept them. We speak them without thinking and receive them without question, never stopping to consider the broad implications and deeper meaning of what is being said. It’s not surprising, then, that some commonly offered “wisdom” statements are anything but wise. Some are wrong, some are half-truths, and some are just dangerous. One in particular sets off deep, intense groans of exasperation within me every time I hear it.

“There’s a reason for everything.”

It’s a statement I can accept if what you mean by it is there is a cause for everything. Tornados happen because of particular atmospheric conditions. Cancer occurs because of mutations in the cells of our body. An accident occurs because someone was drunk and decided to drive. I fall down because I did not step over the curb and gravity necessitates a trip to the ground. I get that things have a cause.

My problem with the statement is that I usually hear it from Christians as a response to some tragedy or heartache. In the hands of Christians, “there is a reason for everything” doesn’t typically refer to the cause of something. What they generally mean to say is that there is a purpose to everything and, more specifically, that God has a purpose for everything. When a follower of Christ makes that statement, the implication – and what is generally heard and received by others – is that God has caused this terrible wrong for some mysterious purpose. And that’s where I have to get off the Christian cliché bandwagon.

Far from bringing any real comfort or encouragement, trite statements like this diminish the significance of suffering and the pain that others feel. It takes a complex and troubling issue like the existence of evil and suffering in our world and reduces it to a simple bumper sticker slogan. Perhaps not even recognizing the implications of our casual comments, we can distort the image of God revealed to us in Christ, twisting Him into the author and instigator of horrible evils. And, at its very core, the suggestion that everything has some divine purpose is a denial of human freedom.

If we truly believe that, by God’s grace, we have freedom and genuine choice, then we must also accept that not everything that happens is the will or desire of God. If we are indeed free, then we must also be free to choose against God’s purpose and intentions for us and our world. And we do. In other words, God doesn’t always get what He wants.

Freedom bears consequences. The world is marred and broken by our decisions to reject God’s will and longing for us; life bears the painful marks of humanity’s poorly exercised freedom. Behind every tragic event and circumstance lies a multitude of decisions by a multitude of free individuals, the reality of a broken and fallen creation, and the conspiring of evil forces that seek to destroy God’s good purposes. For human freedom to be true and genuine, then I must accept that some things are not the expression of God’s will, but the will of others.

So, some things in this life don’t have a reason. Some things are just evil, wrong, and destructive. They invade our lives not as some mysterious but deliberate act of God’s will, but as the often inexplicable scars of a broken, messed up world. Let’s not try to pass off the hurtful and destructive moments of life as divinely ordained or determined instruments of good. Suffering, left to itself, is without purpose.

I know. . . that sounds cynical and hopeless. It might suggest that we are left with nothing but meaningless suffering, and we might as well just sit in an ash pile and wait for death. And that would be the case if it weren’t for the God revealed to us in Jesus Christ. Jesus, the One who went to the cross, allowing the full force of sin, evil, and suffering to fall on Him. And He overcame it all. He showed His power, love, and grace to be greater than all the forces of sin and death, and He walked out of the tomb, transforming the cross from an instrument of death into a symbol of life. The good news for all of us is that He continues to do that very thing in our lives.

The love, grace, and power of God can take the broken, evil, and suffering moments of our lives and transform them. They are terrible and meaningless in themselves, but He can take the brutal, death-dealing crosses of our world and turn them into a source of life and meaning. The horrific suffering sometimes experienced in our world is not of God, but it is also not greater than God. He is the One who can redeem anything for His purpose, even the things He did not ordain or desire. The power of resurrection is at work in us who belong to Christ, raising up new life and hope from the empty, meaningless tombs of suffering.

The sovereignty of God does not mean that He causes or desires everything that happens in my life. So, there’s not a reason for everything; not everything that lands on our doorstep has purpose in itself. I will not tell someone that. But the sovereignty of God does mean that He can overcome and redeem anything and everything, so I can say that God is able to bring purpose out of anything – even the garbage that He never wanted for us. Jesus, who has shown Himself to be greater than all the power and force of evil, can overcome and transform the evil that invades my world and breaks my heart. It is that redeeming power and grace of an all-loving God, and that alone, that enables us to live a hope-filled life in the face of a world that, at times, is senseless and without reason.


Graceful Assumptions

We are, it seems, conditioned to expect the worst. Perhaps it’s a subconscious defense mechanism, protecting us from the pain of disappointment. Maybe it is the natural outworking of fear and its power over us. Or, it could be that as fallen and broken human beings, we just have an inclination toward negativity. Whatever the reason (or reasons, as there are probably many), we live in a culture that expects and looks for the worst. The messages are screamed at us every day from all directions. Doomsday is upon us by natural event or human destruction, inevitable war and violence will continue to escalate, society will certainly collapse if the wrong political party is elected, and McDonald’s is poisoning the world with food that’s not really food.

There may well be elements of truth in the declarations of the doomsayers, but this bombardment of negativity and pessimistic expectation shapes us, whether we recognize it or not. It colors and distorts our perception of life, the world, and others. It not only steals the joy of living, replacing it with the fear of what could be; it also destroys any sense of real community and connection. You see, the other side of this ugly, negative coin of expecting the worst is that we also assume the worst about others. It is an assumption that fractures relationships, blockading any sense of belonging with the cold, lonely wall of mistrust.

Those of us in the church are not immune. Shaped by the fearful and divisive culture that surrounds us, our first reaction toward others is far too often an assumption of the worst. And our assumptions give birth to accusations, and accusations manifest themselves in attacks.

Someone speaks a word to us that just doesn’t sit right, and we assume that they intended to insult and hurt. With our assumption as justification, we take our offense, carry our anger, and slander them in return.

Our hard work seems to go unacknowledged, and we instantly believe that no one sees or appreciates what we do. In response, we resign from our efforts and take a seat in self-pity, sharing our perceived slight with anyone who will listen.

A leader fails to perform in our eyes, and we jump to the conclusion that he or she is incompetent, lazy, or unfit. Rather than serving as a source of encouragement and help, our assumption drives us to look at everything they do through a negative, critical lens.

A person disagrees with us or holds an opinion contrary to what we believe, and our defensive assumption is that surely they cannot be a real Christian and think that way. So, we derisively dismiss them with the appropriate label – liberal or fundamentalist, pagan or self-righteous, heretic or Pharisee.

Assuming the worst about those around us does not build the bridges of relationship; it burns them. It prevents us from listening, understanding, and working for reconciliation. And it will always keep us from being the kind of community God has called us to be. Each of us, in all of our weakness and failure, has received from Christ an abundance of grace, mercy, and peace. What we have received is intended to flow out from us as well, defining the life, relationships, and culture of this body of people we call the church.

Since God chose you to be the holy people he loves, you must clothe yourselves with tender-hearted mercy, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience. Make allowance for each other’s faults, and forgive anyone who offends you. Remember, the Lord forgave you, so you must forgive others. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds us all together in perfect harmony. And let the peace that comes from Christ rule in your hearts. For as members of one body you are called to live in peace. And always be thankful. (Colossians 3:12-15)

I cannot help but wonder if we, at times, are more governed by the spirit of the accuser than we are the Spirit of grace and peace. If I persist in assuming the worst about others, if I cannot give them the benefit of the doubt, if I insist on instantly judging their heart and motives, then the culture of grace and peace will remain nothing more than a nice idea that is never realized. And, sadly, that looks much like the world around us.

The Remarkable Virtue of Christmas

The story of Christmas can, and does, elicit any number of emotions and responses, and at the same time, unveils multiple truths of God that call for our attention and reflection. There has always been, though, one aspect of Christ’s birth, one virtue so clearly displayed through the manger scene, that it never fails to push me forward on this journey toward Christlikeness. That virtue, so evident and so challenging, is humility.

The entire narrative is marked by it. This incredible moment, when the Divine breaks into our world, is surrounded by the common and ordinary. Parents who were far from people of power or influence. Common shepherds who come to bear witness. The Son of God, taking on flesh, and coming as a baby – helpless, dependent, and born in the dirt and filth of a barn. The entire picture is shaded by an amazing, almost unbelievable humility. It is here, in this picture, that I am reminded again that humility is an essential characteristic of the holy life. And one that is often neglected, misunderstood, or ignored.

We struggle with humility. We wrestle with what it truly is and what it looks like in real, everyday life. We turn it into things it’s not; we sometimes claim to possess it when we don’t. Often, in our inner battles and our struggles with others, we just ignore it completely. It’s seems easier that way. But we cannot reflect the character of Christ, we cannot walk in the power and freedom of a holy life, without growing in the virtue and character of humility.

Most of us probably recognize the absence of humility in obvious outbursts of pride and arrogance, self-promotion, or belittling others. But I have come to understand that the absence of this virtue is often revealed in other surprising and unexpected ways. Humility is also missing in self-degradation. It’s not found in low self-esteem, comparing myself to others in a negative way, or deeming myself worthless and of no value. To live and think that way is to still be focused on self – and humility does not live focused on self.

I am starting to see that humility is nurtured in our character when we live with a right sense of identity. It develops when our sense of identity is centered in the right place, or more accurately, in the right Person. Humility is free to grow and shape my character when I find my identity in Christ, when He is the source of my value, worth, and purpose. If my sense of identity is rooted in my self alone, meaning my own perceptions of myself or the opinions of others reflected back to me, I will constantly live with a distorted, inward focus that betrays true humility.

True humility is not focused on self; it understands that my identity, my value, and my worth is founded and secured in Christ and only in Christ. And when He alone becomes the source of all that I am and all my needs, I am set free. In Him, I find freedom:

-from the compulsive desire for recognition and praise.

-from the enslavement to the opinions of others and the addiction to their approval.

-from the desperate need to be needed, looked to, and consulted.

-from the envy I feel when others succeed or are honored.

-from the fear of failure or humiliation.

-from the fear of criticism, hurt, or rejection.

-from the terrible burden of needing to make myself something, because I’m afraid that I am nothing.

These things lose power over me when my very existence, when all that I am and need, is centered in Jesus. When He becomes the source of my identity, I can live in true humility, free from the distortions brought on by the unhealthy focus on self. The Christmas event reminds us that holiness always bears the fruit of humility. Finding my identity in the love and grace of our Immanuel, I come to realize that humility is not a burden to enforce, but a freedom to be lived.



When God Calls, It’s Not Always Convenient

We all have those moments when we wish God would speak to us in a dream or an angel would appear with heavenly direction. The idea carries with it an attractive sense of certainty and clarity, one that makes us believe that such an intervention would make life so much easier. We want to think that, but I’m not sure that it’s true. When the voice of God comes clearly calling, life doesn’t necessarily get easier. Sometimes, from our human perspective, life actually becomes more complicated. At least it was that way for Joseph when he received his angelic visit.

Before he could divorce Mary quietly, Joseph receives a word from God in his dream. An angel tells him not to be afraid to take Mary as his wife – she has not been unfaithful, this is all the miraculous work of God, and she will give birth the Messiah. Alright then – problem solved. The clear and direct word from God’s angel surely made it all okay, right? Well, in some ways, yes; but it certainly did not make things easy. For Joseph personally, the road forward was now suddenly marred with potholes of complication and sacrifice.

Everyone assumed that Joseph would divorce Mary. It was the expectation of law and culture to divorce the unfaithful wife. But what if he didn’t? What would they say? How would it be perceived? People would assume by his actions that the child was his, that he was with her before the appropriate time, and he was the one who acted without honor.

For Joseph to be obedient to the angel’s message meant that others would not understand. They were going to assume the wrong things. They going to make the wrong judgments. Obedience meant potentially sacrificing his reputation in the eyes of others and subjecting himself to rejection.

But he did obey. Joseph, the one who was willing to act in mercy toward Mary despite what others expected, now shows that he is willing to act in obedience to God despite what others might think. By all appearances it was not the easy path to take, but his willingness to follow at any cost enabled him to serve a greater purpose, to participate in God’s story of redemption.

We too often fail to become participants in that greater story. The problem is not the lack of an angelic visit. The truth is, we don’t really need that. We know when God speaks; we know what it is He is asking us to do and to be. Our problem is not knowing. Our problem is doing.

When God calls, the path ahead can often appear more complicated or challenging than it was before. And unlike Joseph, who was willing to face the hard road for the sake of obedience, we often make our sense of comfort and security the priority. We sacrifice a life of true meaning and purpose for the sake of following a road that appears easier or more convenient. And the most worthwhile pursuits of life are rarely easy or convenient.

There is, I believe, a deeper issue underlying this whole matter of obedience. It’s revealed in one simple but significant word:  trust. Ultimately, Joseph trusted God to care for him on the rough road ahead and redeem his journey for a greater purpose. When I place my own comfort or convenience ahead of God’s mission, I betray the trust that is essential to relationship, faith, and a life of true meaning. To participate in the unfolding work of God in our world, I must trust Him enough to follow when He calls. Even when that call turns me from my smooth, comfortable road to the seemingly uncertain, inconvenient path.


The “And Yet. . .” Kind of Person

For most of my life, I never gave a great deal of thought to Joseph and his place in the story of Jesus’ birth. He basically served as a place-filler at the manger scene, the guy playing the role of the father just to complete the picture. In recent years, I’ve come to understand just how wrong I was to overlook him. Joseph was not some extraneous piece stuck into the story for the sake of convenience; he wasn’t just some guy in the right place at the right time, put in the scene like an extra in a movie.

Joseph was a critical part of the story for a reason. In this amazing picture of God’s redemptive love breaking into our world, he was an essential character in the story’s unfolding. Joseph was entrusted with the incredible, and daunting, role of earthly father to the Messiah. He did not find himself there by chance; he became a part of God’s story because of who he was, his character, and the choices he made. That’s precisely why we should not overlook him, but look to him as an example that challenges us to become a part of the story ourselves.

Joseph was bound to Mary. There was an agreement, a contract, and the promise of fidelity. When she was found to be pregnant, he assumed the only thing that he could have assumed – Mary had been unfaithful. In that painful light, he plans to divorce her. Now, Matthew tells us that Joseph was faithful to the law (Matt 1:19), and indeed, it was the direction of Jewish law to divorce in the case of infidelity. The same expectation existed even in Roman law. The demand of law and culture was clear:  you divorce the unfaithful wife. And Joseph was faithful to the law.

There are, however, two small but significant words in Matthew 1:19:  and yet.  Joseph was faithful to the demands and expectations of the law, and yet. . . he did not want to expose Mary to public disgrace. He could have. He had every right to. He could have taken her to court, proving her apparent unfaithfulness publicly. In so doing, he could impounded her dowry or recovered the bride price he paid. The law gave him that right.

I imagine most people would have expected him to do so. Most would probably say Mary deserved it. After all, she had shamed and embarrassed Joseph and his family. She had, in their minds, betrayed him in the most personal and hurtful way. To make her pay was his right, it would have been expected, and in many ways, would be seen as deserved. And yet. . .

Joseph did not want to walk the harsh and cold path of public disgrace. He saw no reason to punish or disgrace Mary beyond what she would already face in the community. He chose, instead, to quietly give her a certificate of divorce in front of two or three witnesses. In so doing, he gave up his rights and released all claim on any reimbursement or benefit he might gain. Punishment was expected, it was within his rights, and yet. . .

Joseph chose the way of mercy.

Joseph is a part of God’s redemptive story, not by chance, not by accident, and not as some extra but insignificant piece. He is in the picture as a result of his heart and character, revealed in the choices he made. He is there because he was willing to look beyond himself and his own rights. Joseph became a part of God’s mission because he was the kind of man who would choose the way of mercy.

If I really want to be a part of God’s ongoing story of redemption, I must be that kind of man as well. We have all been wronged, betrayed, or mistreated. It’s easy in those moments to cling to our rights, to do what is expected by the world, to enforce what we believe to be deserved. And yet. . . to be a part of God’s mission, we must be people who do the unexpected. Rather than clinging to our rights, we release them; instead of demanding what is deserved, we offer mercy. When wronged or offended, we seize it as an opportunity to reveal the grace, forgiveness, and reconciliation offered through Jesus.

In a world of payback, revenge, and punishment, people of mercy stand out as a startling contrast. Moments of mercy have a way of piercing the darkness, allowing the light of Christ’s love to shine on those who have wronged us. Looking beyond myself and my rights sets me free to share in a greater mission and serve a greater purpose. Yes, we have all been wronged, and will be again, and yet. . . in walking the path of mercy, we become a living part of God’s redemptive story.

An Honest Question About What It’s Really About

As a dad, I learned early on to give my boys Christmas and birthday presents that I really wanted. Kids get bored with things pretty quickly, so why not give them something that would entertain me as well? I will confess that there were many times when their name might be on the gift box, but the agenda was more about me. You can call it a bait and switch, call it deceptive, or maybe just call me a bad father. Whatever you call it, though, let’s admit that we all have our moments when we say it’s about someone else, when in reality, it’s about us.

I saw the story this week about the lawsuit filed over a policeman witnessing to someone he pulled over for a traffic violation. Apparently, with lights flashing, he asked about her faith, handed her religious materials, and explained her need to acknowledge that she was a sinner. Many have risen to the police officer’s defense, citing this as another example of religious intolerance and the restriction of our rights. It may well be that very thing, but the incident has pushed me to wrestle with a deeper question. What does our reaction to situations like this say about our motivation?

Responses to these kinds of stories tend to be focused primarily on the issue of our rights and freedoms. Without devaluing the importance of upholding the rights and freedoms of all, can we ask an honest but uncomfortable question?

What is it we are truly concerned about – witnessing or our right to witness?

The two are distinctly different. The first is focused on the Kingdom and others; the second is a matter of self-concern. I cannot help but wonder if our reaction to these incidents is rooted more in fear and self-preservation than it is concern for sharing the Gospel. Stories like this stir the fear that our rights are being taken away and, perhaps, days of increased persecution are coming. You can argue that is the case and you may very well be right. But if that is our greatest worry, then don’t we have to admit that what drives us is our own welfare and not the mission itself?

Much has been said about us now living in post-Christian culture. Such talk makes us uncomfortable. It creates uncertainty and it generates fear. From that flows the reactions of self-defense, the desire to protect ourselves, our place in the public square, and the privileges we have known. Such reactions can become a powerful force, and perhaps without realizing it, our priority soon becomes more about us than it does the mission of Jesus. But I think we need to step back a moment and ask ourselves this question:  When did Jesus ever tell His followers to react in fear, fight for their own rights, and seek to protect themselves from persecution?

He calls us to lay down our lives for others and His kingdom. We are compelled by love to fight for the rights of others who cannot speak for themselves. We are challenged to live as the embodiment of Jesus, revealing His love, grace, and hope to a world in need. At no point, however, did He call us to act out of fear and self-concern. On the contrary, we are to live as light in the darkness, fully understanding that doing so will bring conflict and persecution. In the way of Jesus, our response to the conflict is not one of fighting for ourselves and our own protection. Instead, we turn the other cheek, we bless those who curse us, we pray for those who persecute us.

Jesus overcame the powers of evil not by fighting for His rights, but by laying them down and taking up the cross. Those who follow Him are called to overcome in the same way. We do not fight for our own rights, comforts, or protection; we pick up the cross and follow. The kingdom is not built by the rights and liberties granted by any earthly government; it is built by the sacrificial love revealed in the cross of Jesus. Could it be that we have come to believe and trust more in the power of rights and privileges than we have the way of the cross?

Understand that I am not passing judgment on anyone else or questioning their motives. I simply ask the question because I believe it is worthy of our thought, consideration, and prayer. Given my own ability to put someone else’s name on the gift box when it’s really more about me, I need to honestly wrestle with the questions of my true agenda and concerns. Perhaps there are times when the fight becomes more about fear and self-protection than it is the mission of Jesus.