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You're Not a Sad Story

Posted on September 29, 2014 at 9:00 AM Comments comments (0)

I love being around high-school students because they haven’t quite learned how to make their emotions “presentable.” I often find myself telling high-school girls that adults experience the same exact things they do: discouragement, betrayal, confusion, doubt, fear, and frustration. The only difference between an adult experiencing these things and a high-schooler is that, as an adult, I am able to mask it all more effectively. The struggle, the angst, the tangled web of emotions, the heartache that they experience as teenagers isn’t just a result of the fact that they are in a period called adolescence. It’s a result of being a broken, sinful human in a broken, sinful world; whether you’re 90 or 9, suffering is real, the struggle in this world is real.


If you haven’t seen The Perks of Being a Wallflower, you should. After seeing it for the first time, it became one of my top five movies. The story is that of the quintessential plight of the American teenager, and, as such, it is a story about suffering—about broken, sinful people in a broken, sinful world. The movie is narrated by a 16-year-old boy named Charlie, whose short life has already been wrought with deep suffering: childhood sexual abuse, the death of his favorite aunt at age seven, the loss of his best friend to suicide in eighth grade, the burden of watching his older sister endure an abusive dating relationship, and continued psychological trauma from his own abuse.


Charlie knows what it is to suffer. And yet, he also comes to know what it is to experience deep joy with a group of social misfits just like him. In the beginning of the movie, he is writing a letter in which he says, “So, this is my life. And I want you to know that I am both happy and sad and I’m still trying to figure out how that could be.”


In a message I gave at youth group, I used this movie throughout in order to illustrate the reality in which we live. Theologians often call it “the already-not-yet”—the overlap between the old order of things and the new order of things that has been ushered in by Christ. We live by faith in what Jesus has already accomplished, and we live by hope in what He is still coming to do—to restore all things. Because we are still waiting for the broken, sinful state of things to pass away, we will always find ourselves in the midst of suffering, both inner and external turmoil. But the suffering is not all there is, for we are given the guarantee of our salvation, and thus hope, all throughout the pages of Scripture. Like Charlie, we too are both happy and sad, and we’re often still trying to figure out how that could be.


In John 16, Jesus tells his disciples that their lives will be filled with weeping and mourning and pain while the world will be living it up and rejoicing. He isn’t saying that we will never experience joy and pleasure and goodness in this life, but He is being honest about the suffering that we will experience in this world.


See, what Jesus is saying here is that the reason that God’s children will often groan and ache in this life is because, for us, this is the worst part. If you’ve staked it all on Jesus, this life is the worst you will ever have to experience. But for those who don’t know Jesus, this life is best thing they will ever experience. It makes sense, then, that they would be rejoicing and living it up, because, in a sense, they have to. This is all they’ve got. But for us? The best is yet to come; so we are free to groan now because it truly is the hardest part.


Jesus also uses an illustration to explain the reality of the struggle to his disciples. He gives them the example of a woman in labor. If you ask any woman when she experienced the worst pain during her pregnancy, she’ll tell you it was at the end—right before she delivered the baby, while she was in the late stages of labor. That’s what Jesus is saying about the time we’re living in: it hurts so much is because we know that something new is coming, and we’re closer to that end today than we were yesterday. Jesus is coming to make everything sad come untrue.


At the end of the film, Charlie’s two best friends come back from college to visit him. They had a tradition of driving through this one tunnel, taking turns standing in the bed of the pick-up truck with their heads back and arms spread wide. In this closing scene, Charlie gets into the back of the truck, and his closing monologue plays. He refers to that moment as “that moment you know you’re not a sad story; you’re alive.”


I love that line because that’s the message of the gospel. You are not a sad story. You are alive. But sometimes, we still feel like it’s all just a sad story, don’t we? Still, the whole of Scripture screams, “This world is not just a sad story! One day it will be fully alive. ‘Behold! I am making all things new. Write these words down, for they are trustworthy and true.’”

Stories Matter

Posted on September 15, 2014 at 9:00 AM Comments comments (0)

We sat across the table from one another, casually chatting about life and school. She said something about how she was having a hard time because of what everyone thought about her.


“Well, what do people think of you?” I asked.


“Whore.”


My eyes met hers just as she was moving her gaze back down to her plate and quickly out the window.


“Why do they think that?” I gently prodded.


She hesitated. Could I be trusted?


She looked back at me. “Sorry,” she said. “I just wasn’t sure if I should tell you all the details.”


“Oh, you don’t have to tell me anything you don’t want to,” I assured.


And then it came gushing out. Like breath that has been held much too long, almost to the point of suffocation.


Pain. Pain that led to several drinks, which led to a party with other thirsty attendees, which led to an incoherent indulgence with multiple partners. It was a disaster. Her words spilled out, like wreckage filling the space between us.


****


Stories. They are the fabric of our lives.


That night at a restaurant, one girl told me a story. Whether or not she realized it, she was giving forth evidence that we naturally gravitate to stories. We use them to express our emotions, to convey our hurts and joys. Whether or not we thoughtfully consider this, we know it to be true.


Maya Angelou once said, “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” For months, that girl had been bearing an untold story in her soul. And the thing that unleashed all that was bottled up inside were two simple questions: “What do people think of you?” and “Why do they think that?”


The Bible is a story. The majority of Scripture is written in narrative form. God could have simply given us a PowerPoint from heaven with several slides containing bulleted points of things we needed to know. But He chose to give us stories. And when He took on flesh and dwelt among us, much of his teaching was through parables—stories that left people offended, astonished, captivated, and delighted.


Every story that God writes whispers the name of Jesus, as is written on the cover of The Jesus Storybook Bible. The pages of Scripture are filled with them, but so is the world around us. Each person we see has a story. Each student that walks into our doors has a story. And it is only when our small stories intersect with the greatest Story ever told that our longings, confusions, joys, and hopes are finally validated and set in proper perspective.


So often, though, we do not tell stories. Instead, we recite facts or explain ideas and theories—facts are detached from flesh and blood; stories are intimate, tapping into the very core of a human being. Facts certainly have their rightful place—we want the facts of the Gospel to be true!--but, first and foremost, we are called to be storytellers. As Diane Setterfield wrote, “A good story is more dazzling than a broken piece of truth.” Thankfully, we don’t have to come up with the stories on our own; we’ve the greatest story ever told.


****


Four days after having dinner with that girl, I met up with her for coffee. I asked her more about what she had told me at dinner the week before. We talked about the heartache and shame and betrayal she had been experiencing during that time. We talked about her family and the brokenness and harshness she had suffered. Later on, the conversation drifted to her thoughts on God and religion. She told me that she was an agnostic—that she knew there was a God, but that she didn’t know who he was. And he certainly wasn’t involved in her life.


I asked her why she felt that way. Her gaze shifted downward and her voice lowered. “I guess…Well…I just don’t feel good enough.”


I told her that I often feel the same exact way. I also offered that, as far as I could tell, Christianity was the only story that really dealt with that. And I simply went on to tell her a story.


In John 4, Jesus intentionally goes out of his way to interact with a woman at a well. She had been shamed in her society because of her promiscuous lifestyle. Thus, she went to get water at midday—a time when she was sure to be the only one at the well. Jesus approaches her, and she is immediately taken aback. If he really knew who I was, he wouldn’t be speaking to me, she thinks.


But He knew everything about her—all the skeletons in her closet. And He revealed this all in one small sentence. “Go get your husband.” Every muscle in her body probably tightened. Her heartbeat probably began to double in speed. How does he know? In that moment, she has to admit her shame: “I don’t have a husband.” Jesus calmly and kindly says, “I know.” And then he tells her about her life. She’s had five husbands, and she’s currently sleeping with someone who she’s not married to.


Jesus shows this shamed woman that he knew her story—all of it—and still chose to enter into relationship with her, to pursue her, to put himself in a risky position in public by approaching the woman who was off-limits.


“Wow,” she said. “That story really relates to me…all of those guys.”


“You know what?” I asked. “The way that Jesus responded to those women is the same way he responds to you. And that kind of a God is compelling to me.”


Tears filled her eyes. Something was happening, something that was much bigger than a conversation happening between two people sitting across from each other at Starbucks.


Later that night, I texted her, and thanked her for hanging out and letting me get to know her a little more. She thanked me to listening to her rants, to which I responded, “You weren’t ranting. You were sharing your heart.”


And then came some of the most beautiful words I have ever read: “Well we definitely need to hang out again. I need to hear more stories.”


I began to cry, and my heart was filled with amazement at Jesus. And I realized that stories matter. Stories work. Stories speak to our hearts because we have threads of the Author woven through our very souls. I realized anew that people are not ultimately longing to know “the facts” or have all their questions answered. They want a Person—that Someone who can always make sense of them and love them to the very depths. Jesus is that Someone, and he invites us into His Story. And when we are caught up in that Story, we become, not first and foremost apologists of brute facts, but storytellers.



Originally posted on the Rooted blog: http://rootedministry.com/articles/stories-matter

I Am a Poor Wayfaring Stranger

Posted on April 21, 2014 at 9:00 AM Comments comments (0)

Oftentimes I think that we forget an extremely important thing when approaching Scripture—namely, that it interprets us. In coming before Scripture, we need to remember that, as God’s Word, it has the ultimate authority to describe the story of the world in which we live and diagnose the problem of its current state in which we find ourselves each day. God’s Word tells us about us. And when we begin to understand the Story, we will be surprised to find some of our most exhausting and seemingly hopeless experiences validated.


A few months ago, I took a trip to visit several friends. The thread running through all of the conversations I had those few days was one of loneliness, loss, suffering, grief, and groaning. Death is a thief, snatching from us futures which are so delicately woven together in our hopeful hearts; it is the silencer of joyous belly-laughter that never knew darkness. Loneliness is a subtle culprit, sowing slow-growing seeds of resentment; it is a nagging questioner of goodness, pregnant with the enemy of trust.


When we experience pangs of loneliness, aches of loss, and deep moans of grief, we almost often also experience contempt for the longings and desires and hopes that make the losses sting so much. We hate the things we long for, the things we hope for.


One of my wise professors and friends always speak of the dignity and depravity that we possess as humans this side of the Fall. Although sin has ravaged everything and turned our desires in all the wrong directions, we still have good, God-given longings in our souls. We were created for intimacy, for deep relationship, for belonging, for a sense of Home. And we were created to dwell in a world in which those longings would never go unmet.


But then we rebelled. We believed the lie that the one who knit our souls together didn’t really know how they would best be satisfied. And we’ve been running around hungry and parched ever since. We gorge ourselves on false promises, but as our bellies grow larger, our souls slowly wither.


And as the juice dripped from Adam and Eve’s lips, the blood-filled veins of the world began to run dry. So, now, we groan and all of creation groans with us. 

We live as broken people amongst a cosmos that has been torn at the seams. We live in a world where longings get longer. We live in a world where desires are often mocked by devastation and abuse. And in the middle of where we find ourselves, we often choose despair instead of hope. We shut the blinds to our hearts, hoping to prevent even the faintest glimmer of light from breaking through.


We try to stop having expectations, because that way, we can protect ourselves from disappointment.


And in a world like this, we never would have expected the Author of the Story and the One who formed the cosmos with his very Word, to become a creature who walked on top of the cracked and weary earth. We never expected that God himself would allow himself to be broken, with blood-filled veins running dry on a slab of wood.


We never would have expected that another fabric would be torn and frayed, but that this fragmentation would bring together the Holy and the unclean. We never expected that when a drop of blood from the flesh of a maimed and disfigured man could make the heart of the world begin to beat again.


We never expected the Thief--who took from us all we had—to be robbed, once and for all, by that same Man who walked out of the mouth of the tomb; we never expected the Story to go like this. 

And it doesn’t end there. Really, that is just a beginning of sorts. For He is coming soon, and in a twinkling of an eye, our tear ducts will permanently shut, and the only sounds coming from our mouths will be loud laughter and the praises of the Lamb who was slain to rise victorious as the Lion who roars in victory. 

Those pangs we feel? They make sense. They belong here. Our longings and losses are clues to the Story by their very existence. But there are more pages yet to be read.

It Was an Ordinary Day

Posted on March 31, 2014 at 9:00 AM Comments comments (0)

It was an ordinary day filled with chocolate stains, ice water, and the sting of death.


I walked into her house. The kids were watching a TV show—their focus broken every few minutes in order to wander into the other room or play with that toy for the tenth time. She walked into the kitchen with eyes that reflected the waters of her heart: confused, tired, devastated.


"You know that couple we’re friends with? The one whose baby has been nonresponsive for the past three weeks since the birth?"


"Yes?"


"They decided to pull the tubes today at 2:30. It could take as little as two or three minutes, but I heard about another couple whose baby took sixteen hours to go."


We glance at the stove. 2:55.


Her little girl hoists herself up onto one of the chairs at the counter. “Mommy, can I have a pudding?”


I get her a cup out of the refrigerator and peel off the top, handing it to her so she can lick it. She smiles and sheepishly reaches out to receive the gift.


I continue to listen as her mother explains more about the couple who is now sitting in the hospital, watching their only child take her last breaths of her too-short life. I ask some questions, and she goes on as she prepares some food to take to the family later that evening.


We eventually move into the living room and sit down on the couches. Silence.


"I just keep thinking about them. I just keep praying that God takes her quickly."


Her daughter skips down the hallway and joins her on the couch, her white and blue shirt laced with chocolate pudding stains. I smile at her and continue to sip my ice water from the glass in my hand.


Here we are, another ordinary day filled with chocolate stains and ice water. Except, suddenly, my water tastes like life and the remnants of chocolate pudding look like grace. The sting of death has transformed the ordinary into the sacred.


Forty-five minutes pass by and I get in my car to go home. The clouds above roll ahead of me. Some daring leaves scamper across my lane in the wind. Single droplets of rain assault my windshield—one, two, then twenty-three.


Today, darkness settled in the afternoon. The sun seemed to stop shining. And there was groaning…


…echoes of another Day…


A day when a Father watched His Son take His last breaths of life. It was three in the afternoon, and darkness came over the land, and the sun stopped shining. And when this Son died, there was rumbling, not of a mere thunderstorm, but of Death itself surrendering.


On that Day, Death died, so that on days like this when darkness comes too soon and there’s rumbling in the distance, we can be sure that whatever is taken from us, is never taken by a hand of justice, but only grace.


On days like this when the groaning turns into white noise and forsakenness seems real, we can remember that Day, when one Man groaned, once and for all, so that our soul-sounds can be longings for home rather than the agonies of the home-less.


It was an ordinary day filled with chocolate stains, ice water, and the sting of death.


It was another reminder that, no matter how normal these days feel, there is nothing normal about a world that aches and groans. A reminder that chocolate pudding and water are never just food and drink when the Son of man has taken on flesh and spent his life eating and drinking with those who would later stain him and leave him parched.


A reminder that, no matter how many pages in we are,


"We will reach the final chapter. When we have eyes that can stare into the sun, eyes that only squint for the Shekinah, then we will see laughing children pulling cobras by their tails, and hawks and rabbits playing tag." -N.D. Wilson

The Unnecessary Burden of Carrying Yourself

Posted on March 10, 2014 at 10:00 AM Comments comments (0)

Jesus, some weeks feel like a whilwind--times when I've been caught up in everything you’re doing, but I haven’t been caught up in you.


There seems to be a pattern here.


When you start doing something really neat, I usually start to function like it’s my project and my job to carry it out and get it done. I take the reigns, and immediately begin to worry and doubt.


I’m just like Peter.


You start walking towards me, and then I start treating the whole thing like it’s something I need to do to prove myself. But the second it becomes something to showcase my abilities, I start sinking. Fast. And you reach out to save me, saying, “Oh you of little faith, why did you doubt?”


You’re not telling me to believe more in myself; you’re asking me why I stopped trusting in you. Where I look determines whether I walk or sink. When I look at myself, I am forced to bear the weight of myself—all my sins, my failures, my weakness; but when I look at you all that weight is transferred to you. Looking is trusting. And trusting is casting myself onto you.


You call me to walk, but you know that’s only possible if I’m not focusing on my walking. The walking is the means to the end. The end is you. You are the point, not my walking.


My pride is often revealed in what I don’t say. Like Peter, I rarely ask, “How in the world am I going to do this?” I always assume my ability. And I crash and burn. My inner life is often like Peter’s: I can walk on the water. I can defend you in the garden. I can hold my ground and profess my allegiance to you in the courtyard. If only Peter had known that the secret to success was admitting that he couldn’t do it—then maybe he would’ve been free. And his faithfulness would’ve surprised him. Maybe it would surprise me, too.


Your yoke is easy and your burden is light because you actually bear the load of what you call me to. You give me tasks that are equal to your ability, not mine. And you take responsibility for their completion. You cannot deny yourself. You cannot fail to be faithful. So I can breathe. I can lighten up. I don’t have to fear the size of my calling. You--who have promised--are faithful; you will do it.

When We Can't Fix It

Posted on February 3, 2014 at 9:00 AM Comments comments (0)

While sharing prayer requests with some people at my church, a weary mother expressed the heartache and confusion she is experiencing as she watches her teenage son break under all of the anger and pain he’s been carrying around. Another woman looked at her with eyes full of compassion and said, “We so badly want to fix our kids’ problems, but we can’t. And that is so hard to realize. And when we can’t fix it, we just have to hurt with them. I am so sorry. Hurting with your children is so painful.”


The majority of my life has been spent trying to fix things: myself, my circumstances, and problems that others bring to me. I so desperately want to fix what’s broken so that I don’t have to feel the brokenness. My life was a lot easier when I fixed everything. I wasn’t burdened by my own depravity. I wasn’t disturbed by my inconvenient emotions. I wasn’t crippled by my own inabilities. I wasn’t torn up over the fallenness of the world. My heart wasn’t broken for my friends. I was never interrupted by tears shed over the burdens of others.


But my humanity was hanging by a thread. I was barely alive. My heart was calloused, cold. I was trying to be God. And since I was trying to be God, I couldn’t have possibly been trying to be human. I was trying to hold it all, and as a result, I wouldn’t let myself be held.


And then, through two dear friends, I began to see that feeling was a part of real life—with all of its joys and sorrow—and it was actually something very beautiful. And I started to crave that real life; I longed for that, I yearned to be able to just sit and cry because that’s just what creatures are free to do.


And so I prayed. I prayed that God would break me. I prayed that He would enable me to feel what Jesus felt, He felt everything, and He felt it deeply. In John 11, Jesus goes to be with Mary and Martha after their brother Lazarus has died. When Jesus arrives at Lazarus’ tomb, we see something profound: Jesus hurts with this grieving family; he weeps. He willingly feels the full weight of all the pain instead of immediately fixing the situation. Later on, we know that he does ultimately fix it. But he chooses to feel first. Jesus is showing us that love suffers with, before it rescues. Only He had the ability to rescue, and He chooses to suffer first.


There is only one Rescuer, and we can stop trying so hard to be Him. There is only one Rescuer, and we are free to be fellow sufferers, to carry each other’s burdens, because we have One who daily bears ours.


Jesus, give us more of a willingness to hurt with others. We can’t fix them. We can’t even fix ourselves. Help us to move towards brokenness, not needing to fear the pain, for you have borne all of our griefs and sorrows. You have taken them to the grave, and the tomb is now empty. They have been conquered; they can no longer conquer us. We are free to feel, for we no longer have to hold all things together because they are being held together in you.

Christmas Spirit, Christmas Longing

Posted on December 24, 2013 at 9:00 AM Comments comments (0)

In Luke 1, Zechariah the priest was filled with the Holy Spirit and burst into song, overjoyed with the news that the time had come for God to send the Promised Rescuer. These were the lyrics:


“Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,
 for he has visited and redeemed his people 
and has raised up a horn of salvation for us
 in the house of his servant David, 
as he spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets from of old, that we should be saved from our enemies
 and from the hand of all who hate us;
 to show the mercy promised to our fathers
 and to remember his holy covenant,
 the oath that he swore to our father Abraham, to grant us
 that we, being delivered from the hand of our enemies, 
might serve him without fear, 
in holiness and righteousness before him all our days. 
And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; 
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways to give knowledge of salvation to his people
 in the forgiveness of their sins,
 because of the tender mercy of our God,
 whereby the sunrise shall visit us from on high
 to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, 
to guide our feet into the way of peace.” —Luke 1:68-79


The original Christmas “spirit” was much different than that which inhabits our culture’s songs, store aisles, and television screens. The spirit surrounding the first Christmas was abandonment. Bondage. Helplessness. Oppression. Desperation. Fear. Darkness. Death. God’s people were longing to be visited, redeemed, delivered, fought for, set free, shone upon, rescued from death.


There was nothing pretty about the first Christmas. Instead of a speedy car-ride to the hospital, Mary rode on the back of a donkey, bouncing along as hooves traveled bumpy streets. They were turned away from every hotel and hospital, left to deliver the God of the universe in the back with the animals. In the feeding trough. And this was not happenstance. God wanted to make his grand entrance into this world by showing up in the filthiest place, so that from his very first breath until his very last, it could be said of him:


"He had no form or majesty that we should look at 
and no beauty that we should desire him.
 He was despised and rejected by men;
 a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief;
 and as one from whom men hide their faces 
he was despised, and we esteemed him not.” —Is. 53:2-3


Where are the bags under Mary and Joseph’s eyes in all of the nativity scenes? Where’s the scratch and sniff manger that smells like manure? Where’s the battery-operated baby Jesus that cries every hour, on the hour? Of course, those kinds of nativity scenes don’t exist because, well, they aren’t “pretty” and they certainly wouldn’t sell.


A Cynic’s sense of resentment towards the Christmas season might come from a deeper longing for something real. And real hardly ever sells. Jesus did not come shiny and airbrushed. He made people hide their faces. His appearance was undesirable. How would that fare in the storefront window?


Three years ago, in his blog post entitled, “Christmas Is for Those Who Hate It Most,” Matt Redmond wrote: Jesus came for those who look in the mirror and see ugliness.


Jesus came for daughters whose fathers never told them they were beautiful. Christmas is for those who go to “wing night” alone. Christmas is for those whose lives have been wrecked by cancer, and the thought of another Christmas seems like an impossible dream. Christmas is for those who would be nothing but lonely if not for social media. Christmas is for those whose marriages have careened against the retaining wall and are threatening to flip over the edge. Christmas is for the son whose father keeps giving him hunting gear when he wants art materials. Christmas is for smokers who cannot quit even in the face of a death sentence. Christmas is for prostitutes, adulterers, and porn stars who long for love in every wrong place. Christmas is for college students who are sitting in the midst of the family and already cannot wait to get out for another drink. Christmas is for those who traffic in failed dreams. Christmas is for those who have squandered the family name and fortune—they want “home” but cannot imagine a gracious reception. Christmas is for parents watching their children’s marriage fall into disarray.


The true Christmas spirit is one of longing. And only those who have groaned and yearned are ready for a Savior who comes to dwell among those who are grief-stricken and sin-ridden. He came to where the people were, but the people were repulsed by where they found him: among the lepers, embracing prostitutes, breaking bread with embezzlers, standing alone with a naked woman encircled by stones. He faced those whose faces had made others turn away. 

He descended to the oh-so-dark places (where we are most afraid); He allowed himself to be touched by the unclean; He commanded the doubtful to plunge their hands into his wounds. Jesus was real and surrounded by the realness of humanity.


Christmas is for the scrooges, the cynics, the ones who tweet complaints throughout December. It’s for those who want to feel, those who want something that’s tangible. It’s for the alcoholic whose vomit makes everyone retract their arms and back away. It’s for the meth addict whose picture makes us hide our faces. It’s for the prostitute that makes us look down at her with judgment. It’s for those who long to be touched, who long to hope, who long to have joy. Christmas is for us, the sinners.


“Christmas is really about the gospel of grace for sinners. Because of all that Christ has done on the cross, the manger becomes the most hopeful place in a universe darkened with hopelessness. In the irony of all ironies, Christmas is for those who will find it the hardest to enjoy. It really is for those who hate it most” (Matt Redmond).

Advent

Posted on December 9, 2013 at 9:00 AM Comments comments (2)

One thing I have found interesting about the Advent season is some Christians feel guilty during this time leading up to Christmas. They feel guilty because they have so much to do and don’t have time to quiet their hearts to prepare for Christmas. Isn’t Advent supposed to be a time of quiet, still waiting?


I think there is something to be said for intentionally taking time out to quiet our hearts and minds of the hustle and bustle of shopping, exams, parties, and countless get-togethers with friends and family. But the reality of life is we don’t have control over the busyness. While we can limit how many events we commit to, we can’t change the fact that we have exams. While we can have self-control over how much shopping we do, we can’t change the fact that the house gets crazy when there are a lot of people in it. “Silent night” may be playing on the radio but what if all you hear is screaming? What if all is not calm and it’s actually mass chaos?


But, is that what Christmas is really all about? Is it really about silencing the noise and preparing our hearts? Or, about feeling guilty that we haven’t or can’t?


No.


The first Christmas was an explosion out of nowhere. The first Christmas was a sudden collision of heaven and earth. The first Christmas was nothing if not unexpected—a glorious breaking-in of God into the brokenness, chaos and darkness of life. God had been silent for 400 years. Four hundred years. God’s people were not exactly “feeling it.” They were probably wondering where God was in all the oppression that they were facing. They were probably wondering whether or not God would follow through on all of his promises. They were probably wondering if God had forgotten about them. They were probably wondering if God still loved them.


And then, BOOM! Out of nowhere, a mass army of angels shows up to a bunch of nobodies out in the middle of a field. These guys were not the “holy” ones in the synagogue. They were some of the lowest people on the social totem pole. And they find out first. God decides to come to them. And here’s the message, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.” Peace comes because of God’s favor, not because everything is peaceful.


The incarnation—God becoming flesh and dwelling among us—is the biggest relief for those of us who may feel slightly less than still and quiet this season. God breaks in to the mess; he doesn’t wait for the world to get cleaned up before he comes. And the same goes for you and me. God doesn’t need us to clear away all of the distractions in order for him to dwell with us. The dwelling is based on his initiative, not ours. The beauty of Christmas is that Jesus comes down; we don’t pull ourselves up. What’s most beautiful about Christmas is not the external “stillness” but the truth that Jesus breaks into the chaos and illuminates the darkness when there seems to be no other way.


So, if you’re feeling the pressures of this time of year, and if you’re feeling guilty that you just can’t bring yourself to a peaceful enough place to be prepared for Christmas, be encouraged. You’re just the kind of person Jesus came for.

Is God an Angry Sideline Coach?

Posted on October 21, 2013 at 9:00 AM Comments comments (0)

Earlier this year, I attended a boys soccer game for the high school connected to the church where I work. The team blazed through the season and made it to the regional championship game; this was the game that I was watching. Soon after the game began, I was startled by yelling coming from the man sitting directly behind me. Every 3-5 minutes, he would shout something at his son, one of the players.


He barely even said his son’s name; most of his exclamations referred to him by the number on the back of his jersey. And as time progressed, he got more and more frustrated with his boy.


Several minutes into the half, the mother arrived and sat down. “This is ridiculous,” her husband said. “He’s playing like crap.” “Well, he’s been getting over being sick, honey,” she replied. “Haven’t you heard him coughing during the night? He’s probably not feeling 100%.” Clearly, this was no excuse for the father. “He’s feeling fine!” the father exclaimed.


He continued to yell things at his son. “You’re too slow!” “What’d you do that for?!” “Oh, c’mon!” “Move quicker!” His wife pleaded with him to stop yelling, but he continued. Eventually, he left his seat on the bleachers, “I’m getting out of here,” he grumbled under his breath. He angrily walked off.


Two minutes later, I glanced down at the grass, only to see the boy’s father now standing on the sidelines. Maybe the problem was that his son couldn’t hear him from his seat in the bleachers. Maybe, if he got closer and yelled from there, his son would get his act together.


He continued to chide him for the remainder of that half.


Every time I heard this dad’s voice, I cringed. But then a thought occurred to me. I leaned in towards my boss and asked, “I wonder…How many Christians think that God is just like that kid’s dad?”


So often, we think that God is simply sitting on the bleachers, screaming at us to run faster and play harder. So often, we think that God’s just fuming, shaking his head, saying, “This is ridiculous. You’re playing like crap.”


When the picture of God in our minds is like that angry father screaming on the sidelines, we have gotten it all wrong. When we think that God is yelling at us, demanding us to “get our crap together,” we believe that He has withheld his Son from us. And if God has withheld his perfect Son from us, then it’s up to us to get it all right. Without a substitute, it’s still all riding on us.


See, God knew that we would never be able to do it. He knew that no matter how loudly or how long we heard shouts of, “Get it together! C’mon, pick up the pace!” we would never be able to meet the expectations. When the expectation is perfection, we don’t stand a chance. The law, in its demand, reminds us that we can’t get it right, that we aren’t running fast enough, and that we aren’t playing well enough. But God, in his infinite mercy, didn’t let that word be the final word. God gave us another word, a second word that supersedes the first word and which the first word serves: the Gospel. Rather than yelling at us from the side-lines, in this second word, God is waving his hands, exhorting, “Hey! Don’t you get it? You’ll never be able to do it! Please stop trying! Come to me, you who are burdened! I am rest! In me you are perfect!” In his mercy, God wants us to be crushed by the law’s demands so that we’ll finally rest our weary soul in Christ’s perfect fulfillment of them.


You can breathe a deep sigh of relief because Jesus endured all of the chiding on the cross. He was the one mocked and ridiculed. He bore the weight of the demands and performed well for our sake. We have his perfect game on our record because he took our weak performance. Isn’t it a relief to know that God’s not mad at you anymore?

Shame

Posted on September 16, 2013 at 9:00 AM Comments comments (0)

Everyone has experienced shame and guilt; they are not strangers and are often close companions. Both feelings are part of the human experience as we know it, but the human experience as we know it has not always been the way things were. There was a time when humans knew nothing of shame and guilt. In fact, the writer of Genesis points out that “the man and his wife were both naked, and they felt no shame” (2:25).


 

 

The first few chapters of Genesis describe the perfect scene. God created the sun, moon, and stars; He separated the sky from the land and the land from the sea; He created plants and animals of all kinds; finally, He created man and woman in His own image. All of this was done out of delight and for His good pleasure. Everything that was created was graciously and generously given to Adam and Eve for them to enjoy, care for, and cultivate—everything but one tree. God said, “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die” (2:16-17).


 

  

It would have been a picture-perfect world if Adam and Eve obeyed the Lord, but they chose to believe Satan’s lies instead of God’s truth. Satan, in the form of a serpent, approached Eve in the garden one day, and questioned her in regard to God’s command. “‘Did God really say, “You must not eat from any tree in the garden?”…You will not surely die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil’” (3:1, 4-5). Rather than trust in what God said, Eve bought into the lie that she could become like God, and ate of the fruit. Adam, who was with her, ate of it as well. Thus entered sin and death, bringing with them both shame and guilt. Immediately after eating the fruit, “the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves” (3:7).


 

 

In his book, Shame & Grace, Lewis B. Smedes writes: "The difference between guilt and shame is very clear—in theory. We feel guilty for what we do. We feel shame for what we are…We may feel guilty because we lied to our mother. We may feel shame because we are not the persons our mother wanted us to be."


 

 

Although many may use shame and guilt as interchangeable terms, they are, in fact, different. Interestingly, shame is the only one mentioned in this account in Genesis, although I believe that guilt is an implicit actor. The sinful acts of both disbelieving God and eating from the forbidden tree would have brought about the experience of guilt, for guilt exists when a specific law is broken, when a particular wrong is done. It is noteworthy that Adam and Eve’s natural instinct, however, was to cover themselves entirely. The Scripture does not say that they attempted to cover up their actions, but that they actually covered themselves. The moment that they rebelled against the Lord was the moment that their very identity changed from being friends and children of God to being His enemies.


 

 

Sin uncovers and exposes what we are: sinners, law-breakers, infidels. Consequently, we experience shame, and we immediately begin to manufacture our own coverings to hide from God, others, and ourselves. But our coverings are weak fig leaves barely holding their place—they won’t hold up long. Going back to the first three chapters of Genesis, it is notable that after the curse is pronounced and the promise of the Messiah is made, God clothes His wayward children. “The Lord God made garments of skin for Adam and his wife and clothed them" (Gen 3:21). Adam and Eve’s fig leaves were insufficient to cover them. Yet, God graciously intervened and made new ones—but not without a cost, a life was taken to cover Adam and Eve. Only God can properly deal with our sin and shame.


 

 

In 2 Corinthians, Paul writes: “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God" (5:21). Sin exposes our true nature and leaves us naked before a holy God. Before He was crucified, Jesus was beaten, spit upon, mocked, and stripped naked. The Son of God hung naked and exposed on a cross. He took our nakedness and exposure upon Himself. Not only did He take our sin, but He gave us His righteousness, which is ours by faith. Colossians 3:3 says, “For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God."

 

 

 

The language of being hidden here makes me think of when little kids hide in what their parents are wearing. Have you ever seen a dad wearing a bathrobe over his pajamas, and then seen his child run up and wrap himself in the robe, peeking his head out? This is what this verse is saying has happened to us, if we are in Christ. When we run to Jesus, He wraps us up in His robe of righteousness, and we are completely covered, forever. While we are prone to run away from Jesus and hide behind our sorry fig leaves, He moves toward us, beckons us to run to Him, and hide in His covering of righteousness.


  

We don’t have to hide if we are already hidden. Our sin is dealt with in the body of Jesus hanging naked on a tree. Jesus was regarded as sin (all of our sin imputed to Him); the Father turned His face away. But we were not the forsaken ones; Christ was the forsaken one. He was “delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification” (Rom 4:25). Because of what has already taken place, we never have to fear that the Father will turn His face away from us. Because of Jesus, we can be assured that the Father’s gaze will always be turned toward us, full of grace.