Category Archives: Comfort

More Life Lessons from the Grocery Store

Not aloneIf I’ve learned anything from working in the grocery industry it’s that sometimes you have good days and sometimes you don’t. I mean, last Friday the workload wasn’t crazy, the team was on the ball, and we had most of the day’s responsibilities knocked out by early afternoon. And then this past Sunday, in the last half hour of my shift, four different things needed doing right away, all of which were important and of which I had time to do maybe two. It was overwhelming knowing that whatever I decided to go with was probably the wrong thing if only because it left something else undone. There can be so much to sometimes that you can’t possibly do it all and so you have to learn to prioritise. And again, sometimes you get it right and sometimes you don’t. Often there really is no right answer because everything is a priority.

Life can feel like that, too. You have all this stuff to do and only so much time in the day in which to get it done. And that’s true regardless of what job you work or whether you work at all. Responsibilities just don’t go away. You have to eat, you have bills to pay, you need gas for your car if you have one, maybe you’ve got others counting on you to provide… the list goes on. It’s all important and yet it will leave you burnt out and hollow inside if you’re not careful. As one who knows Jesus (I am leery of calling myself a Christian after all that the Religious Right has been up to lately), I take hope from Matthew 6. Starting in verse 25, Jesus says, “Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you. Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.” This is the God of the universe saying, “I get it. You have needs and you’re concerned about them. How about letting me worry about them instead? I do it for others and I’m real good at it. You just focus on this.” 

I’m not about to offer my take on “seek first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness.”  The term “kingdom of God” is one, I think, with a lot of baggage attached to it right now and that’s a post for another time. All I wanted to do here was show you that you’re not alone. Sometimes in the grocery store all I can do is make the best decision I can and go with it. If everything is a priority then all I can do is pick a place to start. That’s all you can do in life sometimes, too, and that’s OK. Jesus is there to help you with the rest of it. You are not alone.

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Life Lessons from Dogs

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We own 3 dogs, each one of which is unique in their own way and teaching me different things. Cookie, my dog, we got before Christmas last year. (That’s her in the pic.) Some friends of ours had more dogs than they could now take care of and she needed a home. We were told that she had probably been abused sometime before they got her. She whined about everything. She was always needy, always right up in your space. I figured there was nothing wrong with her that a little time and love couldn’t fix.

In reality, my reasons ran a little deeper. After all that we went through last year by the time we got to Christmas I felt broken inside. I guess I figured that if I could fix Cookie then I could fix myself as well. If there’s hope for one of us then there’ hope for both, right?

It never happened. Sure we fixed a few minor things. She had to learn to come when we called for her. But the deeper things never went away like I thought they would.

Working nights meant I was home during the day a lot over the past couple of months. About two weeks ago we had this really bad storm come through, and let me start by saying that Cookie hates storms. She came up to me shaking, with this look on her face that said I wish I didn’t do this but can’t stop it. It made me realize that she is who she is and I am who I am. I told her as much, and since that day she’s opened up to me. She’s been more loving, more playful, and a lot less worried about everything.

If you’ve been around the church much at all odds are good you’ve heard this one, “I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (Philippians 1:6). We Christians love to talk about ourselves as “works in progress,” the idea being that we have certain behaviours that have to go and Christ is helping us do that. He’s the one fixing us, so to speak.

If you’ve read enough of my posts here you’ll know that I’m going to disagree with that, but first let me say that I am not for a moment overlooking that we all have our rough edges. If you’re like me and have a temper from time to time it’s a noble thing to reign that in. All I’m saying is that maybe what Paul is getting at here goes deeper. Maybe it’s less about fixing ourselves, or having Christ fix us, and learning to love ourselves as we are. After all, he already does.

No Place Like Home

In Luke 9:58, when a man tells Jesus, “I’ll follow you anywhere,” Jesus responds by stating that “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” Now I’ve read that passage dozens of times, and heard it preached on once or twice, usually in the context of trying to explain the cost of following Christ. The entire end of this chapter actually explores the concept and it’s really quite fascinating, especially from a literary point of view. We get these 3 little snippets of conversation, without being told anything about who it is that’s talking to Jesus or how they respond to what he tells them or even why they say what they do in the first place. All we get, really, is the interaction. But I digress.

I’ve usually taken this particular verse in the sense of if I was ever a missionary in some foreign place then I might not necessarily have a pillow or a bed or whatnot. I’d have to make do with whatever I could find. What got my attention here, and what I want to point out, is in the first part of the verse. To a fox and a bird, a hole in the ground and a nest aren’t just a place to sleep at night. They’re home. They’re a place of relative safety, a place to raise your young. The human equivalent might be a place to be yourself. A place where you can relax, let your guard down, and check your worries at the door. As you might imagine, this isn’t just a physical place but an emotional one, as well. Home is where the heart is, right?

Here’s the thing. We’re not promised any of that. That’s what Jesus’s statement is meant to convey to this eager young man. If Jesus himself never had that, how can we expect to? And I don’t say that to burst your bubble or point you to some “super spiritual” wisdom. It’s meant to be a comfort in addition to a challenge. If you find yourself in a place where you’re not understood or not welcome, or where you’re alone, you’re in good company. And it’s probably not your fault, either. We are, after all, always going to be outcasts in this world. Only when we finally reach heaven’s shores will we truly be home. Until that day, don’t lose heart. You are not misunderstood or unwanted, and you are never truly alone. You are known fully and loved deeply by the one who died just to be with you and who, if you are willing to trust him, will be waiting for you there with open arms.

Life is Messy. Enjoy it!

55482167-angry-father-scolding-finger-pointing-silhouette-vector-stock-vector I’ll be the first to admit that I loathe the idea of standards for how we should live. Anytime someone says to me here’s something I ought to be doing as a good Christian man, I immediately tune them right out. Give me something I ought to be doing, and a week or so, and the odds are good I’ll have a healthy list of times when I didn’t measure up. Now the concept of measuring up is in reality totally alien to what it means to follow Jesus (we can’t ever measure up; that’s kinda the point of the Gospel), but that doesn’t keep us from trying, nor does it keep us from telling others that, as good Christian men and women, here’s what we ought to be doing in life. The saddest part is that most of us will spend a lifetime killing ourselves inside in a desperate effort to measure up to that ought, as we are all aware, on some level anyways, that we are not who we want to be.

This whole struggle hits me hardest in light of passages like Philippians 1:6, where the Apostle Paul tells his readers, “And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring to completion at the day of Christ Jesus.” If you’ve been around the church much you’ll probably know that we Christians take this passage to explain that we’re not perfect, but God’s working on us, and he’s not finished with us yet! (Insert overly cheerful Christian here.) What hits me with this passage is that I tend to see this whole “good work” thing as a sort of building project with specific steps. If you’ve ever put together one of those shelving units from Walmart you’ll know what I’m getting at. Do it right and at each step the project looks noticeably different than it did at the last step. If it doesn’t look different, something’s wrong. Translated to my life, this means that I assume that at this point next year I’ll be farther along in my struggles, so to speak, than I am right now. And right now I should be farther along than I was last year. If I’m not, I’ve obviously got work to do. For example, I’ll be the first to admit that I get way too defensive sometimes. There are moments when I feel like being defensive is the only thing I have left that I have control over, and so I’ll lash out instead of taking criticism. I’d like to be able to say I do this less than this time last year but that’s not really the case.

Part of what I’m trying to get at here in this post is that a relationship with Jesus is so much more than simply believing the right things and then behaving accordingly. Christianity is about more than just getting with the program, or behaviour management, or even sin management. That being said, the reality is that none of us is perfect and the struggle remains.

I guess that’s why living in a brand new single wide, on a newly cleared lot, has been so eye-opening for me. As I’ve said in other posts, we’re right in the middle of a building process ourselves, and it hasn’t gone anything like I thought it would. Get the trailer installed on the property and your set, right? Turns out that drywall has a tendency to separate a little when taken on the highway. We’ve been in here over a month now and I think (maybe) we’ve finally found the last little defect that needs repaired. And that’s not due to neglect, either. That’s just the nature of this process.

Take our yard as another example. Back in the summer, before the trailer was set up, we spent every Saturday for months out here working on the yard. We built our rock garden. We dug up roots. We leveled it out. We even had my in-laws up here with their tractor and 6-foot rake, going back and forth over the lot to make sure we didn’t miss anything. And you know what? I thought we got it all. When all was said and done, we had a very smooth, very beautiful, acre and a half of dust. It hadn’t rained in months at that point, but not long after we moved in we got all of the rain that we missed and then some. And our yard is a disaster. The runoff has cut these nice little gullies throughout which means that just pulling in the driveway feels like going off-road. And we’ve lost just enough soil to show every single root and stump that we had no idea was there but now shows plain as day. Most of what we did in the summer will probably have to be redone.

Here’s the thing. It’s not our fault. I mean sure we could have put sod down (maybe), but that wasn’t in the budget so it wasn’t an option. What we have in our yard now is the natural result of dirt on a slope mixed with too much water. It’s messy, sure, but it’s ultimately just another step in the process.

Life is messy, too, and I think we can allow ourselves to forget that sometimes. The road to being able to deal with whatever issue you struggle with isn’t always necessarily a straight one, and that’s OK. Sure sometimes we make dumb choices that screw the whole thing up for a while, but more often than not it may not be the result of anything we did or didn’t do. Things may just take longer than we thought they would, or be a hell of lot messier than we were expecting.

The reality of our yard is that it won’t always look like this. Come spring, we’ll get the tractor and 6-foot rake back out and level it out again so we can get grass seed down. That same reality is true for your life, too. If you know Jesus, then the person you are right now and the struggles you currently face won’t always be your reality. (And if you don’t know him, then getting into that relationship can give you that hope, and so much more.) I used to think that even though God has promised to be faithful in this process of living, I’d always get in the way and screw it up. What I’m learning, slowly, is that I can’t screw it up. He’s way too big for that. So go easy on yourself, and enjoy the mess.

The Start of a New Year

happy-new-year2017-55           We don’t yet have internet service at our new place (props to Comcast for continuing to assert that our address doesn’t exist), which means that by the time I get to McDonald’s to use their Wi-Fi it’ll be after the New Year, but for now it’s still 2016. This week between Christmas and New Year’s always gets me in more of an introspective mood than other times of the year. It’s the great pause, you know? The excitement and buildup to Christmas have come and gone and the excitement of the New Year hasn’t come quite yet. For me it’s the time to reflect back on the year that was and to look ahead to the new one.

This past year sure was a fun one (and I mean that in the most sarcastic sense possible). My wife and I both took attacks and accusations in ways that I never dreamed we would ever have had to deal with and from people I never would have imagined capable of dishing out such hurt. I’ve found myself in these last weeks, now that we have some distance from all of that, tempted to shut down a little inside, to back off and hide a little from all that heartache. I mean, it’s one thing to be open and vulnerable when you know that getting hurt is a possibility, but it’s quite another to try to be open and vulnerable knowing full well what the reality of hurt feels like.

I’m also self-aware enough (I hope) to know that while isolation and solitude in the short-term may be healthy, in the long-term it can be dangerous. The question is what the hell to do with what I feel. This may sound rather pro-forma coming from a Christian, but I’ve been wondering recently how Jesus dealt with all the heartache he faced. Theologians tell us that Jesus was both fully God and fully man (although no one has yet figured out how that works; I for one believe a pretty good case can be made for the truth of that statement, but that isn’t the point here). According to the Bible, Jesus dealt with the same range of emotions and heartache and temptation that you or I or anyone else who’s ever lived has dealt with. He wept at the death of his friend Lazarus (John 11:35), for example, and he continually sought solitude as a means to recharge from ministering to those around him (Mark 1:35). The Book of Hebrews also tells us that he can empathize with what we go through because he was tempted in every way that we are (Hebrews 4:15). Furthermore, as John 18:15-18 shows, in his hour of greatest need Jesus was abandoned by those closest to him (and who among us hasn’t felt that particular pain at one point or another?) If you want more examples, you can look at the whole story of God reaching out to us. How many times have we rejected him? Grieved him through our actions? If, as Scripture indicates, he feels what we feel, then that rejection has to hurt. And yet he offers himself again and again and again, opening himself up, being vulnerable, reaching out to us in spite of the pain.

Here’s my thing, though. Nowhere in the Gospels do we see Jesus hiding from this heartache. Never does he shrink back from it. The same can be said of God elsewhere in Scripture. And that leads me to the question I’ve been pondering the last little while. How exactly does he pull that one off? I mean, I deal with the rejection of people not understanding what I’m about with this site, for example. This is the South, after all, where unless you fit into a very particular box as a pastor, something must be seriously wrong with you. Jesus deals with a level of rejection that’s infinitely beyond that, and yet it never seems to faze him.

One possible answer to this is that being God somehow gives him a pass on the whole thing, yet that is problematic in view of the biblical evidence that he felt as we feel and was tempted as we are tempted. There must, therefore, be a different explanation.

There is one example from Scripture, in John 8 specifically, that may shed some light on this. Eight times in this chapter (verses 16, 18, 19, 26, 28, 29, 38, and 55) we get a glimpse into just how intimate Jesus’ relationship with God the Father really was. The gist of this chapter seems to be that Jesus and God the Father are one, and this comes out through a back and forth discussion of sorts between Jesus and different groups. Looking at it from a literary perspective, why not just use one example, or maybe two or three, to prove the point? Why have this lengthy discussion that brings out what is essentially the same response from Jesus seven different times? (Granted, this isn’t the sole focal point of this passage; I’m just trying to isolate one element of it.)  One thing that my seminary experience drilled into me is that the biblical writers, working under the influence of God the Holy Spirit, had the choice not just of what information to include in the biblical record but also of how to organize that information. When you come across repetition in Scripture, like the kind we have here, it’s in there for a reason.

So why, then, was it important to highlight the intimacy of Jesus’ relationship with God the Father to this extent? Personally, I think it shows how he was able to live as he did. As we looked at above, he didn’t shrink back from anything, nor did he try to hide his emotions. Jesus’ relationship with God the Father was such that he knew who he was and he knew that he was loved. As a result of that foundation, nothing could shake him.

Like I said, this time of year is one that I tend to not just reflect on the previous year but also look ahead to the coming year. I know I’ve said it before in other posts, but what this revelation keeps bringing me back to is that we’re not meant to live life alone. We need that same level of intimacy with God that we see in John 8. Thanks to Jesus’ death and resurrection, the door is open for us to have it. And I’m not talking about being more faithful in reading your Bible or making sure you’re in church every Sunday morning. If you read through the Gospels, you’ll see that Jesus’ intimacy with the Father ran so much deeper than surface level stuff like that. (I’m not saying those things are bad in and of themselves; I’m just saying we can’t stop there.) As Ecclesiastes 3:11 tells us, God has set eternity in our hearts. There’s a longing there, a longing for our real home and intimacy with the one we were made for, and if we’ll follow that we’ll find him. It may be in the beauty of a sunset, or the peacefulness of the stars on a clear night, or the touch of the one you love. He speaks to us all in ways befitting our own stories. All we have to do is listen. In Jeremiah 29:13, he says, “You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart.” Maybe that’s not a bad place to be at the start of a new year.

Just One More Thing

broken-plate-a-broken-plate-5ykci2-clipartOne of the things you’re working towards when you move a trailer out to a piece of property is the inspection that gets you the Certificate of Occupancy. When you get to that point, everything else is done. The septic tank is in, your well is dug, and the trailer is set up the way the building code says it needs to be. Pass the inspection, you get the certificate and you can move in. Fail it and you’ve got more work to do on one aspect or another.

To make a long story short, our inspection was last Thursday, and I arrived out there after working the morning part of my split-shift to find the Certificate of Occupancy stuck in the backdoor. All we needed was the power hookup, and we were supposed to have that within 1-2 days of getting the company a copy of the certificate. So I drove the certificate out to the company office where they made their copy, and then we sat back to plan our first night in the new place which we had set for this past Sunday.

If you haven’t guessed by now, it hasn’t been quite that straightforward. Turns out there’s this thing called a “You Can Dig Locator,” which has to be done before they can hook up underground power. (It’s not needed for just connecting aerial wires, but we didn’t know that earlier when it might have been useful.) Once that’s called in, they legally have to wait 3 business days before they can dig, and the day it’s called in apparently doesn’t count. We thought this had already been done, and apparently so had customer service at the power company. In reality, we passed inspection last Thursday and the Locator wasn’t called in until the next morning. The bottom line is that it’s now been 10 days since we passed inspection and we’re still not living up there. (Although we did get to move our stuff in!)

The point to this is not to rant or just use the Internet as a place to vent and criticize this whole process. There are a lot of people working very hard to get us to the point where we’re actually living up there, and we’re grateful for everything they do. The point is to say that we all have those moments in life where something that we really hoped would happen, well, didn’t. Either it didn’t happen the way that we wanted it to, or it didn’t happen when we hoped it would, or in the worst case, it didn’t happen at all. More often than not there’s no real reason for it, either. Things just don’t come together the way we hoped they would. What’s made it difficult for us going through this process is that we’re new to all this. We understood the steps in the process before we started (or at least we thought we did), but what we didn’t know is that each step has its own collection of sub-steps, each of which has its own little difficulties and each of which has to be successfully addressed before moving on to the next. It’s been a case of “just one more thing” more times than I’d honestly care to count.

What do you do with those moments? I know from experience how easy it is to just lose heart, to say, “The hell with it.” It’s not that I don’t want it to happen, it’s just that it’s easy to think that it won’t actually happen, or that it won’t happen as soon as I want it to, or that it won’t happen the way that I want it to, and in believing any of those it’s easy to just stop hoping for it altogether.

In his Second letter to the Corinthians, the Apostle Paul spends a lot of time discussing his work with them. This is perhaps the congregation for Paul, the one that gave him more headaches than any other. One of the issues Paul had to face here was so-called “super-apostles,” leaders who seemed to be genuine but who were more interested in using those in the city of Corinth for their own ends. (Think everything that’s true of the worst of the worst of televangelists.) Paul thus spends a lot of time in his letters to this congregation defending his own work and the reasons why he does what he does. After laying out in 2 Corinthians 3 just what it is he’s up to as a minister, and the reasons why, in 2 Corinthians 4 he talks about why he doesn’t give up. The interesting thing for our purposes here is that he twice uses a Greek phrase which different translations have either as “we faint not” or, oddly enough, as “we do not lose heart.” The first is in 2 Cor. 4:1 and the second is in 2 Cor. 4:16. Speaking not just as a Christian but also as a man and husband with responsibilities and who has to face the drama of daily living, if this guy knows the secret of how not to do what I spoke of earlier, I’m all ears.

There are two elements to this that shed light on what Paul is getting at, but first I want to know what sort of man we’re dealing with here. Has he led an easy life or a hard one? If it’s been easy for him, and there’s reason to think he’s full of it here, I’m not interested. Later on in this same letter, however, we get a glimpse at his story in his own words. In 2 Cor 11:24-28, he tell us, “From the Jews five times I received forty stripes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods; once I was stoned; three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I have been in the deep; in journeys often, in perils of waters, in perils of robbers, in perils of my own countrymen, in perils of the Gentiles, in perils in the city, in perils in the wilderness, in perils in the sea, in perils among false brethren; in weariness and toil, in sleeplessness often, in hunger and thirst, in fastings often, in cold and nakedness – besides the other things, what comes upon me daily: my deep concern for all the churches.” Being stoned or shipwrecked alone would be enough for me to seriously question what I had been called to do, but not Paul. In his own words, he does not “lose heart.”

And in case you’re thinking he made most of that up, the particulars missing here are largely filled out in the Book of Acts, written by Luke, who was one of Paul’s travelling companions through much of what was described in the above passage. If then Paul knows what he’s talking about, what was he getting at? How did he not lose heart?

The first question that we have to answer is what exactly Paul meant when he said that. The Greek phrase from which we get “do not lose heart” or “faint not” has as its meaning “to lose courage” or “to fail to try,” with the general sense being that if you don’t lose heart then you’re willing to try again (you have the courage to try again) even if it didn’t work out like you wanted the first time. In my case, for example, it’s a matter of still being willing to hope that we’ll be in our place soon even when things come up that may push that date off somewhat.

How does Paul do that? It ultimately comes down to what he knows to be true even if he can’t exactly see it at that particular moment. In 2 Cor. 4:16-18, he says, “Therefore we do not lose heart. Even though our outward man is perishing, yet the inward man is being renewed day by day. For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, is working for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory, while we do not look at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen. For the things which are seen are temporary, but the things which are not seen are eternal.” His outward circumstances, his “outward man,” may really suck, but inwardly it’s a different story. There is far more going on around us than we are sometimes aware of (the goodness of God being a great example), but that doesn’t make those things any less important. In fact, as Paul says, it makes them more so. It is partly through choosing to focus on these things that Paul is able to not lose heart. 

You’ll notice I said it is only partly through this choice he talks about. What I’m getting at is not a case of “suck it up and deal with it.” I’m not advising that we simply put on a fake smile and act like everything’s normal even when we’re dying inside. There is more than enough sorrow and frustration in this world to break your heart on a daily basis, and you only compound the damage if you refuse to even acknowledge it. No, there is more to Paul’s secret, so to speak, than what we’ve looked at so far.

In 2 Corinthians 4:7, Paul says, “But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellence of the power may be of God and not of us.” The “treasure” alluded to here is described in the previous verse as “the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ,” which in a nutshell is the relationship we can have with Jesus made possible through His death on the cross and subsequent resurrection. What’s really important here is the phrase “earthen vessels.” Growing up in the church, that’s one I’ve heard many times before. As it’s usually explained, it symbolically describes how we as humans are frail and prone to breaking. For the purposes of this post, I had a look at the phrase in the original Greek, and what it literally describes is a piece of pottery. If you’ve ever had a clay pot for your garden, or hell, a plate, then you’ll get the idea. Pottery, as strong as it may be, breaks if you push it to far (or, as I’m sure we’ve all found out, if you drop it). And therein lies the other part, the main part, of how Paul is able to not lose heart.

If you drop a plate and it breaks, you don’t curse the plate, right? You may curse yourself for dropping it, but you don’t blame the plate. That’s just what a plate does when you drop it. Due to what a plate, or other piece of pottery, is made out of, drop it and it will usually break. As humans, we’re the same way. Stretch us too thin or push us too far and we break. And there’s nothing wrong with that. Whether we’re talking emotional breakage or physical, it’s all a part of who we are. Given the right circumstances, we break or we shatter. It’s a reality of being human.

Look back at that passage one more time. Paul says we have this treasure in the breakable bodies that we do so “that the excellence of the power may be of God and not of us.” That’s the source of Paul’s ability to not lose heart. We can’t do this life alone, and Paul doesn’t try to. It’s that relationship, and the power that comes from it, which renews him inwardly even as his whole world goes to hell.

Whether you’re reading this and you’re a Christian or not, I would put to you that we are not meant to do this life alone. We break, remember? And we need someone there to pick up the pieces, even if, no especially if, we have no one else to turn to. Trusting Jesus like this is not easy even for me as a minister, and it’s not something I’m able to do all the time or even consistently sometimes for that matter. It’s can be damn hard to give up control, especially when it’s something that I long for so much like my wife and I having a place of our own. What I do know is that it’s worth it. Are you willing to trust Him?

Jesus and Awkward Moments

In honour of Church for Misfits going life, this is one I’ve been working on for months now but for one reason or another never got around to publishing. I pray there’s something here for you!

woman-wiping-feetI’ve been reading through the Gospel of Luke lately, going slowly, maybe a chapter or two at a time (which is an amazing free form approach to studying Scripture), and what I’ve observed is that, within the space of six chapters or so, Jesus has three separate dinner invites from the Pharisees. When one considers that the Gospel writer, under the influence of the Holy Spirit, had a say not in just what was recorded but also in how it was put together, that’s not a coincidence, and it’s worth taking a deeper look at. Knowing that the Pharisees hate Jesus, and are eventually directly responsible for His death, why does Jesus sit down to a meal with them on three different occasions?

The first part of this little mystery is in the story of the first dinner invite in Luke 7, and as we look into this, keep in mind two “why?” moments. Starting off, in verse 36, we’re told, “One of the Pharisees asked him to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee’s house and reclined at the table.” Now for what prompts this invite, we have to look in the verses that come right before this passage. Starting in verse 24, Jesus talks about John the Baptist, and in a roundabout sort of way, compares the Old Covenant with the New Covenant and the Kingdom of God. When He says in verse 28, “I tell you, among those born of women none is greater than John. Yet the one who is least in the kingdom of God is greater than he,” He’s indicating that in the Kingdom of God, anyone who accepts His sacrifice by faith gets in. The Pharisees, in contrast, were the ones in control of first-century Judaism. They were the ones, so to speak, who decided who was in and who was not, and as Luke tells us in verse 29, they were not happy with what Jesus was saying. Seven verses later, after a few more pointed remarks from Jesus, one of them invites Him to dinner.

Now think about this for a second. Put yourself in the Pharisee’s shoes here. You’re one of the religious elite of your day. One of the powerful. A man of authority. And along comes this man who starts to gain support with the people and who directly challenges that authority. In this situation, the very first thing you do is invite Him to dinner. Why? (This is the first “why?” moment.)

Scripture doesn’t give us any direct insight into the motivations of the Pharisee in question here (we’re told in verse 40 that his name is Simon), but human nature being what it is, it’s not too hard to speculate a little. Simon, and the Pharisees in general, likely wanted to explain the facts of life to Jesus. “We’re in charge here. You’re not. The sooner you recognize that, the happier we’ll all be.” With that background in mind, let’s have a look at what we’re told about this dinner meeting.

We’re not actually told much about what happens during the meal. In fact, the only thing we’re told, starting in verse 37, is that “a woman of the city, who was a sinner, when she learned that he was reclining at table in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster flask of ointment, and standing behind him at his feet, weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears and wiped them with the hair of her head and kissed his feet and anointed them with the ointment.” Some translations have “woman of the city” translated as “prostitute,” which gives you an idea of this woman’s reputation. As the story unfolds, we’re told that Simon is aware of her reputation and although he doesn’t say anything directly, he mentally criticizes Jesus for the respect He shows this woman. Jesus calls him out on this and defends the woman’s actions. The end result has Simon looking like the world’s worst dinner host and probably feeling pretty foolish, while the woman’s actions are praised. 

The second “why?” moment has to do with the woman herself. Namely, why on earth is she present at this meeting? Her and Simon are about as far apart on the social scale of the day as the Earth is from Pluto. Luke 7:36 indicates that this whole dinner invite for Jesus was Simon’s idea, meaning his house is the likely venue for it, and given that extreme social disparity, the only way this woman is staying there, let alone getting in the door, is if Simon is OK with the idea. All we’re told in this passage is that she “learned [Jesus] was reclining at table in the Pharisee’s house,” but not how exactly she learned that information. This is the second “why?” moment, and answering this one helps us to answer the first.

Regardless of whether or not she learned of the dinner directly from the Pharisees, she’s there because Simon wants her to be. And that means that she’s bait. If they can’t explain the facts of life to Jesus, maybe they can embarrass him through her and discredit him enough that He’s no longer a threat. Pick it up again in verse 39. Watching Jesus, Simon says to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what sort of woman this is who is touching him, for she is a sinner.” The gist here is that if Jesus is a legitimate prophet, He’ll respond to this woman in a certain way. Failure to do so means He’s not actually a prophet.

This, then, is the situation as we get to the end of this dinner story. The unnamed woman is weeping at Jesus’ feet, Simon is waiting to see what Jesus will do, and Jesus is once again the centre of attention. What will He do? While we’re pondering that one, what would you do? I don’t know about you, but I hate awkward moments. Whether it be a prank, or a joke, or just a set up, my first thought is always to get out of there as fast as I can. It’s awkward, it’s uncomfortable, and I’m gone. Is that what Jesus does?

We see in verses 40-43 that Jesus does nothing of the sort. Through a pointed illustration, He calls Simon’s behaviour out. Simon is from the upper end of the social scale, as we’ve noticed, yet as Jesus goes on to point out in verses 44-47, Simon hasn’t even observed the social niceties of the day. Forget loving. Simon’s the host who won’t make small talk, who won’t offer appetisers before dinner, hell, who won’t even shake your hand as you come into his house. The woman, in contrast, has done all of that in her own small way. The story ends with Him praising her actions (she’s the prostitute, remember? This can’t have exactly endeared Him to those looking on), and ultimately concludes with Him telling her, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”

So what, then, is the point of all this? (My apologies for the length; sometimes it’s worth going into detail for nuggets like this.) The point to all of this is that Jesus is the same way with you and with me. No matter what rung on the social ladder we occupy (this includes the church social ladder as well), Jesus never condemns. He takes us as we are when we come to Him. He never condemns. Never criticises. Never marginalises. He has more concern for this woman than He does for His own reputation, remember? As Paul tells us in Romans 5:8, Christ died for us while we were still sinners. Not when we had it all together. Not when we were perfect. But while we were still broken. While we were still lost.

I can promise you one thing. If you come to Him, He will never condemn you. Never.

 

Thoughts after Easter

This year’s Easter season left me feeling…disappointed, I guess. I mean, the Sunday morning service was wonderful and the lunch with family was as interesting and hilarious as it always is, but now that the Easter season is behind us I can’t help but feel that something was missing. Easter just seemed…empty.

If you were on social media at all in the week or so leading up to Easter Sunday, you probably noticed at least one meme making the rounds regarding church parking lots on Easter Sunday morning. (The one below is my personal favourite.) As Christians, we tend to either poke fun at people who only show up at church for Easter and Christmas or wonder why they’re not more committed. That being said, I wonder if memes such as this aren’t hinting at something deeper. 16163201

Last Saturday afternoon I was in Kohl’s, shopping for a pair of sandals (as a Canadian living in the South I tend to forget just how important such things are for surviving the summer months), when I overheard a conversation between a woman and her teenage daughter. They were shopping for church/school shoes, and the daughter had picked out what appeared to be a nice pair of tennis shoes. The mother’s reaction was that they were too “sporty,” and that “sporty was OK for playing sports but not for church or school.”

Coming just before Easter weekend, these two incidents got me thinking. Do these incidents hint at something deeper?

How much of what we like to poke fun at with people only showing up for church on Easter and Christmas is due to the people themselves, and how much is due to the image we as Christians are portraying to the world? If people pack church parking lots come Easter Sunday, to the point that we can have a good laugh at it on Facebook, are they doing so because of a lack of commitment (or other personal issue), or are they doing it because the Jesus we’ve presented to the world is one who checks on a list of obligations, and by showing up on Easter Sunday you’ve checked off the box that keeps you in His good graces til Christmas? We can be too quick to find fault in the people who only seldom darken the doors of a church, and not quick enough to see the errors in the Jesus that we present to the world. If we’ve come to the point where tennis shoes are considered too “sporty” for church, then maybe we don’t know Jesus as well as we think we do.

If you’ve ever felt the way that I’m describing, or maybe the Jesus you think of is the Jesus of obligations and lists, then let me be the first to apologize to you. It’s not that He can’t be satisfied by keeping obligations like going to church (which really isn’t an obligation to begin with, but that’s for another post), it’s that He doesn’t ask us to do relate to Him in this way. He is so much more with us than just some cosmic accountant. In Matthew 11:28 (KJV) we read, “Come unto me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” The sense of the original language with “labor” and “heavy laden” is of someone who is completely over-burdened, carrying an impossible load, burnt out, and done in. And what does Jesus promise? Rest. The sense here is not just eternal rest through salvation but of rest from the weariness and toil of life. That‘s how Jesus really is with us.

I can give you other examples as well. In Galatians 5:1 (ESV), the Apostle Paul tells us, “For freedom Christ has set us free.” A literal translation of that verse in the original Greek would read something like, “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free into freedom.” That’s not a typo, either. The word “freedom” really does show up there three separate times (in case we missed the point). In Christ, you’re free. Free to be you. Free to relate to Him honestly and in open vulnerability. Free to trust. As we discussed here, you’re free to have the appearance you chose. And you’re free to wear tennis shoes to church. It is that freedom and life that is at the core of Christianity, and it is that, rather than list of obligations and duties, which Jesus offers to us. Have you taken Him up on His offer?

That’s what was missing from this Easter season, at least for me. That wild and crazy, free and unassuming, life that He offers us through the Gospel. It scared me how easy it was to put on my Sunday best, doing what was expected of me, and not wearing the sandals and t-shirt I would have been far more comfortable in. I don’t know what Easter was like for you, but if you were missing something, just as I was, that life is there. It’s His offer to us, and it’s an offer that never expires.

The Gospel on Mars?

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My wife got me the movie The Martian recently (which if you haven’t seen it yet is an awesome movie!), and without going into too many spoilers, there was a gritty realness to the storyline that caught my attention right from the start. I mean, you have this guy marooned on this planet, and by the end of the film he’s done pretty much everything except get off the planet. He’s learned how to survive, he’s kept himself alive, and he’s even physically gotten himself to where he needs to be to be rescued. There’s only one thing he hasn’t done, which is also the one thing he can’t do, and that is escape the prison he’s in. His knowledge and ingenuity can keep him alive in the short-term, but those abilities are powerless to ultimately save his life and get him home. His only way home is to entrust himself to those who have come back for him, and who have a crazy, risky rescue plan that will either save him or kill him. He has to choose to throw away the supposed safety he’s built for himself so far, and risk it all on a throw of the dice.

If we see the Gospel as the Great Story, the one which continues to play out in all of our smaller stories, then it shouldn’t surprise us to find echoes of that story in places like Hollywood blockbusters. In Mark 8:34-36, we are told that Jesus, “when he had called the people unto him with his disciples also, he said unto them, ‘Whosoever will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me. For whosoever will save his life shall lose it; but whosoever shall lose his life for my sake and the gospel’s, the same shall save it. For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?'”

If you’ve been around the church much at all, the odds are good that you’ve encountered this passage before. (If you haven’t been around church much at all, bear with me; this will make sense in a moment.) When I read “whosoever will save his life shall lose it; but whosoever shall lose his life for my sake and the gospel’s, the same shall save it,” I used to take it to refer to martyrdom. Basically, if I’m ever persecuted to the point that I give my life for Christ, then I will either chose to physically give my life or not and the results will be as Jesus describes here.

The problem, however, is that words can have a lot of different meanings. Take “life,” for instance, which can as easily refer to your physical life as it can to your hopes, dreams, desires, and whatever else it is that makes up your existence on this planet. To which of these meanings is Jesus referring to? “Life,” in this context, refers to “that which makes you a person.” A better English word to get this sense across might be “soul”. In short, Jesus is talking here about the very things which make you who you are. (Given the focus of many of my other posts here, this shouldn’t come as much of a surprise.)

So what exactly is the context in which we get this sense of life as soul? Earlier in this chapter, in v. 14-21, Jesus talks to His disciples about the Pharisees, the Jewish religious elite of the day who had reduced religion to a soul-killing list of rules and obligations. In doing so, however, they had earned themselves a great deal of respect, albeit at the cost of totally missing the point of who Jesus is. In seeking to save themselves through building a life that brought respect and stability, they had in fact given up the very things that made them who they were as persons. Jesus’ point, then, is that in looking to respect, money, societal position, etc., to provide a life for yourself, it is possible to gain those things (that’s the “whole world” He refers to later on in the passage) and yet lose the things that make you who you are.

Most of us, if we’re honest, probably wouldn’t argue with that logic. At the very least, we know (or have heard about) those who put so much time and energy into pursuing things that gave them that sense of respect or whatnot that they lost everything else. Sure, they may have reached their goal in the end, but something in them died a little along the way. In this, we’re not much different from Matt Damon’s character in The Martian. We can build a life of sorts for ourselves, in much the same way that Damon’s character can keep himself alive in the short-term, but just as Damon’s character is powerless to get himself off Mars, so are we just as powerless to save our own lives. What, then, is the solution? Just as Damon’s colleagues in the film offer him a dangerous, risky way out, so too does Jesus.

At the end of Mark 8:35, He says, “Whosoever shall lose his life for my sake and the gospel’s, the same shall save it.” Again, this isn’t referring to martyrdom, but rather to the very things which make us who we are. We think we’ll save ourselves through respect at our workplaces, or in our relationships, or in financial stability, and while these are not bad things in and of themselves, if we make them the priority they’ll kill us on a soul level. What Jesus asks us to do with those things seems just as crazy at first as does the plan to get Damon’s character off of Mars. We give them up. We forfeit them to Him and trust Him to give us the things we think we need so desperately. Such a decision may not be as physically dangerous as the one Damon’s character has to make, but it can certainly feel like it. What if we lose the things we care about the most? Can we trust Jesus enough to take Him at His word in this? Does He really have our best interests at heart? This is a decision we each have to make on our own, meaning those are questions I can’t answer for you. What I can say, without giving away whether or not Matt Damon’s character survives, is that if he doesn’t trust the plan his rescuers have to save him, then he’s dead. Maybe that’s not quite a bad description of our own situations.

The Importance of Our Appearance

Let me start this post by saying that this subject has been on my heart for a while. I have to admit that, largely because it’s a subject so close to my heart and also because it’s so easy to hurt people unintentionally in this area, I have been putting it off. Our appearance is such an important thing, and something that we can so easily be hurt by comments about, that I really don’t want to screw this one up. I got my hair done again about a week ago, and this, plus the fact that for the first time there are now before and after pics on Facebook, has finally got me thinking that now is the time to say what God has been impressing on me about our appearance.

As man with long, colored hair living in the conservative South, I’ve gotten more than a few funny looks and comments about how I look. About a month back, when I was using the restroom in Hardee’s with clips in my hair to hold my bangs back (believe it or not, they are actually incredibly practical things), there was this gentleman who took one look at me and promptly asked if he was in the right restroom. I was also told, by well-meaning Christians who I have the utmost respect for, that if I wanted to grow my hair out I could never be a pastor. I’ve seen a lot of news stories on this subject, too. My personal favorites are the ones that surface every now and then about some Christian organization or another (schools seem to pop up the most), expelling a student, usually female, for having her hair cut far too short so that she looks like a boy. Aside from seeing these experiences as instances of royally missing the point, they got me to reflecting. Why do we get so uptight about how other people look? Taking that a step further, do we get to pick and choose how we look, or does God have some standard He expects of us in this area? These questions also come up in areas other than hair. Church dress codes is another one that we, as believers in particular, can get really uptight about. What is the acceptable standard, dress or suit and tie, or come as you are and who really cares? With these questions in mind, let’s have a look at what the Bible says about our appearance, and also at what it does not say.

The place to start when looking at what God has to say about our appearance is in 1 Samuel 16. In this chapter, the prophet Samuel has been sent to the village of Bethlehem to anoint a successor to Saul, the King of Israel whom God has now rejected. Samuel has been sent to the house of Jesse, a man with eight sons. When the eldest is brought before Samuel, he turns out to be a good looking, strong young man, and Samuel makes the understandable assumption that this is the man God has chosen as Saul’s replacement. However, in verse 7 we are told, “But the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him. For the Lord sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” In short, God values your heart more than how you look. Indeed, later on in this same chapter, when Samuel finally chooses Saul’s replacement, David’s outward appearance makes him the last person Samuel expected God to chose.

So if God truly values our heart more than how we look, what does that mean for us, and why do so many Christians get so uptight about how others look? The second question is perhaps the easier one to answer, and it honestly has more to do with control than with anything. As a good friend of mine once pointed out to me, sometimes it’s easier to control others than it is to let them be themselves. Take church dress codes. There are those of us who approach the issue from the perspective that we’re going into God’s house, and as He’s the creator of heaven and earth, King of kings and Lord of lords, we need to respect that. This respect translates into a suit and tie if you’re a man (or maybe a polo shirt and nice pants), or a dress if you’re a woman. There are also those of us who approach the issue on the grounds that God already knows everything about us anyways, so why bother trying to impress Him by dressing up? The important thing is that you’re in church, not what you’re wearing while you’re there. Truth be told, taken by themselves there is little to fault in either of these perspectives. The issue comes up when we don’t agree with someone of the opposite perspective and so therefore we try to impose our perspective on them. And why is that wrong? When we try to control others in how they portray themselves, we make it less about their heart and more about conforming to a system of rules. This is the very thing the Apostle Paul speaks so strongly against in the Book of Galatians.

If the conforming approach is wrong when it comes to our clothes, what about when it comes to hairstyle or hair length or hair color? The passage most Christians work from in this area (or at least where they think they’re working from, as we’ll see in a moment), is in 1 Corinthians 11. Here the Apostle Paul writes, “Now I commend you because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions even as I delivered them to you. But I want you to understand that the head of every man is Christ, the head of a wife is her husband, and the head of Christ is God. Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head, but every wife who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head, since it is the same as if her head were shaven. For if a wife will not cover her head, then she should cut her hair short. But since it is disgraceful for a wife to cut off her hair or shave her head, let her cover her head. For a man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God, but woman is the glory of man. For man was not made from woman, but woman from man. Neither was man created for woman, but woman for man. That is why a wife ought to have a symbol of authority on her head, because of the angels. Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man nor man of woman; for as woman was made from man, so man is now born of woman. And all things are from God. Judge for yourselves: is it proper for a wife to pray to God with her head uncovered? Does not nature itself teach you that if a man wears long hair it is a disgrace for him, but if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? For her hair is given to her for a covering. If anyone is inclined to be contentious, we have no such practice, nor do the churches of God.”

It’s a lengthy passage of Scripture, but it’s worth looking at in full. Taken to its extreme, this passage is often interpreted to say that women should have their hair as long as possible while men should have theirs as short as possible. Anything else, depending on who you ask, is either a) not generally accepted according to tradition, or b) living in sin. That being said, the reality is not so clear cut. This passage also surfaces frequently in discussions of the different roles of men and women in the church, and for that reason I encountered it a lot in my seminary studies. Two things about this passage were typically disputed in the scholarly literature. First of all, scholars have taken Paul’s instructions in this passage to refer either to hair length or to a hat or some other kind of head piece (i.e. something that “covers” the head). I have seen scholarly arguments for both interpretations, and neither appears to be strong enough on its own to completely write off the other view.

Secondly, scholars also differ about whether or not this passage of Scripture is culturally specific. The issue of cultural relevance is a finicky one, and I don’t want to over-complicate things here more than we need to. Suffice it to say, while all Scripture is the inerrant and infallible word of God, deeper themes of Scripture are portrayed differently in certain cultures than in others. In the Old Testament, for example, Israel’s being set apart for God was illustrated by their not wearing clothes made from more than one fabric (see Leviticus 19:19). As Paul tells us in Philippians 3:3, in the New Testament this same deeper reality is revealed by an inward reality which shows the change brought about by the Holy Spirit (the “circumcised heart,” as Paul calls it). Same biblical truth, it just comes out differently in different periods. That’s also why we can wear polyester clothes with a clean conscience, at least as far as Scripture is concerned. Throughout my seminary studies, I’ve seen scholarly arguments that this passage specifically addresses a cultural issue faced by the Corinthian Christians (primarily that long hair was a symbol of homosexuality in the city, and thus not appropriate for Christian men; this is not so today), and is therefore not something directly applicable to contemporary Christians. I’ve also seen arguments to the contrary. Again, neither argument on its own appears to carry enough weight to directly refute the other side. (For any serious student of Scripture reading this, I’ll grant you that this is only a surface-level exegesis of this passage. If you’re looking for something more in-depth, just let me know.)

What exactly does all this mean for us, and the appearances we chose to portray to the world? There’s a lot of detail in what we’ve looked at so far, and that’s a good thing. As I said at the beginning, our appearance, and the self-esteem which comes from it, is an area of our lives where it’s so easy to be hurt by what others say and think. If, as you’ve probably guessed by now, I’m going to throw out the “you must conform” attitude that we get from much of the contemporary church regarding how we as individuals look, I want to be absolutely certain of the ground I’m standing on before I do so. I also want you to have that certainty, as well. When we get right down to it, if as Christians the passage that we use to force either ourselves or others to conform has such a questionable basis to the interpretation we get from it, then we have no business forcing anyone to conform to the standard put forward by that interpretation.

How you choose to portray yourself to the world is a part of who you are as a person. Your style choices, be they in hair color, length, etc., or in the clothes you wear, come out of your personality. When Jesus died for you, He died for all of you, your personality included, which means you get to be yourself. Bottom line, you don’t have to conform to a standard of appearance. If you want to grow your hair out, go for it. If you want to dye it some crazy color, go for that, too. I’m a Christian, and this is me in the before and after photo below. This is the appearance which best suits who I am. What’s yours?

 

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