Grow Good Wheat

It’s been an interesting season in America. Our country is changing rapidly. Not all the changes are positive, but not all the changes are bad, either.

For generations, one could argue that Christian faith and American culture married up pretty well. They at least tracked along the same path in minimal discord, with a warm hand-hold of shared history and understanding between them. One could also argue that the two should never have been that cozy with one another, and their coziness made more of a statement about the syncretization of Christianity into a majority cultural system and way of thinking than it did about America ever truly being a “Christian nation.” I would agree.

Whatever it is, this feels like a nasty breakup. A bad divorce. American culture is shifting decidedly away from historic “American Christianity” and “American Christianity” doesn’t want a divorce. It wants a flag, apple pies, fireworks, and the Bible…all in one harmonious relationship. But this was bound to happen, wasn’t it? For Christianity (not it’s Americanized version) has always stood outside nationalistic culture in order to represent a new – a heavenly – kingdom. Certainly, nations can enact laws based on Biblical values and I would argue that followers of Jesus should be better citizens and neighbors as a direct result of their Christian faith. But Americanism and Christianity are and must remain distinctly different, for they are not of the same substance. A lot of us thought they could be, but we’ve been served divorce papers. If you are grieving this divorce, that is ok. Lift your head, friend. God is, I believe, drawing you to a depth of rootedness in Him that is far, far better than any idealized national identity. Love your country – I love it too – but love God first and re-root your citizenry in a future “city with foundations, whose builder and maker is God” (Hebrews 11:10). This sad season for you might be a helpful disentanglement, a time of repentance, a necessary grief, and the start of a fresher faith. Let it be.

Open Season on Anything Evangelical?

But I have a strong word of warning to my brothers and sisters who have seized upon this unique season to continually uproot anything and everything related to Christianity in America and evangelicalism: consider the Parable of the Wheat and Tares (look-alike weeds) from Matthew 13:

24 Another parable He put forth to them, saying: “The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field; 25 but while men slept, his enemy came and sowed tares among the wheat and went his way. 26 But when the grain had sprouted and produced a crop, then the tares also appeared. 27 So the servants of the owner came and said to him, ‘Sir, did you not sow good seed in your field? How then does it have tares?’ 28 He said to them, ‘An enemy has done this.’ The servants said to him, ‘Do you want us then to go and gather them up?’ 29 But he said, ‘No, lest while you gather up the tares you also uproot the wheat with them. 30 Let both grow together until the harvest, and at the time of harvest I will say to the reapers, “First gather together the tares and bind them in bundles to burn them, but gather the wheat into my barn.” ’ ”

In love, I have to call this out: some of you have made it your single mission to pull out the tares. The constant, relentless, wide-swathe, recurring attacks on the American Church and American Christians is destructive. Look, I’m with you in the desire to get back to the very root of our faith in Christ and to see the church repent of her entanglements with American nationalism. We do not disagree on this. But at some point, we have to get back to our priority of growing good wheat.

There will always be tares in the midst of God’s people – not just in America, but wherever the church is found in the world. But clearly, clearly, Jesus’ priority is to grow the healthiest wheat in a field that also includes…weeds. Of course, Jesus called out the religious elite and spoke out against the nationalistic-tinged messaging that had corrupted His Good News. But the majority of His time and energy was spent investing in His followers – making them the best, healthiest, rooted wheat stalks they could be. He prayed for them, asking the Father to keep them, knowing full well He was planting them in worldly soil where there would be fakes, enemies, look-alikes, and co-opters of all sorts (see John 17:14-16).

Brothers and sisters, can we get back to growing good wheat?

In our religious fervor to purge evangelicalism from it’s poisoned partnership with nationalism, we might well be rooting up new seedlings who are getting their start in Christ. Does this mean we never speak against syncretism, white supremacy, or the political nationalism that has in some places enmeshed itself with the Western Church? Of course not! But it does mean that we use wisdom in our Words of Mass Destruction against all things American Christian. We must tenderly disciple the seedlings. We must teach a faith whose roots are in the Person of Jesus, not the Pledge of Allegiance. We must nurture church-based, not media-based discipleship. We must tend and grow strong and fruitful wheat stalks who will stand tall even in a field of weeds. Jesus did not commission us to be spiritual arsonists who’s sole goal is to burn all things evangelical to the ground. Some of us must light the way for churches who have swallowed nationalism but are awakening to their sin and their need for rootedness in Jesus. All of us must plant seeds of Good News in Jesus.

Let us not uproot all Christian faith within America to get rid of the tares. Some of these tares will not ever be fully uprooted until the time appointed by the Father and we have to believe that He is well capable of dealing with them. That is His job. If we take on as our primary role the removal of tares, though, we absolutely will disturb and damage the wheat that’s still here. It’s already happening.

If America’s Great Divorce is showing us that there are tares in the field – and I believe it is – we must turn our attention to growing good wheat. What does a follower of Jesus look like in this malaise? How does a healthy, maturing disciple live and act? What does it look like for a follower to have his feet in American soil but his citizenship in Heavenly soil? We’re seeing Exhibit A of what not to do. Let’s lead in what to do and in what should have been happening all along, but wasn’t. Let’s plant, water, and grow good wheat.

End Note: I’m not married to the term evangelical, preferring to simply call myself a follower or disciple of Jesus. The term evangelical means one who proclaims good news – it’s not a bad moniker. But in our recent American story, it has come to take on a nationalistic or supremacist-tinged Christianity. My fight is not to redeem and reclaim this word. My fight is to follow Jesus and help others follow (grow good wheat). I happen to be a person born in America, thus America is the backdrop in which I follow Jesus.



Staying Connected While Far Away

I have the privilege of knowing and working with people around the world. Many of these people are expats serving in humanitarian, faith-based, or other service-driven fields that rely on connection and resources back home to thrive.

I love seeing humanitarian work going on around the world. The work is important, urgent, and compelling. The human stories sometimes break my heart, frequently inspire my spirit, and often make me want to get involved.

Sadly, some of the most gifted servers struggle to connect with folks back home. It’s understandable! With the work being so important and urgent, communiques and newsletters get brushed off and are often thought of as a task to be done only if the “real” work gets done first. Let me push back against that! As a person who wants to support, send money, pray, or advocate for you on this side of the world, telling your story and giving me a chance to get involved are part of the work, too.

In a spirit of love, here are a few tips – some do’s and don’ts – to help you communicate effectively to those who love and support you back home. Some of these are small, but they can make a big difference in the response you get from your fans and supporters.

Do:
Communicate in a regular rhythm. I would urge you to get your message out monthly. It might help you to calendar this in as a recurring activity during your “work hours” (I know, I know, you don’t have regular work hours). Sometimes something big happens that warrants it’s own news blast, but that is probably the exception.
Include pictures! A couple of large, crisp photos are preferable to 10 small ones. I don’t want to open a newsletter that looks like the front of my refrigerator.
Use good formatting. Create a nice-looking document and attach it as a PDF, or use a Mailchimp newsletter template.
Ask for funds. Yes, really. If your work relies on donations, ask for them and give a super easy way for people to donate. You are not begging for money, you are sharing your vision and giving people an opportunity to get in on that vision. Never be ashamed or apologize for asking for what you need, just be clear and reasonable in your ask.
Share what you are learning and reading. What’s challenging, shaping, and developing your thinking? What’s giving you fresh vision for the next season? Bring us along in your growth journey.
Keep it short. Just because people love you and want to know what you’re doing doesn’t mean they are prepared to wade through multiple pages every month. Really. I hate to break this to you. People will open your letter and then close it in defeat if it looks really tedious and long. Discipline yourself to be brief – 1-2 pages tops (unless there’s some really big event, a birth of a baby, or catastrophe that warrants a photo essay).
Be clear about your call to action. If there’s something you want us to know, pray about, give towards, or do, make it super plain and clear. Don’t leave any doubts in our minds what you are asking us to do. Remember, we Americans can’t hold a list of 9 to-do’s in our minds. Give us one or three at the very most.
Mix it up. On occasion, send a link to a video update in lieu of your regular newsletter attachment. Keep the video brief. Don’t worry about adding background music (please don’t, actually!) or doing a lot of editing. Just tell your story and, if possible, let us see some of what your eyes see during the course of your work. Raw and honest is good (so long as we can hear the audio and your filming style doesn’t make us nauseous, haha). We don’t expect a polished video production.

Don’t:
Flood the channels with quantity over quality communication. It doesn’t matter how lovely you are or how important your work, there is such a thing as communication overload. While you might have multiple communication channels, not everyone needs to be on every one of those (email, text group, Facebook, Instagram, blog, etc.). You might consider a chat group just for your relatives who want to talk multiple times a day, send memes, or attach videos of the kids being silly. But don’t overdo that with supporters. This will wear them out and they will tune you out.
Wait too long between updates. On the flip side, do not expect people’s hearts and minds to track with you if they only hear from you once or twice a year. They will not remember your stories or engage with your work. I’ve found that an effective rhythm of communication is once a month.
Use a non-standard newsletter format. I can’t tell you how many newsletters I’ve gotten that are actually image files. They are unbelievably annoying. You have to zoom in to read them – if you can read them at all. Please do not do this. A standard document format is much preferable.
Violate ethical or security protocols. Yes, we want to be in on the action of your work and see compelling pictures! But please do not cross ethical boundaries or endanger anyone by using photos that should not be shared. We understand if you need to pixelate a face or other details to make an image safe to share.
Over-sell or under-sell. We get it; if you’ve put your heart and soul into an event only to have 20 people show up, that’s disappointing. Let us be disappointed with you and learn with you. Don’t “sell” us camera angles to make the event look like the largest gathering on earth. We can see through that stuff. At the same time, don’t under-sell your work, either. Let us rejoice with you when things go great and you score a victory. Sometimes humanitarian workers think they have to constantly self-flagellate. You don’t! Just keep it real.
Say “no” for people. Maybe your life doesn’t feel all that interesting or amazing (especially if you’ve been doing the work for a long time). But it is to many people. Some folks will read your stories and be so inspired they will want to partner. They may offer to Venmo you money to go out to eat, ask if your kids want something special in a care package, offer to buy you a plane ticket to see family, or even propose to take time off to travel to where you live. Don’t say “no” for them! Maybe their original offer isn’t what you actually need. You can still affirm their generosity and enthusiasm while redirecting them to a more pressing need.

Please know: We love you! We often are not good at replying to your newsletters or staying in touch with you on this side of the world (a topic for a future blog post, perhaps). Please forgive us for this. We know (if you use newsletter services such as Mailchimp) that you can see who opens your newsletter and how many of us let them lay untouched in our inboxes. This has to be discouraging that so many don’t open – let alone read or engage with – your newsletters. But I promise you, there are those who do and who want to stay engaged. Write for them. And ask them who else they know needs to hear your story.




Limping into 2021

I had a lot of hopes for this year.

I was excited about 2020 – excited to settle in our new home, excited to feel more established in my new ministry role, excited to watch my kids make new friends, excited to get to know a lot of people in our church, excited to dream.

And like everyone else, I got sucker-punched by 2020. Along with you, I felt the sick-heartedness of deferred hope (Proverbs 13:12) and the grief of loss. The year that had brimmed with such optimism, options, and opportunities turned increasingly sour. The longer it went on, the more I knew it was going to leave a mark. There was no way I was going to get through it unscathed. My initial hopefulness turned into a continuous “brace for impact” posture.

As December rolled around, I was in no frame of mind to “finish strong.” To be honest, I just wanted the year to be over.

I felt like I was limping into 2021.

And in that moment I thought of Jacob in Genesis 32. The fretful night before he was to face his murderous brother and an uncertain future, Jacob wrestled with the Angel of the Lord.* As unwelcome as it must have been, this wrestling match put him in close contact with the Lord. Jacob left the Angel’s presence with a blessing and a limp. This would be a limp he’d never recover from – a perpetual reminder of weakness, dependence, and God’s presence in uncertainty. His body would be scarred by severe love. Noticeably worse for wear, Jacob limped into his future.

As much as I don’t really want to relive 2020 or reflect on it again, I suspect a thorough spiritual retrospection would reveal the Angel of the Lord’s presence in my story, too. Suddenly, I don’t feel so bad for not finishing 2020 strong. Limping into 2021 doesn’t seem as inappropriate anymore.

I’d rather limp – leaning on God – than walk alone into 2021. In this sense, I’m very excited about the New Year.

*I encourage you to read the full story in Genesis 32-33. My personal opinion is that the Angel of the Lord is an example of a theophany, a pre-incarnate appearance of Jesus in the Old Testament.

Masks: Wrong or Right? Bad Question.

I’m blessed with diverse Christian friends who have landed on different sides of current issues, and never have those issues had more potential to divide than in 2020. Relationship and Christian love should allow us to weather many differences, be flexible in our thinking, empathize, give up our rights for one another, and maintain respect. Clearly, we are being tested!

This year, I’ve observed my friends make decisions and draw conclusions primarily from two main ethical perspectives:
1) The rightness of the thing in question
2) The degree to which personal freedom and autonomy are protected

I’m from America, most of my friends are Americans, and this is (no surprise) a very American decision-making grid. That doesn’t mean it’s wrong – it isn’t. But might it be culture-bound or incomplete in some ways? Do we have blind spots? Yes, possibly.

First, we tend to think in sharp right/wrong terms. Is the mask right or wrong? Is the vaccine right or wrong? How we think, especially as American Christians, can back us into a set of binary questions that allow for only one right answer. But what if my conclusion (what I think is right, backed up by my favorite Bible verses) is different from yours? How could we maintain fellowship? How could we stay in relationship in the same church? It’s easy to elevate the “rightness” of a particular decision over other potential factors we haven’t considered. But not every issue is a right/wrong issue, is it? Some decisions are not explicitly covered in the Scripture, nor do they carry the same on-their-face moral or immoral weight as do other decisions (such as the clear command for a husband to be sexually faithful to his wife). So if we stop elevating one, clear “right” decision as the ultimate ethical trump card in these gray areas, what other ethical considerations should come to bear?

Next up is our valued way of life – independent, autonomous, and free. A close relative of the right/wrong ethical grid, autonomy elevates personal decision making. It believes that I am the best person to determine what is right for me. For generations, right/wrong and autonomy have dominated American Christian thought and biblical hermeneutics as well. Sin leads to death. There’s a heaven and a hell. Make the right choice and to go to heaven. Have a personal relationship with Jesus. Salvation is forgiveness of sin and making an individual “right” in God’s sight. Right/wrong and personal autonomous choice went together like apple pie and a Baptist potluck. (America and American Christianity largely agreed in worldview and ethics. But America is changing, and the church is acutely feeling the dissonance and distance in the relationship. This is a topic for another day.)

So what happens if one Christian concludes masks are morally wrong and being told to wear one infringes on my autonomy? (I’ve watched many people conclude that masks are wrong precisely because they infringe on autonomy and thus have taken on a symbol as a “freedom muzzle.”) This person is likely to feel very strongly about their position. It “holds up” to their ethical grid and they can extrapolate all the personal responsibility Scriptures for theological justification. When other Christians disagree with them, they are likely to hear that disagreement as an appeal to compromise conviction and ethics – and their Christian worldview. It’s no wonder the little face cloth and all it represents can seem like a big enough reason to part fellowship and change churches! This all makes sense if the two-pronged ethical grid above is complete. I’d argue that it isn’t.

What are we missing? Are there more ethical and biblical considerations to help round out our American Christian lens? Here’s where we can learn from Scriptures that challenge some of our American way of thinking and from the global church (especially the persecuted global church).

1) How are my decisions affecting the corporate body of Christ? Am I elevating my personal choice in a way that damages the unity and reputation of God’s people? Personal choice is a part of the decision making paradigm, but group identity – especially as the people of God – is much stronger in the global church. It’s not just me, it’s we.
2) Are my conclusions drawing me towards relationship with God’s people or separating me from community? The global church treasures fellowship and being together in ways we Americans don’t quite get. They see it as vital to their spiritual existence (and it is). They have a long history of overcoming near-insurmountable obstacles to stay in fellowship and proximity to one another. It might surprise us how many meet at night, under threat of arrest or death, in secret, traveling long distances, losing sleep – all because they see the church fellowship as sacred and vital. We must be careful that our personal decisions are not cutting us off from the family of God. When we chose to follow Christ, we chose not to be a law unto ourselves. We have a head (Christ) and a family (church) now. So in one sense, we already gave up some of the rugged, American individuality that feels so right to us.
3) Does taking this stand on this issue help me make disciples? When Jesus left, his last words were not “Be right and autonomous;” they were, “Make disciples.” Does my stance (and the tone of my stance) increase the chance I have of forming disciplemaking relationships, or does it unnecessarily alienate me from people?
4) Am I evangelizing my position more than my Savior? Ouch.
5) Do I embrace a theology of loss? Paul told the Corinthian church to let themselves be wronged and defrauded instead of suing each other to prove who was “right” (see 1 Cor. 6). Elsewhere, the church is told to honor and prefer others above themselves. Does my position preclude me from laying down my rights for others?
6) Do my theological positions allow me to follow Jesus dynamically in the gray areas of life? Often, we choose to see things as unnecessarily black or white so that we can choose what’s right and control the outcome. But following Jesus isn’t like that. It’s dynamic. He speaks to us and leads us, even when the world feels like a fog. Maybe we need to allow this real-time relationship with Jesus to grow out of the murk.
7) Would others say I have a sweet spirit about me, even when I disagree? Make no mistake, the Spirit of God is about growing His fruit in your life. Making the “right” choice about the mask or vaccine is secondary to developing the sweetness of love, joy, peace, patience, goodness, gentleness, and self-control (Gal. 5:22-23). God’s grace in you can overflow to give grace to others with whom you disagree. In fact, the beauty of that very dynamic is a compelling Christian witness (John 13:35).
8) Am I gracious towards those who see the world differently? There’s been enough moral high-roading among the mask wearers and the mask abstainers. We each have a conscience and each must give account to God. Can you love those who don’t wear a mask? Can you love those who do? Can you appreciate that one family may hold a conviction yours doesn’t? Oftentimes in the global church, people from very diverse political, social, and ethnic groups are thrown together simply because they are the only believers in that place. They don’t have 15 churches to choose from. Somehow, the love of Jesus allows them to transcend these divides and still be family.
9) Am I being motivated out of fear or anger or rebellion? Check in with the Lord about this. We often don’t know our own heart motivations, so ask the One who sees the heart to tell you. Many have expressed that the mask is a “slippery slope” and if they give in to wearing it they will be saying “yes” to whatever repressive mandate comes next. If that is true, how can a Christian who is a slave in another repressive country follow Jesus? By considering himself a “slave” of Christ. No man owns him. Christ does. So I say to you: the State doesn’t own you and never will. You belong to Christ. Do not make what might be an unnecessarily rigid stance here out of fear of being owned by the government. Sure, we can be watchful, decisive, and bold, but still we must be motivated by love (see 1 Corinthians 16:13-14).

Sisters and brothers, let us treasure Christ above all. He will lead us in these murky times. Yes, we may draw different conclusions on some issues, but I’m confident we can do so in a way that cooperates with the Spirit, builds the church, keeps us in fellowship and accountability, treasures self-sacrifice, and furthers our witness. We can choose our own personal boundaries while graciously allowing for differences. We must.

PS, I am not qualified to give medical advice and this article is not to be construed as medical advice.

A Family Set Apart

This week I was looking back at an 8-week curriculum/study guide I wrote for the church 4+ years ago. I thought I was writing it for then, but maybe I was writing it for 2020 and didn’t know it…

This study, A Family Set Apart, is about how to be spiritual family with one another.

After the fractures we’ve seen this year, I think the church will need to relearn how to be family and do some relational “thawing.”

Attached is a downloadable e-book version of this resource if you, your church, or community group think it could be helpful. I think I might actually go through it myself! All I ask if you use it is for your honest feedback later. Thank you.

Have Yourself a Missional Little Christmas

An unfinished nativity set on the carving table in a woodshop in Bethlehem, Israel

Why is it so easy for the holidays to become consumer-driven, busy, and stressful? Let’s be honest: sometimes the real message of Christmas gets lost in wads of over-abundant wrapping paper, drowned out by cries of over-tired kids, or crowded out by schedules of over-committed parents. What if we could proactively work against some of these negative forces and do Christmas differently? Let’s turn back the tides of consumerism this year! Here are some ideas (in no particular order) to re-center ourselves on Jesus and His mission during the holidays.

Missional Christmas Ideas

  • Instead of asking for a gift this year, ask people to help you raise funds:
    • To take a short-term mission trip in 2021
    • To bless a missionary with a Christmas care package or end-of-year surprise donation
    • To contribute to a project a missionary is doing or a special need they have
  • Pay for someone you love (or yourself?) to get or renew a passport, so they’ll be ready to take a short-term mission trip when global travel reopens. Here’s a page with more information: https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/passports/how-apply/where-to-apply.html
  • Why not give a gift to your church so they can start a mission trip scholarship fund for youth or first-time participants? Wouldn’t that be amazing?
  • Before you do your online shopping, setup Amazon Smile to donate a portion of your purchases to your church, a mission organization, or a favorite local charity. Go to smile.amazon.com to get started. (PS, Amazon donates only a tiny percentage. This shouldn’t take the place of your generous giving.)
  • Read a missionary story during the month of December. There are many good biographies and storybooks out there! The Insanity of God is a great one to stir your faith: https://www.amazon.com/Insanity-God-Story-Faith-Resurrected/dp/1433673088/ref=sr_1_3?dchild=1&keywords=the+insanity+of+God&qid=1604523264&sr=8-3
  • Take your younger kids through one of Weave’s great activity books (https://weavefamily.org/big-story-series/) or use Window on the World as a prayer resource for your family for the upcoming year (https://www.amazon.com/dp/0830857834/ref=cm_sw_r_tw_dp_tgWOFb3QQKWAH?_x_encoding=UTF8&psc=1)
  • If you’re saving for a big vacation, why not tack on a few days to that vacation to help a missionary or ministry? Many missionaries live in fascinating places! Consider choosing your vacation location based on where you could add value to mission work.
  • Instead of exchanging traditional presents, agree ahead of time to pool your gift money to make a big missional impact. If your church is doing an end-of-year missions campaign, consider giving to it. Set a goal and challenge yourself to more generosity!
  • Take a course on world missions! There are some great courses online, such as through IMB (https://imb.pathwright.com/library/), Global Frontier Missions (https://missionarytrainingschool.com/free-course/), and Perspectives (https://www.perspectives.org/). Hint: these classes are better when done with a group, so grab some friends and make this into a New Year’s challenge!
  • Invite a local immigrant or refugee family to experience a fun holiday tradition with you. Build relationships. Be a good friend. Share the love of Jesus.
  • Download WhatsApp or Signal so you can more easily text or video chat with missionaries overseas. (Contact your church to get their numbers, and of course be careful what you say so as not to compromise security.) Missionaries often feel left out, especially at the holidays. Don’t let this happen. You’d be surprised how good it can feel to receive a text.
  • Find a local ministry where you can serve over the holidays, then sign up.
  • If you’re crafty, create and sell some gift items then donate the proceeds to a mission cause.
  • Start the process to become a foster or respite care family so forgotten children can have a home on Christmas – and maybe even forever! Take your first step here: http://hopetreefostercare.org/
  • Host a movie night – about the mission of God! Watching what God is doing around the world has a way of stirring your own passion for Him here. Some great films to watch are Free Burma Rangers (https://www.amazon.com/Free-Burma-Rangers-David-Eubank/dp/B0876L6SPK) or Dispatches from the Front (https://www.dispatchesfromthefront.org/)
  • Don’t just stick to turkey and stuffing – pick some interesting recipes from other cultures, too. Make and enjoy those foods, then pray for the people of those cultures to know Jesus. Let God spark your curiosity about what He’s doing around the world.
  • Pray! Ask God to guard your heart during the holidays. Ask Him to open your eyes to ways you can join His work around the world. Pray for those you know who are not yet believers. Pray for God to give you boldness to share the gospel.
  • Challenge yourself to verbally share the gospel in the month of December and ask someone to hold you accountable to do it. It’s a fact: people are often more open to hearing about Jesus during Christmas. So share about Him!

These are just ideas on a paper. But the best ideas are ones you’ll actually follow through on. How is God calling you to leverage your Christmas holiday for His kingdom?

A Glorious Death

Note: Some time ago I had the privilege of being a guest speaker in an overseas congregation. This is the message God put on my heart then. I hope it will be an encouragement to you now.

Would you like to have tea with Jesus? If you got an invitation from Jesus to come meet him at a café and share a strong cup of coffee and pastry, how would you feel? I would be so excited, wouldn’t you? I had heard so much about Jesus, even from the age of a young child. My parents told me the stories of the Bible. I imagined Jesus doing miracles – extending his hand to heal a leper, rubbing mud together to anoint the eyes of the blind, raising a young man out of his coffin, holding children on his lap. What must it have been like to have been there and watch him do those wonderful things? I can only imagine. I wish I could have been there. I wish I could talk with him. I wish I could see him.

When Jesus walked this earth, people far away begin to hear the same stories I heard when I was a child. They, too, were fascinated by what they heard. Could this really be him, the man that was prophesied about? Could this be the Promised One, the One sent from God to take away the sins of the world? Who else could heal like that? Who else could make dead men walk? Who else was bold enough to declare that a man’s sins were forgiven? Maybe, if they could just see for themselves, they would know for sure. Maybe they would get a chance to see him do a miracle. Or at least, they could share some tea and hear him speak.

In the gospel of John, chapter 12, we read a story of some men – men from Greece – who had heard about Jesus. They wanted to meet Jesus, but didn’t know how to set up a meeting. So they passed a message to one of Jesus’ disciples, Philip. Philip went and told Andrew, and together they approached Jesus. Let’s read this story together from John 12, verses 20-30 (ESV).

20 Now among those who went up to worship at the feast were some Greeks. 21 So these came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and asked him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” 22 Philip went and told Andrew; Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. 23 And Jesus answered them, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. 24 Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. 25 Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. 26 If anyone serves me, he must follow me; and where I am, there will my servant be also. If anyone serves me, the Father will honor him.

27 “Now is my soul troubled. And what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? But for this purpose I have come to this hour. 28 Father, glorify your name.” Then a voice came from heaven: “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.” 29 The crowd that stood there and heard it said that it had thundered. Others said, “An angel has spoken to him.” 30 Jesus answered, “This voice has come for your sake, not mine.

There is something so interesting – and beautiful – about how Jesus responds to these people. They have asked to see him, to experience him, to get to know him. And they have come at just the right time! Jesus said it is the hour for his glorification. Who wouldn’t want to be on hand to witness Jesus’ glorification? Is this where he would be crowned king or do some astonishing miracle? But instead of the kind of glory they were probably imagining, Jesus begins to speak of death. It is hard for me to imagine that death would be part of glory. When I think of glory, I think of people saying nice things about me, congratulating me, giving me a promotion, increasing my pay, treating me like a movie star. But for Jesus, glory involved death. Listen to his words again:

“The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. 24 Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. 25 Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. 26 If anyone serves me, he must follow me; and where I am, there will my servant be also. If anyone serves me, the Father will honor him.

27 “Now is my soul troubled. And what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? But for this purpose I have come to this hour. 28 Father, glorify your name.” Then a voice came from heaven: “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.”

If you want to see Jesus – to really know and experience him – you need to peer into his death. His death was voluntary. His death was planned. His death was perfectly timed. His death was God’s act of planting a seed into the ground. Without this seed falling, dying, and splitting open, there would not be the glory of new and abundant life. It was the only way. Death was not Jesus’ final destination, but he had to go there. The road to Glory led directly through Death. There was no detour. This was a planned stop. Jesus’ glory was joined with his death. “Sir, we wish to see Jesus,” the curious Greeks asked. Jesus replied, “You want to see me? You want to get to know me? Come know me in death.”

Jesus, before he could usher in the glorious New Creation, had to die in the sin-stained soil of Old Creation.

Jesus, before he could represent the true Tree of Life, had to be broken on a cross of death.

Jesus, before he could be the abundant Bread of Life had to die a cursed grain of wheat.

Other people would have run from death or begged God to send someone else. Not Jesus. He came to earth for this very purpose – to die. And because Jesus knew that his death would result in a mighty harvest of life, he looked at death as an act of immense glory. Who else was worthy? Who else’s blood sacrifice could take away sins? Who else could attract God’s wrath to himself while repelling God’s wrath from those who deserved it? Who else could turn an end of life into a beginning of life for so many? Only Jesus! Only Jesus! Only Jesus!

I am sure the curious Greeks did not know what they were asking for. Maybe they expected to be invited to tea, or to witness water being turned to wine. Instead, Jesus invited them to his own funeral. He gave them a choice to serve him and follow him and be with him and even share in his glory. They were invited into a very sacred place – nearness and closeness with Jesus.

Jesus did not want to “remain alone” – he wanted to be first among many. The scriptures say that Jesus is the firstborn among many brothers. Think of it: the only Son of God wanted brothers and sisters, so he paid for their adoption with his own blood. No wonder his death was glorious! His death brought us near and made us family with the Most High God!

In America, we are proud people. We think we can have whatever we want. We think we can get good jobs, earn a lot of money, and buy our happiness. Our parents tell us we can be and do anything. How stubborn we are! When we hear about Jesus, we hope that he can help us get rich and have success. We don’t want anything to do with his death. We want to do everything to avoid death. Death to us is not glorious, so Jesus’ death does not make sense to us. I hope you do not think this way in your country!

Jesus’ death is glorious, for without it, we could never be adopted into God’s family. The grain of wheat had to fall into the ground and die so it could bear much fruit. We – those of us who trust in Jesus and turn from our sins – are that fruit!

When Jesus breathed his last, the guard at the foot of cross exclaimed, “Surely this man was the Son of God!” Even he was struck with Jesus’ glory at his moment of death.

But Jesus did not die just so we could live any way we wanted. He died to change everything about us. Yes, his death gave us the promise of salvation. But his death also showed us how, we too, must live a life that embraces dying. Remember the passage we read in John? Jesus said the servants must be with him where he is. Do you want to serve Jesus? You must walk the same road as he is walking. The glory road. The death road. They are the same. Hear these words that are meant for your ears:

Philippians 1:29 says: “For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake.”

Romans 8:35-37 says: “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written, ‘For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.’ No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.”

Galatians 2:20 says: “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself up for me.”

2 Corinthians 4:7-12 says, “But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. So death is at work in us, but life in you.”

Jesus is no longer here walking the earth. So the next time someone hears the stories of Jesus’ life and work and wants to know him, what will they do? What if a group of curious people come to you and say, “Sir, we would see Jesus!” Will they know him through you? Can you invite them to “come and see”? Will they see his glory through your death? You might say, “How can they see my death if I’m still alive?” Well, first, do they see that Jesus’ death has given you hope, purpose, and peace with God? They must see that in you. But what are some other ways your life can be a witness to the glory of Jesus’ death?

  • When you choose to embrace suffering as part of Jesus’ will for your life.
  • When you say no to the pleasures of sin.
  • When you choose to share the gospel with someone who might react violently.
  • When you give up your future dreams in order to follow Jesus now.
  • When you stop chasing success and settle for a simpler life where you can give more away and serve more frequently.
  • When you invite strangers into your home to show them care and share the stories of Jesus.
  • When you choose to live Jesus’ way instead of your family’s way and are punished for it.
  • When your national identity is secondary to your spiritual identity.
  • When you give up trying to fight and win arguments but choose the humble way of forgiveness.
  • When you face tragedy and end of life with a profound peace that only could be explained by the hope of Jesus.
  • When you clearly identify yourself as a follower of Jesus, knowing that in so doing you will be held in suspicion and dishonor.

These are all characteristics of a life that identifies with the death of Jesus. Brothers and sisters, a life that bears the marks of Jesus’ death is glorious indeed! You are invited to be with him where he is. He is calling you to come and die with him. Identify with him in his death, knowing you will be raised with him in his life. And the next time someone asks how to know Jesus, we can point to you, or you, or you and say, “Come and see how they die, yet are more alive than you could ever imagine.”

Let us pray.

Jesus, thank you for sharing your death with us. How glorious it is. Your name is to be forever praised. I ask that you help my brothers and sisters here in this place to embrace your death and trust in you with all their hearts. May they experience your nearness and glory as they walk in your footsteps. Give them a joy that cannot be explained. Give them courage to follow even when it costs them dearly. Give them a bold witness to share their faith with others. We know the time is short, and soon you will return. Please find us faithful.

In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Into Darkness

My daughter and I had the chance to visit an Anatolian “underground city” – an ancient network of caves, rooms, stairs, and graves carved by hand deep below the surface. What would have caused up to 20,000 souls in just this one colony to live their lives in subterranean darkness and gloom? Intense persecution. Early Christians, fleeing for their lives, were literally driven underground to survive.

Hunched over, using our cell phone flashlights, we descended staircase shafts and wandered through rough-hewn bedrooms and kitchens. Eventually, we found ourselves in a larger gathering room stabilized by arch supports.

We found the church.

I’m a tactile learner, so it was important for me to feel the rough walls, pause to breathe in the cave air, and picture a community of worshipers packed into this space. I imagine an old pastor with a long beard shuffling his way to the end of the room with a flickering candle illuminating the manuscript in his hand. Would he have read St. Peter’s epistle, comforting his underground flock with the knowledge they were not forgotten by Jesus? “Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, to those who are elect exiles of the Dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia, according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, in the sanctification of the Spirit, for obedience to Jesus Christ and for sprinkling with his blood: May grace and peace be multiplied to you” (emphases mine, 1 Peter 1:1-2, ESV).

And oh, to hear them sing! I could only imagine how the sound of the stone would have reverberated with thanksgiving to the God for who’s name they suffered. Would unsuspecting passersby on the ground above wondered at the faint echoes of song through one of the hidden ventilation shafts? In this case, both the saints and the rocks cried “Hosanna, blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!” (See Luke 19:40.)

Someone in our little group suggested that we, too, should sing in this sacred place. “How about the song, Here I am to Worship?” asked a young girl. So together, blinking back tears, we sang the beautifully-ironic lyrics:

“Light of the world
You stepped down into darkness
Opened my eyes, let me see
Beauty that made this heart adore You
Hope of a life spent with You
Here I am to worship
Here I am to bow down
Here I am to say that You’re my God
You’re altogether lovely
Altogether worthy
Altogether wonderful to me…”

To enjoy the full song, see the video here.
Lord, thank you for an enduring faith – a faith that sustained my brothers and sisters who were counted worthy to suffer in the (literal) underground church. Thank you for being a Light in their darkness. Let me honor their legacy of faith by standing for You with boldness and courage in these dark days. Amen.




Please (Church) Don’t Return to Normal

Coronavirus feels like when the school bully ran around the corner of the building and stuck a broomstick in the spokes of your bicycle tire. In one cruel stroke, all forward momentum was abruptly and violently stopped.

The church has felt this stoppage keenly. I’m certain God is doing many things right now (he’s the ultimate multi-tasker!). I can’t help but think that one of those things is a weird Year of Jubilee-ish season in the church. In the Old Testament, the Year of Jubilee happened every 50 years and acted as a divine reset on the whole nation of Israel: people returned to their ancestral lands, sowing and reaping ceased (i.e., major economic activity), slaves were released from service, and properties were redeemed (see Leviticus 25). If Saturday’s Sabbath provided a brief weekly rest and refocus rhythm for God’s people, Jubilee provided a sort of generational Sabbath, a “Sabbath: Extended Edition.” This was not just one day, but a whole prolonged season of stopping, resting, resetting, considering. No, the church isn’t the nation of Israel, but maybe we’re getting our own Coronavirus Jubilee. We just didn’t plan for it.

Church, if this is so, what might the Lord be asking us to stop, consider, and reset? Maybe there is divine mercy in this hardship we face. Maybe we should not seek to get through this as quickly as possible so things can go back to normal. Maybe some of what would be considered “church as normal” needs to be forsaken…for good.

We can look at this from many angles, but in this article I’ve chosen to focus on some norms that we as leaders of American churches might do well to repent of and release in our Coronavirus Jubilee:

1. Placing more attention and spending more resources on producing quality services rather than connecting people to a vibrant relationship with the Living Christ.
2. Not teaching a robust theology of suffering, loss, and lament.
3. Communicating that biblical living looks like winning, living your best life now, or claiming your blessing.
4. Acting threatened by other churches: being quick to talk about their troubles, being slow to celebrate their successes, being suspicious of them in general.
5. Stinking of theological arrogance on non-primary doctrine that keeps us from fellowship and collaboration with other churches for expansion of God’s kingdom.
6. Giving more attention to inward organizational stability than on an urgency to equip, resource, and deploy our folks as sent ones in their communities.
7. Not stewarding the clarity of the gospel, but allowing it to get syncretized with Republican or Democrat ideologies (whichever way the leader and/or congregation leans).
9. Using church attendance as our primary indicator of people’s discipleship.
10. Not creating a culture of relational discipleship.
11. Wrongly hoarding leadership when others could be mentored into new roles and exercise their gifts.

If you know me, you know that I absolutely love the church. So please do not take this post as ammo for church-bashing; it isn’t, and please don’t. This is a call for humble evaluation and a plea to hear the answer to what may be the most important question of our time: What is the Spirit saying to the churches (Revelation 2:29)?

Grace & peace.

Heart Trends

I’ll admit it: my emotions have been topsy-turvy during this global crisis. Have yours? Some days I have felt strong and brave and other days I’ve felt vulnerable and anxious.

Now more than ever we would do well to pay attention to the trajectory of our hearts. Yes of course you and I can get different readings on the emotional levels of our hearts depending on when we take a peek under the hood, so to speak. But are we keeping track of any larger trends going on in there? Are our fluids trending lower and lower? How are we purposefully refilling and replenishing our hearts?

We are told to guard our hearts with all diligence (Prov. 4:23)! We would all do well to take some quiet, honest time before the Father and examine the trends in our hearts right now. Maybe these questions will help spur some helpful introspection:

1. In general, is this crisis leading me to seek God more than I was seeking him before I even knew the word coronavirus? Am I taking my worry to Jesus?
2. When I feel the desire to escape the pressures of stress, what am I doing with those desires?
3. Am I growing in my ability to mourn with those who mourn?
4. How am I honoring the rhythms of sabbath and stillness as a means to rest in God?
5. Am I spending more time on political blame/intrigue or conspiracy theories than on seeking God and serving others?
6. Is my heart becoming calloused and hard towards those I disagree with?
7. Am I growing my appetite for entertainment more than my appetite for spiritual nourishment?
8. Am I letting stress or boredom drive me to an unhealthy relationship with food, sex, alcohol, or media?
9. Am I becoming more closed off and emotionally distant?
10. If dark, scary, despondent, or self-harming thoughts occupy my mind, am I taking those thoughts captive to the obedience of Jesus and seeking help from trusted friends?

Good news: even if we are seeing trends going the wrong way, Jesus is available to renew and restore; call out to him! By grace, let’s trust that this will not be a wasted season of life, but instead a time of immense growth.