Monday, December 23, 2013

Christmas Changes Everything

I wouldn't have thought it possible unless I wrote it, but here's an article that has nothing whatsoever to do with Phil Robertson or the War on Christmas, and it's not even an end-of-the-year countdown of the top anything. It is, however, a shamelessly sneaky way for me to write about Laurin at Christmastime. You've been warned. Enjoy!

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

The Importance of Truthiness

“So I said to them, ‘Let any who have gold take it off.’ So they gave it to me, and I threw it into the fire, and out came this calf” (Exodus 32:24, esv). The next time Hollywood attempts the story of the Ten Commandments, I hope they cast Jon Lovitz as Aaron. His pathological liar character would work perfectly. Just end this verse with “Yeah, that’s the ticket” and the outlandishness of Aaron’s claim would be at home in a familiar Saturday Night Live skit.

Aaron’s answer to Moses is ridiculous, but what makes it more tragic is its timing. Moses has just returned from spending 40 days on Mount Sinai with God. As God was giving Moses the Ten Commandments and detailed instructions about the Tabernacle and how the priests were to be set apart for the Lord’s service, Aaron—God’s choice for High Priest—was busy leading the people into idolatry. God was taking steps closer to His people. Aaron was taking steps further away from the Lord. God was bringing truth, and Aaron countered with a lie—and a ludicrous one at that.

God is not surprised by His people’s sins. In fact, that’s what the wilderness narratives are all about. God not only anticipates Israel’s disobedience, but He goes to extraordinary measures to overcome it so that the relationship might continue. He gives the people the Law to restrain sin but, more importantly, to make the people aware of their need for a Savior. He provides the Tabernacle, and later the Temple, in order to come close to His people, in spite of their sin. And centuries later, He will send His Son to deal with sin once and for all so that His people can be with Him forever.

We cannot truly come to God with our own ridiculous story revisions. When we offer up to God our excuses in an attempt to avoid responsibility, what we are really saying is that we don’t need a Savior, that we’re okay on our own. And that’s a damnable lie, and I do mean “damnable.”

But the same is true of our relationships with other people. Obviously our friendships with others won’t bring us eternal salvation, but the same principle applies here as well. We cannot have true relationships with other people if we deny the truth—even if living in the truth means admitting we’ve done something wrong. Reconciliation is important, and loving another person sometimes means being wronged to the glory of God, but if a relationship is consistently one-sided, it will be like a house that is one-sided—not a house at all.

The Christian life is the remedy to the disease of excuse. Those who know Christ have no need to hide anymore. God knows all we’ve done and forgives us. After that, what really matters?

In our relationships with other people, this freedom from guilt ought to free us to be truthful and to seek out the truth, no matter what that search uncovers. There’s really no need to rewrite history or to stubbornly hold on to a viewpoint that we know simply isn’t true. Love never denies the truth but embraces it and rejoices with it (1 Corinthians 13:6). When we’re on the side of guilt, we stand in the shadow of God’s mercy. And when we’re in the right, we seek the Lord’s help in forgiving the other person. Both bring God glory but both require the truth. That's one of the ways that truth sets us free, and it's the reason why truth can’t be simply swept under the rug.

Monday, December 2, 2013

The One Word That Changes the Christmas Story

The scene is familiar. Animals mull around the stable. Mary and Joseph huddle close, their faces beaming as they gaze upon the Christ Child in pristine white swaddling clothes, lying silently in the manger. The stable doors are open, and from one side, shepherds gather near, almost glowing from their recent angelic encounter. From the other side, three kings from far countries file in, offering gold, frankincense, and myrrh to the new King. Above the barn, a supernatural star in the sky offers a spotlight to frame the Christmas card moment.

And there’s another scene, perhaps not as classic but just as recognizable these days. Mary, no longer able to ride atop Joseph’s donkey, lies down on the dusty streets of Bethlehem, as Joseph frantically attempts to secure lodging for the night. Their timing is tragic. They’ve just arrived in Bethlehem to register for the census when Mary suddenly goes into labor. No one in town has mercy on the couple, save a half-hearted innkeeper who can’t offer a sheltered corner in his inn but only the cave out back where he keeps his animals. Minutes later, Mary cries out in pain, sweat pouring from her forehead, as she delivers the baby Jesus. She and Joseph are alone. No shepherds have yet arrived, no magi from afar—the only ones to greet the newborn king are the disrupted sheep and donkeys nearby.

The first scene is easily dismissed as a fraud by anyone who studies Matthew’s and Luke’s Christmas accounts carefully. There is no indication from the biblical text that the shepherds and wise men appeared together or that Jesus didn’t cry like any other infant. The wise men were almost certainly not royals, and we have no idea how many were there. The second account is more appealing to modern ears. It’s gritty, and therefore seems more likely, more realistic. It’s riveting to think of the heroism of Joseph and Mary—especially Mary—all alone, the odds and the elements against them.

But what if both scenes are off? What if both say more about us than they do about the parents God chose for His Son? The first scene I described—the Christmas card scene—makes Mary seem otherworldly. No one looks that good after having just given birth. The second scene—the bloody, sweaty manger scene—also has little basis in reality, given what the biblical text tells us about Jesus’ birth. The truth, I believe, hinges largely on one word.

In Luke 2:7, we read, “And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn” (esv). At the risk of robbing small children of a meaty part in the church nativity play, I’d like to suggest there was no innkeeper at all. The Greek word kataluma, translated “inn,” is probably best understood as “guest room.” You see, we know the word Luke likes to use for “inn.” He uses it later when telling the story of the Good Samaritan (see Luke 10:25-37, especially v. 34), and the word he uses is not kataluma. When kataluma does show up later in Luke’s Gospel, it’s used to describe the upper room (or “guest room”) inside a house, where Jesus and His disciples share their last Passover meal, before Jesus is betrayed (see Luke 22:11).

So how does properly defining this one word change the Christmas story? Joseph and Mary were not strangers in a strange city. Most likely, they were welcomed guests in the home of one of Joseph’s relatives. After all, Bethlehem was his family’s hometown. But because so many people traveled to register for the census, the home’s guest room was full, so Mary gave birth in the room below, in the area reserved for animals to sleep on cold nights. There’s no indication that Mary went into labor the night she and Joseph arrived in Bethlehem either; Luke tells us she gave birth simply “while they were there” (2:6)—no rejection by the townspeople, no frantic search for a place to give birth. Mary’s struggle was likely no different than any other woman’s in the first century.

The Christmas story is not the harrowing tale of a virgin mother who stood against all odds to deliver a child in a hostile world. Mary was faithful, obedient, and willing to serve God through extraordinary circumstances. She may have faced a scandal in Nazareth when news of her pregnancy surfaced in town, but God provided for His divinely appointed vessel. Joseph was a righteous man who provided for her physical needs, even securing a relatively comfortable place for her to give birth. And I have no doubt that the God to whom she sang praises provided for her spiritual needs, reassuring her when doubts pressed in.

The special details of Jesus’ birth bring glory to Him. The angels announced His birth to shepherds, and a star in the heavens announced it to wise men from the East. Poor and rich, Jew and Gentile alike—all have reason to celebrate. While Mary should be upheld as an example of faith, the Christmas story is not really about her; it’s about Jesus. And her part in the story, which began with a miraculous conception and ended with a fairly standard, first century labor-and-delivery experience, brings Jesus glory too . . . even if our Christmas cards seem so much more dramatic.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Thursday, October 3, 2013

The Wood Between the Worlds

“The Wood between the Worlds,” said Polly dreamily. “It sounds rather nice.”
—C. S. Lewis, The Magician’s Nephew

This past Monday, I came home from work . . . and did nothing. And it was glorious.

Laurin and I had a simple dinner, opened a few wedding presents, and spent some time just enjoying each other’s company. But it was the first time in a long time that I can remember coming home from work without a list of things to do, places to go, or phone calls to make.

Our wedding this past weekend was beautiful—thanks to Laurin’s hard work and creativity, and that of her friends. It was a lot of fun and very special. And despite all that was going on—the schedule, the details, the guests—the setting allowed us to live in the moment and take it all in. Our surroundings reflected the glory of their Creator; the decorations, the flowers, and the personal touches were instruments of worship. But that was the goal and the payoff. Getting to that day, and to those special moments, seemed to require driving at full speed.

Now that we’ve arrived, traveling at ninety miles an hour is no longer required. This week feels like a long-awaited Sabbath. It’s been refreshing and re-energizing to say the least. But this season won’t last too long; the adventure of our honeymoon stands before us. And in that way, this week is like the Wood between the Worlds in C. S. Lewis’ The Magician’s Nephew—the magical place that served as the stepping-off point for travels to Narnia and countless other lands. We’ve left what came before, but we’re not quite there yet.

It’s not just my wedding being in the rearview mirror that’s making me feel caught between the already and the not yet. In the early days of September, my book was released to the public. I am now a "divorce-book author." That’s not something I’m quite excited about, but if it brings God glory and is helpful to readers, I am happy to wear that badge.

As glad as I am to move past writing about divorce, I feel caught in the Wood between the Worlds once again. I look around and see myriad pools I could try, but I’m not quite sure which one will suit me. I am jealous of my pastor friends who write. Serving a local church, diving deep into the pages of Scripture, and working with people who are on a journey of faith all seem like excellent fields from which to glean. But as a writer and editor, I spend my days in front of a computer screen, writing and editing. Writing about writing seems like holding a mirror up to a mirror or recording yourself recording yourself; if you’re not careful, the universe will unravel. Even this post feels dangerously introspective.

For now, I’m going to embrace the Sabbath I’ve been given. I’m going to enjoy the uncluttered calendar that God has given me to enjoy time with my new bride. And I’m going to enjoy just being. I’m going to trust that God isn’t done with me yet, that He’ll lead me to choose my next writing challenge and the correct format for that challenge. In short, I’m trusting that He’ll show me which pool in the Wood to step into.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Breaking a Rule

I'm not usually a fan of rules, especially when there's some rationale behind a rule that's not apparent to me. I'm the first one to ask Why? On the other hand, I can be a huge Pharisee and insist that others follow the rules. See me in traffic for this one. This tendency also comes in handy for editing and proofreading, and it's one of the reasons these guys are among my heroes.

When it came time to write my book, Broken Vows: Divorce and the Goodness of God, I was told by quite a few people that it was important to figure out who I wanted my audience to be before I put my fingers to the keyboard. A good book has one primary audience, they told me. While it's still left to be seen whether readers will consider mine a "good" book, I broke this rule from the start. 

Without a doubt, I wrote Broken Vows for people who are hurting, particular from the pain of divorce. As the subtitle explains, the book is all about how God works good through even a horrible season like divorce. My hope is that people who have personally experienced the tearing apart of "one flesh" will see God working through the difficult parts of their stories. The gospel applies to every area of life, even when it seems like life has gone off the rails and fallen into a place where even the good news of Jesus can't reach. 

But I didn't write Broken Vows just for the hurting. As I said, the gospel applies to every area of life. For every person who's currently walking through a painful divorce or other tragedy, there are dozens more who come into contact with that soul. They too need to know how the gospel applies here. They too need to see that their stories are intersecting with the grace of God for such a time as this. The Christian life is one of community. Though there are times when we feel alone, we are not supposed to walk through life on our own, especially during its darkest moments. 

As I typed away at my MacBook, I tried to keep my eyes on people who have walked down a path similar to mine, but my eyes wandered to those who've never seen these paths—to the many pastors and mature Christians who love Jesus but aren't sure what to think about divorce or the size and weight of God's grace when it comes to these messy, muddy areas of life. 

Sometime this week, I'll be able to announce Broken Vows is now available. I hope that if you or someone you know has experienced divorce personally, you'll pick up a copy and that the words I wrote will minister gospel truth to fearful, bruised hearts. But my prayer is that the readership won't stop there. In the early days following the breakup of my marriage, I would have loved for someone to offer me a book like this one. Better yet, I would have loved it if a friend had read it themselves and could have understood a bit of what I was experiencing. 

For more information about Broken Vows: Divorce and the Goodness of God, click here and here. Thanks so much!

Monday, July 15, 2013

Upside-Down Leadership

Take a look at your Facebook feed. Now, check Twitter. If that fails, you'll definitely find them on your LinkedIn account. Leadership tidbits, blog posts, quotes, and book snippets: they're everywhere!

These days, it seems everyone is an expert on leadership. And it doesn't stop there. It seems it's not even good enough to be a leader; one must become a leader of leaders. But it strikes me that Jesus didn't say "Lead others." He said, "Follow Me."

Check out my column on today. I'd love to know your thoughts:

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Broken Vows

This September, two big things will be happening in my life. On September 28th, I will be getting married to the most amazing woman on the planet. Her name is Laurin—and if you know her, you know just how amazing she is. She's way out of my league, but for some reason, she loves me. And I couldn't be happier about it. Marrying her is the biggest blessing, other than Jesus, I've ever received.

Some may choose to see it as just a coincidence or even terrible timing, but there's another thing happening in September. Cruciform Press will be releasing my book. It's called Broken Vows: Divorce and the Goodness of God. Yup, that's right—a few weeks before I get married, my book on divorce comes out, and I run the risk of being "that divorce-book guy." But here's the secret: the book isn't about divorce at all; it's about the gospel. It's about Jesus offering hope and healing to every broken soul who kneels down at the foot of the cross.

Divorce doesn't just divide couples; it also divides the church. It's an issue that's been discussed, debated, argued, and avoided, and if you ask ten different pastors about biblical grounds for divorce, you may get ten different answers. This book is not about all that (though, for the record, I consider myself to be on pretty conservative evangelical ground when it comes to the biblical texts involved). This book is about what God is doing when a person's world comes crumbling down around them, and it attempts to show how a Christ follower can walk through the messiness of divorce in a way that honors Jesus.

I have two hopes for this book. The first is that Broken Vows will be a comfort and encouragement to folks who find themselves walking where I walked just a few years ago—that my story and the lessons I learned will push readers into Jesus' arms when life hurts. My other hope is for the pastors and Christians who have never been touched by divorce. I pray that this book will help them better minister to their brothers and sisters who have been wounded by a broken marriage. Divorced people have been known to stand on the fringe, afraid to come in close. Too often, they hear messages that only add weight to the already heavy loads they carry, so they shy away. But the gospel is for everyone. No one needs to hide out on the edges. All are welcome at the cross. 

At first, I was not too keen about the book coming out in September. When the publisher told me that was their plan, I winced. But now, after a couple of months to get used to the idea, I think it's a God thing. What a beautiful picture it will be to see the hope of the gospel in the aftermath of divorce side by side with the promise of the gospel in the beauty of a wedding.

You can read more about my book and check out the first chapter here. As endorsements are collected and reviews are written, that's where they'll end up. From that site, you can also pre-order print or digital copies. 

And if it wouldn't be too much trouble, would you mind spreading the word about Broken Vows? I'd sure appreciate it. 

Thursday, June 27, 2013

When Jesus Shows Up at Work

I have a confession to make. Rarely, as I hurry through the parking lot, is my heart prepared for worship. When I arrive inside and sit down, it’s unusual for me to sense God’s presence right away. Sometimes, I find it difficult to pray while I’m there. And I feel awkward sharing what Jesus is doing in my life with the people I greet.

But I’m not describing Sunday mornings at church—I’m describing my Monday-through-Friday work life. Lately, God has been teaching me to see my career as something that’s not really mine at all. Rather, just like everything else in life, it’s all about Jesus.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Friday, June 14, 2013

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Monday, June 3, 2013

Hallway Sacrifices

Have you ever been in a frustrating situation—the kind that sometimes keeps you up at night? It wreaks havoc on your focus and productivity and makes other areas of your life harder to handle. I’ve been there.

During times like these, I’ve been told to focus on my own reactions and my own emotional wellbeing. Friends have advised me to dive into other projects—writing and hobbies—to take my mind off of things. After all, it’s not wise to let other people control your life. All of this advice is good, and—believe me—I’ve tried these tactics. It’s just not always that easy to compartmentalize, and it’s not often I have too much control over when parts of my life overlap.

I’ve tried to think about times when things have been the other way around—when something I’ve done has probably been a source of severe frustration for someone else. I must admit that it’s more difficult to remember those times, probably because when it’s the case, the issue is someone else’s problem. It’s easy to pretend we’re taking some sort of moral high ground by rationalizing that if the other person had it more together or were more spiritual, they wouldn’t get so bothered by it all. After all, it’s their problem to deal with, not ours.

Not too long ago, I was reading through the Sermon on the Mount, and one particular passage struck me—that part about leaving your sacrifice on the altar if you remember some reason your brother might be angry with you. It’s Matthew 5:23.

I was thinking about my current situation and how I wished that other Christians took these verses to heart. We are so ready to justify ourselves that we rarely think we’re the one who needs to drop our sacrifice on the temple floor and run out of the room to make amends. I know I’ve been guilty of this.

Jesus said that it would be better if we would go and reconcile with the person we’ve wronged in order to avoid the payback they might exact. All in all, sound advice. The problem is we rarely think that such payback will ever happen or that it’s deserved. I’ll speak for myself and say I regularly make it a habit to justify my own actions as naturally as I make it a habit to breathe. That’s when Jesus words become just good advice, and not something necessary to follow Him.

This time, however, when I was reading this passage, I was shot in the face by the words that came before. Jesus had just compared anger to murder, saying, “Everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment” (Matthew 5:22, ESV). He goes so far as to say that anyone who calls someone else a fool will be worthy of hellfire. This seems so extreme to our modern American ears; I’ve been called far worse things in traffic on my way to work.

Then we come to our passage about leaving our sacrifices in the hallway in order to make peace with those we may have wronged. Here’s what I hadn’t noticed before: The person who’s angry—the one that Jesus just said would be in danger of condemnation—is the one who’s been wronged, not the one did the wronging. So, there’s bad news for everyone. If you do something horrible to someone else, they may take vengeance on you, but if someone does something inexcusable to you and you get angry, you might be setting yourself up for fire and brimstone. There’s retribution, anger, and violence in a nice, never-ending circle. Fun all around.

Jesus’ point is simple: It’s everyone’s responsibility to live at peace with everyone else, and this peace is not just a peace that simply avoids others. It’s a shalom of perfect harmony—of reconciliation and restoration. It’s the kind of thing Paul described when he wrote, “If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all” (Romans 12:18).

How our behavior affects other people cannot simply be their problem. It’s our problem too. Just before Jesus began talking about all this anger and hellfire and setting aside sacrifices, He said this to his disciples and the listening crowds: “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:20). Again, that sounds particularly harsh to modern ears, but Jesus was speaking out against the kind of “righteousness” that follows the letter of the law, but ignores the heart of God.

I certainly don’t have it all figured out, but I know that conflicts carry consequences, and both stand in stark contrast to the kingdom that Jesus brought. Every time we feel the sting of mistreatment or anger, we fall back into the old world, while the new world Jesus described seems just out of reach. Resolution brings peace, and peace is the order of the day in God’s new creation.

Normally with a post like this, I would urge readers to make peace with anyone they may have wronged and with anyone who may have wronged them. But that seems too easy, like I’m casting a stone of good intentions out the window of my glass house.