Power of Simplicity

“Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law? ‘ And he (Jesus) said to him, ‘You shall love the Lord God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend ALL the law and prophets.” Matthew 22:36-40 ESV (emphasis mine)

A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you are also to love one another. By this ALL people will know you are my disciples, if you have love for one another. John 13:34-35 ESV (emphasis mine)

You may have seen the image above floating around your Facebook timeline or somewhere else in the land of Internet. The first time I saw it, I remember thinking, “that’s really good.” But then, seemingly out of nowhere, the image came to my mind sometime later and it’s statement began to bother me. You see, there is a fundamental flaw to the image and it’s message. It contains two people who come upon a symbol, which they both interpret to be a number. The one clearly sees the number six and the other clearly sees the number nine. The statement below the image implies that they are both right, and that it is all simply a matter of perspective. This isn’t true. The truth is that one of them is right and one of them is wrong. In this picture, however, even the one who is right is also wrong. Let me explain.

Now, in order for my point to make sense, we have to make a couple of assumptions. Those assumptions are: 1) neither of these two people put the number there, and 2) they don’t know who did. With these assumptions in mind, do you know why I believe both people are wrong? They could be wrong because it’s actually a ‘g’ and not a number. Maybe it’s not a letter or a number. But let’s assume that it is a number. Logically, one of them would have to be right. Right? Yes and no. Without knowing who put it there, we can’t know, and the people in the image can’t know who is correct. Whoever is correct is still wrong, however, because they could not explain ‘why.’ Without knowing who put it there, or why they put it there, there is no way to determine if that is a six, a nine, a lower case ‘g’, or something else entirely. Neither one of the people’s perspectives matter without knowing the intent of the originator of that symbol.

To understand the symbol in the most adequate and accurate fashion, would one need to know the originator of the symbol and the context in which they put the symbol. Without that, determining who is “right” is a waste of time. Too often, right and wrong is based on what WE think right and wrong are. So when our perspective is different than someone else’s, it’s easy to say that we are right and they are wrong. But unless we are the originator of those concepts, we cannot ever be ‘right.’ It’s all a matter of perspective. Without knowing the source, any thoughts we have are merely opinions gathered by our own perspectives, which are inherently biased.

In order for either of these people in the image to be ‘right,’ they would need to search out the originator of the symbol and hear their story. This is where the big problem comes. Very few people today are willing to listen to each other’s stories. We are quick to make judgments based on our own biased views of morality, right and wrong, sin and righteousness. We listen too often for how to frame our arguments and perspectives rather than listening simply to hear people’s stories and gain insights into who they are and why they are who they are. We all have stories. You have a story, I have a story, and every story matters.

Your story isn’t the ‘right’ story, nor is it the ‘wrong’ story. It’s simply your story. The same is true of others. The motives with which we listen, however, can be right or wrong. If someone tells me their story and says, ‘my life is a six,’ I’m wrong to declare, ‘you’re wrong, it’s actually a nine.’ All I am doing is viewing the story with my eyes, from my perspective. That is not listening. That is not motivated by Christ-like love. Motives matter. We spend a lot of our time today arguing over sixes and nines and we’re all missing the point. So what is that point?

I titled this post, “The Power of Simplicity.” What does that mean? I just spent multiple paragraphs taking a seemingly simple image and making it super complex. My point is that the simplest, and most powerful way to know what the symbol in the image means, is to find the originator and listen to their story. Not only would it give each of the people insight into whether it is a six, nine, or something else, but they will also understand WHY it is what it is. Every time they come upon the symbol then, they know exactly what it is, why it is, and could then share the originator’s message and meaning with others. To do this, however, is to be intentional about WANTING to know and understand others, and not simply engage in an attempt to share “our truth” with them.

The same can be said of the message of the gospel of Jesus. To truly share the gospel, we must seek first to understand it – not from our personal, national, or cultural perspective, but from the perspective of its originator – from Jesus’ perspective. In order to know His perspective, we must know Him – His character, His nature, and His purpose. That takes time, an intentional effort to listen and learn, and the ability to set our own agendas and biases aside. It is the same effort we must put into engaging with others, and especially those that don’t live or believe like we do.

It sounds really difficult, and nearly impossible, but the truth is that Jesus has made it quite simple. Simple doesn’t mean easy, but it does mean it is not complicated. The power of the gospel is really in its simplicity. Jesus illustrates that in the two above passages. In the first, Jesus is engaged by an expert in the law – one who would have likely known all 613 Jewish laws and commandments. In asking Jesus which of the commandments was the greatest, the expert was not expecting an answer, as it would have been foolish for any Jew to highlight one law over another and risk the ire of God, or even worse, the religious leaders! Yet Jesus did just that. He narrowed 613 commandments down to two – Love God and love your neighbor. Everything hinges on these two, Jesus said, and He was right. For one to love God and love their neighbor truly and perfectly, there would be no need for any other law. Pretty simple, right?

In the second passage, Jesus simplifies things even more, however impossible it may have seemed. The scene is shortly following the last supper Jesus shared with the disciples, and He was moments away from being arrested and beginning His journey to the cross. A man facing inevitable death is likely to speak only words that he deems the most important and necessary. Jesus’ words were powerful, yet simple. He gave His followers a NEW command, what was to be the foundation of the new covenant Jesus would bring forth through His death and resurrection. Here, Jesus simplifies the command from two to one: love one another. For the expert in the law, Jesus had to clarify the importance of loving God and neighbor. To His closest followers, however, He left them with the simple charge to love one another. He took care of everything else by adding this simple, yet again powerful, qualifier: AS I HAVE LOVE YOUyou are also to love one another. Just as loving God and neighbor would satisfy every requirement of the Jewish law, so too would loving other people as Jesus loved the disciples satisfy everything within the new covenant.

How did Jesus love? He emptied Himself, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped (or held on to), and became like us (Philippians 2:5-8). He got down on our level – and even lower – by serving the very ones He created and formed. He even washed feet. Jesus has every right to play the “God card” and simply exert His authority over mankind. Yet He took on our perspective. He experienced our pain, our abandonment, our neglect, and our sin. He wept as His people mourned loss. He wept as He saw His people lost and broken, like sheep without a shepherd. He agonized as He wrestled with the reality of His coming arrest and death in Gethsemane. He watched as His closest friends deserted Him, some even denying they knew who He was.

More than anything, Jesus loved. He loved the people then, and He loves you and me the same today. He loves with the same selfless, humble, caring, compassionate heart with which He has always loved. Now He commissions us to do the same – to love one another (and others) as He has loved us. Jesus isn’t a political party, nationalist, “pro” or “anti” anything. He is love. Fully God, yet fully man. The Creator of all things, yet the servant of all. He. Is. Love. Powerful, yet simple, for there is power in simplicity.

“Mourn with Those Who Mourn”

“Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn.” Romans 12:15

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” Matthew 5:9

I have spent the past couple of weeks or so (actually, much longer, but more intensely as of late) praying, thinking, grieving, and lamenting about the state of affairs in our culture in regards to race. Two questions gnawed at me from the beginning. The first was “Should I respond to this publicly?” The second was, “If so, how should I respond?” The answer to the first was an emphatic, “Yes I should,” and more emphatically, “Yes, I must.” The second question was harder to answer. I wanted to respond in a way that contributed in some way to the needed discussion, and more so, that contributed to an answer to what is quite obviously (and has been for a long time) a problem.

I considered recording a video, but didn’t feel it would come across in the right way, or that emotions would keep me from conveying my thoughts clearly. I considered a long Facebook or Instagram post, but honestly that medium does not lend itself to respectful discussion and gets out of hand really quickly. I settled on writing a blog post for two main reasons: First, I’ve always expressed myself best and most clearly in my writing. I’m usually able to display my emotions without my physical emotions hindering the delivery of the message. Secondly, I figured someone clicking on a link to a blog post rather than a long Facebook post would be more likely to read it all the way through and with the intent to actually hear what I’m trying to express. Social media has become little more than a place for people to spout their own opinions and control the opinions of others (You know, helpful stuff like “If you don’t agree with me, then don’t even think about responding, because I will delete it!)

This post is my perspective, that I have worked hard to present from (what I hope) is a mature, wise, and reasonable place. My goal is not for anyone to read it and simply agree or disagree. My honest goal is to persuade anyone that would read it, whether you agree or disagree, to think about the issue itself without turning it into something else that it is not. This discussion needs to happen and it needs to spur all of us into action. “Thoughts and prayers” are not enough.

Before I get into the issue and my perspective, I feel I have to start by declaring what this post is NOT. This post is NOT an attack – on police; on any political perspective; on a particular race; on one’s faith, lack thereof, or particular brand of faith – but an observation as a pastor, student, parent, husband, and most importantly, a follower of Jesus. I know people who are amazing law enforcement officers; Democrats AND Republicans that love Jesus and love others; Christians AND atheists that are full of compassion and love. My hope is to look at the situation through the eyes of Christ, the one I have committed to following, emulating His love, mercy, grace, justice, forgiveness, etc. If you don’t share my perspective on who Jesus is and how He calls His followers to live, you will likely have issues with what I say. Please understand that going in. To understand my intent and perspective, I’m asking you to lay down any allegiances you have as you read. I welcome any respectful feedback you have. This is a conversation that needs to be had, but it must be had from the proper perspective.

To have this conversation in the manner in which it needs addressing, we must first put down our weapons. This isn’t an “us” vs. “them” issue. Or at least it shouldn’t be. We can’t approach it guarded and with our defenses up, ready to strike at the first opening. We all need to come to the table with the commitment to be “quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry, because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires.” (James 1:19-20) We must be willing to listen, hear a different perspective, respectfully engage in dialogue, and ultimately commit to moving together toward a solution to a problem that plainly exists.

Here is the problem: racism exists, and it is a systemic (institutional) problem. And just to be clear, when I mention racism, I mean racism against people of color. It is not a problem that can be fixed with thoughts and prayers, with apologies on our social media accounts, and certainly not by denying it even exists in the first place. Why we can believe there is global conspiracy involving Bill Gates, 5G towers, China, big Pharma, and whoever else, but NOT acknowledge that racism is an issue, is beyond me. If we deny it, it is simply out of willful ignorance. Racism is a problem, and something needs to be done. I am not a race “expert,” so I won’t pretend to be, but there is great research out there and available, if only we are willing to learn from those that do have something to say. I will be glad to point you in the direction of some good resources if you want them (and isn’t this really the problem?)

It as this point that some people will inevitably pick up the weapons they laid down (if they ever laid them down) and start to get defensive. Racism goes both ways! All lives matter! It’s just a few bad eggs, but most people are good! I’m not like that! This is all invented by the media! And so on. All of these responses are the direct result of an “us” vs. “them” mindset. We choose to look at culture through our political, cultural, nationalistic, religious, gender-driven (and more) lenses. Yes, all lives matter. Yes, racism can and does go both ways. But when one house is on fire and another is not, the house that is on fire is the one that needs the attention. POC are not saying ONLY black lives matter, but black lives matter TOO. Because that phrase has become synonymous with a particular political agenda, however, anyone that is not of that political persuasion discounts it. 

In the past two weeks, we’ve heard the stories of an unarmed black man gunned down by two white civilians trying to make a citizen’s arrest because they suspected him of robbery (Ahmaud Arbery), a female EMT (Breonna Taylor) who was killed by police officers when they shot into her apartment more than 20 times (she was not a suspect in the investigation, was unarmed, had no criminal record, and her boyfriend was later cleared of charges and it was learned the suspect they sought did not live in this apartment and had already been arrested hours earlier), and of a black man (George Floyd) killed by a Minneapolis police officer, who while detaining the man, drove his knee into his neck. The man said multiple times that he could not breathe and pleaded with the officer to remove his knee. The man died. Arbery and Floyd’s death were caught on camera, which brought the stories national attention. In another story, but thankfully one that did not result in death, or even injury, a white woman was caught on camera calling police on a black man that had simply asked her to put a leash on her dog, which was required, in a park. The woman accosted the man, called the police and pretended that her life was in danger from “an African American man.”

Again, those of us who like to carry our weapons around and pounce when we feel attacked will try to steer the conversation in other directions. They should have just complied! Being a police officer is a dangerous job! They thought he was a criminal! There is more to the story! This is all a media-driven hoax! Friends and acquaintances may begin accusing me of being a “raging liberal,” because these tend to be seen as political agendas by left-leaning folks. But friends and acquaintances on the other side might think me to be a “right wing fool” because of my stance on life (even though other “pro-life” friends accuse me of being liberal when I question some of the questionable methods pro-lifers sometimes use to spread their message). I have no political “home,” and believe me when I say I feel it. People assume I’m one thing because I’m a pastor, and others assume I’m another because I worked for a newspaper the past three years. I’m neither. I’m homeless politically, but my home isn’t here anyway.

The truth is, racism of all kinds is a systemic problem. Many POC have experienced things I would never even dream of having to face, simply because of the color of their skin. Asian Americans have had to endure increased racism since the coronavirus pandemic began, and there are many other incidents that would take too much time and space to mention. Instead of listening to our brothers and sisters of color, and their fears and pains, their stories are quickly turned into political fodder by both sides. This is America, we don’t do that! I’ve sometimes heard. But yes, we do that, and we did do that very openly for many decades. Yes, there has been progress, and yes, we aren’t what we were before, but that doesn’t mean the work is done.

Imagine you are in a race and your opponent is given a ten lap head start before you are even allowed to begin running. That’s not very fair. Someone eventually realizes this is not fair, and makes everyone stop. After declaring it was not fair, the official allows you to begin running. The problem is you are still 10 laps behind. You may be given the same opportunity to run, but you are still at a disadvantage. This is less unfair, but it is still unfair. The truly fair thing to do is to start the race over from the beginning and everyone begins at the same spot, on the same course, with the same conditions. Unfortunately, for POC and women especially, progress has been made, but there is still a lot of inequality. Those of us who are in the majority group (white Americans and men especially) may not have done anything wrong by simply taking advantage of the opportunities we were given, but it doesn’t mean it is fair to the others. The proper response, then, is to willingly put ourselves on equal ground with everyone else. Until we do, inequality in many forms will continue to exist.

That is why this is a systemic issue. Inequality in general – racial, gender, economic, etc. – must be dealt with from the top down. Parents must engage this issues with their children. Pastors must engage these issues with their congregations. CEOs must engage these issues with their employees. Sports owners must engage in these issues with their players. Government leaders must engage in these issues with the American people. I think you get the point. The problem is that when these positions of “leadership” – parents, pastors, CEOs, owners, government – are the ones furthering the wrong ideas, it will never change. It is a systemic problem that can only be eradicated by a system that willingly puts itself on the same ground as everyone else.

A professor of mine, J.P. Dorsey, recently compared the issue of race to a person’s struggle with pornography. In response to those who would say, “we’re not like that anymore,” or “we’ve come so far,” J.P. offered this perspective (put in my words): imagine, he said, a husband that has struggled with pornography and his wife found out. She would be hurt, and trust in the relationship would be broken. She may feel like she wasn’t enough for her husband, that she did not matter as much as these other women. Now, maybe the husband agrees to get help, to be better. That’s good. Maybe the husband goes six months, nine months, or even a year without giving in to this temptation. That’s good. But if he falls again, even after a year, all of that hurt and all of those questions will likely come racing back to the wife’s mind.

In the same way, issues like the ones mentioned above, of POC being wrongly targeted because of the color of their skin, or losing their lives disproportionately in situations where others do not lose their lives, breaks trust all over again. POC that have been told, “hey, I’m doing better, I haven’t treated your community wrong in (X amount of) months, years, etc.” face all the same questions and trust issues when it does happen again. When it happens seemingly week after week, it is not unreasonable that their community would be slow to trust that others really cared about them, the same way the wife may be slow to trust that her husband truly cares about her and her feelings.

This is really where the perspective of Jesus comes in. The story of the Bible shows humanity becoming self-centered, self-focused, and walking away from its dependence upon God. Instead, much of life, religion, etc. becomes about individual rights and freedoms, exclusivity from other nations, and the desire to “be like God” (Adam and Eve’s temptation; tower of Babel – Genesis 11). Giving into sin led to inequality – man’s desire to rule over his wife (not God’s design); patriarchal societies; rich and poor; racism/bigotry; nation against nation; division within singular nations. God’s answer to humanity’s fallenness was to come to us and become one of us, so that He could then start us over, through the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. God had every right to demand humanity to be better and to rise up to His “level,” but instead He came to us and became like us, to restore and renew us. Jesus “did not consider equality with God something to be used to His own advantage; rather, He made Himself NOTHING by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to death – even death on a cross!” (Philippians 2:6-8)

As a follower of Jesus, I have been called, and have committed to, living like Him; to have the same mindset. I have been called to “do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility value others above (my)self, not looking to (my) own interests but to the interests of others.” (Philippians 2:3-4). Thoughts and prayers are no longer enough. They’ve never been enough. The conversation needs to be had and things need to change. That includes not tolerating “jokes,” “innuendos,” and stereotypes, all of which I have participated in, to my shame and embarrassment.

Honestly, I don’t know what I can do, or where to start, but I’m determined to find out how I can be a part of the solution. By remaining silent, or by perpetuating “us” and “them” mindset, I’m only contributing to the problem. Unfortunately, I’ve been a part of the problem for too long, and it’s time to change. Sometimes I get to “rejoice with those who rejoice,” but now it’s time to “mourn with those who mourn (or weep with those who weep),” and come back to the starting line with my brothers and sisters. After all, that’s where Jesus is, and that’s where I want to be.

“The More You Know…”

“Those who think they know something do not yet know as they ought to know. But whoever loves God is known by God.” 1 Corinthians 8:2-3

I had this thought today: I don’t know why I’m spending money on a Masters degree, because apparently all I need to do is read a few articles on the internet about something I have little knowledge of (that already confirms my own biases, by the way) and I’ll immediately be an expert! 😉

Note: THIS IS A JOKE, but there is a tinge of truth in it as well. Studies say that it takes about 10,000 hours in a particular field to be considered an “expert.” Author Malcolm Gladwell stated such in his book, “Outliers,” adding that it takes 10,000 hours or approximately 10 years of deliberate practice (more on this later). I have not kept count, but between studying, preaching, teaching, more studying, preaching, teaching, classes conferences, etc., I have spent many hours in the field of theology. According to Gladwell, I might qualify as an “expert.” But I feel nothing of the sort. In fact, I feel quite the opposite.

The more I have learned about God – His Word, His character, His ways – the LESS I feel like an expert. Honestly, the more I learn about ANYTHING, the less I feel like an expert. Every time I learn something new, the more I realize there is so much I don’t know – about life, about God, and even about myself. And that’s okay. There are only two things in which I want to be an expert. The first (but not most important) is to be an expert in learning. No matter how much I know, there is always more to learn, more to experience, more questions to ask, etc.
I think we would all do ourselves a favor if we took the same approach. I am confident I have a lot to offer because of all that I’ve learned and experienced, but I’ve also become self-aware enough that I understand my knowledge and understanding is INCOMPLETE.

My goal as a leader has shifted from persuading others that what I believe is true to inspiring others to always be in pursuit of truth, understanding that we will NEVER (this side of heaven anyway) get to a place of knowing everything. I am convinced that what I believe about Jesus is true, but I’m also convinced that there is SO MUCH MORE about Him that I’ve yet to uncover. Taking this attitude has not only expanded my knowledge about a lot of things, but it has also helped me become more compassionate, empathetic, merciful, gracious, and patient with other people. I’ve not yet mastered this, mind you, but I’m a lot better today than I was 10 years ago, and I hope to be a lot better 10 years from now than I am today.

This leads me to the second, and most important area in which I want to be an expert: love. And not just a worldly concept of love, but love as defined by Jesus: to love others as He has loved me. For it is by this, and this alone, that people will know I am a follower/student/disciple of Jesus. (Jn. 13:34-35) The context of the scripture at the top of this post is the eating of food sacrificed to idols. Paul tells the Corinthian believers that while they know, and he knows, that eating food that has been sacrificed to an idol (pagan deity) will not bring about some kind of judgment or curse from God, it is better to not eat it if doing so might cause someone else to struggle. Verse 9 says, “Be careful, however, that the exercise of your rights does not become a stumbling block to the weak.” By “weak,” Paul is not insulting others, but merely stating that not everyone will understand the freedom one has in Christ, and we should not freely exercise our rights at the cost of it causing someone else to be “destroyed by your knowledge” (v.11). He goes on to say it would be a “sin” against that person (v. 12).

The point is that even when there is knowledge, that knowledge is never to trump the call to love others as Christ has loved us. Jesus, in many ways, laid down His knowledge and His rights to come to our world and love the very ones He created, even though it would mean being killed by them. His knowledge of us, our past, our future, heaven, etc., did not take precedence over His mission to love us right where we were/are. “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.” I don’t want to be known for what I know, how much I know, or even who I know. All I want is to be known by God, and for others to experience the same. All the knowledge in the world can’t replace love. “If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I. AM. NOTHING” (1 Cor. 13:2).

Notice the qualifier of becoming an “expert,” is 10,000 hours or 10 years of deliberate practice. This means intentional, focused learning on the subject. This involves wrestling with the hard questions, looking at the field from various angles and perspectives, acknowledging those different perspectives, and engaging respectfully with them. To learn something only to use it as a weapon is not proper motivation for learning, nor does it make one an expert. The motivation must be out of love for other, and contributing to that field in order to make the world a better place for ALL. Knowledge for knowledge’s sake is worthless. The more I know, the less I care about what I know. The more I know, the more I only want to be known by God and known for His love, so that others might know and be known by Him. You know?

My Two Cents

“Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.” Jeremiah 29:5-7 NIV

I’ve tried to sit back and be slow to respond to our country’s (and world’s, really) crisis with the coronavirus (COVID-19). With so many people self-quarantining and working from home, we have a lot of time (too much!) to post all of our opinions and “expertise” on Twitter and Facebook. I’ve attempted to observe, read, listen, and think about what is going on before I offer any kind of prepared response. It’s easy to respond emotionally and out of our bias, and I’ve tried to avoid that as much as possible. Now that our country has taken the national position that this is a pandemic, I sought out to reflect and offer a reasoned response to the situation for the five of you that follow and read my thoughts…

Back in November, I felt impressed in my prayer and study times to teach through the Book of Jeremiah for most of 2020. Jeremiah has 52 chapters, so it would be easy to dedicate one week to each chapter. We will, and have strayed from Jeremiah here and there, but I have been developing daily devotionals so that our church family can spend the entire year in the book. I felt impressed to go this route for a couple of reasons. First, I believe God was saying that while Jeremiah’s situation is NOT our situation, the cultural roots were the same. Secondly, because 2020 is an election year and will without a doubt be a very contentious one, the Church would have an opportunity to rise up and reflect the character of Christ and win back some of its lost reputation, or an opportunity to further the divide between fellow Christians first, and the divide between the Church and the culture at large.

If you know nothing about the book of Jeremiah, here is a VERY brief overview. (Check out this link for a more detailed synopsis: https://bibleproject.com/explore/jeremiah/) Jeremiah was a prophet called to bring words of warning to Israel. For hundreds of years, the nation had become apathetic, divided into two kingdoms, began aligning itself with pagan nations, and even set up idols to pagan gods in the temple, which was dedicated to Yahweh. Israel continued to ignore the warnings of God, and eventually the only course of action that would reset their mindset and begin them on the path of restoration was to allow them to be attacked by other nations. The final blow was the invasion of Babylon in the late 6th century BC that saw the city of Jerusalem and the temple destroyed.

The people were shocked, because they believed they were immune to anything bad happening to them. As long as they had the temple, they thought, they were okay. They ignored warnings of prophets like Jeremiah and instead listened to false prophets who were prophesying peace and that everything was fine. They underestimated the coming chaos, and overestimated their own security. God’ charges were not just that the people had been unfaithful, but that they wouldn’t even acknowledge their unfaithfulness. Their pride, arrogance, and selfishness led them into destruction.

At the beginning of the year, I shared with the church the reasoning behind focusing on Jeremiah for 2020, but little did I know what all 2020 would bring. Now we find ourselves in a situation in which none of us have likely experienced. We have some people overreacting in fear and panic (why the rush on toilet paper?), and others underestimating or flat out ignoring the potential seriousness of the situation. Like Israel in Jeremiah’s day, I think it is safe to say that America has been a divided “kingdom” for some time. The biggest problem with a divided kingdom is the inability to trust anyone outside of our own camp. Instead of coming together for the common good of all, everything is seen, and actions are taken through the lens of our “kingdom.” This causes us to dismiss things that come from “the other side,” and hold on to things from “our side” that may be false. This is what Israel did with the prophets – the people believed the ones that made them feel good and reinforced what they already believed, and ignored the prophets that challenged their beliefs and way of life. Let us learn our lesson quicker than they did…

Unfortunately, Israel refused to listen and the nation found itself in one of its darkest times. The city and temple were destroyed, citizens were killed, and others were enslaved. A once thriving land had become desolate and empty, and the temple in which Israel found its security became a heap of rubble and ashes. As I said, THIS is not THAT, but the root of our situation and Israel’s in quite similar. The political divide in which we find ourselves is contributing to an apathetic and resistant approach that is going to do nothing but make things worse and take longer from which to recover. We have three options: we can react in fear and panic; we can react with apathy and resistance; or we can calm down, work together for the good of us ALL and get through this with minimal damage. The storm is not on its way; it is already here. We can run and hide, put ourselves and others in harms way, or we can take the appropriate precautions. What we decide determines how effectively we can help others during this time, and when the storm passes (and it WILL pass – it always has).

Despite Israel’s ignorance, rebellion, unfaithfulness, etc., God did not abandon her. It can seem that way, but she had hundreds of years of warnings until this was the only way to reset and change what needed to be changed. Notice what God said to the nation in the midst of its heartache and destruction: He told them to settle down and not resist or rebel. Furthermore, He instructed them to seek the peace and prosperity of Babylon – the city that just destroyed Israel’s home and temple! The nerve of God, huh? God told them to pray for Babylon, its enemy. (kinda sounds like something this Jesus guy I know would say…) If it prospers, you too will prosper, God said.

Can you imagine being instructed to not fight against an enemy that just destroyed your home and way of life? Yet that’s exactly what God did. He did it, not because He didn’t care about Israel, but because HE DID care about Israel. He wanted her to prosper, but she needed a “time out” to reset her mind and remember the big picture – it’s not about just Israel. I don’t believe for one second that God orchestrated COVID-19 to infect and kill people, but I do believe He will use it to instigate change that has been needed for years. Sometimes when people need to change, but won’t, events happen that force that change to happen. Let us learn from Israel’s mistakes and not underestimate the seriousness of the situation. Neither should we react with fear and panic. Instead, let’s settle down, trust God, and pray for the peace and prosperity of our cities, nation, and world. If they prosper, so will we. If they are at peace, so to will we be. It’s not about you; it’s not about me; it’s about US – the human race, the body of Christ.

That’s just my two cents.

Rest for the Weary

In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature, God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to His advantage; rather, He made Himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to death – even death on a cross! Philippians 2:5-8 NIV

I’m going to start this blog with a moment of honesty, is that okay? Thanks, here it is: I’m tired. Physically, emotionally, mentally, spiritually – I’m tired. I am worn out. I am a pastor and a writer for my local newspaper. Both jobs come with a lot of criticism, and people questioning your motives constantly. I now only cover sports for the paper, but at one point I was covering city government and other local interest stories. I’ve had “fake news” lobbed my way more than once, and been accused of writing and/or preaching my biases. I was insulted by strangers that I’ve never met or spoken to before simply because I was riding in the back of a media truck while taking pictures of people walking on a bridge. For that particular event, the sad thing was many of those doing the insulting were also wearing shirts and/or hats promoting Jesus. I’m tired.

The most mundane things that I never would have thought would bring criticism, have (even covering sports exclusively). The people that may praise you one minute are the same ones that may bash you the next. It all depends if you are giving them what they want. I have essentially zero close friends that I’m able to be brutally honest with without fear of how those feelings would be perceived. I’m tired. I’m tired of faith taking over politics and politics taking over faith. I’m tired of people assuming the worst in others and reveling in the downfall and humiliation of their fellow man. I’m tired of pouring my heart out week after week for others to dissect and determine my motives. I’m tired of trying to be everything people want or expect me to be, only to find it’s never enough. I’m tired.

I’m tired of a world where being right means more than doing things the “right” way. I’m tired of issues mattering more than people. I’m tired of people preaching love in the same sentence they then declare hatred toward those who don’t align with their view of love. I’m tired of people that are undoubtedly reading this and assuming that I’m talking about them. I’m not. But I’m tired. I’m tired of sarcasm and biting words. I’m tired of lies and deceit. I’m tired of people justifying the attack ofothers character and value based solely on their narrow (and biased) view of the world. I’m tired of people joking about Jesus and my faith because they don’t believe what I believe. I’m tired of Christians using Jesus and that same faith to attack others. And I’m tired of Michigan football losing to Ohio State! I’m tired.

Then, in a moment of clarity, I think of Jesus. If I’m tired of these things, and you’re tired of these things, how tired is He of these things? God is the only one that has a 100% right and justifiable reason to be tired of us. But instead of giving up, He came to us; and in the most unexpected way possible. He became LIKE us. In the words of Linus Van Pelt, “That’s what Christmas is all about Charlie Brown.” Jesus, being God, emptied Himself of His stature to come to us – not as a 30-year-old preacher, teacher, and miracle worker, but as a baby. He became dependent upon the very ones He created. He took on our nature, our likeness (though to be fair, we were created in His image and likeness first). God became flesh. He probably was tired of seeing humankind continue to mess up, misinterpret, and misjudge everything about Him and His creation. Yet, He came to us and for us. He. Became. Us.

That was no minor feat. To do so, Paul writes, Jesus emptied Himself, laid down His rights as God, and made Himself nothing (of no reputation). He took on human likeness and humbled Himself even further by going to the cross to die a death reserved for the nastiest criminals, to demonstrate the depth of His love for us. The gospels tell us of a time nearing Jesus’ death when He prayed in the garden of Gethsemane (Matt. 26; Mark 14; Luke 22), pouring out His heart and expressing His anguish over His coming arrest and crucifixion. Jesus was tired. Jesus was anxious. Yes, Jesus even showed fear. He was alone on earth. His closest friends betrayed Him, abandoned Him, and denied Him. He cried out that the Father had forsaken Him. But He pressed on. He remained humble. He remained obedient. He finished the work He came to do. (Jn. 19:30)

Jesus didn’t press on because of any personal benefits He would receive. He was God before He ever came to the earth. He emptied Himself of all of His rights for your sake, for mine, and for everyone else. That Christmas day some 2000+ years ago, God took on flesh, and the world met Immanuel – “God with us.” Thus, Christmas is not only a time to remember the Christ-child and the enormity of that event, but also a time for those of us who have committed to follow Him to remember the charge to “have the same mindset as Christ Jesus…” No matter how tired I may be, I must press on. I must remain humble, empty myself, and take on the nature of a servant. Why? Because not everyone has experienced this love that cannot be replicated by the world. Others need to see, feel, and know the love of the One who created them and knows the depths of their soul like none other. And I don’t want anything to hinder that picture. I don’t want to sell my witness for a political party. It’s not about me. It’s not about you. It’s not about America. It’s not about a political party. It’s not about power. It’s not about our rights. It’s not about winning or losing, heaven or hell, black or white. It’s. About. Jesus.

I’m tired. I’m tired of being the very thing I’m tired of above. I’m tired of making this life about myself. I’m tired of minimizing the grace, love, and power of Christ. I’m tired of not reflecting Him as I should and letting this world distort my witness. I’m tired of not showing you and others how good God is and how much He loves, adores, and desires you. I’m tired, but as I remember the “reason for the season,” suddenly I’m not so tired anymore. God never tires of expressing His love, so I press on to reflect that love to others – To my wife; my kids; the church; my community; you; and myself. I’m tired. But I ain’t dead… Come to me all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light. (Matthew 11:28-30)

The Power of Lament

Those who know me well know that I am a huge fan of the University of Michigan. I did not attend Michigan, nor did I even grow up in the state (I’m a Hoosier by birth), but somewhere along the way I became a fan of Michigan sports. Having grown up in Indiana, basketball is king. The movie “Hoosiers” is basically required watching for anyone that is born in Indiana. During my crucial adolescent years, Indiana University basketball was life for those around me, and coach Bobby Knight was king. But truthfully, I was not a fan of Knight, and he turned me off to IU fandom. Being a pre-teen during the rise of the “Fab Five” at Michigan, especially given that the basketball team had just won the national championship in 1989, really drew me in to Michigan fandom. The rest, as they say, is history. I’ve been a Michigan fan ever since, ended up marrying a Michigan girl, and I’ve served as a pastor in Michigan since 2004. Six more years in Michigan and I will have officially lived as long in Michigan as I did in Indiana, where I lived until age 21.

Why the history lesson? Honestly, I don’t know. But if you didn’t know me before, now you know a little about me, so you’re welcome 🙂 As a Michigan fan, I learned quickly to loathe fans of “Ohio.” You know, the ones with that pretentious response to their school – “The” Ohio…University. Bleech… (Their100 game winning streak against us in football not withstanding) But recently I read an article about a former OSU Buckeye (and Pittsburgh Steeler) football player, Ryan Shazier, and his father. Shazier was badly injured two years ago in a game after what looked like a fairly innocent tackle. Instead, Shazier was paralyzed from the waist down and began a long and arduous rehab to learn how to walk again, a journey that continues to this day (although he has come a long way)

This particular article focused on Shazier’s father, Vernon, a pastor of a church in Florida, and his crisis of faith as he wrestled with why this happened to his son, who was only 25 at the time. The article can be found on Sports Illustrated’s website here: https://www.si.com/nfl/2019/12/04/ryan-shazier-pastor-father-reaction-to-injury What stood out to me about the article was the pastor’s belief that he had to show strength in front of everyone else, but would cry in isolation multiple times a day as he thought of and prayed for his son. This belief, unfortunately, is far too common among people of faith, believing that it is “anti-faith” to show doubts, struggles, frustration, questions, or even anger at God. I think it is a false belief, and one that has no biblical support (with a proper interpretation).

Another thing you may or may not know about me is that I began pursuit of my masters degree this summer, and just finished my first semester. In one of my classes, I was tasked with choosing a specific theological topic about which I would be writing several papers throughout the semester, culminating in a 20-page final project. My chosen topic was the “Theology of Suffering.” I chose this because I had recently been meeting with several people in counseling and my role as a pastor, that were truly suffering – recurrence of cancer, abuse, chronic illness, loss of loved ones, disowned by family, imprisonment, etc. – and I was struggling with how to encourage these folks. Suddenly, simply saying, “just have faith,” “trust in God,” seemed empty. I felt God impressing upon me to simply listen and let them know I was there to walk with them, and more importantly, that God was there to walk with them as well.

As I began research on the project, I was completely undecided about the angle I wanted to take. After all, how to you answer the BIG questions about suffering: Why did this happen? Doesn’t God love me? What did I do (am I doing) wrong? Did God do this to me? Did He let it happen? If so, why? What do I do now? Every answer I had seemed insufficient and inappropriate because I felt like it invalidated their pain, suffering, and questions.

In the midst of my research, however, I came across a subject that I could not shake, and it became my “angle.” That angle was the power of lament. To some, lament is simply another word for complaining, but biblically, there is so much more to the term. Lament was actually a form of worship that was often expressed as a poem, a funeral dirge, or a song. About 40% of the Book of Psalms are lament psalms, and one book – Lamentations – was dedicated completely to laments. In fact, one will find the use of lament in one form or another, in nearly every Old Testament book. And while it is not as prevalent in the New Testament, it is there. More powerfully, the gospels record Jesus – the Messiah, the Christ, the Son of God – lamenting.

Somewhere along the way, the Church (especially the Western Church) decided that lament was “anti-faith” and contrary to what it meant to be a “strong” Christian (whatever that means). So, when people are legitimately suffering and in pain, the church’s response has often been, “just have faith brother/sister!” “Trust the Lord!”, or my personal favorite (*sarcasm) “everything happens for a reason.” All those are easy to say when it’s not happening to us. Pastor Shazier found himself in a similar position when HIS son, HIS family, HIS faith was now tested. In the interview, he seemed brutally honest about his wrestling, and how he felt he had to present himself one way in public, all while he was struggling in private.

What if Pastor Shazier cried in front of his congregation or family? What if he said, “guys, I’m scared, I’m struggling with this”? Do you honestly think God would choose not to do something because of his “lack” of faith, or to teach him a lesson? If you do, then I think your picture of God is sorely distorted. Scripture tells us that God knows what we need before we ever ask (Matthew 6:8). Would He not know those feelings anyway? Why is it then faith to feel that way and not admit it, and anti-faith to feel it and admit it? That makes no sense! In fact, I would argue that if we think we can’t be honest with God, then we don’t truly trust Him and what His word says about who He is, and who we are to Him. God is a covenant keeping God and will not break that covenant because we’re human.

Case in point, God became human (you know, why we celebrate Christmas!) and Scripture says He was tempted in every way, and is able to empathize with our struggles/weaknesses (Hebrews 4:15), including pain, suffering, doubts, and anger. A feeling isn’t sin. A feeling is a feeling. What makes it sin is how we respond. If I respond to anger by throat-punching someone, then my anger turned to sin. But if I respond to anger by bringing it to God, I’m trusting Him enough with my anger that He will not turn me away or punish me for being angry (or fearful, or confused, or doubtful). God cares to listen to your laments as much as anything else. He is a listening God AND a speaking God.

The most powerful illustration of the power and necessity of lament, is Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane (Matthew 26:36-46; Mark 14:32-42; Luke 22:39-46;) . In this scene, Jesus comes to the Father “deeply distressed and troubled,” and asks that the mission He came to fulfill might be taken away. Today, if someone came to church saying, “I know what I’m called to do, but I’m scared and don’t want to do it,” and prayed that God would take it away, that person would likely be chastised by many a Christian “leader” for a lack of faith. Yet here is Jesus, asking the Father that His mission be aborted. He didn’t ask once, but THREE times! He was always ended the lament with “not my will, but yours be done,” but it doesn’t take away from the fact that Jesus lamented. He trusted His Father enough that He could bring even His darkest struggles before Him without fear of being ostracized for a lack of faith. And the Father simply listened. Because He cares.

We need to recapture the power of lament in our individual lives, and the life of the body of Christ. Instead of turning every act of gun violence into a political game, maybe the body of Christ should lament with those that are losing loved ones because of it. Instead of making fun of people who struggle with their identity, maybe we should lament with them that they’ve yet to uncover their identity as beloved sons and daughters of God. Instead of offering empty words with those who are in pain and suffering, maybe we need to “weep with those who weep” – listen to them; walk with them; lament with them. And maybe instead of pushing down our feelings out of a sense of “faith,” we need to start following the example of Jesus in Gethsemane and trust God with our deepest hurts, struggles, and secrets. He knows them already anyway.

Lament gives a voice to the voiceless and hope to the hopeless, brings suffering before a listening God, and is the first step to true healing and restoration. You cannot get healed unless and until you acknowledge there is something of which to be healed. By weeping with those who weep, we can then celebrate by rejoicing with those who rejoice, for lament can turn weeping into rejoicing. There’s a reason so many struggle with and lose their lives due to depression, anxiety, and the like. Lament isn’t the only answer, nor is it the final word; but it is an important and necessary step to finding healing – individually, as a church, as a nation, and as the people of God. It’s time we stop pretending and start living authentically and honestly. Jesus wept. So too can you. If you need someone to weep with you, He’s there. So am I. Are you?