To all those who are broken and fumbling: (and all those who think they are not.)

“And behold, a man came up to him, saying, “Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?” And he said to him, “Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good. If you would enter life, keep the commandments.”  He said to him, “Which ones?” And Jesus said, “You shall not murder, You shall not commit adultery, You shall not steal, You shall not bear false witness, Honor your father and mother, and, You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” The young man said to him, “All these I have kept. What do I still lack?”  Jesus said to him, “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” When the young man heard this he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions.” -Matthew 19:16-22

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When Jesus revealed the rich man’s need, he stood back, aghast at the request. How? How could he give up everything? What kind of benevolent Messiah would ask that of his followers? He worked hard for what he had and no loving God who would make that a prerequisite for entrance into his Kingdom. Surely it is the law that holds the power of salvation! Surely i’m a good person, surely…I am serious, and don’t call me Shirley.

Jesus looked at the disciples and claimed that “It is harder for a rich man to enter God’s kingdom than for a camel to go through the eye of a needle.” As his disciples scratched their heads at this, wondering how their Master could endorse such a narrow way, Jesus said that those who would inherit eternal life would be those who left everything behind for him.

My quasi-Christian American civil religion doesn’t allow for this kind of cognitive dissonance. We want to take up our platforms and raise rabble over so much, but when Jesus’ words hit us squarely between the eyes and challenge and provoke us, we are more apt to close the Book and go on with the way we like, as we have done many times before.

I don’t believe that Jesus is slandering the rich or diminishing God’s goodness with his strong words. I believe he is illustrating the law apart from grace, he is decrying selfishness and raising rabble about our tricky penchant for idolatry.

I grew up in a loving supportive Christian family where my Mom and Dad were both present and loved God with reckless abandon and, in many ways, raised me to fall in love with Jesus and to truly believe what he says. I grew up in a youth group where for many kids, this was not the case. I have since ministered in youth groups where this was not the case. And you know what? I love those kids.

One of my favorite things about them is that they are abundantly aware of their need. They are well acquainted with their brokenness and their doubts. There’s so much that I want them to know about the Gospel and selflessness and truly taking hold of the life God is calling them to, and that can be very very difficult at times. But I don’t have to convince them that they are desperately in need of a savior. They are so aware of that. And there’s a lesson in that.

The rich man walked away from Jesus because he wanted the Kingdom of God as a sort of side item in a combo meal he paid for with his “good” works. I want my wealth, my security, my self-assuredeness of works righteousness and if that’s good enough for my perfect life, that is good enough for eternal life.

And Jesus stood in the face of that flimsy theology and spoke directly to his need that he would not admit he had. Our pride swells and our spirituality buckles under the weight of the brokenness we believe we are hiding.

It has been an unbelievably difficult week for me. My friend Max went to heaven on Friday. My mother found out that she has cancer in one of her kidneys. That mocking voice in the back of my mind has been whispering threats and doubts and insults and hurling me to the conclusion that I am powerless to stop the tides from pulling me under and filling my lungs with water, but you know what? God has revealed to me in all of this that I am powerless. I am irreconcilably broken and I have not arrived and I will not arrived until the day I embrace my Jesus in his Kingdom.

It is out of our abundant need that the seed of the gospel is watered and grows. It is in having the humility to admit that we are broken beyond any repairs we could complete ourselves and must look outside of ourselves for the truth of Jesus to hit us squarely between the eyes and cut us deep.

My friend Max was one of the most humble people I’ve ever met. He lived his life without fear of failure because he knew who was holding him. Before he died, he wrote a note in the hospital about how he picked up his Bible and hugged it to himself. “The very Word of God is heavy on my chest,” he penned. Max, at any moment’s notice, would’ve been willing to sacrifice everything to be in the will of God. He spoke boldly to others about the love of Jesus. He figuratively had the very Word of God heavy on his chest at all times.

So in brokenness we find respite.

In loneliness, we are comforted by God’s very breath.

In adversity, we rise stronger than before we were knocked down.

In humility, considering others as better than ourselves.

In obedience, denying ourselves, picking up our cross, and following Jesus, wherever he leads and laying whatever he says aside for the sake of the Gospel.

We are all in desperate need. We all have brokenness coursing through our veins and to say otherwise is to deny the fundamental realization that brings us to Jesus in the first place. We are beset, but our completeness is in Christ alone.

 

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Words are a Weight (On Loving the Church When it Hurts.)

“The Church is a whore, but she is my mother.”

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Several years ago while I was in college, I wrote those words on my Facebook page under the “Religious Views” section. The quote is often attributed to Augustine, but is rumored to have been said by Martin Luther and a host of other church fathers. I was a frustrated young millennial, seeing the overwhelming hypocrisy of the body that nurtured me and raised me into the man I was. I saw political jargon shouted from pulpits, taken as Gospel by racists and adulterers, one and all. I saw small huddles of men in the parking lots, filling their bodies with smoke and decrying those who spent their weekends at the bar, claiming that the world was going to hell in a handbasket and there was nothing we could do about it but curse the filthy sinners that filled it.  I heard the women gossiping in their Sunday School rooms about why so-and-so wasn’t here this week and did you hear that Pam was cheating on Jim with Ron Swanson?

I’d seen the faces of disgruntled youth, trying to fit into the world of religion like a kid’s piece into an adult’s special edition Thomas Kinkade puzzle, larger than life and filled with loud primary colors clashing with the tiny diminished hues of a portrait where they didn’t belong. Begrudgingly nodding, but not convinced that the Gospel could be summed up in these words: “Do you not know that the wicked will not inherit the kingdom of God?”

My understanding of the mercy and goodness of God was skewered by the inconsistencies I saw all around me, and I was pissed. So, when my mother called me in my dorm room and said we needed to talk, my heart momentarily stopped. Had someone died? Had I been caught in some elaborate lie? All of my sins were called up before my swirling head. What could it be?

“The preacher and one of the deacons showed up at our house today to talk about you.”

Oh, God. This is it. I’m going to be excommunicated. Can Baptists even excommunicate people?

Apparently, someone had seen that section of my Facebook. They went so far as to print it out and hand deliver it to the pastor with feigned concern. The concern, you ask? That i’d used the word whore.

Not that they wondered if I was losing my faith.

Not that I came across as angry or missed the point.

That I had used a word.

I saw red.

My blood boiled at the thought of all that work done to expose me as a pottymouth. Forget context, forget the state of the thing I loved with all of my heart. But I said a dirty word.

And far be it from them, adults, to come to me, an adult, to talk about this indiscretion. They brought it to my parents, because obviously I wasn’t old enough to answer their fears or questions. Maybe my mind had been polluted by the big, bad Christian university I was attending.

For the first time in my life, whether real or perceived, I felt like an apostate.


I sat across from a room full of students, all of them looking to me for answers. What did I know? I was just a volunteer chaperone at summer camp.

The church gives us no respect, they don’t see us as people.

How can we carry on the work of the church when we are adults if we’re never allowed to have a say now? Where do we fit in?

Why do they treat us like we’re little kids?

I listened to their fears and their desire to be part of the Body, to really take part and contribute. To some, it would no doubt sound like blind idealism of youth. But as they spoke, I felt that weight pressing on me as well. The adults may have many excuses: they are too broken, too sinful, too young, they don’t understand doctrine or the Baptist Faith and Message. They don’t get it.

But did they themselves even understand the particulars?

Do I? Do any of us really have what it takes to live beyond reproach and advance the Gospel? (How glorious a gift God gave us, entrusting us with a task for which he makes us able to carry out!)

I encouraged those students. I prayed with them. I cried with them. And I held out hope that someday, things would change. Someday, they would feel valued. And maybe so would I.


Apostasy.

The word rang in my ears. As the quiet hum grew deafening, I pondered the implications. What would happen if I just left it all behind? Is it worth it? If there is no place for me in the community in which I was raised, is there any place for me at all?

I spoke to my pastor later that day over the phone. It was a strange conversation, full of awkward silences and unruly dissonance. I tried to explain to him the manner in which I used the quote, tried to outline my frustrations, but overall hope that I held. The church is a whore in every sense of the word. She has sold herself to politicians and to the world. She has shouted in outrage at the sins of a broken world while waiting for night to fall, so she can join the debauchery. She has traded gossip for prayer, and has been the Pharisee, blind to the log bursting from her eye while trying to excise the splinter from another’s.

But she is my mother. She birthed me, raised me, loved me, taught me who Jesus is and baptized me in his name. I am grateful for her witness, stained though it may be. I love her with all of my heart though she vexes me so.

The conversation stalled, but picked back up as he continually brought up that word. I had committed what seemed to be an unpardonable sin. These were the dregs of legalism if I’d ever saw them. To dismiss the words of a church father because you don’t understand them? In my soul, my frustration raged. I tried to remain calm, but as a college freshman, I was full of knowledge but wisdom and a healthy temperament had yet to show up on my course list.

We ended our conversation, still on opposing sides. This man was my pastor. I felt bad because I felt I owed him respect, but didn’t feel like the best way to show it was to give in and apologize. At that point in my life, I didn’t understand the value in picking your battles and if my time in the religion department had taught me anything, it’s that any topic could be a hill to die on.


In hindsight, I forgave those who didn’t understand and learned to be a little more discerning in the words I choose to say. I realized that in choosing love over bitterness, the quote I had been so adamant about was playing itself out in my life.

Sometimes the Church will choose legalism, even if you know better.

Sometimes the Church will misunderstand, even if you have the best intentions.

Sometimes she will harbor secret (or not so secret) sins and run after idols that vie for her affections, even as you call for her to repent.

But we do not exist as islands, we are not some distant relative of the beaten and beraggled Bride of Christ. We are her. We exist as one Church to proclaim the excellencies of him who called us out of darkness and into his marvelous light. We exist as deeply flawed, inexcusable sinners who do so much damage to the name of Jesus with our various failures and broken intentions.

But we choose to forgive the inexcusable in others because Christ forgave the inexcusable in us, as Lewis says.

Because though the Bride sometimes feels like she is barely hanging on, torn apart and stitched together again and again, she is loved by a Groom who will do anything, who paid everything to buy her back from the idols that have wrapped their tendrils around her heart. And as she gasps for breath amid the broken reality she chose, she finally sighs in freedom because her lover has rescued her and made her whole.

I love the Church, I am the Church.

And if you claim the name and mission of Jesus, so are you.

Rhema (or, Idol Hands Sit Idly.)

Emboldened by words left unspoken,
Crumbling beneath all that I have broken.

As I scramble to rearrange the jagged pieces,

To complete a puzzle named resentment.


Wordless, I have no thoughts left to pen,
I have no utterance to be uttered,

No rhymes left to usher in.

I have held all my cards close to my chest,

And I wish I could say I tried my best.
So I guess the letter I would’ve written would sound like

This:
Dear Future Me,

You’ve got so many stories left to be told, A blank canvas soon to be dripping with red and blue and gold. Do not give in, do not give up.But stand.

Stalwart and proud of the man you have become.

A man who knows what is past and what is to come. One who weighs his legacy like his idol hands weigh on his conscience, and idol words sit enshrined on tongues of fire racing around and around as if chariots set ablaze.
I speak because there is an inferno resting inside my bones, as I wrestle against flesh and blood and deny the calling which I have received.
To be simultaneously saint and sinner, to wage war on these rebellious legs that carry me to places I know better than to be.
Oh God, may my futile words be few.
May my lips tremble when I speak your truth, and may my heart be laid upon a blazing altar for you.

You are my past, present, and future. It’s always been You. So forgive my idol thoughts and my idol ears and my idle soul sitting idly by, waiting on You to move.
Jesus, rid me of deceit, of anger, and of my broken heart. Let me embrace the calling you have poured out upon me as you envelop all the idols that strive to gain a foothold in my life in refining fire.
“I love you Lord, and I lift my voice. To worship You. Oh my soul, rejoice! Take joy my King in what you hear. May it be a sweet sound in your ear.”

Of Intentions and Idols (Let Us Run)

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I sat with my class in a corner of the sanctuary, music played throughout the building, people sang and prayed and worshiped. I saw children running, only to be stopped by concerned parents and shushed by the present clergy. This was a sacred place, a holy place to encounter the divine.

And on the stage, one might’ve expected to see a pulpit rising above the crowd. But instead, there stood several monolithic statues, faces etched from stone, frozen in time forever, or at least until the years ate away at them, paint faded and crumbling. These were the gods and goddesses of the Hindu faith, impersonal sentinels with stony faces looking toward their devoted worshipers indifferently.

A lot of folks, especially those of my own religion, would compare this scene to that of an ancient city in an ancient world that bears no resemblance to our own. But that is not true. It is a world we live in, and a world we find ourselves entrenched in, even in the Christian faith.

A few years ago I had the opportunity to travel to a Hindu temple in Charlotte. It was an interesting experience, one where I gained much respect for the people, but also came away with a deeper understanding of my own sinfulness.

This particular instance was a more vivid depiction of idolatry than I’d ever seen in my own American dream-ridden life or in the lives of the people around me. It’s a lot less subtle when you watch people literally bowing down to and offering food to statues who will never be able partake of it. But what I saw there was a reflection of my own heart and my own proclivities.

Tim Keller, hearkening back to John Calvin, says that our hearts are idol factories. This means that something about human nature points to the inescapable fact that we are wired for worship. And if God is not the center of our worship, we will surely find something to take his place. I saw people in that temple physically bowing down to idols, participating in what we would call idolatry, but hey! At least they are honest about it.

Myself and so many of those I love fill their lives with a plethora of distractions and luxuries that we like to pretend have no ultimate grip on our lives. And idolatry barely ever starts out as a bad thing…Idolatry, in its simplest form is making good things ultimate things. It is where admiration turns to obsession, where appreciating God’s good gifts becomes focusing more on the gift than on the Giver, where want becomes overwhelming need.

Here’s a good test for whether or not that thing you love is an idol to you: If it were to be taken away, could you go on living? Obviously, I’m not talking about enough food to live or water. But the point is that the problem doesn’t lie in the idols themselves, many of these things are innately good gifts from God. But the problem is somewhere deeper, the problem is inside of us, in our hearts. We are desperate to worship, but not so desperate to be obedient to the thing we worship. Which is why worshiping God seems so difficult, because of what that demands of us.

But the catch is that you cannot worship anything without obeying it, whether you realize it or not. All this makes me thing about that anti-smoking commercial that was floating around a while back. Here it is:

The thing is, whatever you devote all of your time, energy, and devotion to will stop being a good gift to be used and start making the rules for you. You build your life around the thing you idolize. We turn good gifts like sex into porn, prostitution, and nymphomania. We turn food into gluttony or anorexia and bulimia. We make something good sinful and let it reign over our lives. Instead of God.

I have a lot to learn about idolatry, but I see it in my everyday life. My prayer for myself as well as for those who are reading this is that we will return to Christ, worship him as he ought to be worshiped, and place our affections on him, and not on the idols that we hold dear. It is God’s desire for us to seek first the Kingdom, and it is my desire that that would be my desire as well.

“You never go away from us, yet we have difficulty in returning to You. Come, Lord, stir us up and call us back. Kindle and seize us. Be our fire and our sweetness. Let us love. Let us run.”-Saint Augustine