23 December 2015

Discipleship: Knowing the Word

Note: This is part of my series on Discipleship and Disciplines. You might want to read from the beginning if you haven't already.

Remember that in John 8:31, Jesus says, "If you continue in My word, then you are truly disciples of Mine." So, then, as I've mentioned before, the first step to discipleship is to know His word. Otherwise, how would it be possible to continue in it?

If you're anything like me, though, "know the word" seems a little bit abstract or poorly defined. What does that look like on a day-to-day basis? How can I have any sort of confidence that I've accomplished this first step?

Here are a few suggestions that I've found helpful in my spiritual walk:

1. Read the Bible. Seriously, read it. The whole thing. Repeatedly. Get to know it like you know an old friend. This certainly doesn't have to happen overnight, but it does have to happen.

So work on it every day. Set an attainable goal and stick to it: Ten verses, a chapter, two chapters, ten chapters -- whatever you can reasonably accomplish every day. Make a habit of it, and don't bite off more than you can chew. If you start losing the meaning amongst all the words, quit for the day. It's not the end of the world if you don't hit your targeted number of verses. Simply taking the time to read is a victory in itself.

When you're reading, go for quality over quantity. Be sure that you understand who's talking, what's happening, why things are going on, and how each piece fits into the bigger picture. If you can only do by reading one verse per day, then only read one verse per day. If you're having trouble understanding, consider investing in a study Bible with commentary footnotes. (Charles Ryrie and John MacArthur have both written pretty solid ones.) There are also a lot of online commentaries and study aids to provide cultural, historical, and doctrinal context.

Bottom line: It's OK not to be a mega awesome superstar Bible-reader; all you need to be is a Bible-reader.

2. Think About the Bible. Grab one or two details from your daily reading and chew on them throughout the day, like a cow chewing her cud. Meditate on what you've read. Think about how -- or even whether -- it applies to your life or the lives of your friends, acquaintances, or loved ones.

As you read through, remember that not everything in the Bible reflects God's attitudes and thoughts about the world. Sometimes the text reflects the viewpoints, assumptions, and actions of other people in the narrative. These won't always align with the way God sees things. Also remember that throughout history, God has dealt in many different ways with nations and people, though His nature and purposes haven't changed.

3. Memorize the Bible. We'll talk more about memorization later, in our discussion of spiritual disciplines, but know that memorizing verses is one of the best ways to let God's word start changing your heart.

Are you struggling with a particular sin? Memorize a whole slough of verses dealing with that sin, and its opposite virtue. Psalm 119:11 says, "Your word I have treasured in my heart, / That I may not sin against You."

Are you feeling discouraged or depressed? Memorize a Psalm that talks about God's faithfulness, salvation, and love.

Basically, you can't go wrong with memorizing Scripture. It takes time, but that time definitely isn't wasted.

4. Ask for Help. First and foremost, ask God to show you what He wants you to see in your daily readings. Ask Him to help you understand it, too. The really good news here is that God already has a mechanism in place to make that happen. Jesus promised his followers that "the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name ... will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I said to you" (John 14:26).

God wants you to be good at reading, understanding, and thinking about the Bible. That's one of the reasons He sent the Holy Spirit. He loves to teach you; ask God to open your mind and heart to His teaching.

In addition to the Holy Spirit, ask other followers of Christ to help you know Christ's word better. Get involved in a structured Bible study, Sunday School class, small group, or all of the above. And it's vital to be part of a local church that believes and teaches the Bible. There's a reason that Paul commands the Ephesians to speak to one another in Psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs (Ephesians 5:19): We are always stronger when we engage in a community of encouragement.

Another great thing to do is seek out a Bible study partner. Talk through your readings one-on-one with them. Memorize passages of Scripture together. Keep them accountable, and expect them to do the same for you.

Discipleship: Off With the Old and On With the New

Note: This is part of my series on Discipleship and Disciplines. You might want to read from the beginning if you haven't already.

In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul reminds his readers that they should no longer walk in darkness, but rather:
that, in reference to your former manner of life, you lay aside the old self, which is being corrupted in accordance with the lusts of deceit, and that you be renewed in the spirit of your mind, and put on the new self, which in the likeness of God has been created in righteousness and holiness of the truth (Ephesians 4:22-24).
 This is what it looks like to belong to Jesus, for those who have heard His word and been taught in Him (v. 21). The key to understanding this command is in verse 23, where Paul instructs the Ephesians to "be renewed in the spirit of your mind." This is no superficial remodel; we're demolishing this sucker with a wrecking ball and creating something completely different. It is much more than a mere resolution to be a better person.

Throughout the next two chapters, Paul gives many examples of how this principle looks in real life:
  • Lay aside falsehood; speak truth
  • Don't allow sinful anger to control you; reconcile quickly
  • Stop stealing; work hard so you'll have possessions to share
  • Don't use unwholesome words; build each other up
  • Put aside bitterness, wrath, anger, clamor, slander, and malice; be kind, tender-hearted, and forgiving
  • Don't produce the fruit of darkness and disobedience (immorality, impurity, greed, filthiness, silly talk, coarse jesting); produce fruit of the light (goodness, righteousness, truth, thanksgiving)
  • Don't do dark deeds; expose them
  • Don't walk as unwise men; walk as wise
  • Don't be foolish; understand God's will
  • Don't get drunk with wine; be filled with the Spirit, encouraging each other with psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs
This behavior model is not based on suppression or impulse control; it's centered around replacement. The old, destructive, disobedient behaviors are displaced and choked out by the new, Christ-breathed ones. And the driving force is not our own will or desire; it is God's undefeatable power and our faithful acceptance of it.

Throughout our examination of these truths, it's vital to keep in mind that this is the same God, and the same plan, that are first introduced in Ephesians 1 and 2. In other words, Ephesians 4-6 are accomplished by the same One who called us out of darkness into light through His power (not through our own efforts). He prepared these good works beforehand so that we would walk in them. Thus, they are more of a birthright than a duty. They are what we were always meant to do.

And we know that if God has ordained us to walk in good works, He will certainly provide us with the means to do so. So we can relax: God is in charge, and He will give us the power we need. As Isaiah said, "The zeal of the Lord of Hosts will accomplish these things."

11 December 2015

Disciplines: The Scriptural Basis

Note: This is part of my series on Discipleship and Disciplines. You might want to read from the beginning if you haven't already.

I'm convinced that spiritual disciplines are not only a good idea; they are the best way for a believer in Christ to get better at following Him.

Here are a couple of passages from the New Testament that discuss this topic. There are others, but these two stood out to me because they make some really important points.

Hebrews 12:11-13 (NASB): 
All discipline for the moment seems not to be joyful, but sorrowful; yet to those who have been trained by it, afterwards it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness. Therefore, strengthen the hands that are weak and the knees that are feeble, and make straight paths for your feet, so that the limb which is lame may not be put out of joint, but rather be healed.
The author of Hebrews is actually referring to discipline imposed by God "for our good, so that we may share His holiness" (v. 10). This discipline (the call to resist sin and endure persecution) is to bring God's children in line with His intent for their lives.

Verse 11 reminds us that discipline is momentarily painful and costly, but we can have faith that it will bear fruit and bring joy.

In verses 12-13, the writer urges his readers to respond appropriately to God's discipline: Strengthen your weak hands and knees, walk in straight paths, and your (spiritually) infirm body will heal. In other words, respond to God's discipline with self-discipline. Get in line with what He wants for you, and you will be healthier and stronger than ever before.

I Timothy 4:7-8 (NASB): 
But have nothing to do with worldly fables fit only for old women. On the other hand, discipline yourself for the purpose of godliness; for bodily discipline is only of little profit, but godliness is profitable for all things, since it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come.
In this passage, Paul is talking to Timothy about some people who teach abstinence from marriage and certain foods. Paul rejects their teachings because "everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with gratitude" (v. 4).

He goes on to call these legalistic rules (or "bodily discipline") "worldly fables fit only for old women." In other words, these superficial practices are not for mature followers of Christ. Instead, Paul instructs Timothy to pursue disciplines that lead to godliness.

We receive an important warning here. In pursuing spiritual disciplines, we are not simply trying to build good habits. By themselves, habits don't have much value. However, when a spiritual discipline makes us more like our Lord and Savior, it brings us value, both in this present world and for the rest of eternity.

In my next post, I'll discuss more of what it looks like to be a disciple of Christ (i.e., the practice of keeping His word). I'll also address some specific examples (from Ephesians 4-6) of how spiritual disciplines can fuel a life of discipleship.

Disciplines: An Introduction

Note: This is part of my series on Discipleship and Disciplines. You might want to read from the beginning if you haven't already.

A vital part of pursuing a disciple's life is the practice of spiritual disciplines. No, I'm not talking about God the Father pulling out His cosmic paddle and taking you to the spiritual woodshed. I'm talking about intentional, costly efforts that are designed to help you grow in strength, control, or skill, with a view toward improving your spiritual walk. These practices will help you to find your path, remove distractions, and keep moving in the right direction.

Here are some other forms of discipline you might be more familiar with:

  • A child practicing an instrument
  • A mother of four working out with a personal trainer
  • Football players taking dance lessons
  • A toddler sitting in timeout or losing privileges
  • A college student taking a defensive driving course
Let's think about what these examples have in common:
  • They don't necessarily come naturally
  • They're not always pleasant
  • They're done in an effort to get better:
    • Become better-rounded, more mature, or more complete
    • Improve or broaden a skillset; become more useful
    • Grow in skill, strength, speed, flexibility, or patience
How are these examples different from one another?
  • Some are self-imposed; some are imposed by others
    • The goal of the discipline depends on who is imposing it
    • The structure (i.e., what it looks like) depends on the goal
    • Self-imposed discipline requires a level of personal commitment
  • Some are regularly scheduled; others occur on an as-needed basis
  • Sometimes the focus is on developing new abilities; sometimes it's on improving or expanding existing abilities
  • Each discipline has different costs and benefits, both to the one receiving it and the one administering it
Discipline is an act of faith, just as sowing a seed is. Though we cannot see the results yet, we trust that this momentary, costly activity will bring benefits greater than its cost. In other words, we think spiritual disciplines are a smart investment. We press on because of our firm hope that these things will come to pass (cf. Hebrews 11:1).

Spiritual disciplines are primarily self-imposed. In other words, we make a conscious decision to place ourselves under a particular discipline. We do this because we expect it to bring about a certain result in our lives.

In my next post, I'll discuss the scriptural basis for making spiritual disciplines a top priority in the life of every Christ-follower.

09 December 2015

Discipleship: An Introduction

A disciple is one who follows and learns. The term comes from the Latin word discipulus, meaning student, pupil, or follower. And yet a disciple is more than a mere student. A true disciple must immerse himself in the master's teaching. He must allow it to become a way of life, not just a set of ideas. The deeper he goes, the truer a disciple he becomes.

In John 8:31-32, Jesus tells the Jews who have believed in Him, "If you continue in My word, then you are truly disciples of Mine; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free." I think we'd all agree that we'd like to be free. And if we're followers of Christ, we also want to know His truth. So, then, continuing in His word is vital, if we are to attain these goals.

At least three things are required on the path to becoming Christ's true disciples:

1. Know the word. You can't follow a path if you don't know where it is. Similarly, you can't walk in the truth if you don't know what it is. Psalm 119:105 says that God's word is a lamp to our feet and a light to our path. It shows us the way we ought to go.

2. Remove distractions. You won't get far on a journey if you keep taking side-paths that lead away from your goal. I John 2:15 instructs us not to love the world nor the things in the world. This is because the world around us is caught up in worldly, fleshly things. It isn't concerned about spiritual truths, so being too attached to the world will prevent us from setting our affections on things above, where Christ is (Colossians 3:2).

3. Begin following. You'll never get anywhere if you don't start. An old proverb says that the journey of 1,000 miles begins with a single step, and that's true. Before Joshua's death, he urged the Israelites to "choose for yourselves today whom you will serve" (Joshua 24:15). The same choice applies to you and me, every day of our lives. Yes, we have chosen Christ once. But if we want to continue down the path with Him, if we want to grow in Him, we also keep choosing Him, moment by moment and day by day.

My purpose over the next few weeks is to outline how to get from where you are to where you want to be in a relationship with Christ. In other words, I want to help you reach that spot where you can look at your life, evaluate it in light of John 8:31 ("If you continue in My word, then you are truly disciples of Mine"), and say, "Yes! That's me!"

In my next post, I'll introduce some tools that will help us as we journey together toward discipleship.

07 December 2015

Commentary on John 1:4-5

 In Him was life, and the life was the Light of men. The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it.

-John 1:4-5 (NASB)

Here, John continues on with more abstract descriptions of the Word: He is the source of a life that brings light to all of humanity. The same living Word who was in the beginning, who was everything's first cause, continues providing life, light, and goodness to all who see Him.

In verse 5, we see our first indication of an adversary. Up until now, the Word has been unopposed, as well you might imagine. After all, think about what a potential opponent would be facing: A being that was in the beginning with God, that is one with God Himself, and that has brought all things into existence. It's not exactly taking candy from a baby to go up against this guy.

Nonetheless, this divinely powerful Light does have an opponent: The darkness. The word that the NASB renders "comprehend" is actually κατέλαβεν, and "comprehend" is only one possible meaning. Other senses of the word include "take hold of," "arrest," "capture," and "perceive." It comes from two words meaning "to aggressively take" and "down." Literally, the darkness cannot take the light down.

So the darkness could signify ignorance here: The Light was shining in the darkness, but the darkness failed to understand it.

Or the darkness could signify opposition: Despite its best efforts, the darkness couldn't stop the Light from overcoming it.

Regardless of which sense is correct here (and the answer might be that both are!), the Light stands in direct opposition to the darkness. It contends against darkness, evil, ignorance, and general sneakiness. This is a common theme in St. John's writings -- his first epistle reads, "This is the message we have heard from Him and announce to you, that God is Light, and in Him there is no darkness at all" (I John 1:5).

The stage is set, the actors are in position, and the lights have come up on center stage, overwhelming and driving out the darkness. (The darkness isn't completely gone, though -- he's hiding in the wings, preparing for his next appearance.) Now, at last, we're ready for the narrator to come on the scene...

04 December 2015

Commentary on John 1:3

All things came into being through Him, and apart from Him nothing came into being that has come into being.
-John 1:3 (NASB)
Here, we learn that the Word (who, as you'll remember, was both with God and one with Him) is the source everything that exists. In other words, nothing has appeared on the universe's stage without His direct, express involvement.

This is probably as good a time as any to address a couple of Christianity's fundamental problems:

  1. If God's nature is thoroughly good, unadulterated by any evil, and if everything in existence has come through God, then how can we explain evil's existence? How could a good God have created a world fraught with evil?

  2. Similarly, if God is all-powerful, and if He hates evil (since it is foreign to His character), how can we explain evil's continued existence? Why hasn't He wiped it out from the universe once and for all?
It would be foolish to claim that I have some final, ironclad answer to these questions. In fact, many brilliant philosophers have been arguing about this very matter for centuries. I can, however, tell you where my intellectual and spiritual journey has led me. 
  1. I believe that when God creates rational beings, He gives them the ability to make decisions. This statement may seem obvious, but think about its implications. If God forced every human -- or angel, or whatever other will-bearing beings may exist -- to behave in accordance with His perfect nature, they wouldn't truly have the ability to make decisions. Oh, they might be able to choose within a range of acceptable options, but the decisions that mattered most to their identities would have been made for them long ago.

    I would argue, then, that our ability to choose evil is a fundamental part of being made in God's image. That is, our capacity for making decisions -- good or bad -- is the fingerprint of the divine.

  2. I believe that mercy is a fundamental part of God's nature. This is particularly true in how He views mankind, His favorite creatures. Just as I do not wish to destroy my children when they choose to disobey me, God does not wish to wipe out His disobedient children, either. Instead, He wants to reach out, to restore our broken relationship, to give us as many chances to repent as possible.

    This is why He sent His Son to take our sins on Himself and bear the punishment of our evil. Being divine, Christ is able to accept God's wrath without being permanently removed from His sight. Being human, Christ is able to truly take the punishment that Adam and his children deserved.

    Nonetheless, God is also constrained by His goodness, righteousness, and holiness. Thus, He cannot and will not brook unrepentant rebellion forever. A day of reckoning must come for those who do not accept Christ's substitutionary sacrifice on their behalf.
We'll dig deeper into these ideas later. For now, the important thing  to see is that everything came into existence through the medium of the Word, the divine logos. And by everything, the evangelist means EVERYTHING. He emphasizes this by repeating himself in the second phrase: "Apart from Him nothing came into being that has come into being." 

God's very divine Word, the being with whom He is one, and with whom He was in the beginning, is the source of everything that is and everything that ever has been. And, as we'll see, the Word is also the only way for God's rebellious children to return to Him.

02 December 2015

Commentary on John 1:1-2

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God.

-John 1:1-2 (NASB)

From the very first words of John's gospel, it's obvious that this won't be a straightforward story. Jesus Christ, of course, is the focus of this book, but the evangelist won't actually mention him by name until verse 17. Instead, he begins with a more abstract title: logos (λόγος - "the Word").

John's audience, if they were familiar with the Septuagint (the translation of the Hebrew Scriptures into Greek), probably would have identified logos with God's universe-creating word of power, as in Psalm 33:6:

By the word [λόγω] of the Lord the heavens were made,
And by the breath of His mouth all their host.

If the readers were familiar with contemporary Jewish philosophers, they might have also heard of Philo of Alexandria's concept of the logos, which he identified with the Angel of the Lord. For Philo, the logos was an immaterial, adequate shadow of God, containing the fullness of His supernatural wisdom and power. Or perhaps they would have known of the Stoic concept of logos, dating back to 300 BC. Zeno and other stoics considered the logos to be the material, driving principle behind all life and action in the universe.

John's use of the term logos signals that he wants to provide his readers with a narrative deeper than a mere recounting of historical events. That doesn't mean he's going to play fast and loose with the facts. It does mean, though, that he's more concerned with spiritual truths than he is with giving an exact, detailed chronology of Christ's life and ministry.

We can tell from this first sentence that John's project is ambitious. The scope of his narrative begins not with Jesus's human birth in Bethlehem, but with the very origins of the universe itself. Moreover, the sentence echoes the first sentence in Genesis: "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth." The implication is that, like some evangelistic Paul Harvey, John is here to tell The Rest of the Story.

John clearly asserts three things about the Word in verse 1:
  1. The Word was present in the beginning (time)
  2. The Word was in God's presence (location)
  3. The Word was distinguishable from God, and yet one with Him (identity)
In verse 2, John repeats his first two assertions, but uses the pronoun οὗτος ("this one," or "he / she / it"): This One existed in the very beginning, and This One was together with God at that time. The repetition underlines the fact that the Word was both distinct from God and present with Him before the world existed.

So, then, the stage is set, and the actors are present:
SCENE: The beginning of all things.
Enter GOD, accompanied closely by THE WORD, the embodiment of His dynamic creative power. They are distinct, yet somehow one.
And without even reading the next verse, we know what must follow. After all, here we are, surrounded by a fully-formed, wondrous world...

17 November 2015

Refugees, Terrorists, and Christ

The governor of my state recently signed an order preventing any state agency from helping to resettle Syrian refugees here. Weary after a long day and frustrated by American politics, I posted this on Facebook:
When Jesus said to love your neighbor, he clearly wasn't talking about those with names like "Sanchez" or "Abdullah." It's pretty obvious he was talking about people with safer names. Like "McVeigh," probably.
As you'd expect, a lot of people "Liked" my shallow snarkasm. Others accused me of inviting hordes of terrorists into my neighborhood. They warned that I'd better be ready to help sort out the dismembered body parts of children in the aftermath of the inevitable suicide bombings. Some posted pictures of Jewish refugees from WWII. One posted a picture of a refugee's dead toddler on a Mediterranean beach.

Predictably, flame wars erupted between my friends and loved ones from different contexts who don't know one another from Adam. They do, however, share one important trait: They're mutually appalled by what they perceive as one other's arrogance and ignorance.

The most helpful comment came from a dear professor of mine:
Micah, the comment you make has the power to remind me that I'm not a good Christian, and it also reminds me to try and think carefully about the situation, but the comment does not carry with it any knowledge about how to determine which people might not be refugees but instead may be terrorists. I do not share the confidence that you apparently have in our government's dealing with this question.
This comment went right to the heart of the matter. (And right through my heart, if I'm being honest.) I get irritated with this old world. When I do, I throw out some negativity, then withdraw, Jonah-like, to my shady hillside to watch them all go to hell. The problem is that Jesus doesn't want me to be a Jonah.

So I want to do a few things in this post:

  1. Apologize to those who I've offended with my flippancy.
  2. Outline what makes me think how I do.
  3. Summarize my conclusions in a less sarcastic way.
  4. Invite anyone who disagrees to sit down and chat with me about any of this. (In trying to understand someone's position, face-to-face communication always trumps e-conversations.)
So, here we go!

1. I'm sorry. I know this is a weighty topic, and I knew that my post was likely to offend. At the moment, I cared more about my superiority than I did about adding light to the world. This attitude displeases Jesus, so I'm ashamed of it.

2. Here's where I'm coming from. I want my life to be a reflection of Jesus Christ's life. I want to love the things He loves, hate the things He hates, live the way He lived, and die the way He died. In short, I want Him to be my controlling force.

Here are some things that the Bible says and I believe:
  •  “The man who has two tunics is to share with him who has none; and he who has food is to do likewise.” (John the Baptist, on what it meant to live a God-honoring life - Luke 3:11)
  • "Which of these three do you think proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell into the robbers’ hands?” And [the lawyer] said, “The one who showed mercy toward him.” Then Jesus said to him, “Go and do the same.” (After Jesus's story of the Good Samaritan, Luke 10:36-37)
  • ...practicing hospitality... (Romans 12:13, in the middle of a list of commands to Christians)
  • "But if your enemy is hungry, feed him, and if he is thirsty, give him a drink; for in so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” (Romans 12:20, ibid.)
  • Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by this some have entertained angels without knowing it. (Hebrews 13:2)
  • If a brother or sister is without clothing and in need of daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and be filled,” and yet you do not give them what is necessary for their body, what use is that? Even so faith, if it has no works, is dead, being by itself. (James 2:15-17)
  • “Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves; so be shrewd as serpents and innocent as doves." (Jesus, sending the disciples out to preach in Matthew 10:16)
The one that I think informs my ideas most is the parable of the Good Samaritan, which Jesus tells in Luke 10:30-37. Its entire purpose is to demonstrate that the lawyer can't call himself righteous if he's complacent about the suffering of the those around him. The hero of that story is a Samaritan, who would have been despised by Jesus's hearers, yet proved himself more righteous than both a priest and a Levite, who did holy service in the temple.

3. Here's what I think about the refugee crisis. I think the United States ought to be doing all it can to bring relief to refugees. Many of them have lost their homes, their businesses, their families -- they have sacrificed everything fleeing from the evil deeds of evil men. They are, in a very real sense, the ones "without clothing and in need of daily food." 

I think that leaders like Governor Brownback, who basically want to make this someone else's problem, are firmly in the camp of the priest and the Levite who crossed to the other side of the road rather than helping the man in need. Do they have the right to do it? Sure. Are there good reasons for them doing it? Certainly. Does that make it the God-honoring thing to do? I'm not so sure about that.

I think that hospitality is more than a suggestion in the New Testament; it is an absolute mandate. This is certainly the case for Christians helping fellow believers, and I think a good argument can be made for it also applying to non-Christians. For example, in Romans 12, Paul tells the Romans (who are, after all, living in Nero's Rome) to give their enemies food and drink.

I do NOT think that the United States should simply give an unqualified "yes" to anyone claiming to be a refugee. I recognize the importance of serpent-like wisdom, as Jesus did when He sent His disciples out to preach the good news. But I also recognize how vital His accompanying command was: Be as "innocent as doves." So by all means, yes, let's have a vetting process. Let's do whatever background checks we can. Let's use the intelligence we have to try to make good decisions. I'd even be open to taking in fewer refugees, or delaying the schedule for taking them in. But whatever we do, let's not allow fear of a "maybe" to blind us to the people suffering right in front of our faces.

I think that pursuing Christ's love is important enough to risk all the doubt and terror and death that ever existed. And I think the outpouring of that love is the one thing Christians are called to more than anything else.

4. Those are my thoughts... and I'm probably wrong about some of them. I'm not claiming to be infallible here. But I do think it's wrong-headed to give a knee-jerk "No!" to showing love and sympathy for some of the people who need it most.

If you want to talk, let's talk. I have a house with couches. I have a coffee pot. You're welcome to come over and help me use them.

24 September 2015

On the Morality of Abortion

A recent series of videos released by the innocuous-sounding organization with an obvious ax to grind, Center for Medical Progress, has sparked a series of enraged abortion discussions on social media... and on the political stage, for that matter.

I have very serious concerns about this organization, its leaders, and their approach. I am also concerned that the focus of these videos (the tenuous yet ardently argued claim that Planned Parenthood is selling pieces of aborted babies! For Money!) is distracting folks from a much more significant question: The morality of abortion in general.

As I see it, abortion's morality really boils down to three smaller questions:
  1. What is a human life?
  2. What makes human life valuable?
  3. When is it acceptable to deprive a human of life?
Your answers to these questions should be excellent predictors for your ideas about whether and when abortion is morally acceptable.

So here are my answers:

1. I believe that a human life originates when an embryo is formed. I think it's incorrect (and perhaps either ignorant or disingenuous) to claim that an embryo is really just a part of the mother's body, since the embryo is genetically distinct from the mother. I also believe that the fetus's ability to survive outside the womb is more or less irrelevant, since a newborn baby (despite its legal status as a "real live human") is also unable to survive and thrive without receiving the right sort of care. To my thinking, there's not a lot of moral space between late-term abortion and infanticide.

2. I believe that humans are created in God's image and, as such, are intrinsically valuable. I believe this is true regardless of age, race, ethnicity, religion, ability, sexual orientation, or any other imaginable configuration. If it's a human, it bears the indelible stamp of almighty God. If it's a human, Jesus died to redeem it because of God's great love for the world. Thus, for me, the level of a person's development (whether physical, emotional, mental, or otherwise) is not the most important part of this equation, since it does not alter a person's identity as a God-made, God-loved human being.

3. I'm a little less dogmatic on this one. If, by sacrificing one life, I could save a hundred, would I do it? I really don't know... unless that one life were mine, in which case I would give an unqualified yes. (And in case you're wondering about the cutoff, I would even sacrifice my own life for a single person.) But when it comes to taking other people's lives, I don't feel like that's a choice I should make. I'm not the creator, so I am by definition not the proper arbiter of life and death. However, I do stand open to reasonable discussion about this matter (e.g., regarding the death penalty, national security, justifiable warfare, or abortion to save the life of the mother).

What about you, dear reader? This being the Internet, I must ask you to keep your comments as civil as possible, but I really do want to know what you think about these questions.

12 July 2015

John 6: Hungry for Bread

I am full of miraculous bread,
Wondrous, delicious, temporal,
And then I hunger again,
So I come to you, begging:
Just one more loaf?

You dismiss my bellyhunger,
Offering to meet a deeper need,
And I say that sounds fine,
But maybe just one more sign,
Perhaps involving something
Crusty on the outside and soft within.

You say I should work God's work,
Which is all right with me,
So long as that work is
Multiplying fish, adding loaves,
Or possibly conjuring wine
By the sacred washtubful.

Desperate for a fix,
I demand credentials:
How do I even know you are 
Who you claim to be?
Show me a sign; 
I have the perfect one in mind:
How about a nice, fresh batch
Of heavenly bread?

28 June 2015

Communion Meditation on Isaiah 5

‭Isaiah‬ ‭5‬:‭20-24‬ NASB:

Woe to those who call evil good, and good evil; Who substitute darkness for light and light for darkness; Who substitute bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter! Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes And clever in their own sight! Woe to those who are heroes in drinking wine And valiant men in mixing strong drink, Who justify the wicked for a bribe, And take away the rights of the ones who are in the right! Therefore, as a tongue of fire consumes stubble And dry grass collapses into the flame, So their root will become like rot and their blossom blow away as dust; For they have rejected the law of the LORD of hosts And despised the word of the Holy One of Israel.

It would be easy to apply these words to our nation's reaction toward the recent Supreme Court ruling allowing homosexual marriage in all 50 states. 

If you're on social media, you've probably noticed a flood of posts over the past few days, saying things like, At last: equality!" Or "Everyone should have the right to love whoever they want."

And it wouldn't be wrong to make this application. God's word clearly says that his design for marriage is one man and one woman, together for life. Any sexual relationship outside that definition is likely to bring pain, guilt, and loss, both for those immediately involved and for society at large. This is true regardless of the relationship's legal status.

But it would be wrong to stop our thoughts on this passage there. Isaiah is a prophet, and prophecy is intended to make us contemplate our own sin problem, not other people's.

So I confess before you and the Lord this morning that I am guilty of the things Isaiah lists here: 

I have called evil good, and good evil.

I have substituted darkness for light and light for darkness.

I have substituted bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter.

I have gone to great lengths to justify my own wickedness.

I have been wise in my own eyes and clever in my own sight.

I have rejected the law of the LORD of hosts and despised the word of the Holy One of Israel.

Therefore, I have justly earned God's condemnation: As a tongue of fire consumes stubble and dry grass collapses into the flame, so my root deserves to  become like rot and my blossom deserves to blow away as dust.

But God wasn't willing to leave me there, in a place of hopeless, well-deserved condemnation. And He wasn't willing to leave you there, either. That's why we've gathered here today: To celebrate the sacrifice that transferred us from a kingdom of darkness, death, and damnation into one of light, life, and love. 

Because Jesus died on the cross for us, we can have forgiveness and restoration through him. When we place our faith in him, his blameless life and righteousness displace our sinful selves. Christ's life becomes who we really are, and we leave behind our old, corrupted natures.

Let's thank God for his merciful, life-giving work on our behalf.

21 June 2015


You are first among the many
Who gather this morning,
Brothers breaking your very body,
Sisters sipping your very blood,
Bread and wine standing in
For sinews and muscle,
For plasma and marrow,
A feast made no less gruesome,
No less costly, no less terrible,
By our symbolic commemoration.

You meant what you said:
We must consume you,
Body and soul, to be whole,
To be rid of the death we've earned,
To be healed of our brokenness:
The brokenness we inherited,
The brokenness we sought out.
They couldn't take it that day,
Those hungry men looking for bread,
So they left disgusted, 

But my hunger is insatiable,
And my pockets are empty,
So I will take
And eat
And drink
And I will do it
In remembrance of you.

11 June 2015

Everything Changes

A response to today's Wednesday Poetry Prompt.

here he comes at last,
the long-awaited one,
with a lifeless alien face,
eyes sealed shut,
perfectly motionless,
motionlessly perfect.

i wonder, at first,
is everything all right?
he should be louder,
or friendlier,
or angrier,
or something more,
something less

in this moment,
my hope pauses,
my breath catches,
and she starts asking
if everything's all right,
and i don't really know.
even if he was breathing,
i wouldn't know.

over these months,
my all has been
subsumed, slowly, into
this searing moment, into
this pregnant pause, into
this silent question mark.
i'm not sure
if everything's all right
because i don't know anymore
what everything is
(or what all right is, for that matter).

and then his eyes open
and he screams like
the tornado siren
on the roof of the school
behind our house,
and that sound is
a sacred seal,
a holy reassurance,
and i suddenly know
that whatever everything is now,
it's all right.

05 April 2015

The Long Sabbath

It was the longest, least restful Sabbath any of them could remember.

The sun was bright and the birds were singing, but these tokens of spring seemed hollow in light of the week's events.

Yes, the rabbi had seemed foolhardy last Sunday when he decided to come into Jerusalem despite the death threats, despite the danger. But it had turned out so well, with throngs of enthusiastic people waiting to receive him. 

In that moment, with the crowds waving palm branches and screaming for salvation, he could have led them anywhere, accomplished anything.

His followers had asked themselves, "Could this be it? Could this be, at long last, the coming of the Kingdom?"

But instead of assembling an army or forming a provisional government, he started doing what he had always done best: Alienating people.

He began with the temple. Raving like a madman, he overturned tables, loosed animals, and generally raised hell anywhere he could. Merchants alienated? Check.

Then he moved on to the most respected members of the religious establishment, calling them blind guides and hypocrites. Oh, yes, and also calling down damnation upon their heads. Pharisees alienated? Check.

Not to mention his own disciples. 

Judas, the treasurer, was incensed when Christ refused to speak out against the flagrant wastefulness of Mary's perfume-footwash debacle.

Simon the Zealot saw Palm Sunday as a wasted opportunity to throw off the shackles of the Roman oppressors.

Even Cephas was hurt -- the rabbi basically told him he was destined for cowardly failure.

And then there was the intensely awkward moment when Jesus had stripped down and bent to wash the filth from his followers' feet. How humiliating! Worse still, he commanded them to do the same.

They didn't hate him -- well, not all of them, anyway -- but they sure didn't understand him, either. Disciples alienated? Check x12.

So there goes the kingdom. Whatever this man might be, he's no politician.

And then came Gethsemane: Their failed battle against sleep as he struggled alone in prayer.

And then the mob who came to arrest him, the flash of steel and the ear bouncing to the ground, then miraculously restored.

And then the trials, where he resembled nothing so much as a sheep destined for slaughter.

And then the slow, agonizing death on the cross, and the blanket of darkness, and the earthquake, and his gasped "It is finished."

He may has well have been talking about hope itself. All day long, his disciples felt like Joseph at the bottom of the pit, bereft of any good  future they could have imagined.

And that was Saturday.

03 April 2015

Unexpected Company

So here are Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus, two pillars of the Sanhedrin, defiling themselves right before the holiest Sabbath of the year, and for what? The cold, mutilated corpse of an unrepentant heretic.

Joseph and Nicodemus almost certainly knew each other before that grim day. Tradition tells us they were both members of the Jewish ruling body. But did each know of the fearful hope hidden in the other's heart? I wonder.

Nicodemus, curious about this Jesus but unwilling to risk his reputation, went under cover of night to hear what the rabbi had to say. He came away bewildered by the man's talk of wind and snakes in the desert and rebirth.

Joseph was rich and respectable. He followed Jesus in private, like a Shakespearian scholar secretly obsessed with Kim Kardashian. John tells us Joseph was afraid of the establishment -- the one he was part of, and the one that ultimately condemned this innocent man to death.

How Nicodemus and Joseph found out about their mutual faith in the Nazarene is anyone's guess. I like to think their eyes met at Golgotha, and each saw his own pain, loss, and disappointment reflected in the other, even as their shared hope died before their eyes.

Whatever led up to it, I find myself fascinated by the picture of these two devout men gently preparing the bruised, bloody, broken body of Jesus on that grim afternoon. They raced against the sun, intent on finishing their task before the Sabbath. They packed spices against the cold, torn flesh, then wrapped linen around his body.

With their preparations complete, they laid him in a nearby tomb -- the one Joseph had selected for himself. It must have been surreal to lay the young, charismatic teacher to rest there as the sun sank into the west.

Then, these two men must have parted ways, each returning to his home and family, and each haunted by the day's tragic events. But they had discovered something few find in the midst of such darkness: Unexpected company from a kindred spirit.

05 March 2015


From prodigious profanity 
You wrought a sanctuary 
Worthy of your glory,
Born not of humanity,
But of divine activity:
Your mighty work in me.

My lust became chastity,
Restraint displaced gluttony,
My fog gave way to clarity,
My avarice to charity.
New life exudes from me;
My long-imprisoned soul is free.

iPoem: Back on My Way

My iPhone wrote this for you. (After I hit the middle auto-complete choice 116 times.)

The fact I can get it right away
With the best of the day
Before I get a follow
Back on my way
Home from work to be
The first half of the year
And the rest of the year
And the rest of the day
Before I get a follow
Back on my way
Home from work to be
The first half of the year
Of high quality of life
And the rest
Of my favorite part of the day
I have a great way
Of the year
Of high quality of life
And the rest
Of my favorite part of the day
I have a great way
Of the year
And a great day.

08 January 2015

Starry Night

Pinpricks of white-hot light
Pierce night's shroud,
Icepicks through silk,
Astronomically distant, yet
Palpably present.

Rays from cosmic furnaces,
Dampened by the void,
Pause their celestial journeys
To warm this marrow-freezing night
With wonder.

03 January 2015

NoPAD Chapbook 25: Love Poem

Ten years now
I've been falling 
Into bed next to you,
Asleep before ten,
Awake before six,
Predictable as
Vanilla ice cream
(The good kind:
Ground vanilla beans, 
Cane sugar, real cream).

Apart from you,
I'm off-balance,
Distracted, overwhelmed,
Lonesome as
A dry brownie,
Languishing there
For the second week
Of a successful diet,
Utterly lost without
Its a la mode.

NoPAD Chapbook 22: Release

Her labored breathing finally stopped.
The doctor whispered, "It's finished."
He rose and shut the morphine off.
We looked at each other with uncertain eyes.
The nurse started gathering equipment up.

The chaplain knew what to do --
He'd been here many times before
And almost certainly would be again --
"Let us pray the words of the Psalmist:
The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want..."

The undertaker was silent and gentle,
With large hands accustomed to the dead.
He murmured sincere condolences
As he wheeled her shell out the door
And promised to be in touch soon.

Their assistance was for us, not her.
At long last, she was finally beyond
The need for human aid. Like a prisoner
Seeing the outside after decades, she left
These walls for the fearsome blessing of Release.