Cross

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A professor of New Testament once told me about a little known historical event that took place in the very early years of the Common Era (which we even more commonly abbreviate A.D.) in which the Roman army crucified a large group of criminals along a major Galilean road. From what we know about the Roman practice of crucifixion, most people who were hung on crosses were left there to wither and rot over a period of days, possibly weeks.

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If indeed this event took place, there is nothing odd about it. Despite the ghastly nature of it, crucifixion was commonplace in the provinces of the Roman Empire. It was appalling enough to promote fear among the populace, and public enough to be a cogent display of imperial dominance. While back in Rome the practice was frowned upon, considered far too cruel and inhumane a punishment for a Roman citizen, away in the far reaches of Caesar’s realm it kept the riffraff and the rebels, the subjugated and the slaves, in line.

The event this professor described would have taken place in the days of Jesus’ youth, perhaps a decade or more before he began his earthly ministry at the Jordan River. The Galilean road where this alleged mass execution took place ran close to Nazareth and other nearby villages. It was well traveled – that was the point of the Roman army erecting such a horrifying display. What good was a criminal on a cross if nobody came round to behold it and tremble?

And so, I’m left to wonder if Jesus was familiar with this crucifixion road just beyond his city’s limits. Some scholars have suggested that as a carpenter’s apprentice, he would have assisted with various building projects, and in those days many Galilean tradesmen would have been commissioned in the ongoing renovation work of nearby Caesarea Philippi. Perhaps Jesus traveled the very road along which these enemies of the Empire were hung.

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Perhaps he made his way back and forth along this road several times, walking by his father Joseph’s side, lunch pails in hand, tool belts hanging loosely around their wastes, a handful of other local craftsmen in their company. The sun is just over the mountains, casting long shadows of the poles and crossbars upon the road. The smell of old blood and rotting flesh hangs heavy in the air. Scavenging birds circle, perch, peck, and cackle at one another.

“Someone oughta take ’em down,” mumbles one of the tradesmen, a Nazarene neighbor. “It goes against Torah.”

Jesus, who knew the Scriptures better than most young apprentices who had left school behind to learn the family craft, recalls the Book of Deuteronomy. In it, the teachings of Moses are recorded, including a statement that those who are hung on poles are under God’s curse, and should be taken down by sunset. The neighbor is right. They should be removed. But not only would touching a cursed, dead man require a whole process of washing and atonement, but these tradesmen have lived long enough to know that if the Roman oppressors want their countrymen to hang until they rot, anyone caught removing the corpses without approval would likely join them on a cross of his own. So Jesus does not blame the men for doing nothing, for continuing to travel this road in service of the pagans, for trying their best to ignore these grisly adornments on the sides of the road. After all, what is a band of poor, simpleminded Galileans to do against such monstrous tyranny?

But as they near their destination – a city coming into view in the distance through the dust of the road and the glare of the morning sun – Jesus hears something that causes him to turn aside. It is the sound ragged breathing and the faintest of whimpers. At the end of the line of crosses, he comes to a living corpse. He can tell the man is only minutes from death.

He pauses at the foot of this cross and gazes up curiously into the criminal’s face. The man’s body is severely bruised, the skin of his chest, back, shoulders, neck, arms, and legs is torn by what must have been repeated, merciless blows of a reed cane. As was the usual practice of Roman executioners, this man had been flogged prior to being executed. The Romans knew the importance of ruining a man before affixing him to a cross; that way the criminal would have no strength left to endure, to struggle, perhaps even slowly work the impaling instruments from his body. Indeed, this is the case for the man hanging above Jesus’ head.

There is a rasping sound that Jesus cannot make out. He steps even closer, so that the man’s scarred and bloated feet are only inches from his face. There are long, jagged nails pierced through the man’s ankles, affixing his feet to each side of the pole. The man’s upper body is caked with blood, smells rancid, and hangs limp. His head is bowed low. Again, the rasp, and Jesus thinks the man is trying to speak a word.

“Thirst.”

Quickly, from his shoulder he swings a leather strap at the end of which is sewn a skin filled with water. He stands on his tip-toes, awkward and unbalanced, and reaches as high as he can to place the opening of the skin to the dying man’s lips. Cool water from a Nazarene well trickles out. Most of it drips back down Jesus’ arms, but a few precious drops find the man’s thick, dry tongue. He moves it around sluggishly, relishing the momentary coolness. Then he grimaces deeply and breathes a pitiful, guttural moan.

Jesus stares up into the man’s face, and for the briefest of moments the criminal’s glazed-over eyes meet his. The man blinks slowly. If Jesus didn’t know any better, he might think the man recognizes him. But it is clear he has been hanging for several days – his mind must be scrambled by the heat of the sun. And, almost as quickly as those eyes found him, the man’s gaze shifts back to the nothingness of the middle distance.

“Yeshua!”

Jesus turns to see Joseph hurrying back up the road. The company of workers is already far ahead, blurred shapes amid waves of high desert heat. Joseph advances upon him with a nervous expression on his face. Jesus knows he must not linger any longer. But as he turns away from the dying man, another bit of Torah echoes in his mind. It is prophecy, lines he has thought about often since he first heard them as a boy.

He is despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with suffering; and we hid as it were our faces from him; he was despised, and we esteemed him not. Surely he hath borne our sufferings, and carried our sorrows; yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted…

Joseph places his strong, caring arm around Jesus’ shoulders and leads him away from the cross. But Jesus realizes in that moment it is impossible, in a world such as this, to be fully protected from such terror. He supposes that these will not be the only crosses he encounters in his life. He understands that safety from experiencing such an end is an illusion. And he knows that, despite what the oppressors intend with this grim display, he must not be afraid.

He does not look back. There is no need. He enters the city in the company of his father, and goes to work.

Slave

It must have been incredibly shocking.

I have to wonder if at first they even noticed what exactly was happening. The way people dined back then, there is at least a chance these men were used to not paying attention to whomever was behind them performing this task. The way they sat – reclining on their elbows, their legs stretched out behind them, focused on the food in front of them, holding conversation, seeing only the other faces at the table – it could very well have been that their master had made it halfway around the table before anyone even noticed he was the one washing their feet.

When Jesus got up from the table, perhaps they didn’t pay him much mind. Maybe they thought he was just excusing himself to the privy. Maybe in their periphery they noticed him messing with the wash basin and assumed he was performing a thorough wash before the main course began. And since the act of foot-washing was typically performed by the lowest of slaves – Gentiles, girls, or Gentile girls – it probably wasn’t customary to pay much attention to the one cleaning the dust of Judaea roads from your feet.

John doesn’t record who first noticed what Jesus was up to. He does, however, put the audible reaction in Peter’s mouth, one of the more outspoken members of the group (a trait that would soon bring him to his lowest point, and not long after raise him to his highest). The way Peter speaks when a stripped-down Jesus draws near to him with the water basin and soiled towel, you would think he is not merely scandalized by this role-reversal but is going so far as to swear an oath; he insists he will never permit his esteemed rabbi to persist in the humiliation of touching another man’s dirt-ridden feet. Granted, Peter had a habit of refusing Jesus of things, though his intentions were usually noble.

“I have to do this,” Jesus tells him. “Otherwise, you will have no share in what is coming.” It’s a puzzling statement to our modern ears, but not to a first-century Jew following a man they believe to be the promised Messiah. Being included in Jesus’ “share” no doubt evoked images of glory and affluence, of being a part of the newly crowned king’s inner circle. Peter wasn’t the only one interested in this future. The Gospel writers occasionally point out that debates regarding rank and status came up now and again. James and John thought about it often. It is very likely Judas Iscariot was just as interested in this outcome, and when he didn’t see it going the way he envisioned, he either sold-out to the establishment, or he arranged a plan with the establishment in hopes of provoking his master to finally, at long last, take the bull by the horns. One way or another, to have a “share” with Jesus was a chief concern of the Twelve.

“Then wash everything!” says Peter. “Do my head and hands. Do it all.” Translation: I want a share more than anybody else; I’d like a share greater than everyone else; include me in your plans more integrally than anyone else.

You have to wonder if Jesus smiled at that point. Or maybe he even laughed. It was a night in which he was no doubt experiencing a creeping melancholy because of what he had perceived was coming, but this moment of intimacy among men with which he had spent so much time over the past several years was something he had been looking forward to for a long while. Maybe he chuckled before he said to Peter, “That won’t be necessary. Now give me the other foot.”

And so the disciples watched their rabbi – the one they called Messiah, Savior, Lord, etc., and the one who called himself the eschatological “Son of Man,” divinely related to the one true God, whom he called Father – wipe away the gunk and grime from their well-traveled feet. They felt his hands guide the towel between their toes, scraping them clean. They saw beads of sweat form on his forehead and temples because he was not pretending to wash their feet, he was actually washing them, scrubbing them back to a presentable, hygienic purity.

James and John watched him, and they thought about how Jesus had responded to one of their recent arguments: “Whoever wishes to be the best among the group must act as the slave of everyone else.”

Peter watched him, and thought about the time Jesus had spoken about being watchful for the master’s return: “Blessed are the slaves the master finds still waiting up for him; the master will be so happy that he’ll cook dinner for them.

Judas watched him and struggled. He remembered the day Jesus had sat down on the hilltop and taught a gathered throng: “No one can be a slave of two different masters. It’s only natural that he’ll refuse one and obey the other.”

They all struggled. It was a shocking illustration, and even though they were used to their rabbi shirking propriety for the sake of making his point, to feel his hands on their feet – hands that had touched unseeing eyes, held leprous hands, lifted up lame bodies – was a sensation difficult to appreciate. It was also, of course, a sensation that would remain vividly in memory for many years to come.

So there they sat, around the table, feeling their master wash their feet.

Watching him do the work of a slave on their behalf.

Letting the Son of Man serve them.

 

The Greatest Danger We’ll Face in 2016

If you walked the streets of your neighborhood, or even the aisles of your local Target store, and asked the people you encountered what they believed to be the greatest threat to humanity’s development, what do you suppose they might say? Who or what would be the potential culprits?

No doubt some would toe the current media line and answer “gun violence” or “gun control.” Some might consider our country’s deeply divided views on immigration. Others might nod toward ISIS or other Islamic extremists. The most cynical might blame religion in general. A few germaphobes might point the finger at Ebola or some new flu you can get from armadillos or Canadian geese or something. There would probably be a handful who say, “Hillary,” while hopefully at least some reasonable people answering, “Trump.”

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Please, America. Please… just… just… no.

Here’s what I don’t think many people, if any, would say. I don’t think they would respond to the very problem studies show affects more people than terrorism or gun violence or immigrants takin’ our jobs. More people even than are affected by anxiety, depression, heart disease or cancer combined.

I don’t think anyone would say, “Excess.”

Our society is fanatical about speed and afflicted with the need for more. Year after year, we take great strides in productivity and efficiency, and while we may marvel at the industrial and technological advancements of the past two hundred years, we have ignored the tragically adverse effects such progress has wreaked on humanity.

The Inescapable Illness

“At first sight there is something surprising in this strange unrest of so many happy men, restless in the midst of abundance,” wrote the 19th-century French historian, Alexis de Tocqueville, as he described the bewildering social changes in America resulting from the Industrial Revolution. He observed men chasing after more money, more possessions, more abilities, while simultaneously less and less content despite everything they had acquired. “The spectacle itself, however, is as old as the world,” acknowledges de Tocqueville. True. Industrial America was only the latest victim of what many now refer to as “hurry sickness.”

I have no doubt felt the effects of such an illness. It surely no less than an epidemic in our country. We have becomes slaves to productivity and efficiency; we are incapable of ignoring the ticking of the clock. The comedian Louis C.K. makes us all laugh when he profanely fusses at human beings for being impatient for a picture to load on the technological wonders that are our smartphones, but the joke is that this is no exaggeration. We are all in a rush, and, if pressed to give a reason why, the only explanation we can really offer is, “So I can move on to the next thing I need to do.” Even if that next thing is a much-needed nap, rest itself as been tightly wedged into our congested and overcrowded daily schedules.

When you or I lament that there is never enough time in the day to accomplish everything we have to do, truer words were never spoken . If you’ve ever made that remark, guess what? You are afflicted with hurry sickness.

De Tocqueville goes on: “He who has set his heart exclusively upon the pursuit of worldly welfare is always in a hurry, for he has but a limited time at his disposal to reach, to grasp, and to enjoy it.” As a result, what happens to us? If we evaluate our attitudes and behaviors honestly, we find that this pace of life quite often makes us anxious, irritable, non-present. He who suffers from hurry sickness finds he spins less and less time with other people without an agenda unfurled between them. Our relationships are weakened because they plummet from the priority list. Without realizing it, we isolate ourselves from others – few if any really know the real us. Even when we do kick back and have a beer with a friend, we find much of our conversation dominated by our respective job responsibilities and family problems in need of solutions.

A Costly Cure

And here’s the rub. The cure for hurry sickness is actually quite simple, but it is stubbornly rejected time and time again. Why? Because this cure is not like other cures. It isn’t adaptable to our current, normal lifestyles. There is no pill to pop, no energy shake to grab on-the-go so we may continue flitting from one meeting to the next and multitasking only so we can multiply our productivity. No, the cure for hurry sickness is to slow down. To step out of the rat race. Not just two-week’s vacation from it – that’s nothing more than a Band-Aid. To be cured of this addiction to productivity and efficiency is to no longer bow to the power it exerts over us.

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Is it even possible to escape such a thing?

As a minister, I am nonetheless susceptible to the great temptation of our modern culture. I, too, want to accomplish just as much as everyone else as quickly as possible. I, too, complain there is never enough time in the day. I, too, have found myself snapping at people who hold up my progress by raising questions or disagreeing with me. And I, too, have given in to anger and uncharacteristically “gone off” on someone about an unsolved problem. All of this is indicative of hurry sickness – of a soul under stress, not at peace.

But I’m trying. I’m attempting to slow down this year. To resist the ever-present urge to rush, to accomplish or complete a large number of tasks every day, to produce results quickly, to cook dinner as quickly as I can, to ferry my children off to bed with as little lethargy as possible. I’m trying to avoid feeling like I never take any time for myself – for reading, writing, praying. There are more important things than feeling productive. Of course there are.

Slowing down and doing less doesn’t mean I shirk all my responsibilities. It doesn’t mean I show up late to meetings and tell the people I’ve put out, “Deal with it.” It doesn’t mean I indulge procrastination.

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But it also means this shouldn’t be my go-to bedtime book for my kids.

No, it simply means that I renounce the aggressiveness and stress that so often controls my days. Instead, I practice stillness, receptiveness, patience. I take time to reflect. By doing less, I create space in my day, and by slowing down, I do not surrender to the temptation to immediately fill those gaps. And I evaluate my progress in this not by how much I have produced and how quickly I get things done, but by how many meaningful conversations I’ve had in the past week, how many meals I recall savoring, how many times I’ve stopped to observe something beautiful. It is the very essence of “quality over quantity.”

The Root of All Sickness

This won’t be easy. The siren songs of our society can be terribly mesmerizing. I still have deadlines. I still work with people who need my timely input. I still carry a smartphone, and I still get “push” notifications from CNN.

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So, North Korea has an H-Bomb. Thanks, CNN, for that late-night notification. I’m sure I’ll get a good night’s sleep now.

But I have finally come to see our hurry-obsessed culture for what it is. Idolatry.

I have listened to many a Christian offer that same “not enough time in the day” lament as an explanation for why they don’t spend more time reading their Bible, praying, or simply enjoying solitude with God. And I very often commiserated because their struggle was also mine. I would always agree: “Spiritual disciplines can be hard.” But deep down, whether I wanted to acknowledge it or not, I’ve always known that how a person spends his time reflects what he values most. It isn’t that there isn’t enough time in the day. It’s that there is not enough time after we have scheduled and done what we most value. Maybe it’s work, maybe it’s shopping, maybe it’s Facebook, maybe it’s our child’s soccer practice, maybe it’s another Law and Order marathon on USA.

 

Law & Order SVU home invasions ice-t

“Yo, you tellin’ me thisth dude wasth s’posthed to be a wapper back in tha day? That’sth ridiculousth!”  

Our idol is whatever we value most, and whatever we value most determines how we spend our time. This doesn’t mean that if we work a long-hour job or we spend our days taking care of our children that these things have necessarily become idols. That happens only if we allow these important, time-consuming things to control and direct our days – if we surrender to the assumption that everything else must revolve around these things. Just because you spend 9 hours at work and only 45 minutes praying and reading Scripture doesn’t mean your job is the most important thing in your life. That would be elevating quantity over quality. Rather, when you strive to protect your job within your schedule but fail to protect that 45 minutes you spend with God, that’s when you know which one you truly value more. That’s when idolatry rears its all too familiar head.

That’s the irony of this whole thing for me; a common assumption is that the minister would never make such a mistake. But I must confess I have often valued my job as a minister over my relationship with the God I am supposed to be pointing people to. I have put off meeting with a church member in order to complete a planned task. I have lingered at the office longer than I should have, subtracting time I could be at home with my family. And there have been many days when I have scheduled early meetings that caused me to neglect my own personal time of prayer and reflection.

That’s idolatry.

When you stop to think about this in light of the Ten Commandments, hurry sickness puts a believer at least two in the hole. We have essentially placed another god – our schedule – before our heavenly Father, and if we’ve done that, it’s probably been years since we’ve remembered the Sabbath day and kept it holy.

worship

What, you mean sitting in the semi-dark listening to music and a spiritual TED talk for an hour and the  rushing off to lunch before the Methodist church lets out doesn’t constitute keeping the Sabbath?

Trusting the Healer

And all the while, the God who saves us – who sent His Son that we might know peace – watches us run from one task to next, one consumeristic pleasure to another, wondering when we’ll realize that it will never satisfy us – we will never achieve this good life that society promises us is right there for the taking if we would just reach a little bit more

“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give as the world gives,” said Jesus. The Greek word is eirene, the Hebrew is shalom. It isn’t a passive thing – the absence of strife. It is a powerful, active experience. It means fullness, wholeness, to live well. Or, as Frederick Buchner puts it, shalom means “having everything you need to be wholly and happily yourself.”

To know the genuine, abiding peace of the Son of God, we must live as he did. He was certainly tempted by hurry and progress and efficiency and success, but he never bowed to those influences no matter how insistently they grabbed for his allegiance. And if we are to live as Jesus did, then we must make him the highest authority – the one, true God – of our life, and protect our time and pace with him at all costs.

This is what I am trying to do in 2016. I will no doubt produce less, become a bit more limited in my availability to others, have less acquisitions and professional attainments to show for the year, but all the while I will have gained something far beyond the cumulative value of hurry-driven accomplishments.

I will have gained fullness. I will be more wholly and happily myself than ever before.

What about you?

A Phone Call from Mack

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I didn’t know Mack Hannah very long. He was only in my life for less than two years, and a significant portion of that time was via e-mail and phone calls before I finally joined his staff at Dunwoody Baptist Church.

It was, in fact, a phone call that started it all.

On October 31, 2013, my cell phone lit up with an unfamiliar number hailing from Dunwoody, Georgia. I drew a blank on the city, and assumed this was some manner of telemarketing call. However, because at the time I was assisting in the tedious task of crafting a cardboard box maze in a church gym (standard preparation for the annual “Harvest Hoedown”), even taking a telemarketer’s call was a welcome break, so I excused myself. As it turned out, the voice on the other end of the line sounded as if it was either the friendliest telemarketer in the history of the sport, or my long-lost best friend.

“Bo, it’s Mack Hannah. How are you?”

“Um… fine.” What followed was that awkward moment when you encounter someone who knows you, but you have no clue how. Thankfully, Mack cleared things up quickly.

“I’m the pastor at Dunwoody Baptist Church. I’m sitting here looking at your resume. You know, I lived in Waco for a while…”

The call stretched on for over an hour. We even got disconnected once when, after realizing I was talking to another church about another job, I retreated into the attic of the church to maintain secrecy and ended up losing the signal. In all that time, though, what Mack talked about was other people. Despite having led his own extraordinary life, Mack rarely told stories in which he was the main subject or active agent. When he spoke of the ministries of Dunwoody Baptist, or other churches and organizations he had led, he always portrayed himself more like a bystander witnessing other great people doing extraordinary things. This was not a calculated decision to effect a more humble attitude; what makes Mack Hannah so endearing, and what made me want to work for him (or “with him” as Mack would always insist) was this very way of seeing ministry. For Mack, everything was a team effort. Even when he was front and center – and, as a pastor, he often was – Mack was mindful that the success of any endeavor was not due to his strengths alone. Often when he preached, you were apt to hear him pray, “Holy Spirit, you are the teacher in the room.”

During that initial phone call, when Mack spoke of his own ministry experience, he would sing the praises of others – of fellow ministers, neighbor churches, and the many, many people he had encountered and worked “alongside.” The way Mack often spoke of himself, he seemed like the Forrest Gump of the evangelical Church. Amazing things just seemed to happen around him and to him – things for which he refused to take credit or admit responsibility. He pastored a small congregation in a farming town outside of Nashville that just happened to attract the membership of Amy Grant and her family, who became close friends. He focused on caring for people of every stripe, and Belmont University just happened to create a student-care position solely for him. He lent his time and energy to the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, and just happened to find himself ministering to the NCAA tournament-bound Georgia State basketball team, or offering a prayer for the Atlanta Falcons. And yet…

And yet Mack Hannah is an extraordinary man. He is one of the most genuine Christians I have ever known. That is to say that every faithful word he spoke did not sound forced or planned or regurgitated from some other pastor’s book. Even when he would quote other writers, pastors or theologians, the words always made more sense coming from his mouth. When I finally arrived on staff at Dunwoody Baptist Church, I realized this was because Mack didn’t speak in a way that was disconnected from the life he lived. No, every word he spoke was steeped in life experience. He lived the words he spoke first. To put it in a more colloquial way, Mack only talked the talk after he had walked the walk.

This, among many other things, has been a continual inspiration to me. Typically, when I teach or preach, the messages I prepare are as much for me as for anyone else. When I speak, I am often testing out a lifestyle concept – a spiritual exercise or a specific act of service – rather than reporting on how I have actually experienced this concept unfolding in my life. I teach about how I want to live, and I try to live up to the words I speak. But Mack Hannah simply described the life he lived every day. This is his legacy. He was a pastor, a teacher, an evangelist, a coach and a friend. Perhaps, one day, I might learn to be the same, and to then speak from those places.

I am where I am – and, partly at least, I am who I am – because of Mack Hannah. Of course, he would never claim such an influence was his own, but simply the Spirit at work through him. But it was that phone call that made me realize how much I wanted to serve with Mack, and my initial face-to-face meetings that had me excited to learn from him how to be an effective pastor who remained genuine throughout. It was those stories he told, which always seemed like only a hint of even greater stories, that instilled an eagerness to sit beside him and listen to his grand narrative of a life charged with God’s goodness, mercy, and abiding peace.

So it was that the last phone call we shared before I moved to Dunwoody was such a disappointment. It was a few days after Easter, the beginning of the season of Resurrection, that Mack phoned me.

“How are things going for you?”

I proceeded to recount a number of little stresses that come from offering one’s resignation, finishing up ministry at a church, and moving one’s family halfway across the country. To his credit, Mack patiently listened to all of this.

After I finally closed my mouth, he said, “Well, listen, let me tell you what’s going on with me. I’ve told you before how I was diagnosed with cancer a couple of years ago, right? Well, I recently found out that it’s come back.”

*

My family and I came to Dunwoody anyway. Of course we did. As much as it pained me to know that my future plans for service alongside Mack Hannah were tenuous at best, even in the six months we had communicated primarily via phone and e-mail, Mack had taught me that you don’t follow after a person; you follow after the Spirit that works in and through that person. And while a person may die, the Spirit that dwells in each and every one of the faithful never dies, but carries on the good work to which we have all been called. And so, I came to Dunwoody with the understanding that even if Mack ceased to be the senior pastor at the church (which, eventually, he did), and even if this time he didn’t go into remission (which he didn’t), and even if he passed before I got the chance to hear all those wonderful stories brimming within him (thankfully, I was blessed to hear a few more before the end), I would nonetheless continue following the leading of God’s Spirit. I would continue to, as Mack has always said, “do the next right thing.”

Today is Mack Hannah’s memorial service. It is most definitely a celebration of life. A life of honesty. A life of joy. A life that clearly reflected the transformation promised to us in a relationship with our glorious, good God.

I’ve only known Mack Hannah for a short amount of time. But what I know I like, and what I like, I celebrate and I will hold close for as long as the Spirit gives me. Thank you, Mack, for making that first phone call. I am a better man because of it.

5 Reminders for Christians Worried About Same-Sex Marriage

In my last post, I wrote about the inherent tension that comes from pursuing a holy life. I believe this tension has become as evident as ever within American churches in light of the recent Supreme Court decision. Many, many Christians are struggling to reconcile orthopraxy with orthodoxy – that is, correct conduct with correct belief.

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How are Christians supposed to maintain genuine attitudes of hospitality and compassion to people they believe are openly engaging in sinful practices? And, now that same-sex marriage has been federally legalized, does this mark the beginning of the end for any form of biblical morality within government legislation?

If we are going to adequately and correctly address questions such as these, there are several important truths Christians in this country need to bear in mind…

#1 – Christians in America still enjoy unprecedented levels of religious liberty.

When it comes to our place in American society, it is difficult for the modern-day Church to find any similarities to the Christian Church of the first century. For hundreds of years, followers of the Way (Acts 9:2, 22:4) were the weird and suspicious cult members of the neighborhood. Their worship practices were misunderstood, and their theology was considered heretical by some and ludicrous by others. In those first few centuries, persecution was an integral part of their reality; sometimes it was localized to a particular region because a local governor didn’t like them, and other times the Roman Emperor himself sanctioned the oppression empire-wide. And so we’re clear, the Church didn’t define persecution merely as unkind words or unfair stereotyping of their faith. That, they believed, was just the nature of a worldly society desiring to malign them. No, persecution was more significant than that. It was shocking, often violent. From vicious slander to the stripping of business ownership. From treatment as social pariahs to imprisonment, forced apostasy and even execution.

Kind of puts our fussing about the

Kind of puts our fussing about the “rights” of florists and caterers in perspective.

When we stop and consider the social conditions within which the first and second-century Church operated, believers in America should be thoroughly humbled by how good we’ve got it. We should also be embarrassed that while recent Pew Research reports indicate a decline in church membership today, in contrast the early Church grew at an extraordinary rate despite being seen as much more counter-cultural. We may lament the recent decision by the Supreme Court, but we should also remember that both the judge writing for the majority and the President of the United States himself included statements acknowledging and calling for respect of those in the country who hold dissenting views due to religious reasons in particular. This, along with the First Amendment itself, would have bewildered Christians in the first century.

And, concurrently, they certainly would have reminded us that…

#2 – Christians are not called to infringe on another person’s civil rights.

Some Christians may refuse to admit it, but there is simply no basis in Scripture for preventing a citizen of a democratic country from enjoying his or her civil rights. What is more, Christians were never called to enforce their belief system – or the behavioral standards incumbent – on the public at large. Sure, they could and did argue for the value of it. Boldly even. But when the powers that be rejected their theological, moral and ethical viewpoints, neither did the Christians take their dolls and go home to pout. They recognized that what they believed in – the new reality to which they had sworn allegiance – was much bigger than mere civic responsibility. Jesus did not spend his last hours accusing the Sanhedrin of corruption and unfair treatment, but rather looked into the eyes of skeptical Pilate and said, “My kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36).

Of course, there are many Christians who would argue that America was founded as a Christian nation and that means it should uphold Christian morality. The problem with this, besides the fact that the foundation of the United States was more a product of Enlightenment principles than biblical ones, is that it assumes the measure of a good society is found in its laws rather than the ideas that inspired them. But what does it mean to be American? Is it to be a biblically moral person, or to be a person liberated from tyranny and oppression? This Saturday is Independence Day. What will that celebration look like: Reveling in the satisfaction that comes from being law-abiding citizens, or gratefully extolling our country’s commitment to equality and personal freedom? At some point, Christians must recognize that for other people to live unto the standards we hold ourselves to, they must be inspired toward them, not forced into them. In the meantime, we mustn’t degrade people who fail to uphold a standard they don’t even believe in.

throwing-bible-gifgifw700

And speaking of forcing people into something, we should remember that…

#3 – A Christian is called to live a holy life, not to legislate for one.

The fallout from the Supreme Court’s decision on same-sex marriage reveals that a lot of Christians are deeply confused about the inherent difference between an authentic life of faith and civil responsibility. The Bible never claims that trusting in God will bring about a socially comfortable life. The story of Scripture finds true believers constantly at odds with the world around them, with no legislation to ease that antagonism. Those who seek to live a righteous life according to the will of God will, at some point, find themselves in conflict with the prevailing moral and ethical standards of the day. As that point, the committed follower must choose whether he or she will continue to think, speak or act contrary to that worldly standard, or assimilate to it.

The Book of Leviticus was an incredibly progressive work, defining a sacrificial system and a code of moral/ethical conduct far more advanced than any of the prevailing polytheistic societies that surrounded the ancient Israelites. Thus, we read time and again phrases like, “be holy,” “consecrate yourselves,” and “I am the Lord.” It is clear that the purpose of the book was not simply to establish a detailed code of law for the Israelites to live by. No, it was first and foremost a call to live a holy life – to be different, distinct from all the other neighboring cultures and their hazardous influences. To be a people set apart and belonging to a loving, almighty God.

Yeah, I tried to read that one. I really did, but then my eyelids got all heavy...

Yeah, I really tried to read that one, but then my eyelids got all heavy…

In the New Testament, we find Jesus upholding this same call despite living under a different law – the Law of Rome – which had politically subjugated the Jewish code. But for Jesus, holiness need not be government sanctioned. It was a question of open-handed devotion to God, not fist-clenched obedience to the law. He embraced the moral and ethical code, claiming in his most famous sermon that he had not come to abolish this call but to fulfill it (Matthew 5:17-20), but he continually pointed to inner motivation as the key to outward behavior. Christians today need to understand that even if we are unsuccessful in passing legislation that upholds our behavioral ideals, that failure in no way affects our unique call to live a holy life unto the Lord within this country.

Which brings us to the biggest spot of tension, namely that…

#4 – Christians are called to resist idolatry, not simply to uphold biblical morality.

Historically, Christians have been called not to pull back from a society that contains unbiblical laws, but rather to abide within it. Peter’s first letter acknowledged the tension of living in a culture that rejected what they saw as an unpatriotic, upstart Messiah cult. Nonetheless, while encouraging Christians to pursue holy living, he also instructed them to submit to, and even honor, human authorities. Any Christian who would seek to justify his or her disrespectful or ill talk against the government or its leaders would do well to contemplate 1 Peter 2:11-17. Those words pull no punches.

The New Testament never assumes society would affirm the principles and standards of God’s kingdom, or even that it could. Rather, Christians are expected to resist the spiritual, political or social idols that offered only false identity and fleeting provision. The problem is, we often forget what idolatry really is. When we place our trust in a worldly institution or individual (for security, provision, identity, recognition, and/or pleasure), that is idolatry. It has always come in many forms, from natural elements to graven images to political figures. And we find a variety of manifestations of idolatry in our world today, but one Christians often overlook is American individualism. A side-effect to living in a country founded on Enlightenment ideals and upholding democratic principles is that we place quite a bit of importance on individual freedom – that “pursuit of happiness” part of our Declaration of Independence. Thus, when some Christians rage against American courts that choose not to uphold their moral standards, they are reacting less from a commitment to spiritual holiness and more from an innate sense that their personal liberties are being challenged. In reality, they have made idols out of state and federal laws. They have placed in them their sense of security and personal worth, and when that law changes, they feel vulnerable, insecure, and threatened.

And what of same-sex marriage itself? In our time, one of the most deceptive idols has turned out to be human sexuality. Our conditioning within American individualism only furthers the misguided belief that sexual expression is key to defining oneself. More and more people, whether they are heterosexual, homosexual, transgender, etc., have been fed his lie. And so, the search for individual identity trumps submission to divine relationship, let alone biblical morality. However, even committed Christians have just as often fallen prey to this particular form of idolatry. For instance, young Christians who believe that a “true-love-waiting” soul mate will finally complete their existence are just as misguided as homosexual couples who believe they will find true fulfillment through government-sanctioned marriage.

Because of course God wants me to get married.

Because of course God wants me to get married.

So, given the above four truths, how do we as Christians move forward, particularly in relationship with those who do not share our commitment to holy living?

#5 – Christians should be ever-mindful of their approach as much as their attitude.

The whole story of Scripture – Old Testament and New – is of God calling people to anticipate and participate in His work of redemption and restoration. The first two chapters of Genesis paint us a vivid picture of God’s perfect intentions, and it is immediately followed by a story of how the whole thing was thrown out of sorts by our selfishness. (Adam and Eve’s response to the serpent’s lie that they could become “like gods” is indicative of the idolatrous thinking discussed above.) Everything after that is the account of God seeking to restore what has been broken. And at the exact right time, God’s son appeared to not only provide atonement for that inherent selfishness, but also to show us what it looks like when we truly live within God’s redemptive plan.

One of the most impressive things about Jesus’ life is how he was able to uphold a moral standard while simultaneously showing sincere empathy and genuine compassion to people whose lives had become idolatrous messes. Jesus’ attitude about sin never faltered. He was both grieved and angered by it, particularly the way it prevented people from recognizing what God was up to in their midst. Nevertheless, he also maintained an intimate and understanding approach toward sinful people. He did not keep people at arm’s length, but instead showed them incredible patience. And he never once complained that the government should better regulate faithful living. As one writer has put it, his position on sin never overshadowed his posture toward those lost in it. So, when it came to instructing his disciples in holy living, he did not say, “Let your light be so legislated among all people that they may be legally held to your moral standards and glorify your Father in heaven.” Nope. He wasn’t interested in seeing a world that knew nothing of holiness forced to conform to that standard.

“Listen, before I take off, did everyone add their names to the petition that was passed around?”

Instead, Jesus asked his followers to live in such a way that here and there in a lost and bewildered world, we might stand out as those rare individuals who know where true identity comes from. That we might be those peculiar folks who, as it turns out, have learned what real freedom is all about.

The Suit Maker

For Bayo, my friend

bayo

“Just you wait,” my pastor told me. “Pretty soon, he’ll make you one, too.”

In addition to being an expert couturier of incredible skill, the person in question was a faithful deacon and usher in the church, not to mention the director of a nearby community outreach ministry. And just as predicted, only two weeks later, this man walked up to me with a smile on his face and, in his thick Nigerian accent, said, “I would like to make you a suit.” As always, he was impeccably dressed that morning, wearing one of his own handmade suits – a light gray set accented with a beautiful scarf of magenta and scarlet. “Would that be all right with you?”

“Oh,” I said, surprised only by how soon my pastor’s prediction had come true. “That’s very kind.”

“First, I will need to measure you.” He had a small tape measure in his pocket. After the worship service began and everyone had been welcomed, we went to my office. In a flurry of fluid movements, he measured the lengths of my arms, legs, waist, and shoulders. Some of the assessments I had never seen a tailor take before. Some he wrote down on a little scrap of paper. Others, he seemed only to file away in his mind. When he was finished, he said, “I will have it for you next week.”

“Really?” I asked, a bit incredulous. “Next week?”

“Oh yes,” he replied with a smile.

It was an odd thing to anticipate the unveiling of that suit. It wasn’t just that he had not asked my preference regarding style or color, leaving me no idea what it would look like. I also couldn’t help but wonder what kind of use I would get out of it. Only a week earlier, an older gentleman in the church had shown up at the office, interrupting me amidst a day full of meetings only to inform me that he was disappointed with the way I dressed on Sundays. He described my appearance as discourteous, unbecoming of a minister. I did my best to hold back my anger, but I felt terribly insulted and disrespected. That man’s comments remained with me throughout that week and into the next. It made me self-conscious on Sunday mornings and Wednesday nights when I interacted with other church members. I couldn’t help but wonder if this was all some people were thinking about when they looked at me, when they sat in my Bible studies, when they bowed their heads as I led them in prayer.

It wasn’t like I was wearing blue jeans and sneakers around the church. I wore nice pants, though they weren’t always of the more formal, pleated variety. I wore button-up, collared shirts, though not always with a tie. I tucked my shirt in; my hair was combed somewhat. I’d been a bit overweight lately, but all things considered I couldn’t look that disheveled, could I?

As I weighed the argument about my physical appearance, and considered what level of importance, if any, modern fashion should have in the worshipping life of a church, I began to wonder if the suit maker felt the same about me. Had he offered to make me a suit because he also disapproved of the way I dressed? Had I disappointed him as well?

It wasn’t that I didn’t own other suits, or that I see no value in them. I did, and I do. What bothered me was the prospect of formality, propriety and tradition becoming wedges between me and the congregants of the church. Was genuine relationship contingent on approval of someone’s physical appearance? Would giving in to wearing a suit and tie every week be a perpetuation of shallow relationships? What of the sobering statement from 1 Samuel 16, in which the Lord reminds Samuel that He “does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart” (v. 7)?

As such, I was anxious to receive this undeserved, unsolicited gift. However, I was also anxious about how to properly honor the man willing to make it for me.

The next Sunday, he brought it to me on a hanger, and once again we went to my office where I tried it on. It was beautiful – a dark, navy blue two-piece suit with light blue pinstripes. I was astonished at how luxurious it looked and felt, and that it needed no alterations. His measurements had been perfect in every respect. I was at a loss for how to thank him, simply saying again and again, “Thank you so much. This is so nice. Thank you so much…” He only nodded humbly and told me it had been his pleasure, backing away as if he knew I had more important matters to attend to that morning.

I was scheduled to preach in the morning services the Sunday after that, and over the course of that week I found my thoughts were shifting. I was no longer uneasy about my perceived appearance, but rather moved by the rare and unique feeling of being the recipient of an unmerited blessing. I thought about the suit, about the beauty of it. I thought about how its superior, hand-crafted quality far exceeded even what the older gentleman who had criticized my appearance probably had in mind when he wished for a better-dressed version of me.

On that Sunday, my suit maker said, “That suit looks wonderful on you!” It was a few minutes before the early worship service began, and we stood by ourselves near one of the hallway coffee pots. “And that tie is perfect!”

“You think so?” I said, looking down sheepishly at the sky blue, paisley tie I had chosen that morning.

“Oh yes,” he said.

“I feel so fancy,” I said with a nervous laugh.

I could see that he was grinning with pure enjoyment of the moment. Reaching out, he touched the lapel of the coat, his old fingers tracing the tiny stitches he had done himself. Memory in the sense of touch. “But, you know something?” he said. “It is not the suit that makes a man look good. It is the way he wears it. And you… you wear that suit well.”

Again, a fluttering of inadequate thank-you’s. Then I said, “I was planning to mention you briefly in my sermon today. Would that be all right with you?”

He gave a humble nod.

And so, that morning I stood before the congregation and spoke about using everything God has given us to impact others – from our manner of speaking, to the specific life interests that bring us joy, to the unique skills with which we have each been blessed. I told them how I had acquired the fine suit I was wearing that morning, and who had been its maker. “I don’t think he made me this suit because he thought I dressed poorly,” I told the congregation. “No, he made me this suit because he makes suits – very nice suits. He’s good at it, and he wanted to bless me in the best way he knew how. God created him to bless this world through specific gifts, and one of those is making beautiful suits. It’s one way that he shows the steadfast love and kindness God wants to pour into the whole world.”

I looked to the back of the sanctuary where my couturier stood in his own lovely suit. “Thank you,” I said to him, “for being obedient with your gifts, and for blessing my life in a most undeserved way.”

He only nodded that humble nod, the remnants of that excited grin still on his face. He lift a weathered hand as a way to communicate he was more than honored.

___

This Thursday, I will wear the suit again. So will many who were similarly blessed when they, too, received their own handmade suits from the selfless man who was at his happiest when he was uniquely blessing others. We will wear what we each affectionally refer to as our “Bayo suit” to the memorial service that will celebrate his extraordinary life.

Bayo Otiti was an extraordinary man. Born and raised in Nigeria, he found great success as a couturier and clothier in America, eventually outfitting people far more famous and successful than a lowly church minister. However, his passion extended well beyond suit-making. A former Muslim whose wife prayed for him to respond to the call of Christ, Bayo not only became a committed follower of Jesus, but established a vibrant ministry in the towns of Clarkston and Chamblee in metro Atlanta, where he worked closely with at-risk children and immigrants, spearheading community outreach programs and building deep relationships with everyone with whom he came into contact. His life was far more exquisite than the beautiful suits he made. And, believe me, that’s saying something.

I knew him only a short time – not even a year – but I did learn one thing from Bayo I will remember always: Just like a fine suit, what a person’s life looks like on the outside does not matter near as much as how that person lives it.

If you would like to know more about Bayo and his ministry, click HERE.

Thaw

icy oak tree branches 8546n copyright chrisazimmer feb 22 2011 s

Today, the trees were turned to glassy silver.

This was the result of a collision between two of the most ubiquitous realities of the present season: dreary precipitation and bitter cold. In some places, like New England and New York over the last few weeks, the ratio is such that what you get is heaping after heaping of white snow. In other places, like the region of central Texas where I grew up, you get sleeting rain and slick ground. Today, in Georgia, I woke up to crystalline trees.

Underneath the early morning cloud cover, there was something dismal and austere about them. They stood there, frozen and gunmetal gray, hardly moving in the still morning air. Creation itself seemed appalled by the cold. And yet, as the day unfolded, the overcast sky began to dissolve, and patches of pale blue were made visible. And through those patches, here and there, spilled sunlight. It had been there all along. Only hidden. Not absent.

And those trees, their limbs encrusted in ice, began to sparkle. Beneath those paroled rays of sun, all that had been frozen became lively, ebullient. They caught the eye not with gloom but with hope.

And I thought to myself, how beautiful it is when something is frozen.

But then I realized that what made the limbs of all these trees beautiful was not the fact that they had been frozen, but the fact that they were in the process of being unfrozen. It was not the ice itself that dazzled my eye and filled my heart with promise, but rather the thaw.

The sunlight played within those crystals of ice in extraordinary ways, while the slight rise in temperature began to soften them. The trees were slowly, methodically warmed, and their limbs were, little by little, liberated.

So it is with my own life, and, specifically, my own selfishness. On the eve of Ash Wednesday and the beginning of the season of Lent, I cannot help but see myself as one of those frozen limbs, and the Church as that great tree appalled by the turn of coldness in the world – a world from which we do not stand separate. There is so much selfishness, it seems. It lays as close to us as a winter chill on the skin. We feel hardly able to move, sitting numb under a leaden sky and a bleak horizon.

Ah, but the Son is peeking through. He is not absent. He sees us, shines on us. He is the One who begins in us a great and liberating thaw.

He makes us beautiful.

Has Your Quiet Time Become a Burden?

As I close in on the end of this series about daily quiet times, I feel the need to address a particular concern.

I recognize that much of what I have written in the last few posts regarding traditional quiet time methods has been primarily cautionary and negative. I haven’t written much about the benefits of keeping daily quiet times, but focused almost exclusively on the pitfalls and problems of them. The last thing I want is for my readers (meaning you) to think I am advocating for the abolishment of personal quiet times.

Because I’m not.

I am, however, troubled by what I see as rampant naiveté in many Christians’ lives when it comes to the keeping of a personal “time with God.” As my previous posts have pointed out, we often go about these times all wrong. Either we force ourselves to keep certain disciplines that our personalities, thought-processes and specific backgrounds naturally oppose, or we treat our devotional exercises like corporate grunts dutifully paying our dues in order to attain a promotion.

"Well, Mr. Bowen, you seem like a hard-worker, but we find it discouraging that you only have 5 psalms memorized. You need at least 25 to be upper management material."

“Well, Mr. Bowen, you seem like a hard-worker, but we find it discouraging that you only have 5 psalms memorized. You need at least 25 to be upper management material.”

So, before I leave behind the negative aspects, let me offer one more note of caution. While any time spent with God comes with an element of sacrifice (because, c’mon, there’s always something vying for our attention besides God), the goal of a quiet time is not to fix us up into a more presentable version of what a Christian should be. The various exercises and disciplines inherent in a daily devotional time don’t fix us at all; what they do is open us up for the Holy Spirit to enter our hearts, minds, and souls and do his work, in his way, according to his timing. It’s like taking your car for regular tune-ups. Your main role is to hand your keys over to the mechanic – he doesn’t need you rolling under there with him and giving him advice on what needs to be done.

Maybe get some newer magazines in your waiting room if you don't want me bugging you!

Maybe get some newer magazines in your waiting room if you don’t want me bugging you!

The work of the Spirit is key to grasping the purpose of a quiet time with God. As I wrote in a previous post: “A quiet time is meant to undergird one’s relationship with the Lord. We don’t do it so God is obligated to transform us. We do it so that his Spirit might find our hearts and minds opened to his guidance and provision. It is an expression of loyalty and love, not a set of daily chores.”

And yes, I’m aware I just quoted myself there. I’m as disappointed as you.

But let’s face facts. Three-weeks-younger Bo was right. God knows us better than we know ourselves. Therefore, he knows what to transform in us – and how to go about that transformation – better than we do. This being the case, when it comes to quiet times, sometimes “less is more.”

Well, not THAT much less.

Well, not THAT much less.

There came a point in my own struggle with keeping a quiet time that I began to question not just the method itself, but the individual value of each element. As I’ve stated before, the method that was promoted to me growing up consisted of a time of prayer, Bible study, Scripture verse memorization, and journaling. Time and again, this structure was referred to as the most comprehensive and beneficial method a young Christian could adopt. For me, though, the problem wasn’t only that this arrangement of specific exercises clashed with my natural inclinations and preferences for communing with God. It was also that I couldn’t help corrupting each individual exercise until they became hollow, futile and self-centered pursuits.

When it came to prayer, I quickly progressed from not being sure what to pray, to praying for just about everything and then feeling guilty later when I remembered things I had neglected to pray for. Consequently, I began keeping an extensive list of prayer concerns – friends who didn’t follow Jesus, family members in the hospital, church members who were struggling with some problem or another, friends of friends who were in need, the church leadership, the local community, the country’s leaders, world events, third-world strife, unsaved people groups… The list grew and grew and grew, until it not only morphed into a rote list of problems I wanted God to solve, but also became a terrible drain on my time and energy. I began to dread my prayer times, because after I finally spoke my “Amen,” I did not feel refreshed. I felt exhausted, empty.

"Seriously, these are natural. If you don't believe me, take a look at my prayer list."

“Seriously, these are natural. If you don’t believe me, take a look at my prayer list.”

As for Bible study, I did the best any young person unfamiliar with commentaries and Bible dictionaries could do, trying my best to understand what I was reading. Sometimes it was Psalms, Acts, or Philippians, and this was not so difficult. Other times, though, I’d try to get my mind around a passage in Ezekiel, Daniel, Hebrews or Revelation, only to end up shamefully shrugging my shoulders and assuming that I’d eventually break through to a deeper understanding that would accommodate such perplexing writing.

Besides, my goal wasn’t contextual comprehension, but rather the drawing of modern-day applications from the text. My focus was, What can this passage mean for meNo one ever told me I should concern myself with the historical context, the nuances of the language, or the original purpose of a story. There’s nothing wrong with looking into Scripture for personal direction, but if the entirety of your Bible study – both individual and in a group – is focused on personal application, you’re missing an incredibly intricate and rich tradition that carries a far greater purpose than helping you manage stress or know what kind of girl you should date.

"You're so Proverbs 31 and you don't even know it!"

“You’re so Proverbs 31 and you don’t even know it!”

And as my Bible study became more about me, so did my selection of Bible verses to memorize. I chose the ones that resonated with me, treating particular sentences with hardly more respect than fortune cookie aphorisms. To this day, I still use the little Bible I had when I was in high school, and every day I see verses highlighted in yellow – the ones I attempted to memorize a decade and a half ago. I’m not sure what motivated me to commit some of those sentences to memory. However, what bothers me more than my adolescent selectivity is that many of those verses were abducted from healthy contextual homes meant to provide sound interpretation.

For example, one of those verses I carried around with me, like a trimmed photograph inside a locket, was the second half of 2nd Corinthians 10:5, “…and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.” I remember quoting that one often, always regarding the importance to think before I spoke – lest I utter a swear and “hurt my Christian witness” – or felt an urge toward angry or lustful daydreaming. Unfortunately, while that probably is good advice, it wasn’t Paul’s intention when he wrote those words. He was referring to how we deal with heresy – that we examine all spiritual teaching in light of Christ, which was something the Corinthians were failing to do with the false teachers in their midst.

"Dear Corinthians, I'll give you something to memorize..."

“Dear Corinthians, I’ll give you something to memorize…”

And I shan’t forget how efficiently I corrupted the exercise of journaling. If drawing personal applications from my Bible study bordered on self-centeredness, what found its way onto the pages of my journals was downright narcissism. Writing down thoughts doesn’t always provide perspective and guidance like we might expect. Sometimes all we end up doing is indulging in either self-pity (Why am I so incapable of __________?) or self-advancement (Realizing _________ shows how awesomely God is blessing me.) Sure, there are certain journal entries I can look back on today as documentation of major life decisions and important new shifts in understanding, but they are hidden within a sea of pages full of overwrought self-reflection, all of which serves as evidence that I refused to heed one verse in particular: “Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you” (1 Peter 5:7).

There’s nothing wrong with journaling, setting down all your thoughts and fears on the page, as long as you have first relinquished control of those things to the Savior who reminds us that following him requires the denial of self, not the promotion of it.

"Blessed are those who keep diaries, for their sparkly pink pens shall never run dry."

“Blessed are those who keep diaries, for their sparkly pink pens shall never run dry.”

So, what’s the point of all this?

Simply that there exists no magic combination of exercises or disciplines that will make you into the kind of Christian you hope to be. There is no specific pattern or method that works perfectly for everyone. As we grow, learn, and mature, our personalities and interests and abilities shift in subtle yet profound ways. The way we interact with God has to grow and shift with that.

The good news is that the God with whom we seek to commune is abundantly merciful and infinitely patient. He doesn’t keep a short list of only three or four ways to connect with and inspire us. He is always with us – his Spirit indwells us, going where we go, whispering his truth throughout our days, whether we have our Bibles open and our highlighters uncapped, or we’re waiting in line at Chick-Fil-A.

Where real Christians go to love God and waste gas.

Where real Christians go to love God and waste gas.

I still have one more thing to say about personal quiet times – specifically about an actual biblical mandate for how to spend time with God – but I’ll save that for next week, and the final installment in this series. In the meantime, I encourage you to examine the things you do to commune with God and grow in his truth. Does it keep you grounded in his will and his sovereignty, or have you made it all about you? Don’t be afraid to change things up, because God’s fervent desire for a relationship with you never changes.

Is Your Quiet Time Turning You into a Pharisee?

This is the third post in a five-part series on the problems with keeping a personal, daily “quiet time.” Click here and here to read the first two installments.

Have you ever prayed to become a better Christian?

ManPraying

“Shh! If you say it out loud, it won’t come true.”

Well, stop it.

There’s no such thing.

Some believers are under the impression that a relationship with Jesus is meant to be an ever-increasing advancement – that the Christian life contains higher levels of capability and competence, like promotions within a corporation, and if we would just show up early, put in the work, and leave late, eventually we will climb the spiritual ladder. The worst part of this misconception is that a lot of new believers think that Christians who have attained these alleged higher levels don’t have to deal with the temptations and struggles that rage down in the mailrooms and custodial closets of faith. Up in the corner offices of Christianity are those who sit above all that stuff.

Sometimes we have to deal with this guy, though.

Though sometimes we have to deal with these weirdos.

While it is certainly true that we are meant to mature in our faith – to grow more trusting and find deeper reservoirs of strength – a relationship with Jesus is not about promotion. There is no such thing as “a better Christian.”

There are days when you may feel like you’re sitting high in that corner office of unchallenged commitment, but watch out, because before you know it, you may find yourself back down in the basement aimlessly sorting mail.

The misconception in Christianity that we can attain higher levels of faith is born out of a fear of failure. We don’t like to back-slide, to spurn our commitments and indulge in selfishness. So, we convince ourselves that there is some Rubicon within the Christian life – a point of no return that, if we can live obediently enough to reach it and cross it, we will never have to return to the laborious, unpredictable days of unripe belief.

"Actually, the crossing of the Rubicon signaled the start of conflict, not the end of it." - the Metaphor Police

“Actually, the crossing of the Rubicon signaled the start of conflict, not the end of it.” – the Metaphor Police

Of course, this belief drags several problems along with it. The first is that we can end up lying to ourselves about our spiritual health. If I believe in higher levels of the Christian life where fledgling struggles and beginner’s temptations no longer affect me, when those trials inevitably rear their heads, I may feel I need to pretend I’m not influenced by them. And, if I don’t end up lying to myself, then another problem I may encounter is self-devaluation. I will take my inevitable missteps and failures as proof that I’m incapable of attaining the higher levels, and will begin to hate myself (rather than hating only my sinful nature). Christians who continually deprecate themselves in their prayers and testimonies will find it very hard to accept the unconditional love of God.

But sometimes the biggest problem for people who believe faith is like a corporate ladder is that they can develop a sense of entitlement. If I am disciplined and obedient (to whatever predetermined extent), I deserve ______ from God. Some will fill that blank with recognition. Others, with particular blessings. Whatever it is, they unwittingly make God’s provision obligatory.

Several years ago, I found myself caught up in the throes of this third problem. So certain was I in the foolproof formula of a traditional quiet time that I truly believed my keeping it would rocket me upward into the stratospheres and ionospheres of faith. Maybe not right away – rocket boosters have to burn for a few moments before you see movement – but once I got going, “Houston, we have liftoff.”

"Corporations, the Rubicon, space travel! C’mon, Bo, pick a metaphor and stick with it!"

“Corporations, the Rubicon, space travel! C’mon, Bo, pick a metaphor and stick with it!”

But that feeling of incompetence continued, and after weeks and even months of seeing little difference in my attitudes and actions, I began to get angry. Angry at myself, but also angry at God. Couldn’t he see that I was trying? Didn’t he realize I was attempting to discipline myself? Why was he still standing far off? I was the lost son returning home – why wasn’t he running out to embrace me? Where was the party? Where was the fatted calf?

The only thing I knew to do, and was counseled to do by various church leaders, was to keep at it. God would show up, eventually. Read those Psalms, they told me; those folks had to wait on God, too, and they kept right on praying and praising.

The über-faithful could also rock a harp.

The über-faithful could also rock a harp.

And so, for years, I believed that strict adherence to a specific quiet time method would eventually result in some kind of breakthrough. I would wake up one day and my prayers would flow like a mountain river, the words of 1st Chronicles would suddenly become life-giving, and every sentence I wrote in my journal would be more profound than the last. Life itself would reverberate with meaning. Things would finally be easier. I would have reached that corner office, and all my present struggles and feelings of discontent would seem so small, so very, very far away. But that breakthrough never came.

Why?

Because my daily quiet time had morphed into devotion to a system rather than devotion to a Savior.

Without meaning to, I had become a Pharisee.

I really should grow a beard.

I really should grow a beard.

The if-you-will-do-this-then-God-will-do-that system of thought comes up time and again in Scripture, and time and again people get it wrong – the most famous example being the Pharisees of first-century Judaism. These people were the most influential sect of teachers, scribes and lawyers, and the ones who seemed to clash most often with Jesus. We often criticize the Pharisees for being legalistic and close-minded, and yet they appear to be the closest comparison to Christians in America today. In reality, among the people of the first-century, Pharisees were the most faithful students of the Scriptures. They were devoted to prayer and theological reflection, and they were adamant about the importance of an obedient lifestyle. Some of the most famous and gifted rabbis ever to arise in early Judaism were Pharisees.

The Pharisees believed strongly in the if/then promises of the Torah, and were careful to faithfully keep the “ifs” so that God might follow through with the “thens.” Several times, Jesus pointed out the main problem with this. The Pharisees had lost sight of the goodness of God, particularly the fact that he was even willing to offer promises to human beings at all. In so doing, Jesus informed them that they had fallen out of a real relationship with the God they so desired to please.

The irony was that the Scriptures – which they knew better than anyone due to such rigid devotional methods – are replete with reminders that what God is after is not a process, but a posture. In Psalm 51, David prays, “For you will not delight in sacrifice, or I would give it; you will not be pleased with a burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.” Long before Jesus came on the scene, the prophet Hosea bore witness to a sacrificial/devotional system that had lost all meaning, stating the people’s worship was “like the morning mist, like the early dew that disappears,” to which God responds, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings.” In Matthew 9, Jesus tells the Pharisees they ought to take another look at Hosea, because no matter how ironclad the process might be, transformation is impossible without the right posture.

"Did that guy just give us a homework assignment?"

“Did that guy just give us a homework assignment?”

The Pharisees believed that God owed them something – that their status as God’s chosen people was not only based in history, but also sustained by their faithful keeping of the Torah. They believed their rigid loyalty to the Law of Moses had caused them to attain the higher levels. And so, they lived as if they resided in those corner offices of the faith. Jesus was disgusted with this sense of entitlement, as well as the fact that the Pharisees so often made life difficult for the mailroom clerks and custodians just trying to make ends meet spiritually. Those who had seemingly mastered obedience made no effort to help others with it.

There is no such thing as becoming “a better Christian.” And when it comes to quiet times, the most dangerous thing you can do is become a slave to a formula, believing dogged tenacity will accomplish the kind of spiritual growth you’re hoping for.

I will continue this series next week with an argument for why the traditional formula itself is faulty. However, may we be mindful of our motivations when we seek communion with God. In the same spirit as the Teacher’s advice regarding worship in Ecclesiastes 5, may we “draw near to listen rather than to offer the sacrifice of fools.”

Are You Doing Someone Else’s Quiet Time?

This is the second post in a five-part series on the problems with keeping a personal, daily “quiet time.”

We started doing something at my church recently that I think is incredibly important.

No, not that.

No, not that.

We enhanced our process for new members, not by adding more prerequisites to being one, but by inviting them to a carefully designed gathering in which we encourage them to recognize how their individuality should influence where and how they get involved in the church.

Some people know how to say no. But many others do not, and when ministers and lay leaders start getting desperate to fill spots in their volunteer base, we’re rarely concerned with whether or not someone is particularly gifted for those jobs.

"It's okay if you can't sing. We usually just move our lips while the tech guys play something from Hillsong."

“It’s okay if you can’t sing. We usually just move our lips while the tech guys play something from Hillsong.”

Unfortunately, that’s no way to find fulfillment as a church member. To be a disciple of Jesus means to surrender our lives in worship and service of our Savior. But it does not mean we are supposed to conform to one particular way of living out our devotion. God designed you in a unique way, with a compilation of emotions, inclinations, abilities, and interests that are all your own. Why would he want you to neglect this design plan in your relationship with him? If you want to be unhappy in your church, serve on a committee or in a ministry that does not utilize your gifts or jive with your personality.

The same is true for your method of quiet time with God.

When people come to me for advice because they feel dissatisfied or frustrated with their walk with Christ, the first question I ask is, “Are you attempting anything that isn’t you?”

"Well, Jim, for starters, it says here this translation is in the Transylvanian Saxon dialect of Romania, and you've never even traveled outside of Indiana."

“Well, Jim, for starters, it says here this translation is in the Transylvanian Saxon dialect of Romania, and you’ve never even traveled outside of Indiana.”

It took a long time for me to accept this as truth, but after years of discontent with the traditional quiet time formula handed down to me by my Sunday School teachers and youth camp counselors, I finally realized that what bothered me most was that the method didn’t stimulate my heart and mind according to the unique way God made me.

We’re all wired in a one-of-a-kind way. Sure, there are common practices and activities that the majority of us enjoy, and there are also common disciplines every Christian is expected to engage, but God is well aware that no two people are exactly alike. He designed us that way. We have differing personalities, our minds develop differently and at a variety of paces and speeds, and some things that interest you will never fascinate me. Moreover, we also grasp concepts in diverse ways, according to different stimuli, and a particular truth might not resonate with me at the same time or in the same way that it does with you, based on the variety of emotions, passions, and experiences we bring to the table.

Now, let’s take the truth about individuality to its logical conclusion. If it is true that God uniquely creates each person, then it is also true that every relationship between two people is also unique.

Checkmate.

Checkmate.

Anybody who has read a book on relationships can tell you that while some advice might have been helpful to his or her own relationship, not everything in the book was applicable. That’s because there is no perfect formula to a successful relationship. A relationship is not a binding contract; it’s a decision of intimacy between two individuals who, whether they are aware of it or not, bring their own ideas, ambitions, ideals and temptations into play. A healthy, successful relationship is an intentional and careful commitment to interact with each other’s idiosyncrasies, rather than denying their influence.

For example, my wife and I have a relationship that is unique to us. One of the things we’re still learning but know is important is not to force one another to speak or act in a way that is contrary to our designs. This doesn’t mean we don’t strive to connect with one another, nor does it mean I don’t adopt certain behaviors that support my wife and give her pleasure. However, pretending to be someone I am not is no good for Leigh, and vice versa.

How many times do I have to tell her that doing the dishes isn't my spiritual gift?

How many times do I have to tell her that doing the dishes isn’t my spiritual gift?

Now, if a quiet time is what a Christian does in order to experience a vibrant, intimate, and healthy relationship with God, then it stands to reason that conforming to a certain way of thinking, reading, and praying might not be the most beneficial way to deepen or strengthen that relationship. Just because God is a constant in the equation doesn’t mean each Christian must commune with him the exact same way. One of the most well-known statements of the late Brennan Manning’s is, “God loves you as you are, not as you should be, for no one is as they should be.” If I believe this, then the last thing I would want to do is pretend to be someone I am not in my relationship with God.

I love the looks on people’s faces when I suggest that, given their individual passions and interests, they might consider a solitary hike in the woods to be their quiet time, or gardening, writing poetry, even preparing a meal. Sure, the reading of Scripture is important and should not be neglected, but God is able to move in a million more ways than the standard methods so many of us so often conform to. Rather than slog through a formula that squelches your individuality, why not seek out the methods that stimulate your own peculiar composition?

As we continue in this series, I will cover the biggest dangers of conforming to a formula rather than creating one that works with a person’s God-given uniqueness. Above all, we should always remember that a quiet time should awake one’s soul, not burden it.