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Who Is Welcome

Surely Jesus believed that prostitutes were sinners, yet he welcomed them to his table. He ate and drank with them.

Surely Jesus understood that tax collectors betrayed their countrymen by helping the brutal Roman occupiers in his homeland, yet he welcomed tax collectors to his table as well.

Surely Jesus knew that religious hypocrites misrepresented Yahweh’s heart toward his people and laid heavy burdens on God’s people, yet he dined with them and invited them to participate in his Father’s kingdom.

Surely Jesus saw first-hand Peter’s temper, James and John’s foolish nationalism, even Judas’ tortured and divided motivations, yet he broke bread with each one of them, sharing his very blood and body.

Jesus welcomed everyone to his table. He welcomed the clueless and the cruel. He engaged the outcast and the insider. He shared his life with his enemies because he came to turn enemies into family. His method was startling: he ate and drank with them. Wherever Jesus ate, it was his table. He turned water into wine and transformed ritual into everlasting love.

He turned no one away from his table.

He gave no one a pass on his or her rebellion or self-destructive ways. The sinless perfect representative of God’s heart never lowered his standards or winked at injustice. Still, around his table everyone was welcome. He was no lightweight: if a moment called for brutal honestly, he fulfilled that need as well. He did not negotiate, he fellowshipped.

He set an example for us to follow. On his way to the cross he stopped to eat and drink each day, and each day he welcomed his enemies to his table. At the cross, he did what only he could do. At the table, he demonstrated what we can do.

He refused to let disagreement separate him from others. Jesus possessed the proper opinions, the right positions, and perfect perspective, but never--not once--did he use his correct standing as a reason to alienate other people.

Who is welcome at your table?

Discover True Goodness

Goodness is a fruit of the Spirit, the by-product of a gentle, godly nurturing, years in the making. And because the goodness of God is slow-cooked into our being, when we expect to automatically carry our own earthbound ideas of goodness into our life with Jesus, we are actually expecting his ways to conform to ours.

Jesus carefully separated himself from our idea of goodness. When a young man of substance and power tried to address Jesus politely, addressing him as “Good Teacher,” the Lord shot back, “Why do you call me good? No one is good—except God alone.” Certainly the young man was correct, Jesus was (and is) the Good Teacher, yet Jesus immediately drew a distinction between an earth-bound view of goodness and a godly one.

Who could be against goodness? I’m totally in favor of goodness—right up until goodness sits on the throne and demands worship. Beware the goodness that takes the crown from the King of kings. Beware the goodness of this age, and the wisdom of this age that tries to present a goodness divorced from the humility of worship, instruction, or servanthood. In short, beware when goodness masquerades as God.

The living God is dangerously good. We have made our own ideas of goodness safe and comfortable. The dangerous goodness of God cuts across our culturally based versions of “good.” It’s not about your version of good, or mine. The wisdom of this age wants to fashion a goodness after its own image, a safe goodness of which we are the judge. Our ideas of goodness may lead us to our doom. When we demand a god who conforms to our view of good and evil, we have made him over in our image.

We are, in fact, afraid of Absolute Goodness. When humankind saw True Goodness among us, we nailed him to the cross. We employed the powers of government and religion in a vain attempt to muzzle him and continue ordering the world after our own ideas of what is right.

But what is right? What is good? Pilate asked Jesus “What is truth?” In the last hundred years the wisdom of this age has answered that question by concluding there is no such thing. We have moved beyond the question of truth, and we are stuck today on “What is good?” Each of us should tremble if we reach the same result as we did with truth—that we should be be left to choose our own ideas of good. The goodness of this world is the promise that we will become like God—all we need is the knowledge of good and evil (never mind what shortcuts we take, or the source of this knowledge).

Jesus demonstrates goodness through his humility: that the human mind should bow before the glory of God. Goodness is the fruit of walking with the Master of Life, of learning his heart, gaining his mind, and making room for his Spirit. We would be wise to give up our definitions of goodness until his work takes root in us.

And this is just the start, because the same is true for each fruit of the Spirit. If we let him, the Spirit will redefine love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, (and goodness) faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. We will discover heaven’s definitions of each good thing.




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Harbingers of the Age to Come

Last week my wife, daughter and I watched the Perseid meteor shower, and as an added bonus we gawked at the Milky Way glowing in the Southern night sky. Together, we stood awed by creation. Before the night ended we revisited the Psalm, The heavens declare the glory of God;
 the skies proclaim the work of his hands.

Stars, mountains, plains, wind, sea and sky: each of them has the power to ravish our hearts and mess with our minds. It’s no less true simply because everyone knows it: all creation sings the greatness and God’s glory. 
 Even our fallen creation—a world beset by storm or drought—reflects the mind-numbing image of the infinite Creator-God. It doesn’t matter if nature is ‘red in tooth and claw’ because through this veil of sin-afflicted creation we catch glimpses of eternity. What we see staggers our footing.

Yet today I’m wondering about something beyond creation. If nature reflects the glory of God, how much more should the new creation?

The day will come when all creation is restored to magnificence. Revelation describes a paradise-city, given directly from God, occupying the space we call “Earth.” Lions lie down with lambs. The tree of life bears fruit in every season, with leaves that heal the nations. The river of God flows to the ends of the earth. It sounds amazing, doesn’t it? Creation will be so glorious every atom and molecule will itself sing the praises of God.

If only there were some way the glory of that future world, restored and redeemed, empowered with resurrection life, could declare the glory of God in this present age. If only.
 But wait: I seem to recall something about a new creation among us, in the here and now. Let’s see . . . it’s here somewhere (just a moment) ah! Here it is:

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! (2 Corinthian 5:17)

Here is an amazing fact: the citizens of the restored earth (which is not yet revealed) are being born now. Born from above. And even more staggering: we are the glory of the future age made manifest now. 
Is it possible that the majesty of the age to come could be exhibited in us, now? Paul wrote these words to a rag-tag group of believers in the City of Corinth. He was not being poetic. He was no inspirational speaker. He worked his way up to the statement above in the four chapters before:

In chapter one he reveals that whatever comfort he has received is his to give to others (vs. 3-7). In the age to come God himself comforts his people; in this present age his new-creation people are here now to comfort others.

In chapter two Paul describes an aroma of the age to come (vs. 14-16) To some it smells lovely, to others it is the stench of death—but its source is not of this age.

In chapter three he reminds us that the Old Covenant was capable of generating a visible glow on Moses' face. The New Covenant is capable of an even greater impact on our physical bodies (vs. 12-18).

In chapter four we discover that we are vessels of an “all-surpassing power” (vs. 7-12). These are the powers of the age to come, which we steward in jars of clay, leaking bits of eternity into this present age.

Paul is trying to say that we are the harbingers of the age to come. The cracked and flawed containers so characteristic of the fading glory of fallen creation are revealing the glory of a new creation. It’s not simply a theological position: Paul is describing a reality. Followers of Jesus carry resurrection-life within them. That resurrection-life is given by God at the new birth to glow through us, radiate from us, even fill the room with a fragrance of flowers from paradise. We must choose whether these are mere metaphors or if Paul is describing the reality of new creation, a new creation implanted within us when we are born from above. 
(Would it be too mystical for me to tell you I’ve met followers of Jesus who quite literally glow with his glory and smell of eternity? I have.) My contact with such believers stirs in me the desire to live as if the age to come could be manifested in my body as well. They radiate the age to come; I am filled with yearning for a homeland I've yet to see.

Poet John Mark McMillan expresses the same desire:

I will be Your lamp if You will pour the oil

If You light the incense, I will be Your censer

I will be Your tabernacle if You will be my ark

I will be Your body if You will be my heart

Perhaps we could pray together: “Let it come through me, because I am a part of the new creation.” 



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The Limits of Doubt: 6 Considerations

Trends come and trends go. One of the advantages of middle age is watching them go. Take Christian fashion for example: you can recognize a Christian hipster these days by their vintage jackets, skinny jeans, iPhone 6’s, and their in-your-face doubt.

Doubt is all the rage. Articulate and earnest Christians are shedding the fashions of their predecessors by posting their doubts online and in print. Thoughtful folks not only wrestle with the faith as they received it, but also chronicle their journey of doubt via blogs, videos, and Twitter. It seems to me doubt has become a badge of authenticity among 20 and 30-somethings. Is doubt the new mark of a follower of Jesus?

It’s worth noting that doubt belongs in the Christian story. Gospel accounts of the resurrection include the doubts of Jesus’ closest followers. As noted in a previous post, doubt does not--and should not--exclude us from worship. Jesus bridged the gulf of open rebellion and sin in order to restore relationship with humanity; a little thing like doubt certainly won’t hold him back. The earliest Christian community followed Jesus’ example and did not reject those who struggled to believe (John 20: 24-31 is an excellent example). Nor can I blame others for expressing their doubts. Honesty trumps mindless conformity. The demand for agreement on certain points of doctrine has damaged people’s faith as much as the open confession of uncertainty.

Yet there are problems with the popularity of doubt in our day. The rush to embrace doubt may be a needed correction within some quarters of Christianity, but it comes with a 
price. I’d like to suggest six considerations worth keeping on the front burner along side the current dish of doubt simmering today.

Doubt can be the evidence of the Holy Spirit at work. In every generation the essentials of faith become polluted with the non-essentials of Christian culture. Perhaps the Holy Spirit is moving in a new generation of believers to question whether every detail of Evangelical faith is actually required by God. In every age religious expressions are infused with political, social, and intellectual agendas that have no real bearing on the Kingdom of God--we just like to think they do!

Never trust anyone who hasn’t wrestled with doubt. The person who receives the words of Jesus without any questions is someone who hasn’t really heard the words of Jesus. The Son of God is an equal-opportunity offender. Saul of Tarsus was a first-rate Jewish scholar who believed he was doing God’s work by persecuting Christians. After meeting Jesus on the road to Damascus he spent three days, blind and alone, reconsidering everything he previously believed to be God’s will. If Jesus is real, everything changes.

Don’t confuse doubt with seeking. We seek in order to find; sometimes we doubt in order to avoid seeking. Jesus appeared to Thomas because his doubts were reasonable; Thomas responded with the declaration, “my Lord and my God.” God invites us to seek--even to question--yet he assures us he can be found. The witness of scripture and of the centuries is that God reveals himself to those who seek him. Too many people consider doubt an impartial quality, as if doubt is somehow above the fight. Instead, doubt is a method, and like all methods it has its limits. Doubt is a useful tool, but a terrible destination.

Doubt is not the opposite of faith. In his useful book, God in the Dark, Os Guinness points out that unbelief is the opposite of faith. Unbelief is the willful choice to not believe even after the questions have been answered. Doubt can spring from honesty or confusion; unbelief springs from the will. In the final analysis, even our intellect is called to obey.

My doubts are my doubts--they don’t have to be yours. Sometimes the religious establishment can be guilty of a stifling orthodoxy. It’s equally true that the next generation can be guilty of demanding uncertainty of others. I might think your faith is nothing more than Christian superstition but that does not mean I’m called to change your mind. I suspect God is more interested in whether we play nice together than whether we all sign the same creed.

The object of faith is a Person, not a proposition. For twenty-five years I’ve loved my wife. After twenty-five years I don’t pretend to understand her! How much more the unfathomable Creator? The book of Job reveals the essence of faith is relationship, not precept. I may doubt my understanding of God, but I trust I will never doubt him.

He is my destination, and I hope my heart is like St. Augustine's, "You have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until we find ourselves in you." Peace. 



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Judgment Day

The only people looking forward to Judgment Day are the crazy people, right? Perhaps it depends on how well you know the Judge. Our popular notions of Judgment Day—and God’s judgment—are filled with apocalyptic trembling: floods, earthquakes, fire and brimstone. God’s coming back, and he’s angry! Jesus, too: he came to seek and save the lost, but that was the first time—watch out for his second time around. It doesn't quite add up, does it?

It has not always been so, nor is it even so everywhere today. The oppressed cry out for deliverance because the Day of Judgment brings the Deliverer. In C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, the creatures of Narnia comfort themselves with the chant,

Wrong will become right, when Aslan comes in sight.

At the sound of his roar, sorrows will be no more

When he bares his teeth, winter meets its death

And when he shakes his mane, we shall have spring again. 

Nor did Lewis create this hope. He got it from the Old Testament prophets, who eagerly awaited “the great and terrible day of the Lord.” Even the religious folk in Jesus’ day yearned for the deliverance of God, even if it was for the wrong reasons.

And what about you? Is the return of Jesus an event to be feared, celebrated, or both? And most importantly: why do you feel the way you do? Since I asked you, I should probably share my biases with you up front. I have at least three:

There is a Judge, and there is justice. Our modern values resist these very ideas. We see the guilty go free. We watch the poor suffer. Westerners decry a CEO’s lavish compensation as “unfair” even while we ourselves live like first world kings, oblivious toward third world realities. We are daily tempted toward cynicism and hopelessness. People of faith should know better. Abraham, the father faith, argued with God asking, “Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?” Abraham cried mercy over Sodom and Gomorrah, because he trusted in the God’s judgment. Human history has a destination, and at the end of the road there sits a Judge.

I trust the Judge. Our workaday images of courtrooms and judges are cluttered with foolish legal distinctions, human drama, and corruption. The Great Judge is nothing like our childish games. In that day, when God puts on the robes of judgment, our opinions of law and justice will be seen for the pale imitations of small minds that they are. There’s no getting around it, the Creator of the Universe is the Great Judge of all humanity, and all human history. He not only has the right and the power to be judge, he has the knowledge and wisdom as well.

Mercy triumphs over judgment. I trust the Judge because the only Person in the universe with a true right to judge is the same One who also longs to say, "Well done, Good and faithful servant, enter into the joy of your Master." What’s more, it’s within my reach to be like Him and show mercy. When we display humility, kindness, and mercy, we reflect God’s image. The Judge loves mercy; it’s his default position. If the Old Testament could be said to have a mantra, it might be “His loving kindness endures forever.” The very Hebrew word for loving kindness, chesed, has been rendered as love, faithful love, loving kindness, mercy, grace, and compassion. Why choose? I think chesed can mean all of them at once.

These are my biases. And convinced as I am that God is deeply, powerfully good, I yet shudder at the notion of my personal moments before the Judge, and the great and terrible day of the Lord, whenever it may come.

Aslan will indeed set things right; yet it will shake the very foundations of our fallen world. I look forward to judgment as I might look forward to serious surgery: a necessary goodness that still causes me to tremble. In the end, all I can do is trust the Great Physician.




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