I Choose to Live Among

Therefore you have no excuse, O man, every one of you who judges. For in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, practice the very same things. (Romans 2:1, ESV)

Those people are on a dark spiral downward. But if you think that leaves you on the high ground where you can point your finger at others, think again. Every time you criticize someone, you condemn yourself. It takes one to know one. Judgmental criticism of others is a well-known way of escaping detection in your own crimes and misdemeanors. (Romans 2:1, MSG)

You can’t escape Paul. At some point, every Christian must set aside self-righteousness and drink Paul’s writing, which can be akin to slurping down pickle juice. The sharp bitterness sends shivers through the whole body—and yet hydrates from the inside out (which is really what pickle juice does).

The bitterness, however, isn’t from what Paul says exactly; it’s from our reaction. Each word hurts because it’s true. Sometimes he hits our recklessness, and sometimes he hits our legalism, helping us to clean the glass so that we can see clearly.

Far worse, in my mind, is Paul’s refusal to let us gloat or raise ourselves up. Being isolated by my own sense of holiness would be easier. Paul doesn’t even let me close the door.

“Look ‘out there,’” he says. “You see those people? That’s you—each one is just like you. So, get out there and do something.”

It’s an uncomfortable feeling, trying to understand how to be like Christ. I want to pursue Him with all I am, but He keeps going out where the tax collectors and sinners are—people like me. The only difference is that I’m tagging along; they’re not yet.

Jesus went to the synagogue—and then took the synagogue to the people who needed it most. I didn’t meet Him in a church—or a Bible study or a church event. I met Him where Matthew did: in the middle of my sin.

Some sinners come running to steeples. Some sinners come running to Jesus in the streets.


Fury Signifying Not Much

I cringe at the image. Cardboard signs, trite T-shirt slogans, and scowling faces brighten news sites under titles proclaiming the indispensable work of the Christian church: “Christians Boycott over Holiday Greeting” and “Religious Sharks Eat Their Own over ‘Xmas.’” (I might have made up that last one.)

Here are thousands of believers—mobilized, verbal, passionate—but about grass and flowers (1 Peter 1:24). Fury comes gushing out for those who dare make Christmas less than what it “should” be, which I assume alludes to an idealized ‘50s version. But the fury simply sustains the caricature of what Christians really do.

If we want a real Christmas, perhaps we should all sleep in caves with cuddly cows and run for our lives from lunatic kings. That’s as real as it gets. Christmas has never meant anything to those not participating in the real why—notice, for example, that the Jewish leaders didn’t go check in Bethlehem even after they told the wise men where to look. Expecting the world to celebrate the “right way” is not realistic.

Something about all this holiday angst reminds me of Daniel, who was enslaved as a boy to be raised under a pagan system. Not only did he serve a non-Christian king, he learned pagan arts, literature, and modes of operation—even his changed name pointed to a false god. His ground-shaking protest? Praying three times a day.

Or take a gander at David. God had made him king, but he never used that title as a source of hubris while someone else sat on the throne. Rather, he tried serving Saul before nearly becoming a kosher shish kebab and refused to attack him when given the chance.

When Herod lopped off the head of Jesus’s cousin, he didn’t spend His energy railing against the king, boycotting, or posting a flaming attack on the despot’s Facebook page. Instead, he mourned and got back to what He loved to do: teach the gospel and help people (Matthew 14:1-14).

If we want people to know what Christmas and, more importantly, Easter mean, jumping up and down and screaming won’t do much. Maybe we should try living those days out instead—and not worrying about which department store misses the mark we think they should keep.

Prayer and mourning make waves—even angry outbursts work on occasion. Really, Jesus would have been justified in showing quite a bit more anger than a whip and some flipped tables, but He spent too much time teaching and showing the gospel.

In other words, if someone refuses to say “Merry Christmas” or uses the diabolical “Xmas,” it’d be great if Christians were too busy serving, loving, and sharing some good news to notice. Yeah, that’s my idealized Christmas.


My Movie Problem

I love and hate movies.

Story is my language, my natural medium, the way I understand the world. Give me a long treatise on justification, and I’ll probably listen. Tell me a story to explain it, and I’ll go the whole way. Story, after all, makes the complex comprehensible (little wonder Jesus was so fond of them). Establishing something concrete, something I can grip in my hands, makes all the difference to my brain.

The bad part, on the other hand, is that my brain doesn’t want to let go. Days later it’s busy boring through the plot, imagery, metaphors, and characters. And if there’s even a hint of an “inspired by a true story,” you know I’ll be digging up the facts to compare. The process is so annoying that I love it. (My wife may disagree after our [read: my] post-movie, nighttime ramble-fests.)

I’ve learned all this is supposed to be common to my personality profile (INFJ, for those keeping score). But let’s put that aside and dive deeper: stories stick; narrative captures the mind and weasels down into the heart.

Genesis could have simply said this: God created. The gospels could have been boiled down to the essentials: Jesus came, lived, died for us, and rose again. But that doesn’t do it for us—we rational, emotional creatures with deep spiritual needs. We need God to give us the grand, sweeping narrative, the gritty side of humanity, the brutal death. We need hooks.

If you preach (or write or disciple or teach), go below the facts and rip out the story. Give people something to chew on and don’t just tell them what the Greek says. The Bible’s a story—an amazing story of God saving humanity through Christ. It’s our story.

Grab hold of that wonder and communicate it. Give people like me something to wrestle with for days (and to talk about with family for weeks).

Waffles or Pancakes? Yes!

In human terms, you have to choose between the waffles and the pancakes. You can’t have both (at least, in my imaginary restaurant … just go with me here). We live an either/or existence of mutually exclusive decisions. Either an iPhone or an Android. Either a bowl cut or a flat top. And no matter how hard we try, two objects can’t be squeezed into the same spot. Your sofa and your chair both can’t fit under the window. One gets the dark corner.

Either/or … that’s us. And that’s what makes it so hard for some people to accept God.

Why? God works with both/and (or even both/and/and). Love or wrath? Yes. Grace or justice? Yes. Past, present, or future? Yes. One God or Trinity? Yes.

In fact, Jesus is the ultimate cosmic dissonance from our perspective. Is He God? Yes. Is He human? Yes. Which one? Both. That’s not something we can grasp from our everyday lives (where sofas and chairs need two distinct locations). One or the other might be easier for us to put into a tidy bin under our beds, but God doesn’t work with our tidiness.

Either/or makes sense for breakfast foods, but our experience under the sun doesn’t necessarily explain the fullness of what’s “out there.”

Food for thought.