Who is Your “And”?

Around ten years ago, I picked up two prostitutes at a gas station. Reading that, I’m sure you have certain expectations about my reasons for doing so. But that wasn’t it.

For one thing, naiveté still had me rather tightly in those days. The realization of whom I had picked up dawned on me only halfway to their hotel. You see, I thought they were two women who’d simply been stranded after a night out. Never mind they were wearing short skirts, deep-cut tops, and more makeup than should be possible. I wanted to be a hero. I saw that as my shot.

The realization came as we talked—how they got there in particular. What I hadn’t bargained for was hearing about the person behind the label. Prostitutes are often defined by their job, not by their humanity. Before that car ride, I’d categorized a whole segment of the population into something almost less than human.

So it was with tax collectors in Jesus’ day. They weren’t human—they were tax collectors. They weren’t even sinners. They had their own special category beyond mere sinner: sinners and tax collectors (or flipped in most cases). Perhaps Matthew—one of those worse-than-sinners—even believed that himself.

But Jesus gave him the chance to follow—something the religious people would never have done. Jesus saw all humans equally worthy of death—and all worthy of love.

“Follow me.” Those were probably the sweetest words Matthew had ever heard. He got so excited he threw a party so that other “sinners and tax collectors” could meet Jesus. In fact, God used an “and” (a tax collector) to write a book of the Bible.

Each of us has an “and” (or more than one), a class or group we consider the worst offenders, those too evil to love or minister to. The American church in particular has focused on homosexuals as the “and.” And strippers. And legalists. And … you get the point. Put simply, we use the and to separate ourselves—to make ourselves distinct.

Jesus came to call those who realized they were sick. Most people do, but they don’t always hear that Jesus wants them to follow Him.

I’d love to end this post by revealing how I told the two women I picked up all this—how I showed them the Jesus who loves them. But I didn’t. At that point, I had no idea how sick I was. That came later. Instead, I dropped them off and drove home in shock. They’d ruined how I thought life worked.


Give It Up

It’s easy to trust easy chairs. You ease, flop, or drop into the cozy stuffing without worrying about much from this living room throne. It’s a chair, and it does what it’s supposed to do. You trust it to be comfortable and there.

Rarely do we trust God like that, though.

We say we do, of course, but we live like we don’t. God says to help others, and we do—when we have a bit extra to give. But we rarely suffer or give something up to do so. We meet our own needs first, and then we see what’s left in the bottom of our pockets for the family living in a tent by the interstate (and, yeah, they live there).

Jesus healed on the way to healing, saved when He was exhausted, and made a sizable blood donation. He didn’t give the leftovers; He gave it all. We may not be Him, but we are supposed to be like Him.

If you’ve received a call, did you count the cost, consider it too high, and find something else to do? Jesus left no room for shuffling after Him at our own pace, traipsing along as we wish. Not even if the excuse sounds great to others.

Give it up—whatever has been holding you back from the call—even if it hurts. Only then can you honestly say, “To live is Christ.”

Not Knowing I Was Dead

Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy Scriptures, (Romans 1:1-2, ESV)

In my apartment building, having a dog proves challenging, having a small dog even more so. Since she refuses to learn how to use and flush a toilet, we’re forced to slap the leash on, carry her down three flights of stairs, and hustle her off to a small patch of ground dedicated to doggy calls. Everything else is concrete—and I do mean everything.

In the past, I did my best to avoid actual human contact—other than the practiced smile, jerky nod, and occasional mumbled phrase. I’m introverted, I would think to myself. That was enough of an excuse for me. Plus, most of the other people in the apartment building seemed happy enough that I had the same disposition as them. Thus, the trip to the small patch of dirt involved much hustle and avoidance, a carefully orchestrated dash.

Then, it happened—well, he happened. You know the type of guy I mean. He was not interested in my attempts at momentary eye flicking in his direction or the head turn away from him. He didn’t care about body language. He had a mission, and that mission meant speaking with me—on purpose.

After a few moments of small talk, this man from Africa hit me with it: he asked if I knew Jesus. My first thought, of course, was one of indignation. How could he not know that I followed Christ? How could he not know that I worked on a Christian website as an editor? How could he miss what had to be so obvious?

None of that came out. Instead, I calmly explained to him that I was serious about my faith—serious enough to avoid contact with anyone in my apartment complex or to share Christ or to mention anything about Jesus whatsoever outside of my circle of Christian friends. See, that’s serious.

And that compared completely favorably to this guy’s story. After all, he had felt the call of God, hopped on a plane from Africa to America with no place to stay or money, and had been publically sharing his faith with every person he met as a missionary. He lived day to day on the grace of God with all his needs met exactly when they needed to be. He preached, prayed, loved, suffered, all for the glory of God.

What impacted me the most that day is that this faithful brother was called from Africa to America—the very place where I, a Christ follower, live. Perhaps God wanted to shame me for my apathy and my fear. Perhaps He wanted to encourage me. Either way, I realized out there on that tiny patch of dirt how dead I’d been: if I’d been set apart by and for the gospel of God, I had no choice but to share that.

You don’t realize you’re spiritually dead and unfruitful until you see it for yourself. I saw my own death with the help of a brother from Africa. Maybe that’s something you need to realize too.

Mission Trip to America

In the deep shadows of decrepit buildings, ruins of the past, city-dwellers scurry across a bridge built by the people who lived here over a hundred years ago.  The missionaries survey the faces of the indigenous people, each scarred by a life lived hard. Those sent to this place pray for the Holy Spirit to empower them, to give them the words, to help them love like Christ. They’ve studied this culture, and they know how to relate to the hurting, how to share the power of the gospel with them.

They are sojourners without ever boarding a plane. You see, these are American missionaries to America, fellow citizens who know they need not travel anywhere to obey Christ’s command.

My whole perspective changed several months ago when I met someone who had traveled from Africa to share Jesus. Here—he came to my city to share the gospel—he traveled thousands of miles to the very place where I, a Christ follower, lived. I’ve been so conditioned to think of missions work as something super-spiritual people do in countries without electricity that the notion that someone would see America as a mission field rocked me to the core.

Why did he have to come here if I’m here? If millions of people in this country claim Christ?

But I’ve realized this amazing brother from Africa is right. He lives for Christ here because the American church has not. We rarely believe in the power of the Spirit to convict and to transform and to make the grace of Jesus real. We rarely take that knowledge to the people in the next house over.

Instead, people have to come here from Africa to do what we should be doing. If we want a mission field, the harvest is ripe on Twenty-Second Street and Vine.

Bumper Stickers

I argue with bumper stickers. Well, I suppose you could say that it’s more of an internal debate, but the main issue I have is the seemingly smarmy way a huge issue is boiled down to a single phrase or sentence. The variables get in the way.

Today, however, while trekking home, I came across a cracked white strip with faded red letters, and I simply agreed. Granted, I did not agree in the way the clever writer intended for me to do so. But that’s half the fun.

The single rusted pickup truck in a field of Yarises (Yarii?) proudly displayed:

God is too BIG for ONE religion.

I would change that slightly, I think, to say:

God is too BIG for ANY religion.

Jesus didn’t come to bring religion—the Pharisees had the market cornered. He came to bring freedom through His life, death, and resurrection. He asked us to follow Him, keep His Word tucked away inside our heads, and even travel with some pretty great people in His church.

The writer—and displayer—of the bumper sticker have gotten one key point: God’s bigger than religion. He’s also the only One who can solve our religious problem, our futile attempts to get back to Him on our own. Fixing that problem takes a pretty awesome God doing something pretty amazing. (Yeah, that’s an understatement.)

I pray the person in the pick up realizes they only have so much time to meet this God who’s bigger than religion. The bumper sticker by itself won’t do.

Religion Gets in the Way

Let’s just get this out of the way: religion gets in the way of the gospel. Religion is like the stone rolled in front of the tomb and the seal to make the stone official—both futilely tried to keep Jesus back. Neither worked, of course, but they kept the resurrection tucked away, locked in a darkened space—until grace broke through.

Religion gives us lists such as this:

  • Read your Bible every day.
  • Pray before bed.
  • Don’t do drugs.
  • Don’t miss church.

But grace gives us a list like this:

  • Love the Word from the God who loves us.
  • Love to speak with the God who loves us.
  • Love to live a life pleasing to the God who loves us.
  • Love to hang with people who love the God who loves us.

That’s not a matter of semantics. Rules don’t honor God because rules miss the point of what God did. He finished the work. There’s no work left for us to codify or formulate or figure out. It’s all done.

Grace says Jesus. Let me repeat that: Grace says Jesus. When we know Him, we hunger for the things of God—and we’re filled. When we know Him, we take up our cross, deny what we think matters, and follow what really matters—Him.

Religion never saved anyone and never will. That job is already taken.

Did Somebody Say “Vision”?

I hate biting my cheek. When I do, I get that lump in the side of my mouth, which I inevitably crunch again and again with my molars. I’ll carefully chew through my granola at breakfast, only to hit that stubborn bump again at lunch.

So, would it be a stretch to say that biting my cheek is like vision? Probably, but here’s how that works:

  1. Vision gets in the way. We have plans. We have our desires to do something in our own names. But when God sends vision, it gets in the way of our status quo. Breaking through the boundaries is exactly why God sends vision.
  2. Vision hurts. Giving up on the plans we have for ourselves is a painful process, but that’s only because we cling so tightly to what we think is best for our lives. It’s not, but we cling stubbornly. God is the potter. Would the clay talk back to the potter?
  3. Vision won’t go away. If it’s from God, it sticks. You can chew around it and hope it goes away, but God confronts you with it. The new things? Those belong to Him, after all.

Jonah got a vision to do something amazing. He ran and ended up bitter. Embrace what God calls you to do and do that thing with all your might.