Peter, Jesus, and Church Kids

The story of Peter and Jesus breaks my heart and gives me hope. Peter, like a lot of church kids, was full of promise. Jesus spoke a prophetic word over him, proclaiming that he would become a fisher of men. Peter had several other spiritual high points. When asked who he thought Jesus was, he nailed it: “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God!” Jesus then told Peter he was blessed because the Father had revealed this to him and that upon this confession, he would build His church.

Peter, along with James and John, were on the mountain when Jesus was transfigured into a glorious vision of the triumphant Christ. Peter saw Jesus talking to Moses and Elijah. He knew what it was like to be in the inner circle and to be intimate with God.

These promises and blessings make Peter’s denial of Jesus all the more heartbreaking. He betrayed Jesus with eyes wide-open. He had seen the glory of Jesus, and the Father had blessed him with a revelation of Jesus as the Christ—the Messiah. After Jesus’ arrest, Peter denied Jesus three times. Throughout Scripture saying something three times proves you really mean it and will stand by what you say. Peter’s denials were not a slip of the tongue.

As a church kid and preacher’s kid, I get this. When I chose to sin, it was deliberate—and in the face of God. And like Peter, I was without excuse. My mother and father were the real deal—not perfect, but genuine Christians who lived out the Word of God daily. In them, I found no hypocrisy or meanness to fuel my rebellion. Even worse, for my rebellion at least, I had often experienced the touch and presence of God—holy stuff I could not explain away. Like Peter, I was without excuse when I chose my sin over Jesus.

After he denied Christ the third time, Peter, we are told, went out and wept bitterly. No self-deception or rationalizations could protect Peter’s heart from what he had done. Peter had not only denied who Jesus was, he had denied who he was. To deny Jesus is to deny our true selves—the person God has created and called us to be.

The story of Peter doesn’t end here. In the last chapter of John, we have a story of the resurrected Christ appearing on the shore of Galilee. He once again directs Peter and the other disciples where to cast their nets. They had been fishing all night and caught nothing, but assuming this guy on the shore could see what they couldn’t, they cast their nets one more time. The catch is huge, and Peter knows it is Jesus.

I am sure that there is a danger in reading to much into the disciples fishing all night and getting nothing. But their empty nets speak of the emptiness of life apart from Christ and a life that forsakes God’s call upon our lives. They really were meant to be fishing for men. Only Jesus fills our nets.

When Peter realizes it is Jesus, he throws himself into the sea and makes his way to the shore. He left it to the other disciples to bring in the fish. For those who have denied Jesus and are filled with failure, regret, and shame, the only answer is to throw yourself at Jesus. Peter, once again, left his nets for Jesus. But he also left behind his shame and overwhelming sense of disqualification. The pride that made him boast that he would never deny Jesus was gone. So was the shame of having denied him. He also had left behind all concerns about what the other disciples thought of him—the one that had denied Christ so openly. Only Jesus mattered.

After fixing breakfast for the disciples, Jesus turns to Peter and asks him three time, “Do you love me?” Three times, the same number of times he denied Jesus, Peter declares, “Yes Lord; you know I love you.” Peter was right. He stood before the Son of God who knew his heart. Perhaps Jesus asked the question partly so that Peter would recognize how deeply he loved Jesus.

I am certainly not saying our wild love of Jesus saves us. Our love is only a response to God’s. We are saved by the free gift of salvation. I do believe, however, that a wild throw-yourself-in-the-sea love for Jesus is the best way for the wayward church kid to find his way out of shame and empty nets.

After each of Peter’s declarations of love, Jesus tells Peter to feed or shepherd His sheep. This command was Jesus’ gentle way of restoring Peter to himself and his true calling. It was an invitation for Peter to come home and to be himself.

Almost 29 years ago, a nurse at the San Bernardino County Hospital put a little boy in my arms. He was the baby God had clearly led Teckla and I to adopt. When he opened his eyes, I said to my son, Peter, “Feed my sheep.”

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We Don’t Know

Over the years I have mastered the art of criticizing the Church. I have skills. Come over when you have four or five hours, and I will share my Biblical, historical, and sociological critiques of the Church. I have stories and scars.

But I have discovered a discomfiting truth as I have sought to follow Jesus: He loves the Church, died and rose from the dead to create the Church, and declares the Church to be His Bride. That means I have to love the Church too. I, therefore, must be cautious about slandering God’s people. One way to do that is to admit what I don’t know.

Let me point to three areas where this humility is important. When I first moved back to Myrtle Point, the Church in the city seemed irrelevant and ineffective. Most congregations were small and struggling just to keep the doors open. The churches failed, it seemed, to have any real impact on the city.

Over the years, however, Teckla and I have worked to connect with people in other congregations. Gradually we began to see that in Myrtle Point the Church, as small as it is, was feeding and clothing the poor, helping the addicted, comforting the wounded, offering the hope of Jesus to the lost.  Across the spectrum of theologies, from liberal social justice Christians to Bible-thumping conservatives, God’s people were being light and salt in Myrtle Point.

One day Teckla and I were discussing how dark Myrtle Point would be if you began subtracting all that God’s people do for the community and for individuals. We soon realized how significant and quite wonderful the impact of God’s people was. Often, we fail to see this because many believers live in the silos of their own congregation and have no perch from which to see all the Church is doing. For years, I simply didn’t know.

Teckla and I have better insight only because of relationships with people in other congregations and because of inter-denominational Bible studies we have attended for years. We have also stepped up to help people in the community only to discover we were not alone—other believers were helping the same folks. But for a long time, we didn’t know, and our ignorance made our default setting to be a declaration that the Church in Myrtle Point was doing nothing for the community.  I didn’t know and should have kept my mouth shut. Could the Church do more to be Jesus to others? Of course! This is always true and should always be our goal.

The second area where we must confess ignorance is regarding our local congregation. It is only fair that I have been at the other end of the criticism that the Church isn’t doing anything. I have heard people make this complaint about the little congregation where Teckla and I worship and serve. Because Teckla and I are deeply involved in the ministries of the congregation, we know much of what it does for the community and one another. Even so, we are continually hearing about individual acts of kindness and generosity that we might just as easily never known if not mentioned in passing.

A third area where we don’t know enough to speak is regarding the work of the pastor. From the outside, preaching twice a week for 45 minutes seems like a good gig. We often don’t know about those late-night calls from people in crisis or treks to the hospital. A few weeks ago an intoxicated and suicidal person showed up at our pastor’s house at about 10 p.m. while the pastor was away at his other job as a manager in the lumber mill. I went over to pray with the guy and help the pastor’s wife with a difficult situation. Soon the pastor arrived, and we walked the person over to the church for more prayer. But if I hadn’t been called to come over, I would have never known. I could easily wonder if the pastor does anything for the church from one Sunday to the next. We should also mention that pastors often don’t know all the ministry the congregation does that falls outside the official programs of the church. We just don’t know.

Our ignorance is understandable. The very nature of Christian love and generosity is that it requires personal time and commitment: it is relational. However, this kind of service to the community doesn’t get headlines and often isn’t part of a program with an impressive name. It is people loving people selflessly and is often hidden from view. None of us really know how much of this one-on-one, non-institutional, service is happening in our own congregations—probably more than we think.

We often forget that the church isn’t a building or even the organization. The Church consists of the people—living stones built into a temple for God’s Spirit. If we forget this, we may ignore any work or service that isn’t an official expression of the organization. I was once listening to someone criticize the congregation for not doing enough for the poor in the congregation. Over the years, Teckla and I had helped this person in many ways. The person had a good heart, really, and was grateful for all we had done. However, the person did not see us as the Church or regard anything we had done as the ministry of the church. We didn’t, but both Teckla and I wanted to exclaim, “But we are the Church!” Indeed, the Church is made up of all God’s people, and we simply do not know all the ways individual members of the Body of Christ are impacting the world around them. We don’t know.

What we don’t know should not only make us humble and move us away from reflexive criticism, it should challenge us to see the real difference God’s people are making in the community. It should make us grateful for all the little, daily, and often hidden ways believers are expressing the love of God to those around them.

We don’t know, but we can know more than we do if we open our eyes. And again, we aren’t doing enough, but we should not be blind to all our brothers and sisters in Christ are doing. Humbly affirming what the Church is doing is the best way to encourage her to do more.

Even better is for each us to set an example of selfless and faithful service to others—even if only God ever knows it.





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Anxiety and the Disciplines of Grace

Should a believer who suffers from anxiety and panic attacks medicate or meditate? I don’t know. I know those for whom medication has worked well and those who never feel quite themselves on medication. There is also the danger that the medication for anxiety or depression is treating only the symptoms, not the causes. A kind of middle ground is to use medication to provide enough relief to catch your breath, work on the root causes, and develop nonpharmaceutical approaches to anxiety. Without shame or a sense of defeat, believers battling anxiety should consult with trained professionals and doctors.

However, we should also lay hold of all the spiritual resources God has provided. For those I love who are battling anxiety, I would like to outline some spiritual disciplines that help us defeat anxiety. Everyone’s battle with fear and anxiety is different, so some of these suggestions will help some people more than others. None of this a formula that magically drives anxiety out of our lives. They are disciplines that open us to God’s help by intentional and regular actions.

  1. The discipline of grace. This phrase seems contradictory because God’s grace is given freely without regard to how much self-discipline we have. But being given grace freely and enjoying it freely are not the same thing. Often anxiety feeds off the feeling that everything depends on us being good enough or working hard enough.

    Daily resting in God’s grace and the work Jesus did on the cross can set us free from the hell of never being enough. This means daily thanking God that we are saved by grace, not our works. We don’t have to be good enough for God—He loves us right now. We can take a deep breath of His grace and breathe out all our striving to earn God’s love and salvation. It is ours in Christ Jesus. Whew!

  2. The discipline of adoption. We are especially vulnerable to anxiety when we are young and our identity is still being discovered. It is easy for our identity and our worth to get wrapped up in the how others see us. Believers are called to anchor our identity in what God’s Word declares us to be. We have been adopted as children of God and are now joint-heirs with Christ Jesus (Romans 8)—we are royalty and seated with Christ in heavenly places (Ephesians 2:6). We can walk around like we own the place because in Christ we do!

    Our identity isn’t found in our career or academic success or failure. It is, of course, good to pursue excellence in all we do, but our main call is to love others as God has loved us. We are free to fearlessly love others because God has adopted us and poured out his love in our lives. Daily basking in the spirit of adoption can draw out the poison of anxiety and fear (Romans 8:16).

  3. The discipline of the fear of the Lord. Some who suffer from anxiety simple aren’t being afraid of the right thing. They are paralyzed by the fear of failure or the fear of other people’s opinions when they should be afraid of God. This may seem like an odd cure for anxiety, but it works this way. Caring more about God’s opinion is liberating because God already loves us. He also understands us and looks right into our heart. God, unlike people, is concerned with the intent of our heart, not the perfection of our performance.

    Fearing God frees us from the anxiety produced by perfectionism. I can do my best and offer it up to God in the knowledge that he knows my heart and he will bless my efforts. We are all little boys offering a few loaves and fishes for Jesus to bless and multiply. We give all we have, then rest and trust God to bless. We can live for the applause of heaven instead of the applause of the world.

  4. The discipline of self-control. The need to control everything and failure to control anything are both sources of anxiety. Trusting God’s grace can cure the need to control everything. But we also need the work of God’s Spirit that gives us self-control. Anxiety will feed off our inability to control ourselves and our immediate environment.

    Routines often increase our peace by bringing order to our lives and extending the rule of God over the details of our days. Regular sleep, balanced meals, daily exercise, and a clean house bring a blessing of “shalom” to our homes and our days. It is important not to make achieving this orderly life just another source of anxiety. Since all this involves changing habits, it is best done little by little. It is important to celebrate every bit of progress in these areas and avoid the set-up for failure inherent in an all-or-nothing approach. God helps us. Making my bed in the morning helps too.

  5. The discipline of simplicity and contentment. The ability to enjoy simple pleasures really is a discipline—one that our consumer society actively wars against. Advertisers depend on our discontent to sell us products, so we must actively resist impulse buying in response to the false promise that the right product will satisfy our emptiness. (Ok, I’m back. I drifted off into a day-dream about getting a faster computer for my blogs.) Some say social media has become a fountain of discontent and depression because it invites us to compare our lives unfavorably with the idealized and false images others post. Regularly unplugging from the internet and texting can unplug us from a lot of anxiety.

    Another expression of simplicity is doing the small Godward motions. These are all the little external things we can do that are Godward and that help our hearts move closer to Him. Sometimes I kneel because I need my heart to kneel. I lift my hands because I need my heart and focus to rise toward God. I stop and gives thanks for my lunch because in the middle of the day I need the contentment thanksgiving nourishes.

  6. The discipline of a clear conscience. Being completely surrendered to God’s will often does wonders for a believer’s anxiety. It is hard to be confident in God’s favor and protection when we know there are areas we have made off limits to God. Areas of quiet rebellion steal our peace. Of course, Satan, the enemy of our soul is quick to accuse us and convince us God is about to whack us. It’s all nerve-racking!

    Keeping a clear conscience really combines several disciplines: honesty with God about what we have not surrendered, confession of our rebellion, and obedience to all God has asked of us. All this requires taking time before the Lord asking Him to search our hearts and lives. The Holy Spirit will faithfully show us the disobedience or rebellion that is stealing our peace and disrupting our relationship with God. Again, God is not looking for a perfect performance; He seeks a surrendered heart.

  7. The discipline of God’s presence. The Bible declares that corporately and individually believers are the temple of the Holy Spirit. We are filled with the presence of God. Where we go, God goes. We are never alone. We are never without his strength, wisdom, grace, and power.

    However, we must consciously practice the presence of God and defy the sacred/secular split that the world demands. Religion with its buildings and rituals often reinforces the lie that God is relevant and present only on Sundays and at churches. However, John 17 declares that through the Holy Spirit we can abide in Christ and the Father and Son can dwell in us (v. 23). The reality that we carry in us the very presence of God should empower us to live fearlessly.

Conclusion: Many who battle anxiety will also be helped by the disciplines of silence, solitude, study, and submission. Submission can be especially helpful as it frees us from defending our turf, demanding our rights, and watching for offense. There is both power and peace in the meekness that comes from knowing you are a child of the King and have nothing to prove.

We should also directly ask God for wisdom on how to walk free of fear and anxiety. After asking, we should actually take time before the Lord to listen to anything he says. It is important not to get hyper—spiritual. To handle the anxiety before my graduate oral examinations, I played pinball for an hour. It worked wonders. God’s prescriptions are tailored to us and without terrible side-affects. He who the Son sets free is free indeed.

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The Burden of the Gods

My hatred of religion recently got support from an unexpected source: The Babylonian Creation Epic (Enuma Elish). I find it amazing that in this ancient story of the origin of the gods and man, religion is seen as a burden to man rather than a blessing. In the epic, the god Marduk announces that he will create humans and that “They shall bear the gods’ burden that those may rest.” Humans are then created from the blood of Tiamat who is killed by the other gods. We are then told again, “They imposed the burden of the gods on them!”

From the beginning of time, religion has been a burden and has been at war with genuine relationship with God. Religion is best understood as humankind’s efforts to reach, please, and somehow move God or the gods for our benefit. Religion involves a priesthood, religious hierarchy, temples, money, rituals, and rules. It’s a burden. It is man-made.

The prophet Isaiah captures the heart of the difference between religion and relationship in chapter 46. He says of the people’s idols, “Bel is bowed down, Nebo stoops over; Their images are consigned to the beasts and cattle. The things that you carry are burdensome, A load for a weary beast” (v.1). God then addresses Israel:

Listen to Me, O house of Jacob and all the remnant of Israel,
You who have been borne by Me from Israel,
And have been carried from the womb;
You have been borne by Me from Israel,
Even in your old age, I shall be the same,
I have done it, and shall carry you,
And even to your graying years I shall bear you!
And I shall deliver you
. (v. 3–4 NASB)

A few verses later Isaiah mocks the absurdity of worshipping idols that we make and “Then lift upon the shoulder and carry” (v. 7).  The difference between religion and relationship is the difference between a God who carries you and a god you carry. Of course, it is scary to trust God to carry you. Israel was always trying to wriggle out of God’s arms and back into religion.

In Egypt the Israelites had plenty of opportunities to see just how heavy a burden the gods could be. Egypt had over a thousand gods or names for gods. There was a well-established priesthood with an economic interest in making the burden of the gods even heavier for the average person. Pharaoh’s were worshipped as sons of gods and memorialized by elaborate tombs and pyramids. Up to a point, the magicians and priests of Egypt were even able to match the miracles God did through Moses. As religions go, the Egyptians had an impressive one. As slaves in Egypt, Israel literally carried the burden of the gods.

In contrast is the God of Israel who relentlessly seeks a relationship of trust and faith with Israel. Moses describes a God very different from those of Egypt:

            The Lord your God who goes before you will Himself fight on your behalf,
Just as He did for you in Egypt before your eyes,
And in the wilderness where you saw how the Lord your God carried you,
Just as a man carries his son, in all the ways which you have walked,
Until you came to this place
(Deut. 1:31)

The idea of a God who comes to us, fights for us, and carries us is the opposite of the heavy burden of religion and the gods.

In the gospels, we often see a showdown between relationship with God and religion. Jesus challenges the spirit of religion when he enters a synagogue. Like hawks ready to pounce, the Pharisees wait to see whether he dare heal a man on the sabbath. They had already caught Jesus’ disciples rubbing some grain in their hands and eating it on the Sabbath. He told them, “The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27). In the synagogue Jesus looks at the Pharisees angrily, and then defiantly heals a man’s withered hand. The Pharisees’ response is to conspire with the Herodians on how to destroy Jesus. The spirit of religion is murderous when threatened.  

Before we get too busy congratulating ourselves in not being Pharisees, we must be honest about how easily Christianity can become just another religion—a burden of God instead of gods. Our organizations can become ends in themselves and our ministers a bureaucracy of priests. Scoldings from the pulpit can replace the good news of a God who seeks us, loves us, and desires a relationship with us. If we do good works to get blessed instead of doing good because we are blessed, we are carrying the burden of the gods.

Many believers have drifted from the church because they carry the burden of God and have traded religion for relationship and works for grace. Many have been burnt out and worn out by religion. Too easily we forget that on cross the Jesus took on himself the burden of our sin. Jesus invites us to rest in the salvation and freedom that His grace has given.

We must forever remember the invitation of Jesus, “Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble of heart; and you shall find rest for your souls. For my burden is easy and My load is light.” If our burden is crushing and load too heavy, maybe we are carrying the burden of the gods rather than burden Jesus gives: to love and be loved.

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My Noisy Heart

It is hard to hear the voice of God over the sound of your own heart breaking. When those you love fiercely are self-destructing, how do you silence the fears, disappointment, hurt, and even self-blame?

Love never fails. The noise of our hearts breaking is an echo of God’s heart. But love is not enough. Those who love others deeply often find themselves crying out for wisdom—for the counsel of God–so it is a problem when we can’t hear what God is saying.

Along the Oregon coast, near Yachats and right below Cape Perpetua is a place called Devil’s Churn. It is a long chasm in the volcanic basalt. The waves roll in and then bounce back from the sea cave that goes under Highway 101. The waves coming in crash into waves going out until a butter-colored seafoam is churned. Occasionally tourists fall in and are drowned or smashed against the rocks.

Sometimes I feel like I am in the devil’s churn. The intensity of my love makes me a mess of conflicting emotions. Those who fall into Devil’s Churn are most likely to survive if they catch an out-going wave and make it to open water.  

Sometimes I must pray my way to open water. Old-timers called this praying through. I begin with absolute honesty and tell God all I feel. Next, I pray through some Scriptures—usually Psalms. I pray Scriptures because they rid my emotions of any lies spoken by Satan. For instance, it is perfectly right to be sad over the pain and danger stalking those you love, but it is destructive to surrender to despair. God’s Word, as you pray it, will sanctify the pain and His Spirit will clean the wounds to your heart. God will keep you uninfected with bitterness, resentment, or despair.

Next, I walk on the water. By faith, I speak God’s promises over the situation and people that are breaking my heart. This is nothing fancy—just me telling God stuff he already knows. I let God know how much He loves those folks. I tell Him what wonderful plans He has for them. And so on. When I am done, I feel I am out of the Devil’s Churn.

In the open water I can begin to hear God’s voice and listen to his counsel. I can hear something other than the ventriloquism of my desperate desires putting words in God’s mouth. I am cried out—emptied out and done thrashing about. I am ready to be rescued.

Sometimes God gives me wise counsel for those I love. Usually God talks about other stuff—and ignores my agenda. I have learned to let God set the topic of discussion. On occasion, after my heart grows quiet, God says nothing. We sit on the beach together and watch the sun set—our hearts breaking for those we love.

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Dear Friend,

When you were a little kid playing at the church, I never imagined I would someday be praying for you to kick your heroin addiction. It seems that one year you did a weird church program we had—Caravans or something. It was corny and about twenty years out of date and Nazarene. I just remember Teckla and I trying to be “fun”—something I always find taxing.

I don’t know what happened. Whether something happened at your church or if it was the run-in you had with one of the pastors at our church.  Something embittered you against the church and perhaps against God. You have always been gracious to Teckla and me, but your hurt and anger showed up in the songs you wrote.

What can I say? First, on behalf of any believer who has been unkind or hypocritical, I apologize. Please forgive us. Yea, I see the irony of asking this of someone who may no longer believe in God. But really there is much “Christians” need to be forgiven. I would like to say, “Hey, I’m not like those folks that hurt you!” But I know that on a bad day I could be. So forgive us!

It is, however, also true that you were probably not hurt by Christians who were acting too much like Jesus. My experience is that it is always the opposite—people not acting much like Jesus at all. This point matters a ton. If the problem is people not being enough like Jesus, then moving further from Him isn’t the answer. It is hard to do, but really the wounds of unChrist-like people should make us follow Jesus even closer. Such wounds can, if given to God, deepen our commitment to let our words and hands minister only the grace and healing of Jesus.

I am not saying, as you probably often heard, to take your eyes off people and keep them on God. We need to look most closely at those people who are the “real deal”—genuine followers of Jesus who faithfully express His love. I am sure you know some. We do not have to pretend fake or mean Christians don’t exist; we just have to see them as flawed, struggling people—who like us are loved by God. God is calling them to wholeness just like He is calling us. In the end, it is true that our eyes must be on Jesus—but this a delight, not a denial of reality.

Second, I love you. I have prayed for you a lot over the years. When I imagine you surrendered to Christ and filled with the Holy Spirit, I always see a prophet—someone like Jeremiah in whose bones God’s Word burned. In some of your beautiful blues songs, I hear the aching heart of a prophet. Sometimes after one of your sadder songs, I want to say, “It is time to stop hanging your harp [guitar] on the willows beside the rivers of Babylon. It is time to return from exile.” I still believe God is your heart’s true home. Please come home.

I hate how cliché and worn out important Biblical ideas have become. I am watching a rare snow storm here in Myrtle Point and wish these swirling snowflakes could express the exquisite beauty God offers to those who are born again: cleansing, purity, newness. I have seen the world-weariness in your eyes and heard the despair in your songs. But all my love for you cries  out—there is hope! Change is possible! God brings the dead back to life. He makes all things new.

Most importantly, I know God is there for you because every time I pray for you, I feel the depth of His love for you moving in me. I can feel how God longs to wrap his arms around you—his wandering son. Because of God’s faithful love, not all those who wander are lost.

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Against the Cult of Brokenness

You may have heard of Richard Russell. Last August he killed himself by stealing a Horizon Air plane, doing a few stunts, and then slamming it into a mostly deserted island near Tacoma. Russell had attended the community college where I teach and had been an active Christian in the area. I didn’t know him personally; however, before slamming the plane into the ground, he described himself as “just a broken guy.”

Even before this sad story, I had noticed how often Christians and contemporary Christian music celebrate brokenness. I have knocked around evangelical circles long enough to understand this emphasis. It is, I think, a pendulum swing away from Christian triumphalism that blended the gospel with self-help programs. For a long time, we have foolishly equated success with God’s favor and preached faith as a path for success. When God is presented as a guarantee of success, no believer feels free to be honest about their brokenness. Too often church has made the wounded and broken feel like second-class Christians.

So, in many ways our current emphasis on brokenness is healthy. But here everything depends on how we define brokenness. If we simply mean being humble and honest about our weaknesses and failures, brokenness should be embraced as a prelude to healing and repentance. We are all broken by our sin, and many of us by those who have sinned against us. We need to forgive and be forgiven. And we need to be honest and admit that growing in holiness and wholeness is a process—not making a trip to an altar or being zapped by the Holy Spirit.

Yet, there is a kind of brokenness that kills. The paths to this kind of brokenness are varied, but all end in a kind of despair that slams the door to healing. It creates scar tissue more damaging than the wound. When we celebrate brokenness as an end rather than a step on our journey to wholeness, we are in danger of embracing a brokenness that destroys us. It is, perhaps, the difference between having our pride broken and having our faith broken.

Some years back I confessed to my pastor that I was broken. It was not my pride that was broken; it was my faith. I felt I could go no further with God but was also convinced there was nowhere else to go. I had no relationship with God that could be called personal. I could not hear God saying anything to me personally. Mine was a very dangerous kind of brokenness—one filled with despair. The abyss into which I stared was the emptiness and pointlessness of walking with God. I don’t know, but I suspect, this may have been Richard Russell’s kind of brokenness. It is deadly.

When I spoke to my pastor of being broken, while shedding more than a few tears, I tried to explain that my brokenness wasn’t the good kind. I mangled the idea by saying, “I am broken in the way of not working anymore.” I was blessed to have a pastor that didn’t urge me to embrace my brokenness. Instead he prayed for me and stood by me in love.

I worry about the idea that brokenness needs to be our constant condition as Christians. I especially see a danger if we don’t define brokenness carefully. Yes, we should always walk as humble, dependent, and grateful recipients of God’s abundant grace. But the other kind of brokenness can kill us if we aren’t careful. We must be accurate in our diagnosis.

Many years ago, I foolishly jumped off some playground equipment and hurt my leg. Teckla drove me to the closest little hospital where the doctor on-call asked me a few questions, gave me some pain pills, and sent me home with instructions to have my primary physician to look at it on Monday. After my doctor x-rayed my knee, he said, “Your knee is shattered, you are in danger of blood clots, and need surgery immediately.” I was rushed to the hospital where I had surgery that rebuilt my knee with bone taken from my hip. The first doctor had not recognized how seriously I was hurt.

The wrong diagnosis can kill us. As I confessed my brokenness to the pastor, I realized all of it came from not hearing God’s voice or having any kind of relationship with Him. I desperately needed to return to a genuine relationship with God, not one based just on a set of theological propositions. In all my emptiness, I needed to hear His voice. This was the emergency surgery my brokenness needed. Affirming my brokenness as something inherently spiritual would have been foolish and dangerous.

As humble as it sounds to call the church a community of the broken, by embracing brokenness as our perpetual condition, we diminish the power of God to restore and heal. It is better to testify to God’s healing and the power of His grace to make us whole than to forever declare our brokenness.

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Ari’s Kissing Game

Ari’s lifts his chin and sticks out his lower lip when he wants a goodbye kiss. His mom and dad are loving parents, so he is a kissy kid—well, unless he is punching or headbutting you (Ari is two). When I come home and give Teckla a kiss, Ari wants one too. The funny thing is that after I kiss him, he points to Teckla, indicating I should kiss her again. And then he wants another kiss. Then he again points to Teckla. This is Ari’s kissing game.

Although this is cuter than anyone can imagine, I suspect the game expresses a deeper truth about love and the human heart. We not only long to be loved, but we also long for the people around us to love each other. Thus, Ari’s delight when I kiss Teckla. The other day after I gave him a kiss, he pointed to Teckla and then pointed to my brother Stanley to whom I blew a kiss. Ari only seems happy when the people around him love each other.

I think when we are lifting our faces to God in love and praise on Sunday mornings, God plays Ari’s kissing game. He delights in the kiss of our praise, but like Ari, God quickly points to those around us. God delights as much in us loving each other as in loving Him. He thinks the two should go together.

Ari’s instinct is right in another way. It should never be enough for us to be loved and blessed by God. Like Ari after a kiss, we should be asking God to kiss those around us with his grace and goodness. Our kisses should always ascend vertically to God and horizontally to those around us—kind of like a cross.

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Our Jagged Lives

When I was a kid, I thought it was a cool trick to break a pencil and then slide the jagged ends back together. If I was careful, I could fit them together so no one could see the pencil was broken. I could then amaze other kids by pretending to break the pencil with flick of my finger.

This memory came to me recently as I was thinking of how jagged our lives are. As much as we love symmetry, closure, and a good story arc, events seldom supply them. Instead our lives often have abandoned dreams, broken relationships, false starts, mistakes, and dead ends.

There is little poetic justice in life. I have friends whose children or spouses have died. No matter what words of closure we say at funerals—death is a jagged break. Several years ago, a series of strokes left my mother unable to swallow or speak clearly. She was living on a feeding tube. One day when I was talking to her about Dad who had died twenty years earlier, I saw a tear run down her cheek. I said, “You still miss Dad, don’t you?” She could only nod as I wiped away the tear. She still ached.

After leaving behind pastoring, my dad and mom moved to Myrtle Point where Dad taught high school English and Mom taught first grade. We attended a small struggling local church. After some especially hard years, Dad filled in as pastor and for several years applied all his salary to paying off the mortgage on the church. Because of my Dad’s humility, generosity, and gifts as a preacher, I expected God to help the church grow. Instead it limped along. The summer before Dad died of cancer, he told me he only regretted one thing—that he had never been part of a revival and outpouring of the Holy Spirit that changed a church and reached into the community. He died never seeing this. Families are often full of jagged edges of brokenness. Some who dreamed of a happy Christian marriage have been left putting their lives back together after the pain and loss of divorce. Parents often write happy narratives for their children’s lives only to see misfortune, mistakes, and self-destructive choices rewrite their children’s lives as tragedies.

If we make idols of our narratives or insist on symmetry and closure, it is easy to get angry with God. Those of us who are bookish and love a good story arc are perhaps most easily offended by God’s failure to tie together the loose ends of our stories. Sometimes the jaggedness is simply all our unanswered questions.  Did we truly hear God? Did our prayers go unanswered because of a lack of faith, the opposition of Satan, a misunderstanding of God’s will, or the free-will of people? Especially hard are the times when we step out in faith and obedience and nothing goes right—nothing bears visible fruit.

Can I say this? Our favorite Bible stories don’t help. Every reduction in our numbers should result in a Gideon-like victory over our enemies. Stepping out in courage should always result in Goliath falling. Humbling ourselves should always result in God exalting and vindicating us. Every journey home should end in a father’s embrace. Our prison songs should shake the walls and bring angelic liberation. But often this is not our story.

Of course, the Bible tells us this. We love the story of the angel freeing Peter from prison, but we forget that James was also arrested and executed. Hebrews 11 mentions those who by faith conquered kingdoms, shut the mouths of lions, and put armies to flight. However, there were also those who by faith endured mocking, prison, torture, and terrible deaths. Yikes!

I recently talked to a pastor who had completed his first five years of ministry. None of his goals for the church and his ministry had been met. Those he was preparing for leadership either left the church or slipped back into sin. Attendance is down. This pastor is rewriting his definition of success in terms of faithfulness and obedience rather than numbers. Rewriting is hard.

It is easy to fit together jagged ends of a broken pencil but only God and heaven can fit the jaggedness of our lives. Only the faithfulness, wisdom, and grace of God answers the brokenness of our lives. But there is coming a day when all that is partial and broken is made whole by God.

Our lives here are only the opening chapter and a little rising action in the story arc. We can’t make an idol of our narrative. We must hand the pencil to God and learn to read the story of grace He is writing into our jagged lives. He alone makes all things whole.

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The Prophetic Ministry of Life and Death

Life, and prophets, can throw us a curve ball. The widow Zarephath found this out when she took in Elijah. When they met, she was ready to die after she made her last handful of flour into bread for herself and her son. Elijah tells her not to fear but rather make a cake of bread for him, then herself and her son. He then prophesies, “For thus says the God of Israel, ‘The bowl of flour shall not be exhausted, nor shall the jar of oil be empty, until the day that the Lord sends rain on the face of the earth.'” I Kings 17:14

God was true to his promise. The oil and flour never ran out. This is where her Wednesday night testimony should end. But then the curve ball. Her only son gets sick and is on the brink of death. She says angrily to Elijah: “What do I have to do with you, O man of God? You have come to me to bring my iniquity to remembrance, and to put my son to death.” I Kings 17: Her initial question seems to ask, “What have I ever done to you?”

It is not clear to whose “remembrance” the widow is referring. It seems likely that she is accusing Elijah of reminding God of her iniquities with the result of God killing her son. However, her accusations make clear that she too has been reminded of her iniquities. In a sense, she is accusing Elijah of bringing both literal death and spiritual to her household.

We can only speculate what past experiences with prophets caused her to think that prophets are in the business of bringing people’s sins to remembrance. But she seems to grasp how prophetic ministry can bring either life or death.

The seer can either declare the hidden sins of people or hidden blessings God wants to bring to those who repent. The prophetic ministry not committed to the ministry of life will focus on past iniquities rather than future blessing. Even though a prophet sees what we have been, he or she can choose to minister life by declaring who God has called us to become. 

To Elijah’s credit, he goes to great lengths to minister life to the widow and her son. He doesn’t ask her, “What iniquities are you remembering?” Elijah, however, does question God, “O Lord my God, has Thou also brought calamity to the widow with whom I am staying, by causing her son to die?” I don’t think this is an accusation against God. Instead, it is a recognition that punishing this widow by killing her son is inconsistent with God’s goodness.

We are not told if God answers his question, but Elijah stretches himself over the body of the dead boy and prays three times. Elijah ministers out of his revelation of the character of God.

The lesson for congregations is to recognize that it is not enough for prophetic people to have a genuine gift. We need prophets who minister out of deep personal revelation of the goodness of God. The power of life and death are in the tongue (Prov. 18:21). Congregations will only be built up by the prophets committed to the ministry of life.

The lesson for those in prophetic ministry is that your understanding of the character of God can color our prophecy without impacting your accuracy.  We must stretch ourselves to minister life.

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