Happy Ash Wednesday, Dirtbags (Parts 1 and 2)

PART 1

I attended an Ash Wednesday service today at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church. It was everything I hoped it would be – very high-church, dripping with symbolism, the imposition of ashes, and participation in the Holy Eucharist. As a dye-in-the-wool Church of Christ boy, this formal celebration of Jesus and a pious participation in Lenten repentance was refreshing.

One thing I was not expecting was such a focus on mortality. At the imposition of ashes, the Celebrant rubbed an ash cross on each person’s forehead and said, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

That’s right; we’re all living, breathing, dirtbags. Not the pick-me-up most people are looking for during their lunch break. But, as I learned, it’s actually a crucial element to the Lenten season.

Lent was originally a period of fasting and repentance in preparation for baptism on Easter Sunday. Participants in Lent spent 40 days preparing themselves for their new life with Christ. And what better day to celebrate one’s new life than on Easter Sunday, the day celebrating the moment that all of creation was made new!

In the past, the Episcopalian tradition at the imposition of ashes was to say, “Remember that you are dust ONLY, and to dust you shall return.” But the “only” was dropped several years ago because it was believed to have contributed to a spirit counter to resurrection. Without Jesus, sure, we’re ONLY dust, and to dust we will return. But, because of the resurrection, we are MORE THAN dust, and we will be MORE THAN dust at the final resurrection of all things.

And THAT’S the pick-me-up we all came to hear!

PART 2

My (informal) Lenten journey this year involves fasting from all social media – Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. I often find myself preoccupied with what people are saying about me, how many people liked my status or retweeted my awesome picture of the burrito I was eating. Fasting from social media isn’t about saving time (though that will certainly be an added benefit). Instead, it’s about getting my heart right. It’s about reorienting myself in God’s Kingdom instead of my own. I say all the time that we are never further from Jesus than when we’re being selfish, and social media has become a self-glorifying medium for growing further and further from Jesus.

I am also studying the book of Isaiah over the next 40 days. Isaiah seems to be a book Jesus loved, and for good reason. Isaiah is often called “The 5th Gospel” because of its abundance of redemption passages and images of God restoring and resurrecting his people. Today I read and studied the first five chapters. Man, oh man, is it AWESOME!

The first five chapters are a flash-forward to the things God is GOING to do to the people of Judah because of their sin. And what was their sin? Injustice! The leaders of the nation were getting filthy rich off laws and loopholes that allowed them to exploit the poor and further-marginalize the marginalized. Widows and orphans and poor people were being left out in the cold – sometimes literally – and God had seen enough. So from the start he shows all his cards, he tells all the reasons why he’s angry with his people, and all the things that are going to happen to them, both good and bad. His anger is fueled by their injustice:

See how the faithful city [JERUSALEM] has become a harlot! She once was full of justice; righteousness used to dwell in her – but now murderers! Your silver has become dross, your choice wine is diluted with water. your rulers are rebels, companions of thieves; they all love bribes and chase after gifts. They do not defend the cause of the fatherless; the widow’s case does not come before them. (1:21-24)

Their punishment – Assyrian exile – was all because they were corrupt, favoring the rich and exploiting the poor. They developed a system that kept the rich rich and the poor poor.

But God had – and still has – a vision for what his people will someday be:

In the last days, the mountain of the Lord’s temple [JERUSALEM] will be established as chief among the mountains; it will be raised above the hills, and ALL NATIONS will stream to it…

The word here for “all nations” is “goyim.” Goyim is typically a derogatory word used in reference to everyone who was not from Israel or Judah. Like the way your grandfather talks about “foreigners” with a little spite. That’s goyim. The Law of Moses spoke harshly about the goyim and warned the Israelites against falling into cahoots with anyone outside their own nation. Goyim were the outsiders that God’s people spent their lives avoiding.

But here, Isaiah says that God’s vision for all of creation is that one day all nations – all the goyim – will come to the Mountain of the Lord in Jerusalem. This means everybody on earth, including both the rich and the poor. They will come not out of fear, not out of obligation, but because God has something no other nation and no other god has. Here’s what he offers:

The law will go out from Zion, the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. He will judge between the nations [GOYIM] and will settle disputes for many peoples. They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore. Come, O house of Jacob, let us walk in the light of the Lord.

The people – the GOYIM – will come because there will be unsolvable disputes. War and violence and death will have run so rampant that nobody will know what to do anymore. There will be no answers and no peace. No government or judge or arbiter can settle the violence and destruction. And on that day when the world is on the brink of total destruction, all the nations will turn to God and say, “Help!” And God’s answer, God’s solution, God’s ruling, will be to lay down the weapons and end all the violence. To turn weapons of violence into tools of rebirth and resurrection. God’s law will be a law of peace and renewal. And, as one people, the whole world will walk in the light of the Lord.

The problem in Isaiah, though, is that God’s dream of seeing the whole world come together as one is thwarted because his people refuse to lead the way. If God’s own people won’t act in ways that lead to peace and unity of all people, how in the world can anyone else be expected to?

The next few chapters are loaded with destruction and punishment for Judah’s corruption and neglect of the poor and marginalized. God has to rid his nation of everything that prevents his dream from becoming reality. So the rulers and leaders of Judah will be driven into exile, and some of them killed. While this might sound counter to God’s dream of peace and love, it’s necessary in order to see the dream fulfilled.

Our mortal selves are prone to chase after what’s temporary – money, power, sex, pleasure, self-gratification. But Easter brings something new, something better. Easter brings God’s vision for earth into a much clearer focus. At the start of this Lent season, may God’s vision become our vision. May we be a people who bring about peace no matter the color of one’s skin or the number of zeros in their bank account. May we be a people who lay down our weapons of violence – be they physical, emotional, or spiritual – and become a people who fulfill the dream of God.

Together, may we all walk in the light of the Lord.

A Church of Christ Preacher’s Take on Lent

1. What is Lent?

Lent began as a season of preparation for baptism. In some traditions it started as a 40-hour fast, and in others it has always been a 40-day fast. The number 40 is representative of Jesus spending 40 days in the desert fasting and praying in preparation for his ministry. Historically, the 40-day Lenten period started 40 days before Easter, and on Easter Sunday participants were baptized. 

Lent is an opportunity to become more like the resurrected Jesus in anticipation of Easter Sunday. By resurrection, we are transformed into the image of Christ and invited to participate in his mission – to proclaim good news to the poor, freedom for the prisoners, sight for the blind, and set the oppressed free. During Lent, we fast from those things that are selfish, and participate in those things that are sacrificial and bring about justice. Many use this time to quit drinking sodas or cut back on chocolate, but the deeper sense of Lent invites us to rid our lives of those things that prevent justice and/or our awareness of people in need.

In addition to fasting, many choose to add something to their lives that put them more in tune with the Kingdom. For instance, some spend time each day in scripture. Others find places to volunteer. And still others find specific ways to bring about justice in the communities in which they live.

2. Can I eat meat?

Over the years many elements have been added to the 40 days of fasting. Some participants avoid certain foods like red meat, and that’s why you’ll see lots of ads for fish sandwiches during Lent or crawfish boils in places like New Orleans and Houston. In fact, it is quite common for people to eat a vegetarian – or even vegan – diet during Lent. Food is an important part of the Lenten journey because in preparing ourselves for the resurrected Jesus, we need to redirect our hunger. Food is symbolic of that which we crave, that which we rely on for daily sustenance and life. By limiting the types and amounts of food we eat, we remind ourselves that our primary hunger ought to be for Jesus and the life of justice and redemption to which he calls us.

3. When does the fast begin and end?

Lent begins on Ash Wednesday and ends Easter Sunday. You may notice that’s more than 40 days. Some observe their fast every day from Ash Wednesday through Easter; others break their fast on Sunday’s. Ash Wednesday exists to give those who don’t observe a fast on Sunday’s a full 40 days of fasting (Fasting six days a week for six weeks only gives a person 36 days of fasting. Backing it up to Ash Wednesday allows the full 40 days). Whether you fast every day or break your fast on Sunday’s, it’s recommended to fast from Ash Wednesday all the way to Easter, even if you go over 40 days. By doing so, you join with millions of Jesus followers around the world simultaneously ridding their lives of selfishness and worldliness, replacing it with sacrifice, justice, and love. There is joy to be found in being part of a much larger whole rather than walking an individual journey alone.

4. What am I giving up?

Personally, I plan to give up my social media: Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. I’ve chosen to fast from these because I often find myself craving acceptance and affirmation through the things I post. I can become so preoccupied with people’s comments (or lack thereof) that I become unproductive in things that really matter.

In addition to fasting from social media, I plan to read and study the book of Isaiah. Jesus seemed to find great insight in this prophet’s words, so in an attempt to understand the Kingdom as Jesus did, I will pour over Isaiah for the full 44 days of Lent. 

5. What are you giving up/adding to your life during Lent?

Let’s hear it. What will you give up in an effort to be a greater participant in the mission of Jesus? What will you do during the Lent season to join Jesus in the work he’s doing in the neighborhoods, cities, and world around you?

Dear Donald Miller…

If you haven’t read Donald Miller’s thoughts on why he is not a regular church attender, take a few moments to read it here, and the follow-up post here. Below is an open letter to Donald Miller explaining why, based on his posts, I think he would love our church, and probably come most weeks.

Dear Donald Miller,

Thank you for your thoughts on learning styles and how they shape our life in the Church. As I read your original post, I couldn’t help but think one thing: he would love our church. So, I’d like to invite you. Next time you’re in or near Little Rock, you have a standing invitation to visit the CrossWalk Family of God.

I WAS A LITTLE SURPRISED…

In your original blog, you make a great point that people learn in very different ways. Sermons aren’t for everybody. And neither are discussion formats or pop-up picture books or movies. Everybody has their preferred style of learning, and the Church has often honed in on one style, and one style only.

I also agree that singing is a take-it-or-leave-it experience for many. In Churches of Christ, the tradition from which we spring, we use no instruments, so singing is borderline idolized as the singular expression of worship. Many in our heritage even believe listening to the worship music without singing along is not true worship. Still, there are people who, like you, find little or no connection with God through singing.

Neither of these statements surprised me. And your occasional worship  attendance doesn’t surprise me, either. Nor does it offend me or cause me to see you with any less influence or credibility. I love your blog and look forward to your next book (which will be coming…when?).

What surprises me about your comments is that, of all people, Donald Miller is stuck in the 50′s when it comes to church! To explain, I’ll use communion as a metaphor.

CHURCH AND COMMUNION

Recently at CrossWalk we made a dramatic shift in how we observe communion. (You should know that one of the core traditions in churches of Christ is observing weekly communion). Traditionally, we’ve passed the silver trays – one with bread and one with miniature shots of grape juice – followed by the collection baskets. For the ten or so minutes that passing three sets of trays took, everyone sat silently and, if we’re honest, awkwardly. Some bowed their heads, some read scripture to themselves, and others, like my wife and me, kept our children still-ish.

Communion was a very individual and insignificant act.

Something about how we practice communion in churches of Christ has felt off to me for years. For instance, it usually happens in the middle of a worship service, meaning it’s the bridge from announcements and opening songs to the sermon. The sermon has always been the focal point of our worship time, meaning the most transformative experience you’ll have in worship comes from somebody like me. I think I’m an okay guy, but I’m no Jesus. By making the sermon – and not communion – the reason we all show up, we rob communion of its transformative power and give preachers a disproportionate amount of influence.

I’ve also been bothered by the individualism of communion, and it’s this individual spirit I sense in your thoughts on church. Church and communion are just that – communal. It’s a collective celebration of Jesus and the love, grace, and hope we find in him. It’s a weekly transformation into a newer, better version of ourselves through community.

Communion is the single most transformative moment in every worship experience. It’s where the resurrection of Jesus as a past event becomes a present reality. To steal a phrase from Abraham Joshua Heschel, it’s the past in present tense.

WHY I THINK YOU’D LIKE US

I say the same to you regarding church. What you wrote is absolutely true – people experience God in an infinite number of ways besides going to church, and rightly so. It’s sinful if the sole expression of our faith is church attendance. That said, Jesus comes alive when church attendance is more than just learning and singing. And if we only want to learn and sing, we have six other days to do so.

And that’s why I think you would love CrossWalk. We changed how we do communion and we made it the focal point of our weekly gatherings. Communion is taking over the culture of our entire church experience. It’s done at the end of our worship time. The bread and lots of little cups are spread across tables in the back of the worship area. We turn on some music, have a prayer, and then everyone goes to the back, collects their bread and juice, and we all mill about talking and hugging and crying together. On the screen up front is a single question for discussion – usually based on the sermon – to give people something to discuss with their neighbor if they don’t have anything else to talk about. Usually, though, people spend the time searching for someone they know is struggling, or friends they haven’t talked to in a while, or somebody who was on their mind that week. It has become the defining moment of our worship, and it feels like the power has been restored to this ancient tradition. It’s loud, it takes a while, and we love it.

The beauty of this is that it’s the Spirit-filled community – not the sermon – that provides the transformative work. If someone needs to tune out and catch some sleep or play Plants vs. Zombies or mindlessly scroll around on Twitter, they can, and they won’t miss out on Jesus. Now, after church ends, I hear about conversations people had during communion rather than comments about my sermons. While CrossWalk people are generous and always encouraging toward me, I’d much rather hear what Jesus did in our worship gathering than hear which point in the sermon was most interesting. Church is no longer about me and what I said; it’s now about Jesus and what he did in a conversation, in a hug, in prayer between two people.

So, Donald Miller, it doesn’t bother me a bit that you don’t attend church regularly. I celebrate that you have found community with others and communion with God in various forms. Church people often get offended by those who seek God in other ways because we believe that since our sign says “Church” you must be there, regardless of your own beliefs, thoughts, or learning styles. Calling ourselves a church and being one are two different things, and we cannot continue to hold people hostage through guilt, shame and fear without ever asking if we’re missing something important. So thank you for drawing this discussion into the light.

But I think you would love CrossWalk. We’re a group of people who love each other, love Jesus, and come together every week because we want to, because we need to, and not because we feel guilty when we don’t. I hope you don’t miss out on the full power of Jesus by thinking church is something it’s not. Knowledge and singing are good things, but they are not the full manifestation of the resurrection of Jesus – a past event in present tense – that actually changes people’s lives. And discovering that power in the community of friends in a weekly gathering is a life-giving way to experience church.

If you’re ever in Little Rock, we’d love to have you. We’re a small group of rich and homeless, straight-laced and ex-cons, believers and atheists, conservatives and liberals. You’re guaranteed to find someone who agrees with you and someone who doesn’t, because that’s not really the point. The point is that Jesus is doing work in all of us, and we wouldn’t dare miss it.

Peace,

Cory Jones, Teaching Minister

4 Reasons Why Comparing Kills

I’ve been a minister for about 12 years in some form or another. And, like many men and women in my profession, I often find myself playing the Comparison Game. The first time I read The Irresistible Revolution I felt guilty for weeks that I don’t sew my own clothes.

I wish I preached like that guy.

I wish I connected with people like that lady.

I wish i had the creative vision like that church.

I wish I was wise like that group.

We all do this – it’s part of being an American human. We’re constantly told to compare ourselves, sometimes subtly and other times not. For instance, just count the number of fitness centers between your current location and wherever you’re going next. American capitalism  and culture are driven by our belief that we don’t measure up.

I am learning to avoid the Comparison Game, though, especially as a minister. The past year-and-a-half I’ve preached for a little church in Arkansas that has taught me much about obedience and the power of a few people to transform a city. I am still tempted to compare myself with what’s on the other side of the fence, but I thought I’d share a few of the destructive outcomes I’ve experienced when we compare ourselves to others.

1. WE’RE DRIVEN BY POPULARITY, NOT OBEDIENCE

One of my 5-year-olds, Judah, is notorious for watching how my wife and i treat his brothers. He’s always measuring, making sure he receives the same treatment as everybody else. It’s not uncommon for us to offer our boys rewards for going above and beyond. We might say, “Titus, if you will pick up everybody’s shoes you can have an extra ten minutes on the Wii.” Judah sees Titus playing Wii while everyone else marches to bed. When he asks why Titus gets extra time, my response is usually: “Is your name Titus or Judah? What did I ask Judah to do?”

This is one problem with comparison – we forget, or completely ignore, that God has given us a job to do. Your job might be to preach twenty-seven services every weekend to thousands of people, or your job might be to wash out the communion trays. Either way, your job is not their job, and their job is not yours. Your job is important because it’s been given to you by God. You can either do your job well, honoring our Father, or whine that you didn’t get somebody else’s.

I recently spoke to a group of inmates at Wrightsville prison south of Little Rock. After i was done, an inmate came over with a glass of water. He hugged me and said, “Thank you for being obedient.”

No one has ever said that to me after I preached, and I haven’t stopped thinking about it. Are you obedient to the call God has given you? Do you believe your job matters, or are you perpetually waiting for your big shot at something better?

2. WE REJECT PEOPLE WHO LOVE US FOR PEOPLE WHO HAVE NEVER HEARD OF US

If you spend your days wishing you had a bigger reach, if you wish more people retweeted you or shared your blogs, or if you wish your podcast had more listeners than just your wife and your mom, perhaps you’re missing something crucial: the people who are actually listening.

One day when I was a youth minister, I showed up to an event i thought would be really, really big. Tons of kids signed up, and most of them were bringing lots of friends. But one by one I got texts saying why kids couldn’t come, and by the end we had maybe a dozen teenagers show up. I spent the first ten or fifteen minutes stewing about those who didn’t come until one young lady spoke up: “Sorry we’re not enough.” She said it sarcastically, and it certainly lightened the mood, but man did it sting.

Imagine going to a soccer field and watching somebody else’s kid play. You get out your phone and start recording their big shots. You cheer when they score and talk to all the parents about how good that kid is. All the while your own child is sitting beside you, wondering if you’ll ever notice them.

If you’re a teacher, pour yourself into the students you have. If you’re a mechanic, work on every car like it’s your own. If you’re starving artist bussing tables, make sure your tables are the cleanest in the restaurant. Be committed to the work before you, because if you’re not, well, just read number 3…

3. YOU’LL NEVER BE SATISFIED

Jesus told a parable once about a king who left his servants in charge of his money. When the king returned, some of the servants put the money to work, but one didn’t. He told those who put the money to work that because they were faithful with a little bit of money, he knew they could be trusted with a big piece of his kingdom. As for the servant who did nothing, he was thrown out and punished.

Here’s the point: if you are faithful with your “little” job, you’ll be faithful with your “big” job when it comes. But so long as you live like a person waiting on her ship to arrive, you’ll miss the work that matters now.

4. WHEN YOU GET IT, YOU’RE STILL YOU

Remember the original Blackberry? I wanted one so bad. I had a friend who used one for work and I was always jealous when he’d send me an email with “SENT FROM MY BLACKBERRY” arrogantly scrawled across the bottom. This was before the days of smart phones, so a handheld device that could get email and internet was mind-blowing.

Around 2007 I got a Blackberry. A small one, but still a Blackberry. I liked it and used it for everything I could, but it was never the wonderful gadget I’d dreamed about. This usually happens when we get what we think we want. But it’s not that we discover the product or the job or the family or the paycheck is unsatisfactory. It’s that we discover we’re still the same person.

Most of us compare ourselves to others believing that having what they have will make us be who they are. If you think landing that job will suddenly make you a respected authority in that field, you’re in for disappointment. If you think a bigger paycheck or nicer clothes or the latest gadget will open the door to really become the man or woman you dreamed you’d be, you’re going to find only your same old self with new clothes.

Collin Cowherd hosts a radio show on ESPN, and he once said, “Money makes you more of what you already are.”

Money, jobs, clothes, Twitter followers, blog subscribers, none of those things changes you. You’re still you no matter who is listening. So do your work faithfully and with integrity.

Quit comparing yourself to other people. Get to work doing the job right in front of your face. You may live your entire life in the shadows, never being famous, never hitting it big, never making the New York Times Bestseller List, never cracking that 200-follower ceiling on Twitter. But if you do your job faithfully, as though the world depends on it, the world will be better because you were in it.

Why I Can’t Read Matt Walsh

I try not to attack people, especially through social media. It’s not fair to criticize anyone publicly, and certainly not a person one has never met. Jesus is clear: if you have a problem with somebody, go to them directly. If they don’t respond, take a couple friends. If they still resist, get some people with real authority to intervene, and then wash your hands of them.

It could be argued that I’ve completed the first step, by which I mean I sent him an email once. I acknowledge the unbiblical spirit of my words even as I type.

Yet I cannot remain silent. A large number of my Facebook friends read and share Matt Walsh’s blog daily. I’d like to point out something that troubles me about this, and share thoughts from the email I recently sent Mr. Walsh that I’m certain went unread.

If you’re unfamiliar with Matt Walsh and his blog, I encourage you to spend some time reading it and make your own decisions about what he has to say. He’s a gifted writer, easy to read, and is certainly engaging. He writes about current topics, and takes a firm, traditional stance on most issues.

What I find lacking, though, is love, mercy, and gentleness. The first time I saw Mr. Walsh’s blog shared, it was his response to a high school student who wrote him asking for advice. His health teacher was teaching safe sex rather than abstinence, and the young reader wondered what his response should be. Here’s an excerpt:

“Speaking of adults without character, please ignore everything your “health teacher” says on this subject. I have to put quotes around her title because it doesn’t sound like she’s doing much in the way of teaching, and whatever she’s blabbering about has very little to do with “health.” She seems to think there’s a “safe” way for emotionally immature juveniles to have casual sex. Maybe she’ll follow up this performance by advocating “safe drunk driving.”

Most of the response continues with this tone, demonizing the young man’s teacher.

And then today several friends shared a blog in which Mr. Walsh responds to a critical email from a college professor. The professor sounds terribly arrogant and accuses Mr. Walsh of flagrant ignorance and frequently suggests he (the professor) is of far-greater intelligence than Mr. Walsh. In his criticism, the professor writes:

“You could use your platform for good but instead you use it to make those in open and poly relationships feel subhuman.”

Now, to be clear, this professor suggests the “good” for which Mr. Walsh could use his platform is to advocate for open marriages in which both partners sleep with other people. I vehemently reject that notion, but that’s not the point.

The point is this: what the professor sees is another jerk Christian. Mr. Walsh writes with arrogance and sarcasm that belittles anyone he believes to be wrong. Regardless of the truth on which he stands, truth without love is irrelevant. Truth spoken with immaturity does great harm to those who already have a less-than-favorable view of Jesus and the Church.

As I said, I once sent Mr. Walsh an email expressing my feelings toward his approach, specifically regarding the post about the high school health teacher. I wrote:

Let me put it another way: as a follower of Jesus, if I were forced to choose between exposing my sons to this particular health teacher’s views on sex OR your blog post about them, I would choose the health teacher. It’s much easier to explain that there’s a better way to have sex than it is to help them understand why your attitude toward the health teacher is not of Christ.

Mr. Walsh’s influence seems to be growing, and that scares me. Is this the way we want to speak to people with whom we disagree? Is this the way Jesus spoke to anyone, with adolescent, narcissistic sarcasm and petty name calling? When those who reject Jesus and the Church read the posts we share on Facebook and Twitter, are they more likely to follow Jesus or will their view of Christians only be affirmed?

One thing we’ve committed to at our church here in Little Rock is making a concerted effort to share Jesus with those who want nothing to do with the Church. I fear that Mr. Walsh is actually making our job harder. It’s one thing to disagree about life, theology, and ethics; it’s something else to insult those whom you oppose. And sadly, people typically stop listening when they’re insulted.

I’m not asking anyone to stop reading his blog. If Mr. Walsh’s thoughts help you see Jesus better, then by all means continue reading. I’m simply asking you to weed out the “thistles among the wheat.” Listen to the nuggets of truth without succumbing to the spirit of arrogance.  And consider what others might see in him, in you, and in Jesus when you choose to share his blog.

If you need me, I’ll be repenting in sackcloth and ashes the rest of the day.

Why I Follow Jesus

I’m a Christian, middle class, white male. Perhaps the most loathed demographic in western society. Based on my credentials, I’m easily taken for a homophobic, pro-life, pro-gun, pro-war, racist who drives his 2.4 kids around in an Expedition and lives in the suburbs. Without affirming or denying any of these crimes, let’s just say they’re not all applicable.

Because of my demographic, the non-Christian world expects the worst out of me. I once took a creative writing class at a local community college. The teacher introduced herself as “a liberal feminist” and said if we had a problem with it we could find another class. When I introduced myself as a minister, she audibly sighed. She expected the worst out of me.

That’s basically the corner we (Christians) have forced the world into – expecting the worst from us. Yes, our list of offenses against society is long, and it starts over a thousand years ago. High-profile Christian leaders often publicly put their foot in their mouth. Sure, they’re sometimes taken out of context. But would that happen if we consistently gave the world a reason to root for us?

Perhaps our greatest sin against society is our displaced urgency – we are urgent about secondary issues and indifferent toward urgent ones. Jonathan Storment, preacher at the Highland Church of Christ in Abilene, TX, wrote on his blog:

We’re passionate about the things in a way that is disproportion [sic] to how important they are to God.

Yep. We certainly fail to match our urgency with Jesus’. And society has taken note.

WHY I FOLLOW

Yet today my desire to follow Jesus is stronger than ever. Not because I want to further entrench myself against the liberal, atheistic “enemy.” And not out of fear that I’m wrong. I follow Jesus with more urgency today because, more than ever, I see who He is. I see what matters to Him. And I see what the world can be because of Him.

One of my favorite stories in the gospels is in John 5 when Jesus heals a lame man who hadn’t walked in 38 years. The religious people nearby saw him do it, and were fuming mad because Jesus healed on the Sabbath. Sabbath healing was an act strictly forbidden by people like those who were angry. Yet Jesus pointed out that even the Law permitted a person to help a donkey on the Sabbath if it fell in a well. Surely healing a man 38-years-crippled was on the approved list too.

Regardless of whether they were right or wrong, breathe in the lunacy! A man was crippled for 38 years, and suddenly he picked up his mat and walked home. Even if that violated a law, so what? A miracle happened, a man’s life was brought out of the pit, in an instant his world changed for the better. Yet the religious leaders scoffed because Jesus violated a Sabbath law – one command of 613. 

Their urgency was displaced, as ours often is. In his book, Man is not Alone, Abraham Joshua Heschel writes:

“”The universe is an immense allusion, and our inner life an anonymous quotation; only the italics are our own.”

I love the idea that we’re all given the same information, but we get to choose where to place the italics. While that’s a gift of freedom, it can also be destructive when people begin to fight over others’ italics. This is the case here. The religious leaders thought the italics were on the letter of the Law, while Jesus placed them on the spirit. 

A HEATED DEBATE

What I love about this story, other than Jesus healing a guy, is the conversation that followed. The religious leaders were griping among themselves about Jesus’ heinous crime (think 1st century pundits). Jesus dove headfirst into their debate. This is akin to George W. Bush phoning MSNBC or Barack Obama walking onto the set at the Sean Hannity show. It was surely unexpected and only added fuel to their fire.

Jesus’ first words were, “My Father is always working, and so am I.”

Boom!

Okay, maybe more like “Pop!”

This certainly proved nothing, nor did Jesus sway any of the religious leaders. In fact, he only angered them more by calling God his Father. But his statement to the religious leaders is why I find myself hungering and longing for Jesus more than any time in my life: Jesus is always at work.

Jesus is always transforming. Always healing. Always cleansing. Always restoring. Always redeeming. Always making beauty out of brokenness. I want to be part of that.

My hunger is not exceptional. Jesus followers the world over are growing tired of the meaningless and imaginary “wars” we create against the world. Pope Francis was named Time Magazine’s Person of the Year because for the first time in almost a century the Church is doing something about the failing condition in our world. The leader of the largest body of Christians has traded his emblems of power and his seat high above us low-lifes for hugs from the disfigured, for the dirty feet of an incarcerated Muslim woman, and for a challenge to the systems that perpetuate poverty.

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In North America, churches are sprouting up that look nothing like churches we’ve seen before. Dreams of planting the next mega-church are being replaced by pastors and Jesus followers creating small, intimate communities where lives are shared and redemption happens. Poor communities are being transformed from crime-ridden to hope-driven. Orphans are finding homes. Young college graduates are finding more fulfillment working low-paying jobs that matter than chasing the American dream.

And, holy cow, there’s this guy who built drop boxes for mothers to safely discard their unwanted babies. And he takes them home and cares for them! (Heads up, CrossWalk. You’ll be seeing this soon. Maybe more than once).

And how many more stories haven’t made the news but are still accomplishing the purposes of Jesus: still healing, still cleansing, still bringing good news to the poor? Jesus is always at work.

SO LET’S WORK

I know Christians get a bad rap and don’t always get it right. But let’s start talking about who we can be because of who Jesus is. Let’s start talking about what Jesus is doing instead of what the rest of us aren’t. Let’s drop the stones we’ve aimed at one another and all go to work. Because while we’re bickering over what we ought to be doing, Jesus is moving forward to the next person waiting to be healed.

Because I’m starting a series on James this Sunday, I’ll end with this from James 2:18

But someone will say, “You have faith; I have works.” Show me your faith without works, and I will show you my faith by my works.

Wisdom in Brevity

Psalm 90 has become one of my favorite Psalms. It was written (presumably) by Moses. Here it is, from the New Living Translation:

Lord, through all the generations you have been our home.

Before the mountains were born, before you gave birth to the earth and the world,

from beginning to end, you are God.

You turn people back to dust, saying “Return to dust, you mortals.”

For you, a thousand years are as a day,as brief as a few night hours.

You sweep people away like dreams that disappear.

They are like grass that springs up in the morning.

In the morning it blooms and flourishes,

but by evening it is dry and withered.

We wither beneath your anger;

we are overwhelmed by your fury.

You spread out our sins before you – our secret sins – and you see them all.

We live our lives beneath your wrath,

ending our years with a groan.

Seventy years are given to us.

Some even live to eighty.

But even the best years are filled with pain and trouble;

soon they disappear, and we fly away.

Who can comprehend the power of your anger?

Your wrath is as awesome as the fear you deserve.

Depressing, right?

Just wait, it gets better.

“Teach us to realize the brevity of life,

so that we may grow in wisdom.

O Lord, come back to us!

How long will you delay?

Take pity on us, your servants.

Satisfy us each morning with your unfailing love,

so we may sing for joy to the end of our lives.

Give us gladness in proportion to our former misery.

Replace the evil years with good.

Let us, your servants, see you work again;

let our children see your glory.

And may the Lord our God show us  his approval

and make our efforts successful.

And make our efforts successful.

UnknownFirst, it sounds depressing. We’re all like grass. We’re nothing. We bloom in the morning but by evening we’re dead, withered, dried up and gone. It’s really that fast, because 1,000 years are like a day or a few night hours to God. Our lives are like the blink of God’s eye. We’re dead as soon as we’re born. And for lots of folks, even the best years kinda suck.

But, there’s something to be gained from knowing this. Verse 12 says: “Teach us to realize the brevity of life, so that we may grow in wisdom.”

Brilliant!

Think of it this way: you’re planning a trip to New York City. You’ll be there three days. You land at LaGuardia and take a taxi to your hotel. Do you sleep? Do you turn on the TV and watch Seinfeld reruns? Do you spend three hours on the hotel phone catching up with old friends or go hang out in the hotel bar? NO! You throw on your fanny pack, take the fastest elevator down to the lobby, and head straight for Times Square or the Empire State Building or the Statue of Liberty or Broadway. Or, in our case, the nearest building with cheesecake. Your time is limited. You can only do so much. So you spend your time on that which you desire most.

Brevity brings wisdom. Brevity gives urgency to that which is most important.

When we’re young we think life will never end. Teenagers are notorious for their sense of invincibility. Death seems so far away and life feels so infinite that it’s cool to waste time on things that those in their 60′s find irrelevant. Because those in their 60′s have a much greater appreciation for the brevity of life. They were close to people who’ve died. They see their own finish line on the horizon. And with that awareness comes wisdom, wisdom in knowing what matters.

So Moses calls on God to “give us gladness in proportion to our former misery. Replace the evil years with good.” In our childhood, adolescence, and early adult years, we waste so much time on things that don’t matter. That sort of life is synonymous with misery.

I follow a minister in Nashville on Twitter named Josh Graves. He recently wrote: “It’s a sobering thing if you wake up and realize you are providing remarkable, air-tight answers to questions very few people are asking.”

Misery.

How many people work overtime every week at jobs they find meaningless or live lives void of something significant, something lasting? This seemed to be Moses’ great fear in Psalm 90. So his prayer is that God will substitute those years he lost in wasted time with an equal number of years that are relevant, that mean something. And he ends the psalm by asking God to show Himself again to His servants, and to let their children see His glory, His blessing, His promise brought to fruition. In other words, he hoped his life wouldn’t end with his death.

Like grass that withers in the evening.

Not long ago, this article struck a chord with millions of people. It’s written by a hospice care provider who recorded the top five regrets she heard from patients who lay literally on their deathbed. It struck a chord because perhaps our greatest fear is that we’ll live a meaningless life, and by the end we’ll regret not having lived it with more wisdom.

Wisdom is not about knowing what is important, so much as knowing what isn’t. It’s easy to think that wise people add good things to their life. But a life of wisdom is simply a life lived without the unimportant. A life of wisdom is a life lived according to what you hope you’ll say on your deathbed.

I use Donald Miller’s Storyline Productivity Schedule to organize my day. Each day I list the projects I plan to accomplish, I write out a to-do list, jot down my appointments, and I list the things I get to enjoy that day. Then, most importantly, I list the things I’d do if I had the day to live over again. You know those moments when you lay in bed at night wishing you’d handled a situation differently, or wishing you’d done something more productive? This list helps you anticipate those regrets, and avoid them intentionally so your life always has a sense of accomplishment and necessity. That particular column is labeled:

“If I could live today over again, I’d:”

It’s like a second chance without ever screwing up the first one.

So, if you live today as if you’ll have no regrets when it’s done, what will you do? It’s perhaps one of the most important questions we can ask because our days are, in fact, numbered. And sensing that brevity brings wisdom.

At the end of your life, will you be okay with having wasted some of your days or will you wish you had lived each one as though it was a second chance to get it right?

There is a finish line to this life. When you reach it, what will you find important?

Go and live that life!