our striving would be losing

If there ever was someone who deserved the distinction of being absolute, that someone is Jesus. He declared himself the absolute, only way to enter into the kingdom of heaven (John 14:6). In this question, there is no grey area – not a single drop of ying yang to dilute what He has spelled out explicitly in His word.

Christ is salvation for those who believe, but salvation is bigger than we think. It is not just a salvation from judgment. Christ’s salvation is also salvation into righteousness. In the same moment that He freed us from the bloody (literal) cycle of sacrifices, He freed us into obedience by way of His righteousness. We are no longer ruled by the destruction of our secret hearts and the destruction of our sinful humanity. We are not ruled by the darkness that seems to rule the world.

“For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” (2 Corinthians 5:21)

We are freed from judgment by Christ’s atoning sacrifice and freed into obedience by Christ’s imputing righteousness.

What we believe about Jesus Christ matters because our lives could never stand up to God’s righteous judgment. My sin goes before me and follows close behind. The good I want to do gets muddled up in my own schemes and I am daily reminded of my sin that leads to death. I am weak against greed and pride and lust and fear and faithlessness. There is not a day I could stand upright in the face of God’s righteous judgment.

But God, being rich in mercy called His children before the foundations of the world into freedom from the judgment that is due our dead bones.

I need for Christ to offer a salvation that is more than just a courtroom scene where He takes my guilty sentence. I need for Him to be the justice I act and the mercy I show and the love I share. I need for Him to be the righteousness that roots out my fear and greed and lust and pride and I need Him as replacement. I need for Christ to be who God sees when I stand before the throne of judgment. AND HE IS, dear friends!

What we believe about Jesus Christ matters because His sacrifice both atones for our sin (receiving the judgment we are due) AND imputes our righteousness (replacing ours with the perfect life Christ lived).

He is the perfect heart condition when I try to muster compassion. He is the perfect generosity when I scrounge for change. He is the perfect host when I frenzy about with overlapping plans. He is the perfect listener, counselor, and encourager when I am trying very hard and very imperfectly to be all those things.

Yesterday, I sang “A Mighty Fortress is Our God” with a group of strangers in a beautiful church near Union Square. This second verse really tore apart my spirit.

Did we in our own strength confide, our striving would be losing;
Were not the right Man on our side, the Man of God’s own choosing:
Dost ask who that may be? Christ Jesus, it is He;
Lord Sabaoth, His Name, from age to age the same,
And He must win the battle.

I do a lot of striving – a lot of confiding in my own strength – and none of it gets me closer to a better salvation. Absolutely not one single attempt (or many) at righteousness will be the reason Christ invites or denies me into His kingdom. Because there is only one right Man, a Man of God’s own choosing, who has the power and perfection to be condemned in my guilty place so that I can become the righteousness of God. Salvation doesn’t get any better than that.

No matter how many hungry folks we feed or naked people we clothe or strangers we invite in, we would never do it perfectly and we would never do it enough. I would never do righteousness enough and (if I could be so bold) you wouldn’t either. We are always striving and our striving is always losing, but God made a way for us to be free of judgment and freed to righteousness. And that way is Jesus.

What we believe about Him is the most pressing, most prominent, most permanent thing today. He makes perfect all our imperfect attempts because He gave us His righteousness. We are freed from striving for perfection and freed from losing at that game. We are freed into obedience because salvation doesn’t depend on our righteous performance. Salvation depends on the cross and Christ performed that perfectly… so that we could enter into His joy and invite others to the banquet table to meet the Man of God’s own choosing.

As I click at my keyboard, wet and sloppy tears are tracking through the blush on my cheeks. Everything is snot-messy because salvation will always be a mystery. I don’t understand why I get to know Christ. I don’t understand why my sin does not banish me forever from His presence. I don’t understand why I never have a better response. I don’t understand why my daily song doesn’t sound like worship. I don’t understand why my heart can be so resistant to miracles.

Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe.

For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men. For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth.

But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.” (1 Corinthians 1:20-31 ESV)

how to give the best advice

I was one of those high school students that teachers pulled aside and said, “You’re a natural leader…” The next sentence would usually be an invitation to partner with that teacher in some sort of classroom takeover.

I don’t know what it was they saw in me – whether it was my fearlessness in front of my peers or my willingness to participate in any sort of takeover plot. What I do know is that it planted a seed that grew into a grown-up me thinking I always have words to say (and that those words are worth listening to).

I ended up pursuing a career (and I use that term loosely to describe the general direction my professional life has gone) that is all about connecting to people. I graduated with degrees in psychology and communication and my joke has been, “Basically, I got a degree in figuring people out and then talking to them.” Every single job I’ve had – from printing shop to administrative assistant to guidance counselor to paint crew to service coordinator – has been about relationships. The most important moments (professional and personal) have always happened in conversations.

Somewhere along the way, I realized that all those times my teachers and family members and friends said, “You’re really one of those ‘natural’ leaders” kind of got under my skin and convinced me I had something to say and that people should listen.

That’s what born leaders do, right? Lead people.

Yes. But it’s both more and less. The secular world has its way of preaching its own religious message and this business of leadership is a popular sermon. There is a tendency, when people come to me for advice, to speak from my own pulpit – to guide and direct and advise from my own experiences and knowledge.

Along the bumpy and unconventional “career path” I’ve been walking, I have learned something very important about leadership and advice and relationships. It really boils down to one very simple thing.

Give me Jesus.

This is the sermon Paul preached to himself in Corinthians and Galatians and it summed up his life and ministry. He even later cautioned his listeners to filter out any worldly advice that might sneak in to sabotage the original message of the Gospel.

“And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.” (1 Corinthians 2:1-5, ESV)

Paul was intensely aware of His need of the Gospel – his dependence on God’s grace shaped the way he spoke and listened and preached and led. His leadership did not look like more of his words or his knowledge or his expertise. His leadership looked like more Jesus. Because the more he filled his life with Jesus, the more it became the only thing he could give to others.

Give them Jesus.

Maybe there are natural born leaders – people who have the characteristics and personality to be presidents and prime ministers. But the longer I live, the more I’m convinced that the best leadership comes from people who are most concerned with following Jesus.

When we feel like we are failing as leaders or as communicators or advisors, we don’t need to work to be better at those things. We need to ask the Lord, “Give me more Jesus, so that I can give them more Jesus.”

I read this little nugget from Tim Keller in my devotional this morning. I like to think about my heart being melted by His love and that love overflowing to others. That’s the kind of leader I want to be.

“If we find ourselves unloving, the solution is not to seek to love better or more; it is to look at Christ, who gives us an unlosable, unshakable acceptance from the Father, and as we dwell on our hope, we will find our hearts melted by His love, and overflowing with His love to others.” Tim Keller in “Galatians for You”

something worth bleeding out

Last night, Brandi Carlile invited The Lone Bellow back up on stage in the middle of her set, backlit by a lazy summer sun at the Simon Estes Amphitheater in Des Moines. They were the opening act, these brilliant three, but they were the reason my sister and I paid the big bucks to sprawl out on a blanket by the river with expensive drinks (the kind they make you buy inside after making you dump your waters at the door).

Something clicked when they sang this song. It’ll get unhinged soon enough. I’ll forget and I’ll fret and I’ll fury. But something about those few minutes was bound to break my blog silence.

Vacation was too good to me. It swallowed up my bones in bliss and I was happy there, really happy. Every clockless morning and every unplanned afternoon, every impromptu tennis match and every adventurous trip down to the beach, every late night campfire-lit conversation, every slice through the water in the kayak, every forest run, every conversation – everything.

Vacation swallowed up my bones in bliss.

I didn’t really know how to shake myself out of it – how does bliss make sense with clocks and schedules and plans and expectations? How do you get un-swallowed? How do you not wish yourself back in those blissful moments when you’re in moments that feel so regular?

Then The Lone Bellow started to sing and I started to sway with all my hippy hair, belting out this brilliant tune.

Yes, I lost myself a little bit and I’m not worried about your judgment.

I was probably 1 of 10 concert-goers who had heard of The Lone Bellow, so I was definitely one of few singing along. But, I belted it anyway – like the ba-ba-da was something inside me fighting to find air.

There is a reason life isn’t endless vacation.

And that reason made sense as I swayed to this tune,

“Breathing in, breathing out, the salt in my mouth
gives me hope that I’ll bleed something worth bleeding out”

It might not shake vacation dust off your feet, but it did mine. This is an anthem that says our hands should get dirty and calloused and worn, an anthem that reminds us that respite gives fuel for our daily fight against the lies we can sometimes escape on vacation.

“All the buildings, they lean and they smile down on us
And they shout from their rooftops words we can’t trust
Like you’re dead, you are tired, you’re ruined, you’re dust
Oh, you won’t ‘mount to nothing, like thanks full of rust”

These are the lies of life, the weary and rugged and cumbersome kind that sneak into kitchens and coffeeshops and haunt our closet space. These are the lies that try to make our lives less redeemed. But, in Christ, there is no more or less saved. There is no scale to our redemption.

Our sin entangles with all kinds of cruel efficiency and the dull hum-drum of everyday life is its favorite booby trap. But a sliding scale salvation would strip God of the power to make it complete, and we are not capable of making Him any less glorious than He is.

Thank God. Thank God He did not leave us as exiles from the kingdom of God, banished from forever beauty and bliss.

Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God. (1 Corinthians 6:9-11, ESV)

Thank God, in His grace, the blood coursing through our veins is more than mostly water. In Christ, this blood we carry around is something worth bleeding out. It is not nothing. It’s this blood, keeping us alive to proclaim that we’ve been redeemed and redemption is free by the grace of God and the cost of Christ. It is the blood by which we can sing the next lines,

But we scream back at them from below on the street
All in unison we sing, our time’s been redeemed
We are all of the beauty that has not been seen
We are full of the color that’s never been dreamed

Because nothing we need ever dies. Isn’t that so? Our needs – physical and otherwise are slippery things, but we get parched and desperate for them. We beg and plead for them, our needs. And those needs never die.

But there is one need that trumps all other needs and it’s what started beating like hope in my chest when I heard this song. There is a reason life isn’t endless vacation and it is because there is work to do. There is toil and sweat and there is work to do. My blood is worth something because Christ’s blood was shed on my behalf.

O, precious HOPE that redeems us in the bliss of vacation and in the dull hum-drum of Monday-afters. I’m still swaying to this precious hope that my life in the regulars and the weekday sways and sweats for a greater story.

Even if I was lonely, even if I was broke
Even if all the dogs in the pound left me notes
Sayin’ it’s never over, it never ends
Grab my heart and the fire, let us descend

To the darkest of prisons, break their defense
We will rattle the cages, rules will be bent
Oh, remind us our days are all numbered, not spent
And peace it comes easy like mist on a ridge

Chorus
Breathing in, breathing out, the salt in my mouth
Gives me hope that I’ll bleed something worth bleeding out

All the horoscopes tell us to break all our ties
To our families and loved ones we leave when we fly
To the cities we think we need in our lives
Oh, you Manhattan jungle, you tangle our pride

Chorus

All the buildings, they lean and they smile down on us
And they shout from their rooftops words we can’t trust
Like you’re dead, you are tired, you’re ruined, you’re dust
Oh, you won’t ‘mount to nothing, like thanks full of rust

But we scream back at them from below on the street
All in unison we sing, our time’s been redeemed
We are all of the beauty that has not been seen
We are full of the color that’s never been dreamed

Where nothing we need ever dies
Where nothing we need ever dies