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)

still epiphany

We’re still in that season on the church calendar called Epiphany, but it sure is easy to forget about it. Without the Christmas clutter, whether we embrace it or fight it, we are less aware of any spiritual season. At least I am.

And then a song comes through my headphones on my way to work in the morning called Lazarus by Jon Guerra. I remember that this season is about practicing presence. I remember that Jesus walked the earth – that He came to live with us, inside our human struggle. And when he saw pain and death and sickness, he walked towards it. He was fully present in every kind of place with every kind of person.

This is how Jesus responded when the sisters sent word that the one He loved was sick,

“But when Jesus heard it he said, “This illness does not lead to death. It is for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” John 11:4

He did not rush like an EMT to the scene or run the opposite direction from the tragedy’s sadness. He did not avoid Judea, though the people tried to stone him the last time he was in town. Jesus was slow, steady, and confident that his presence possessed the authority of the One who sent Him.

And I forget that.

I forget that Jesus is present in the darkness of this world and present in the darkness of my heart. He walks toward the darkness and offends it with the light of His truth. He walks toward dead bones and this is what he says,

Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?” John 11:25-26

His presence means resurrection and it means life. And we are all Lazarus, dead for four days, lost in darkness. We are all wrapped up, bodies bandaged and cold, when He makes Himself present to us and then makes us alive to Him. Do we believe this? Do we live believing that faith means we will never die? Do we walk out God’s daily miracles of future grace with a confidence of one who will live forever?

When he had said these things, he cried out with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out.” John 11:43

Every day, he stands at the door of our death tombs and says, “Come out.” He reminds us that He is present here in this dark day and in our dark hearts. He calls for us to be present with Him and to be His presence. He calls us to “come out” of darkness in order to speak life into a world of death.

This is the season of Epiphany, where we celebrate Jesus being present among us. Let us not forget all His benefits (Psalm 103)!

chasing mystery | chasing Jesus

We don’t follow someone because we think we have the best answer or the best adventure or because we know how to beat the antagonist in the story.

We follow someone because we believe he has something we do not.

When the disciples were called out of their busy, productive lives as fishermen and tax collectors and ordinaries, they said yes to a very mysterious man with an authoritative voice. They knew little about his mission or his history or his agenda, but they didn’t ask questions. They followed.

They chased the mystery that called them into following. They said yes before they knew all the answers about where to direct the clamoring children and how to calm a crowd. They said yes before they knew demons would flee when they spoke and before they knew entire towns would reject them as they shook the dust off their feet.

The disciples chased mystery as they chased Jesus, leaning in close for the next surprise to tumble off his lips. Each disciple knew that Jesus had access to something they did not and they must have believed that this knowledge was worth following, however crazy it seemed.

I love that they didn’t have the answers. I love that they learned as they followed and they followed with faith that the mysteries made sense.

I imagine the curious looks they gave each other when Jesus motioned for the children to come and when he held up wine to toast at the party and when he reached out to touch the leper and the blind man and the bleeding woman.

I imagine their shrugs and their puzzled stares and their visible decision to continue chasing this crazy man and the crazy mystery of his love on earth.

They didn’t have Paul’s letters or eye witness accounts or pounds of history books to corroborate oral histories.

I like that they kept saying yes, anyway.

I like that the disciples were fishermen and tax collectors and ordinary folks who kept saying yes to following the footsteps of a man who loved with the authority of heaven.

And I like that Jesus only needed their “Yes” to pull them into the mystery. Did they ever dream they would see the dead raised or demons cast out? Did they grow up hoping to someday throw a party with their Savior as a co-host?

They didn’t know the Greek and Hebrew way to decipher his movements, but they knew his movements because they were following him so closely.

I want to follow Jesus that way.

I want to say yes because I believe in what He is about and not because it makes sense. I want to get pulled into the mystery in a way that makes my eyebrows shoot into my hairline – a way that makes me ask, “Is this the right thing?”

There is mystery and magic bound up in the monotony of the everyday and there is only one person we can follow to spook it out from underneath the moldy rocks.

When mystery is spooked out from under moldy rocks it might seem like it had a better life hidden underneath. It might seem like a bad idea to lift up the rock at all. It might not be reasonable or pleasant or comfortable, but mystery is surprising in that way.

Sometimes all of our knowledge makes mystery look very undesirable and we end up missing out on that very beautiful, very unique thing that captured the spirits of those disciples.

I want to follow Jesus when He lifts up rocks that look fine where they are. I want to be next to him when he walks through closed doors and when he reaches out to touch the ugliness.

I want to follow Jesus because He is what I am not – He is the best answer, the best adventure and the best way to beat the antagonist fighting for sway on my soul.

like diamonds

We were sitting on the patio in half-shade/half-sun on a lazy Sunday afternoon, sipping strong french roast coffee, nibbling at coconut cake, and talking about diamonds. We got to diamonds after several rabbit trails, but mostly because we were trying to understand vulnerability.

This TED talk by Brené Brown explores her years of research on the subject and her conclusions that vulnerability is one of the most feared but most important aspects of human relationship, and specifically human thriving. The very thing that has the power to destroy someone (through shame, fear, struggle for worthiness) also has the power to birth joy, creativity, belonging, and love, so the research says.

Brown’s research actually ended up planting her in a therapist’s chair as she tried to piece through her findings. I can’t say that I’m surprised – about the research or about her breakdown (as she describes it), but I’ve been thinking about it for the past month or so.

And while I sat with Alejandra on that patio under the Minnesota Sunday sunshine, I wondered if the value of vulnerability is not the main question (I’ll defer to Brown’s extensive 10 years of research for that). I wondered, instead, if the more important question is the best place from which to be vulnerable. Of course, an analogy slowly formed as we sat (she is so patient to listen to my ramblings) about diamonds.

In relationships, if we brave vulnerability at all, we will usually attach an expectation onto the offering. In other words, we will share something (like the fear of being lonely, for example) with an often unspoken expectation that the other person not only keep the information safe, but also that s/he will know better how to care for us when we are lonely.

It’s as if we’ve all got panes of glass in our closets and when we get close enough to someone, we give them a pane of glass. We present a beautiful, transparent, perfectly cut pane of glass with shaky hands and with eyes that say, “Handle with care” because (of course) glass is breakable. We are nervous as we share things about our childhood, our nightmares, our dreams for the future, our weight, our most embarrassing moment, and our fears. We are nervous because glass is breakable and we are giving our breakable parts to someone else.

We expect that person to store the beautiful, transparent, perfectly cut pane of glass in the safest place and also to treat us differently, now that s/he can see through that window to our souls. We want them to make comments about our beauty, reassure us about the future, and know when a song triggers a painful childhood memory.

What happens when that trusted person forgets to handle the shared glass with care?

It breaks.

It breaks into a tiny million little pieces and a little piece of us breaks too. S/he didn’t call to say sorry on the date when your mom died, s/he fell asleep when you were sharing about a bad dream, s/he made fun of your hair/weight/style, s/he told friends your most embarrassing moment.

Glass broken. Unrepairable. Shattered.

But what if it wasn’t glass we were sharing, with the expectation that the receiver keep it safe? What if we were sharing diamonds instead?

What if we find our worth completely in someone who is only capable of being faithful, trustworthy, true, compassionate, and merciful?

I’ve been crucified with Christ, therefore I no longer live but Jesus Christ now lives in me (Galatians 2:20). If God approves of Christ, He approves of us because Christ lives in us. We know that we are new creations (2 Corinthians 5:17) who are approved by God and not ashamed (2 Timothy 2:15).

This knowledge (I’ve only scratched the surface) fundamentally changes how we approach vulnerability. I am no longer offering something in relationships that can be broken because my worth and safety and joy and fulfillment is sealed in the crucifixion of Christ. I am sharing diamonds – the rock that never loses its worth, the rock that can’t be broken, the rock that sparkles from every angle.

Can diamonds be thrown in the mud or the ocean or the desert? Yep, they sure can. Diamonds can be buried in the deepest cave, but they still wouldn’t lose their worth. We worry about being vulnerable when we presume our fears and shame define us. It’s a scary thing to let someone in to see “who you really are” if the things you hide define you.

But, God made a way – a new definition – so we could be defined by His Son. Our worth and purpose and freedom are beautifully bound up in the miraculous work of the cross. There is no chance that our fears and shame and failure and struggle could makes less that miraculous work.

Our vulnerabilities are diamonds kept safe by the Creator of the Universe – whether we share it with kings or with paupers, tax collectors or pharisees, lovers or friends, enemies or allies. We are made in the image of God and transformed into the likeness of His Son with ever increasing glory (2 Corinthians 3:18).

This is how Paul describes his confidence in being a minister of the new covenant (an extremely vulnerable and visible position),

Such is the confidence that we have through Christ toward God. Not that we are sufficient in ourselves to claim anything as coming from us, but our sufficiency is from God, who has made us sufficient to be ministers of a new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit. For the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life. (2 Corinthians 3:4-6 ESV)

The Spirit gives life. The letter (the law) kills – even the laws we create for ourselves and the expectations we place on others to handle us with care. The law of the Spirit of life sets us free from the law of sin and death (Romans 8), so that we need only to place our expectation of being held up on the One who can hold us up.

Christ is sufficient to keep safe every vulnerability so that when we choose to share those deep things we are not afraid they can break us.

torn apart, You paid my price

I didn’t get to go to a Good Friday service last night.

I worked until 8:30 pm and then chased the last rays of Spring sunshine back to my neighborhood. I had my belly full of joy, satisfied with the abundance of His grace that carried me from Monday to Friday dusk.

The death didn’t set in until this morning and now I cannot dry my eyes. Jesus died. He was torn apart to satisfy God’s wrath and to secure my place of forever joy with Him. Jesus died and the next day He was still dead.

I don’t understand it.

John Piper tweeted this morning: “Still sovereign while dead. ‘Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.’ (John 2:19)” What does that mean – that He was sovereign even while He was dead? How could my Savior die?

I don’t pretend to understand it – the mystery of it all – but I do understand this: my belly fills with joy because I am redeemed. I am set free by the grace of God as He looks on the perfect sacrifice of His Son that satisfies His wrath.

I am set free because my Savior was torn apart and humiliated in death to pay the price of my ugly heart. Today, I’ll let the tears roll because my belly full of joy came at great cost.

My complete and abundant joy was secured when God’s complete and perfect wrath was satisfied in the sacrifice of Jesus Christ.

I don’t understand this Holy Saturday, but I do understand this: the dead weight of Friday looks to Sunday for relief in the resurrection.

Torn apart you paid my price,
The wrath of God was satisfied
I traded sin, you gave me life
My hope is found on Jesus Christ

“The happy ending of the Resurrection is so enormous that it swallows up even the sorrow of the Cross.” – Tim Keller

jesus loves Me vs. Jesus loves me

Jesus loves me, this I know
for the Bible tells me so
Little ones to Him belong
they are weak but He is strong

Yes, we know.
We know every person is special.
We know every single child is unique.

And praise God for the way He has fashioned us each beautifully different to reflect His creative glory! But, do we think that our special-ness and unique-ness merits Jesus’ love?

Do we believe our lovability makes Jesus’ love for us obvious?

When children are young and cute, it’s hard not to make a big deal about them. It’s hard  not to fuss over how cute or brave or strong or daring they are. We promote their self-centered orbit by circling around them with our affections.

There is a subtle, creeping danger, then, of making the universal children’s Sunday school anthem meaningless.

If we sing, “Jesus loves Me, this I know” with the understanding that Jesus could do nothing but love us, His love is nothing miraculous or mysterious or beautiful because we believe we deserve it.

And a love that we deserve from Jesus would make us the central character. And if we are the central character, then we are really greater than God Himself. And if we are worthy of the love He gives because we are greater than God Himself, do we really need His love in the first place?

What is the posture of our hearts when we talk about the love Christ showed for us on the cross? Is it a posture of squared shoulders and nodding acceptance, like one accepting an award or is it a prostrate position of humility and repentance?

I can say with all manner of certainty that Jesus does love me. I do know this because the Bible reveals God’s purposes (that will not be thwarted) and from the very beginning He conspired to pour out great love and grace.

I know that Jesus loves me because He came and spent Himself unto death for the “little ones to Him belong.”

I know Jesus loves me because His bent shoulders that carried the cross are strong enough to bear my every affliction and weakness.

I know Jesus loves me because He prepares a place for me in eternity, where I will enjoy uninterrupted communion with my Maker.

I know that Jesus loves me, but it is because He is the central and most important character in history that His love holds any weight or power.

Because God is rich in grace and mercy, He gives lavishly what His creation is not worthy to receive. And in this giving, we experience a love that far surpasses the petty affection of anything that can be earned.

That is what makes Jesus’ love for us so beautiful.

And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience—among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.

But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved—and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.

For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them. (Ephesians 2:1-10 ESV)

threading the needle of His mending

I woke up feeling the ugliness. It slipped out my eyelids as I was doing laundry and felt like a freight train as I read my Advent devotional.

It was unnerving yesterday to see people jumping on platforms to make the tragedy in Sandy Hook political. This is a time for weeping and just that. Grief serves as a great reminder that the world is not broken because of systems or structures but because of people. The world is broken because people are not inherently good.

We are broken. We are wayward. We are disasters making disasters.

And so, this morning, when I read these words I remembered why it is important that we understand God’s law. When we look at His commands – at the weight and glory and perfection of them – we know what a mended world would look like.

Now the God of peace, who brought up from the dead the great Shepherd of the sheep through the blood of the eternal covenant [this is the purchase of the new covenant], even Jesus our Lord, equip you in every good thing to do His will, working in us that which is pleasing in His sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be the glory forever and ever. Amen. Hebrews 13:20-21

The words “working in us that which is pleasing in his sight” describe what happens when God writes the law on our hearts in the new covenant. And the words “through Jesus Christ” describe Jesus as the Mediator of this glorious work of sovereign grace.

So the meaning of Christmas is not only that God replaces shadows with Reality, but also that he takes the reality and makes it real to his people. He writes it on our hearts. He does not lay his Christmas gift of salvation and transformation down for you to pick up in your own strength. He picks it up and puts in your heart and in your mind, and seals to you that you are a child of God. (Good News of Great Joy  Advent Devotional, day 15)

His law is true and pure and beautiful. He writes his ways on our hearts when we put down all our human efforts and pick up His finished work on the cross. Then we will obey His commands because we love Him more than what is broken.

In His power and strength, we will act the miracles He has written on our hearts – from one hard fought step to the next. We cannot legislate the mending of this world because the brokenness is deeper than our pens and papers.

The mending of this world must begin in our hearts – by believing that Christ was broken on our behalf, but that He did not stay broken.

When we believe there is only One with power enough to beat brokenness, He grants power that we might thread the needle of His mending.

let LOVE fly like cRaZy