Like the Other Nations

20 July 2021

Toward the end of Samuel’s life, Israel asked for a king (1 Samuel 8:1-5).  “Make us a king to judge us like all the nations,” they said.  We typically pick on them for wanting to be like everybody else — makes an easy Sunday school lesson on peer pressure, or a good sermon on “keeping up with the Joneses.”  But there’s a subtlety here that we shouldn’t miss.  Israel had good legal support for their request, and there was a certain amount of wisdom in it.  

Centuries before, the book of Deuteronomy had already set forth the laws for a king (Deut. 17:14-20).  We pick on them for wanting to be like everybody else, but Deuteronomy plainly says that Israel can have a king “like all the nations.”  Moreover, Deuteronomy stipulated that God Himself would choose the king, but Israel was fine with that.  They didn’t appoint a king for themselves and then ask God to rubber-stamp their choice after the fact.  No, they came to Samuel the priest/judge, God’s living representative, and asked for a king.  On paper, Israel’s request was completely legal.

That said, Israel had been without a king for centuries.  In fact, they had never had a king, although God clearly expected that they one day would.  So why now?  How could they argue that this was a good time?  Easy.  With Samuel growing older, and his sons unfit to follow in his footsteps, they needed another ruler.  If Samuel died without appointing a successor, his wicked sons would wind up in power by default.  How would that be good for anyone?  “When a wicked man rules, the people groan.”  It was the elders’ responsibility to see trouble coming and avert it if possible — “The prudent man foresees evil and hides himself; the simple pass on and are punished.”  If Samuel appointed a king, the problem would be neatly solved.  Not only was it legal, it also seemed a wise course of action in those circumstances.

On paper, Israel was covered all the way around.  What’s to criticize?

Seriously, stop for a minute and think about it.  Is there anything wrong with what they asked for?

***

God thought so.  “They have not rejected you,” God said to Samuel.  “They have rejected Me, that I should not reign over them.”

On what grounds was God able to say that?  He continues with an explanation: “According to all the works which they have done since the day that I brought them up out of Egypt, even to this day — with which they have forsaken Me and served other gods — so they are doing to you also.”  It would be one thing if Israel were faithfully worshipping God, forsaking all idols, and in the course of seeking God, asked for a king like Deuteronomy talked about.  

This was something else entirely.  Israel was bowing down to idols left and right, serving the gods of all the other nations, violating God’s commandments all over the place.  Then, under those circumstances, she was also seeking a king like all the other nations.  Even though on paper the request was neatly covered by the law and the circumstances, her heart was absolutely wrong.   Israel was more than willing to be covered by the Law when it suited her purposes, but her real attitude toward God was revealed by her continual idolatry.

God gave Israel exactly what she asked for — a king like the other nations.  The son of a powerful man, Saul was the handsomest man in Israel, and head and shoulders taller than everybody else to boot.  No doubt he cut a fine figure as Israel’s king.

How did that all work out?  Not too well — once you got past the exterior, there wasn’t much to Saul.  He was cowardly, petty and jealous, and it cost him heavily.  As Israel wasn’t walking with God when she asked for a king, she got a king that didn’t walk with God either.  

So it turns out this is a lesson on peer pressure and “keeping up with the Joneses” after all, but there’s more depth to it than first appears.  There wasn’t anything wrong with the request for a king — God never intended to rule Israel through judges forever.  But everything was wrong with their hearts.  So the question is not whether an inventory of our property and our habits will reveal similarities with our pagan neighbors.  Of course it will, and that’s not necessarily bad.

The question is whether an inventory of our worship will reveal that we share the idolatries of our pagan neighbors.  Do we worship what they worship?  In our society, gross idolatry of the sort Israel fell into is rare.  Even in the post-Christian West, almost nobody makes little statues and bows down to them anymore. But do we seek life and comfort from our insurance policies, our savings and retirement accounts, our homes and possessions?  Do we seek status based on the perceived prestige of our careers?  Do we covet a certain car, certain clothes, annual vacations in a certain place, a certain kind of house in a certain school district?  These things are all subtler forms of idolatry, and they poison us spiritually just as surely as if we were bringing baskets of fruit to a little statue.

When we go to God in prayer, we can feel that what we are asking for is proper and biblical, just as Israel’s request for a king was proper and biblical — on paper.  The question we need to ask ourselves is, have we listened to what God is saying to us?  Have we obeyed in the things we know to do?  Are we seeking to know God and follow His priorities, or are we simply hiding our own desire to “keep up with the Joneses” under cover of a Bible verse?

***

Prayer Exercise

  1. Take some time apart to pray.  Ask God if there is an area of your life where you are following an idol rather than seeking after Him.  Wait in silence for an answer.
  2. If God shows you an area of idolatry in your life, don’t beat yourself up about it.  Rather, face it squarely and name the issue.  “Father, I confess that I believe this [house, car, vacation, business success, whatever] will give me life and comfort that You can’t or won’t give me.  Of course I know I’m not supposed to say things like this out loud, but if I’m honest, that’s how I really behave, and it’s what I really think.  Please reveal the truth about this to me.”    Remain alert for God’s answer.

For Three Failures, and for Four

13 July 2021

In the beginning, God made Adam and Eve and put them in the Garden with a simple set of instructions.  As we all know, they blew it, and afterwards, they were ashamed, and hid from God.  

How sad would it have been if God had come down into the Garden, looked around, shrugged and said, “Oh well,” and gone back to heaven?  But of course He didn’t, because He loved them.  So God sought Adam and Eve, calling out for them in the Garden.  When Adam responded, God didn’t just pretend everything was okay.  He went right after the root of their shame, the sin they had committed.  He dragged it out into the light, dealt with it, and promised them a restoration (Gen. 3:15).

***

Peter denied Jesus three times, and then went out and wept bitterly.  He knew he’d sinned, but he didn’t let that sin keep him away from Jesus.  Unlike Adam, when the opportunity to be with Jesus arose again, he jumped at it.  John 21 tells the story of how the disciples went fishing, and caught nothing all night.  As they were returning, a man on the shore called out to them to let down their net again, and it was filled with fish.  John recognized that it was Jesus, and Peter jumped in the water and swam to shore to be with Him.  

When the others arrived, they found Jesus already cooking breakfast over a fire.  As they ate, Jesus went right after the root of Peter’s shame: 

“Simon, son of Jonah, do you love Me more than these?”

“Yes, Lord, You know that I love You.”

“Feed My lambs.”

If Jesus had stopped right there, all the other disciples would know that Jesus still had a use for Peter.  No one would think that he couldn’t be a disciple anymore because he had denied Jesus — after all, Jesus gave him a job to do.  Jesus doesn’t stop there, because He wants to make sure Peter is fully restored.  So He asks again.

“Simon, son of Jonah, do you love Me?”

“Yes, Lord, You know that I love you.”

“Tend My sheep.”

The silence must have hung heavy.  Jesus was clearly up to something.  The other disciples waited.  Peter sat, dreading what he had to know was coming.

“Simon, son of Jonah, do you love Me?”

“Yes, Lord, You know all things; You know that I love you.”

“Feed My sheep.  I tell you the truth: when you were younger, you dressed yourself adn walked where you wished, but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and carry you where you do not wish.”

Peter denied Jesus three times; Jesus makes Peter affirm his love for Jesus three times.  The sin can’t be undone, but it is mended.  The root of shame in Peter’s heart has been dragged out into the light.  Three times Jesus affirms that He still has work for Peter to do.  

All this is grace upon grace, but Jesus isn’t done yet.  If He stopped here, Peter would know he was forgiven, and he would know that he was useful, but he would always wonder what would happen the next time his life was on the line.  Would he have the courage to stand up, or would he buckle again, just like the last time?  Peter would wonder, and the devil would prey upon those fears mercilessly.

So Jesus does one more thing: He tells Peter that in the end, he will have the courage to die a martyr’s death after all.  And He says it publicly, where all the disciples can hear.  On the eve of the crucifixion, Peter had claimed to be ready to die for Jesus.  Now, Peter is not only fully restored, he is better off than he was — he is finally the man he thought he was before.  

***

John Mark was a young man when he first went with Paul and Barnabas.  He seems to have grown up in Jerusalem, but he had made his way up to Antioch at some point.  We don’t know why he left them at Pamphylia, only that he did.  Maybe he was afraid.  Maybe he was sickly.  Maybe he was homesick.  In any event, he left them, and returned not to the Antioch church that had sent them out, but to his home church in Jerusalem.

Mark must have been tempted to just not go back, to just disappear into a place where nobody knew him.  Once he was past that temptation, he must have been tempted to stay at home in Jerusalem.  However, he didn’t stay in Jerusalem.  By the time Paul and Barnabas were ready to go back and encourage the churches they had planted on the first trip, John Mark had apparently made it back to Antioch, to the church that had sent him out with Paul and Barnabas, the church that he had let down by leaving the work.  He was ready to try again.  Barnabas was willing, but not Paul.  They split up, Paul taking Silas and Barnabas taking Mark with him to minister in Cyprus.

We lose track of John Mark for about 7 years after that, until Paul wrote to the church at Colosse.  In his letter, he reminded them that they had instructions to welcome John Mark if he should come to them.  This little reminder meant two things.  First, it meant that Paul was instructing people not to ostracize John Mark.  Paul had not been ready to rely on him as a partner, but he was not going to let Mark’s failure follow him around for the rest of his life.  Mark was welcome in the churches where Paul ministered, in person or by letter.  Second, it meant that Paul thought it was possible that John Mark would come to the Colossian church.  Why would he think that?  We get a clue in Paul’s letter to Philemon, which was written around the same time.  At the close of the letter, Paul passes on greetings to Philemon from a number of his “fellow laborers” — Aristarchus, Demas, Luke…and Mark.  In the seven years since Paul refused to take Mark with him as a partner, Mark had grown into someone Paul can rely on.  He was with Paul, working alongside him.  Shortly thereafter, Paul sent him out to work on his own.  We know this because   later that same year, Paul wrote Timothy to get Mark and bring him to Paul, “for he is useful to me for ministry.”

***

Is there a failure that is weighing you down?  Maybe you’ve never even acknowledged it.  Maybe you have confessed it to God, but you don’t really feel forgiven.  Maybe you grasp that you are forgiven, but the festering wound of your failure continues to plague you, even though you know God has forgiven you.

If any of these things are true of you, know that Yahweh is the same yesterday, today, and forever.  He sought out Adam, and He is calling for you too.  He will go right to the root of your shame, as He did with Adam.  Jesus restored Peter fully to ministry, and He can do the same for you.  The process will probably be painful, as it was for Peter.  But the pain is brief, and the healing lasts a long, long time.


What About the Girls?

6 July 2021

When instructing teenagers in matters of chastity, it is natural to turn to Proverbs 5 and 7. Solomon is speaking to his sons there, and in those two chapters he paints a vivid portrait of what sexual sin is really like. He pulls no punches about the tactile allure of the immoral woman. “Her lips drip honey; her mouth is smoother than oil.” The imagery of how it all ends is equally tactile. “She is like a two-edged sword.” French kiss that!

All this is great stuff. I’d love to see someone make a 3-minute animated featurette of Proverbs 7 to show to teenaged boys. That would be something.

But what about the girls?

I mean, we can point at the same passages and say, “Don’t be that girl,” but let’s face it, that’s not where the temptation really lies. Young virgins are mostly not tempted to become whores.

When one of our girls falls into immorality, what does she say?

  • “He told me he loved me.”
  • “I love him.”
  • “I never felt like that about anybody before.”
  • “You don’t understand — what we have is special.”

Right?

So where does the Bible speak to the kind of temptations represented in our most common experience?

The Song of Songs.

The Song is not a book bulging with commands. Mostly it’s very frank love poetry. Why would we give that to an unmarried teenaged girl? Because the commands that are in the book are addressed to her. “I charge you, O daughters of Jerusalem, not to stir up or awaken love until it pleases.” Three times the Shulamite gives the daughters of Jerusalem this pointed command. Who are the daughters of Jerusalem? Unmarried young women. In that culture, they would have to be young teenagers — everybody got married in their teens.

Upon reflection, this is not surprising.

In a world where expectations for romance are set by movies like Twilight, to what Scripture do we turn to teach our daughters about real romance? To the book that talks about it.


Bringing the Umbrella

29 June 2021

The last rain was a month ago, and that wasn’t near enough.  Hot, dry wind whips dust along the roads and across the fields, where the scraggly remnants of this year’s crops cling to life.  The church has called an emergency all-night vigil to pray for rain.  People shuffle in, faces somber, heads bowed, hands empty.  Except for one little girl, who marches through the blowing dust toward the church, her small hands clutching a pink, kid-sized umbrella.

Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.  Faith is the concrete thing you do right now because you expect God to hold up His end of the bargain.  Faith is bringing an umbrella to the prayer meeting.

Faith makes you look like an idiot sometimes.  Like Noah did, building an enormous boat on dry land.  Like Abram did, leaving his city behind to go…where, exactly?  Like Gideon did, taking on the armies of Midian with a mere three hundred men.  Like Elijah did, stacking the altar with wood, drenching it with water, and then asking God to supply the fire.

When we insist on real results, and we focus on the things that God told us to…that takes faith.  Because the things God tells us to focus on aren’t things we can control.  They just won’t happen if He doesn’t show up and provide.  Do we think He will?

Faith is acting like He will.  Doing the things that don’t make any sense unless God is going to show up and do something.  And that’s pretty crazy, unless…

…unless we have some sense of what God wants to do, and we’re willing to align with it.  Or at least we know what God wants us to do, and we trust Him to do something useful with it, however crazy that may seem at the time.

In Psalm 25, David prays, “O my God, I trust in You; Let me not be ashamed.”  It sounds kinda fancy when you say it like that, but what it means is, “Please don’t let me look like an idiot for trusting You here.”  The key to the request is the first part: “I trust in You.”  Very often we don’t trust in God.  Very often, if we were honest, the more appropriate prayer would be, “God, I didn’t even bother to ask You what You want to do.  I just think my plan is a great idea, but it’s pretty high-risk.  Please don’t let me look like an idiot for taking this risk on something I just decided to do on my own.”  I’m not sure how excited God would be to answer that prayer.  

For many years now, I’ve built my ministry projects around a core of obedience to the things God told us to focus on.  I don’t claim to have the way to do it, but I take it as an article of faith that there must be some way to do what God told us to do, and do it well.  I am partnering with other believers who want to know what obedience looks like. We find out together — not usually on the first try. It’s a messy process, difficult to program and impossible to control.  How do we live with it?

I set goals, but all my goals are prayer requests. When I say the goal of the Victorious Bible curriculum project is to help people understand the biblical story and live in terms of it, I understand something of how the process will work…now.  Even now, I know that if God doesn’t show up and grant clarity and repentance to the people we are teaching, all of it will be for nothing.  But when we started, all we knew was this was something God wanted to do.  Stating the goal was saying, out loud, that we heard what God was saying and we were willing to receive it. We postured ourselves to receive the blessing that would come, and trusted God to deliver whatever we lacked along the way. 

In other words, we brought our umbrella.  What we are doing is taking a posture of reception.  We believe that obedience is the best posture of reception.  If we do what He says to do as far as we can, and trust Him to supply what we cannot, He will.  And we believe we’ll get further that way than we will if we wait for Him to ante up first.  “You bring the flood water, God, then I’ll start building the boat” doesn’t work so well.  

We are preparing to receive what God will give — whatever that will turn out to be.  If God does not give fruit, then we won’t have it, and there’s nothing we can do to change that, because we can’t manufacture Kingdom fruit anyway.

***

Prayer Exercise

Ask God to show you something He wants you to shoot for this year.

It could be something big, like finishing that book project, or something small like striking up an acquaintance with your neighbor. See what God might put on your radar.

Then ask what you need to do to receive that thing. Schedule time to receive, whether that means inviting the neighbor over for coffee, scheduling alone time to sit down and write, whatever. Commit yourself to taking that posture of reception once a week, and see what God will do.


Handle with Care

6 May 2021

We live in a touch-starved culture. The church is often no exception, and because touch is such a minefield, we often don’t know what to do about it.

Read this book. It will help you get started in a healthier direction.


Research Pastor?

13 April 2021

I had two conversations yesterday about the ways in which the American church has grown like other organizations, and how that has caused severe problems.

In one conversation, we were discussing this article, which compares the traits we generally hire for in a megachurch pastor with the traits comparably-sized businesses hire for in a CEO. Big surprise: same basic profile, and it comes with the same basic set of temptations and problems. Shocking, right?

I’ve written elsewhere about the problems of trying to map business culture onto the church, so I won’t belabor it here. Best case scenario? Your church gets run like a business instead of the house of God. Worst case? Your church leaders misbehave like businessmen do…which happens constantly.

The other conversation was with a church member (different church, far away) who was observing a disparity between pay and productivity. In his church, part-time (i.e., bivocational) staff members do most of the work, but the senior pastor is negotiating for a raise. In my friend’s view, the senior pastor contributes less (doesn’t counsel or disciple parishioners, preaches three times a month), and flatly refuses to be bivocational for various reasons. Offhand, I observed that this sounded a bit like the academic world. As I spun the analogy out, it worked even more closely than I’d thought, and it made me a little sick.

A lot of the necessary grunt work is getting handled by the adjunct grades. In many churches, the youth pastor position is the career equivalent of the guy who teaches the night section of freshman comp at your local community college: entry level, bad hours, but if you put a couple years in you can move up. The logistical heavy lifting (committee chairing, managerial continuity) gets handled by the mid-grades (assistant/associate professors, assistant/associate pastors). At the top of both ladders is a research professorship where you get paid to study the stuff you like and give maybe 2-3 lectures a month.

There is a big difference, though. When the research professor in the academic world comes out to give a lecture, it’s cutting-edge research. When the senior pastor comes out of the study to give a sermon, it’s first-year Bible school stuff: basic Bible exposition, basic doctrine, basic application. Why does it take 20-30 hours in the study to produce that?

The seminary I attended (and for a while, taught for) lives on the fringes of a tribe that calls itself “the doctrinal movement.” Their pastors spend 30+ hours a week in the study (actually, most doctrinal pastors would consider it slacking off to only put in 30 hours of prep!), and deliver long, detailed lectures multiple times a week. I have my differences with their approach to church, but at least they’re delivering a proportional return on the study time they’re putting in.

Other pastors? Not so much.

I do want to carve out some exceptions here. There can be myriad nigh-invisible demands on a pastor’s time, from preparation for a budget meeting with the church trustees to a steady stream of people calling, emailing, or dropping by the church to talk with him about some personal crisis. When everybody wants 20 minutes of your time, that adds up! If the pastor is actually spending time tending the flock that Christ entrusted to him, then all is well. If the pastor is wearing through the knees of his pants praying for his people, then all is well. If a pastor is a newbie, and it genuinely takes him 30 hours to get his sermon prepped — again, all is well, at least for his first year.

There’s another population of pastors, though, that’s spending days in the study preparing sermons that show no sign of needing that much attention. Those guys need to get to work.


Living with your results

9 February 2021

In my experience with grad schools, I’ve found that unfortunately, they mostly think of character formation as someone else’s job. The church should do it, or the students should find a mentor on their own, or…well, someone else, anyhow. The school focuses on knowledge, and somebody else can worry about the students’ character.

It makes a kind of sense. Grad schools are classrooms, doing what classrooms are good at: book knowledge, and lots of it. They’re sticking to their strengths. But the brutal truth is, the church looks to the schools to prepare people for ministry, and the schools expect someone else to handle the character component, because they’re not set up to do it. All too often, no one does the hard work of character development. Who loses? You do. And so does everyone you minister to for the first few years while you catch up…if you catch up.

Grad schools have the luxury of taking a hands-off approach to character formation because they don’t have to live with their results. You go to them for training, and then you leave, and become someone else’s problem.

Apprenticeships work differently. If we’re mentoring you, we have to live with your mistakes the whole time you’re with us. Also, we hope to keep some of our apprentices even when they’re ready to launch, because the harvest is plentiful around here, and we could use the help.


Maybe We Won’t Have To

4 November 2020

I have made it my life’s work to know and love people who are very unlike me. As a result, I have a wide network of friends and contacts all across the political spectrum. I’m speaking to you all right now.

I wish you all knew each other the way I know you.

Most of the people you fear, or even hate, aren’t what you think they are. I know this, because I know them.

You could, too. The common ground is there. It might not be much, and it might not be something that’s all that important in the grand scheme of things: baseball cards, ‘40s movies, green chili. It might be something more consequential: losing your mom, a cancer diagnosis, raising kids, staying sober (or not). You all live in the same world; there are countless ways to connect.

Even as I write this, I can hear you thinking “Why should I? They [fill in the blank here].”

I know. Has it occurred to you, though, that human connection is a weapon? That it will be harder for them to hate and fear you after you’ve connected over your shared love of watercolor landscapes or good ice cream or jazz whatever it turns out to be? Has it occurred to you that they will have a hard time coming out of that experience unchanged?

So, of course, will you. Which may have something to do with your reluctance, if we’re honest.

Y’all are all over my feed promising not to give up fighting for your cause no matter what, and I’m not even gonna try to talk you out of that right now. But I’d like to see you add one more promise: commit yourself to make a human connection with someone that — if civil war broke out tomorrow — you would probably shoot.

Because then maybe you won’t have to.


A Choice of Judgments

18 August 2020

Once upon a time, David led the nation of Israel into a serious sin. God was going to judge him, but He offered David a choice of which judgment the nation would suffer. The story appears in 1 Samuel 24:11-15:

When David got up in the morning, a revelation from the Lord had come to the prophet Gad, David’s seer: “Go and say to David, ‘This is what the Lord says: I am offering you three choices. Choose one of them, and I will do it to you.’” So Gad went to David, told him the choices, and asked him, “Do you want three[a] years of famine to come on your land, to flee from your foes three months while they pursue you, or to have a plague in your land three days? Now, think it over and decide what answer I should take back to the One who sent me.” David answered Gad, “I have great anxiety. Please, let us fall into the Lord’s hands because His mercies are great, but don’t let me fall into human hands.” So the Lord sent a plague on Israel from that morning until the appointed time, and from Dan to Beer-sheba 70,000 men died.

The 2016 presidential election was just such a choice, and 2020 is shaping up to be more of the same. You don’t have to be a howling fan of one of the options to prefer one over the other. In fact, you can even strongly prefer one over the other, without losing sight of the fact that all of this is divine judgment.

We are being given the candidates we deserve. The ostensible progressive candidate is the kinda guy #metoo was about, and an architect of mass incarceration, to boot. The ostensibly conservative candidate is manifestly neither principled nor conservative, and yet by every meaningful measure, has outperformed any of the real conservative candidates in the past two decades.

I repeat, we are being given what we deserve: liars and hypocrites. If we want better, then we need to repent of our hypocrisies and beg God for mercy. There is no way out of this but repentance. 

Christ have mercy. 


Working Through the Risk

5 August 2020

“We get it, you miss your friends and your normal life. The virus doesn’t care. Don’t be selfish. Stay home. If you can’t order it online or pick it up curbside, you don’t need it.”

It’s time we thought through that message.

Some people really can live that way. Everything they need is delivered to their doorstep, or they go drive by the store and pick up their purchase at the curb. But plainly, these people’s “unselfish” and “safe” lifestyle is dependent on another whole class of people who deliver their goodies to them — and those people definitely cannot work from home.

Question #1: Why should the delivery driver leave his house to deliver goodies to yours? Because your life is of incalculable value, and his is worth $12 an hour (until he gets sick and can’t work, that is)? Surely not.

In the end, though, this is what it comes down to: he does it because he can’t afford not to. And you stay home because you can afford to.  Your safety comes at his expense — and you pay him for that. (So tip well, y’all.)

Question #2: If he needs to go out into the world in order to support himself, what do you think he should do for church? Is worship less important than work, or is it more important? He risks no more going to worship than he does going out to make the rent; why shouldn’t he?

So when you decide that it’s too risky to open the church doors…you are denying him the opportunity to worship, because gathering in person seems so risky to you. And remember, the delivery drivers, paramedics, nurses, mechanics, social workers, etc. never stopped working. If there’s such a severe risk that you’d put yourself under house arrest to avoid it, then how dare you demand that they take those risks without the opportunity to gather and draw strength from corporate worship? What gives you the right?