Breaking and bruising

When Jesus knew Peter was about to deny three times that he knew who Jesus was– while Jesus was suffering to save Peter’s skin– he spoke to him very gently.

“Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned again, strengthen your brothers.” (Luke 22:31-32)

When Peter had just been the first of the disciples to confess Jesus as the Messiah– for which Jesus praised him– and then tried to talk Jesus out of doing something that was going to be very hard, because he loved Jesus and didn’t want him to suffer, Jesus was not as gentle.

But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.” (Matthew 16:23)

Many times Jesus spoke gently, reassuringly. This follows Isaiah’s prediction of how the Servant of the Lord would proclaim God’s word:

Behold my servant, whom I uphold,
my chosen, in whom my soul delights;
I have put my Spirit upon him;
he will bring forth justice to the nations.
He will not cry aloud or lift up his voice,
or make it heard in the street;
a bruised reed he will not break,
and a faintly burning wick he will not quench;
he will faithfully bring forth justice. (Isaiah 42:1-3)

Other times, sometimes with the same people, he could be very forceful. And we haven’t even brought up his words to the Pharisees.

Pastors, along with all Christians, should look to Jesus to learn how to treat people. He never broke a bruised reed, and neither should we. He never spoke harshly to someone who needed to be reassured, to the downcast who needed their heads lifted up. But you might say that he did bruise some reeds. He spoke strong words to those who were unbroken in their sin, who needed to be humbled so they might seek God’s grace. Sometimes that’s a pastor’s job. Sometimes that’s every Christian’s job.

Who is sufficient for these things?

If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him. (James 1:5)

The only thing there is

On Sunday, 9 June of this year I was rehearsing with the band at church when I got a text from Melissa: “Kels just called. They’re taking your mom to ICU.” Mom was in the hospital with pneumonia, but I had talked to her the day before and she sounded ok. Now her blood pressure was dangerously low. By that night they had her on a ventilator, and we decided I needed to fly to Georgia.

As I lay down for a couple hours of fitful sleep, some words played on a loop in my head. “Though the mountains be shaken and the hills be removed, yet my unfailing love for you will not be shaken, nor my covenant of peace be removed, says the Lord, who has compassion on you.” I’m not sure I’d read those words on a page in 10 years or more.

When I was in college I spent a lot of time memorizing Scripture. I did some in seminary and afterward too. I’m embarrassed to say I don’t do much memorization anymore, though I have a big stack of index cards on my desk. But that day, while on a long flight not knowing whether my mom would be alive when I got off the plane, lots and lots of Bible verses came to mind, many of which I had memorized a dozen years ago or more.

In those moments, there was no clever tweet, no episode of Arrested Development, not even a John Piper sermon that kept me sane. Only God’s word could do it.

Mom rallied. After two weeks I came home to Prague. I had a wedding to prepare for the week I arrived. Then I spent a week clearing off my desk, and planned to start all my regular meetings back the next week.

Except that at the end of desk-clearing week, my daughter was diagnosed with cancer, and our old life ended, and a new life started.

We have had 9 or 10 hospital stays of varying length. Our boys have been with lots of different people and watched more tv (and gotten more care packages) than usual. Most of our test results have been good, though the waiting never gets any easier. E has gone under general anesthesia six times. And we have stayed sane. I attribute this mostly to Scripture and prayer.

I certainly don’t mean we get up early every day for a long and substantial quiet time. It would be better if we did, but we don’t. I do mean we cry out frequently, and we remind ourselves of what we know to be true: not the vague assurance that everything will be ok (it might not, not the way we want it to be), but the actual promises God makes to us. I mean our friends copy and paste from their devotional reading and remind us. Like the IV that gives Eliza the fluids and nutrition she needs, God works by his Word and Spirit to keep us.

On Eliza’s first night in ICU after her surgery the wheels were coming off for me. There was a point where they wouldn’t let us in and we didn’t know what was happening. It turned out not to be a problem, but it was the most scared I’ve ever been. Then her numbers just weren’t as stable as they had been through the afternoon, and the stress of staring at them was driving me up a wall. I went outside and paced back and forth in the cool night air, reciting Psalm 46 out loud over and over. God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. The Lord of Hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress. The Lord of Hosts is with us. The Lord of armies is with us.

That was enough to calm me down enough for that hour. Nothing else was working. I memorized that psalm when I was in seminary, and however long it took has paid off richly in the last three months.

God is always so eager to speak to us, to reassure us, to give us a firm foundation to put our feet on. His Word is so rich, so deep, so powerful and effective. And we are– I am– so eager to run to cheap things like the iPad I’m writing this on for fun.

I am 20 years older than I was in June. I hope some of the changes last. I still like to zone out plenty, but I have less patience with trivial and more desire for real. I have less energy, so I think hard about what will sap it and what will increase it. I want to pick up that stack of index cards again.

Please run to God’s Word. Do it when it feels good and when it doesn’t. When the earth beneath your feet gives way, his truth is all you have to stand on. It’s the only thing there is. It is sweet, solid ground.

A case for weekly communion

At the church I serve, we take the Lord’s Supper every week. We don’t think this is the only way to go, or that it makes us more spiritual than churches that practice monthly or whatever-other-interval Communion. And yes, it’s more work for the preacher to also prepare a somewhat-different meditation on the Lord’s Supper each week. But here are some reasons I’m glad we do it the way we do.

the Gospel every week

We want to make the Gospel clear in every sermon. Since we generally preach through books of the Bible, and our emphasis in preaching will reflect the emphasis of that day’s passage, the core of the gospel will be more obviously presented some days than others. Weekly Communion gives us one more opportunity to preach the center of the Gospel every week.

The Lord’s Supper also demonstrates and explains the Gospel in a way that goes beyond verbal explanation. So people who struggle to pay attention to preaching are given an additional way to learn and appreciate its truth.

good for non-Christians

The fencing of the Table, where we announce that it is for believers and not for nonbelievers, means we can draw a clear line every week. It forces attenders to ask where they stand with Christ and is a reminder that the Gospel calls for a response. It is a relatively easy way to plead with people to come to faith.

good for believers, especially struggling believers

Weekly Communion means a weekly reminder that the promises of the Gospel are not just true, but true for me. It’s a reminder that God does not simply demand that I meet his standard, but that Christ was broken and poured out in order to meet God’s standard for me. It’s a reminder that he gave himself up for me, and that he continues to feed and strengthen me. Especially for our people who are struggling (to believe at all, with besetting sin, with besetting self-righteousness, with an especially difficult season of life), it’s an important reminder that we do not struggle alone.

practical considerations

With monthly communion, it’s easy for some people (mothers of young children, those who travel often) to go several months without taking the Lord’s Supper. Weekly Communion means that if you miss one week, you have another chance in seven days. It also gives our children more chances to see this demonstration of the Gospel, which is sure to lead to their asking questions that open the door to conversations about the Gospel with them.

as simple as all that

Again, taking the Lord’s Supper every week is not necessarily the mark of a more mature church, and it has its own challenges. But Communion is a gift God wants to give his people. He promises to strengthen us through the preaching of the word and the administration of the sacraments. So we feel like we might as well give him as many chances to do that as we can.

Christian, are you ready?

The brouhaha over Chris Broussard’s comments on homosexuality could not be more predictable, and it’s an indicator of what we should now expect. This is the new normal.

Broussard did not inject himself or his Christianity into this event. He was asked about his personal views, and he explained them. He’s done so before, in an honest, non-hateful manner. This is not Pat Robertson blaming the latest natural disaster on “the gays.”

Most of us are fortunate enough not to have a million people listening in on our responses, but we will have these same conversations. We need to have answers for these questions. We need to be ready for our reasonable, humble, respectful, Gospel-flavored answers to be condemned as hate speech. And we need to be ready to respond with grace when we are slandered and hated.

Are you ready?

Are you ready to explain that, yes, because you’re a Christian, you accept the Bible’s teaching that God created sex for marriage, and marriage for a man and a woman?

Are you ready to respond to the question about why we eat shellfish but still believe homosexuality is wrong?

Are you ready to affirm that people with homosexual desires are created in God’s image, that they’re not in some especially gross class of sinner, and that he’s eager to extend his forgiveness and grace to them, just like to liars and gluttons and nice well-behaved Republicans?

Are you ready to put yourself in the same category, a fellow sinner in need of God’s mercy? To open up and talk about the specifics of your own need for God’s forgiveness?

Are you ready to love and support your fellow Christians who have these desires? Who act on them? Who feel lonely and abandoned and rejected by God and the church?

Are you ready, even if you do all the above, to be called a homophobe and a bigot? To be compared to the Taliban, or segregationists, or slaveowners?

Are you ready to respond with grace and love when you’re treated this way? To pray for those who hate you? To repay good for evil?

We need to be ready. This is where we are.

Hating evil without being hateful

Zion hears and is glad,
and the daughters of Judah rejoice,
because of your judgments, O LORD.
For you, O LORD, are most high over all the earth;
you are exalted far above all gods.
O you who love the LORD, hate evil!
He preserves the lives of his saints;
he delivers them from the hand of the wicked.
(Psalm 97:8-10 ESV)

God’s people are supposed to love what is good and hate what is evil. We’re to rejoice at God’s righteous judgments, including his judgment against sin.

God’s people are also supposed to be marked by our love, by our eagerness to forgive, by our mercy toward sinner and victim alike. We’re to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us (and, by implication, for those who are neutral toward us as well).

So there has to be a way to hate evil without being hateful.

To be sure, we will at times be misunderstood. There are some opinions you cannot hold without being called hateful, no matter how nice you are. That fact tempts us not to hate evil, or at least to change the subject whenever possible. But then we’re not being faithful, just like we’re not being faithful when we demonize those we’re supposed to pray for. If we only stand up for socially acceptable truths, our faith isn’t worth much.

We must hate evil. Hate it. We must not be hateful toward people created in God’s image.

As in so many things, I suspect the key to getting this right has to do with being amazed that God would save sinners like us. A sinner like me.

Good fences and good neighbors

I go to a monthly ecumenical prayer meeting for English-speaking pastors in Prague. It looks like the setup for a joke: couple of Baptists, a Catholic, a Pentecostal, assorted parachurch folks.

Denominations get a bad rap. Many people don’t see why we can’t just all get along, why there have to be so many different churches. (Actually my city could use more, but that’s another post.) But every month at this prayer meeting, I’m grateful to belong to a denomination.

Now that sounds bad. Allow me to explain.

It’s not that I think my denomination is the best, or that my flavor of Christianity is the only viable one. There are lots of great churches and groups represented at this meeting, a lot of people who love Jesus and are doing amazing things to proclaim him in Prague. There are also a lot of different perspectives. A couple of charismatic guys who pray in tongues under their breath. Several Baptists who would not have enjoyed seeing me baptize 4 young kids on Easter Sunday. A few female pastors who may or may not know where I stand on women’s ordination.  My favorite of the lot, for goodness’ sake, is the Roman Catholic priest whose ideological forebears tried to kill mine. And me, the Presbyterian desperately trying not to come across as a stodgy Presbyterian and keeping his theological humor to himself. (Although there’s been some promising banter with the Catholic priest.)

I respect all these people. I’m glad to pray with them for Jesus to be lifted up in our city. And if we tried to pastor the same church, it would be a train wreck. On second-level-but-still-very-important matters, we’d have no consensus, and we’d spend lots of time arguing and trying to force agreement when there wasn’t any.

As it is, we’re each free to search the Scriptures and follow Jesus the best we can. We can work more effectively, within the structure that best suits our personality and convictions, while wishing the best for each other and coming together to support each other in many different ways. We don’t debate theology at our monthly meetings; that’s not what they’re for. We don’t have to.

Yes, denominations exist in part because of sin and finitude. Yes, it’s bad to think our church is the only real one. But if you have a hard time with all the different flavors of Christianity, remember the proverb: “Good fences make good neighbors.” And when the fences are good, it’s nice to have a neighborly visit.

“This man is not from God, for ________”

Some of the Pharisees said, “This man is not from God, for he does not keep the Sabbath.”
(John 9:16)

Jesus has just healed a man who had been blind his whole life. But, as is so often the case, the Pharisees aren’t happy. This time it’s because he’s healed on the Sabbath.

The Pharisees had lots of rules about what you could and couldn’t do on the Sabbath. We’re not talking about biblical rules here, God’s rules– we’re talking extra rules added to make double-sure the people didn’t break God’s rules. Healing was work, Jesus healed on the Sabbath, therefore Jesus worked on the Sabbath, therefore Jesus doesn’t keep the Sabbath, therefore Jesus isn’t from God.

Problem: the Pharisees are wrong. Not wrong because Jesus doesn’t care about the Sabbath. Wrong because their interpretation of the Sabbath isn’t the same as God’s interpretation. Theological error leading to spiritual abuse of God’s people, and worse, rejection of God’s Son.

We do this too: write people off because they don’t check all the boxes we think they should.

  • “This man is not from God, for he’s not a 6-day creationist.”
  • “This man is not from God, for he is a 6-day creationist.”
  • “This man is not from God, for he’s in favor of female deacons.”
  • “This man is not from God, for his church has a steeple and he wears a robe.”
  • “This man is not from God, for he wears product in his hair and preaches on a screen.”

Of course, any time the Pharisees criticized Jesus they were wrong. That’s not the case with us– we can have entirely legitimate critiques of pretty much anybody. There are good times, good reasons and good forums to confront or debate on those critiques. When we’re deciding who to work with, who to read or listen to, who to recommend, these things matter.

But we should remember: we have our own issues too. Chances are we’re actually wrong on some of the issues we’re passionate about, and most of the people on the other side are doing good work for the Kingdom. Remember how the Pharisees missed the boat entirely, and don’t miss God’s work through people who think and work differently.

Why the cross is loving

In worship we sing a lot of songs about the cross. We call it “wondrous” and “mighty”. We sing about how it’s powerful, how it cleanses us, how it displays God’s amazing love.

This is all true. But it’s good to stop and think: Why?

The cross was an instrument of torture and death. When we sing about Jesus’ death, we’re celebrating the wrongful execution of an innocent man. Why?

We sing about how cross shows God’s love. Why?

We sing about how the cross means we’re healed and forgiven. Why?

Even some non-Christians are inspired by Jesus’ example of innocent suffering. But why? Jesus was accused of blasphemy, that’s what he was executed for. Was he really a blasphemer? Or is it particularly virtuous to let yourself be executed when you haven’t done anything wrong? Why?

Why was the cross loving? To adapt an illustration from (I think) D.A. Carson, if I ran onto the Charles Bridge and announced “I love you all! And I’m going to prove how much!”, then jumped into the Vltava, nobody would be amazed at my act of selfless love.

The words we use are so familiar that we need to remind ourselves what they mean. There’s a reason Jesus’ death is good, a reason it’s loving, a reason it’s beautiful. Isaiah tells us:

Surely he has borne our griefs
and carried our sorrows;
yet we esteemed him stricken,
smitten by God, and afflicted.
But he was pierced for our transgressions;
he was crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,
and with his wounds we are healed.
All we like sheep have gone astray;
we have turned—every one—to his own way;
and the LORD has laid on him
the iniquity of us all. (Isaiah 53:4-6)

Jesu’ death was beautiful and loving and good because it was for us in a very specific way: He was found guilty of our sin, took the punishment we deserve. He bore our griefs, our sorrows, our iniquities.

He did not lay down his life to make a general point about passive resistance, or to express the truism that love conquers evil. His love did conquer evil. It conquered evil in a specific way: by satisfying perfect justice. Blood was shed to atone for sin.

“All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way.” The guilt is ours. And yet, “the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all.” So when he died, our debt was paid. The breach between God and man was closed.

This “worked” because he had no transgressions of his own for which to be pierced, no iniquities of his own for which to be crushed. He was a substitute. He stood in our place, taking the punishment that by all rights was ours. He took the poison cup out of our hand and drained it to the dregs.

“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” This is how God showed his love for the world: by putting his Son to death. So that whoever comes to Christ in faith has death swallowed up in victory. This is why the cross is loving: because Jesus takes our punishment on himself. He opens the door for us.

“There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” His chastisement has brought us peace. By his wounds we are healed.

Sex makes smart people do stupid things

There’s no shortage of stories of sex scandals involving famous people, but one that sticks out to me is David Petraeus.  You’re probably familiar: He’s an American 4-star general who led (at different times) the war effort in Iraq and Afghanistan, then served as head of the CIA. A brilliant guy. He literally wrote the book on counter-insurgent warfare. He was touted as presidential candidate without people even really knowing what his political views were.

Then, just after last November’s election, Petraeus suddenly resigned after only a year at the CIA. It turned out he had had an extramarital affair with a woman who wrote his biography. The affair was discovered by CIA investigators, who look into these things because the last thing you want in the intelligence community is skeletons in the closet that open you up to blackmail.

Now this guy is talented, high-achieving, promising, disciplined, and smart. (One of my favorite stories: In the early 90’s, Petraeus was accidentally shot in the chest with M-16 rifle during a training exercise. He had major surgery, then left the hospital early after showing doctors he could do 50 pushups, without a break, a few days after being shot in the chest with an M-16.) He knows how to defeat terrorist organizations on their own turf. Yet he was brought down by a run-of-the-mill sex scandal, a series of stupid decisions, and some embarrassing emails with an attractive woman who fawned over him.

A fairly obvious point from this: Sex makes very smart, very wise, very competent people do very stupid things. That’s because sex is very good and very powerful. It’s kind of like a nuclear power plant: very good when working properly, very difficult to restrain when things get out of hand.

It’s designed that way.

adapted from the intro to a recent sermon on the 7th Commandment

500

This is my 500th post at Wiser Time.

I’m a little proud and a little embarrassed. Proud because to have written something and said “Here, I made this” 500 times is hard and good. Embarrassed because, well, it’s taken over 5 years, and there have been lots of dry spells.

If there’s anyone who was reading years ago and still is, you’ve noticed that I tend to write regularly for a while, then go dark, then start up again. That’s because I get busy/lazy, then decide to get serious about writing, then fizzle out. I don’t want it to always be like this. But a friend once told me “Blessed is the man who never stops starting family devotions,” and I think the same holds for writing.

I started this blog for 2 main reasons. First, I was running a bookstore, and I realized that if I reviewed books I could 1) sell books and 2) get free books. I’m just being honest. Second, I’ve always loved to write, and blogging was the thing back then. I guess it still is for some real writers, so I hang in there. Even without the free books.

In the early days I was honest-to-goodness trying to be a big deal, A-list Christian blogger. (Spoiler alert: nothing close.) Back then I wanted to be a big deal in lots of ways. I don’t anymore, at least not on my better days. But I do love to write, and I do love the things I write about, and I love to have created something. So I hang in there, and we’ll see if anything bigger ever comes.

Here are some of my favorite posts and stories.

***

The best kind of heartache” is, I think, my favorite thing I’ve ever written. That day we had toured the hospital where Eliza would be born. It was fine, but to us it was foreign, and that was a little scary. Then the doctor told us she thought it wouldn’t be long, and it hit me that this was all actually going to happen. Another kid, another million ways to have our hearts ripped out of our chests. I went back to the office and wrote this as sort of external processing, which is not normally my scene. Having a family is the hardest and best thing that has ever happened to me.

I still laugh out loud when I read “You don’t know what it’s like out here.” Because I’m the kind of guy who laughs at my own jokes, sometimes when no one else does. (Also, I really miss going out for beers with Tyler on Tuesdays when he finished RUF.)

One day, just before we moved to Prague, I started getting emails that people were commenting on “Coexist?“, a post from several months before. Like, lots of emails. It turned out I had been linked by one of my favorite political writers on my favorite political blog. I had 30,000 visitors that day, and was called lots of fun names. I later swapped several emails with the big-deal guy when he was visiting Prague. He remembered me. So I got that goin’ for me.

I Will This Day Most Joyfully Die,” a post about Jan Hus, means that I am officially an award-winning writer. I have the Charles Spurgeon caricature poster to prove it.

And another one about these “feelings” things I sometimes have: “Music = home.

***

Thanks for reading. Seriously.