Maybe Church is About More Than What We See

I’ve tried hard not to write about this. Really hard. I don’t want to be the guy that has to weigh in on every controversy that erupts in evangelical culture. And yet, when Donald Miller wrote about not attending church and “graduating” from traditional church, it generated a lot of angst in me. My frustrations come, not because I don’t understand his point, but because I relate a lot to his feelings about traditional church. I am somewhat of a reluctant pastor who passionately loves serving the church. What I mean by that is, it was never my intention to be a pastor, and when I got fired from my first church job, I wanted to walk away from the church.

But I couldn’t. As much as I wanted to, I couldn’t.

I love the church, and I believe a lot of what we see on the surface of church isn’t necessary to the Christian faith. But that doesn’t mean we should throw it out. Church, as with most spiritual things, has the surface thing we see, and then there is the thing behind the thing. If all we see is the music and the lectures and the frustrated parents who spent the morning wrangling kids into clothes to get them to church on time, then we have to wonder if it is worth it.

If all I’m doing is giving a lecture I don’t want to do it. For one, I’m not that good of a lecturer. Two, there are a lot of others who are better than me. Thousands of podcasts and sermons are available online, most of which are probably better than me. If you want a lecture, listen to Tim Keller. He’s better at it than me.

If all I’m doing is giving a lecture then I am wasting my time.  A good portion of my week is spent studying the Bible, reading commentaries and theological books, praying, and writing all in preparation of giving a good lecture on Sunday mornings. But if I’m just giving a lecture, then all that is pointless. Seriously. Because 90% or more of what I say on a Sunday is already known by those sitting in the congregation. And an even higher percentage is forgotten by Tuesday.

If all we are doing is singing songs, then we should stop immediately. Immediately. Because it is weird. No where else in American society do adults gather in a large room to sing songs together. You could argue it happens at a concert, but people don’t gather to sing songs, they gather to hear a band or singer. The closest you could find is a karaoke bar. Which is weird for other reasons. If church is just a Sunday morning karaoke bar, then we should stop. Now.

If all we are doing is putting on a concert, then lets admit there are a lot of better concerts out there. And while we are at it, let’s also admit that no one likes a concert at 9 a.m. on a Sunday morning.

If all we are doing is gathering once a week for community, then we don’t understand community. Being in the same room with the same group of people for an hour a week and then spending fifteen minutes chatting over cheap coffee doesn’t constitute community. The old guys who meet at the same diner for breakfast on Fridays have better community than we do.

If all we are doing is lifting a cup of grape juice and dipping some tiny squares of cheap, crustless white bread while standing over a heavy oak table, then we serve the worst appetizers ever.

If all we are doing is singing songs and listening to lectures, then to hell with it. Because that’s not enough.

But maybe that’s not all we are doing. Maybe I am not just studying the Bible and commentaries and theological works to prepare a lecture. Maybe I am entering into the presence of God, on behalf of the people of God, to deliver the word of God.

Maybe it isn’t just a lecture, but a submissive act of subverting the narrative imposed upon the people of God six days a week by orienting and reorienting ourselves around a narrative of grace.

Maybe we aren’t just singing songs, but maybe people who are vastly different than one another – mothers and father, young and old, men and women, black and white, widows and widowers, rich and poor – are joining their many voices into one voice and declaring something together.

Maybe we aren’t just lifting a cup with cheap grape juice into the air while we recite some words. Maybe we are acting as hosts to the Table of God, where the presence of God rests uniquely as it invites people to a space of grace and equality.

Maybe we aren’t just coming together to find community. Maybe we are involved in an embodied, liturgical rhythm that informs our lives about what we value. Maybe the act of getting up, dressed, moving, coming together, isn’t about community, but is about liturgy. It shapes us. It involves us. It reminds us. Even the most contemporary non-liturgical churches requires the liturgy of coming together.

Maybe we aren’t gathering in tribes, but we are gathering in a local place to remember that as we gather, all tribes gather and will one days sing together with one voice to the one Lord.

Because if it is about that, then I want to be a part of it. Even if it is boring and difficult and maddening and uncomfortable. Because the thing we see on the surface is connected to what’s behind it. And what’s behind it is beautiful and rich and wonderful and mysterious and inspiring.

If church is about all that, then I’m all in.

The Disgrace of Infertility

This Christmas I preached through the Christmas story as told by Luke. For all the times I’ve read the story, I’ve never noticed this small line hidden in the middle of the Christmas narrative. But this year was different. This year, that small, innocent line refused to go unnoticed and forced me to see it.

After Elizabeth became pregnant with John, she praised God saying, “The Lord has done this for me,” she said. “In these days he has shown his favor and taken away my disgrace among the people.”

We know that disgrace. My wife knows that disgrace. I know that disgrace.


No, it isn’t the same type of disgrace that Elizabeth experienced. In that day, an inability to bear children was equated with sin. It was assumed that the reason for barrenness was your own doing. You must have done something. You must have something to repent of. Some sin you committed. Some reason God was withholding his blessing from you.


You created the problem by your disobedience, and now God is punishing you.

Thankfully, the shame of disapproving eyes and rumored gossip doesn’t surround infertility in America anymore. But shame still exists.

Shame grows with constant thermometer readings. Peeing on countless sticks. Needles. Probes. Tiny plastic cups. Forever counting days. Sex that feels mechanical and forced because “It’s time.”

Shame slips in with the silent words spoken as another month, pregnant only with hope, passes by. It is amazing how much silence surrounds the struggle of infertility. The silence of not wanting to talk about it. The silence of wanting to talk about, but being scared. The silence of trying to avoid the one thing you are wondering about, but not wanting to focus on it, and yet having your mind dominated by it. The silence of not feeling comfortable talking with others about it because it involves sex. The silence because you just don’t want to deal with the questions.

That silence gives shame all the voice it needs to whisper silently, “Something is wrong with you.”

Infertility is a shame-filled, silent trial, isolating couples in closed bedrooms of pain.

As a man, the pain of infertility is difficult to talk about it. While my wife and I walked through our experiences together, she felt the pain of not being able to conceive more acutely than I did. Pregnancy was failing to take place in her body. Even though the doctors couldn’t find anything wrong with either of us, she was the one scheduling the monthly ultrasounds. She was the one taking medications. She was the one physically being reminded every 28 days of the failure to conceive. The pain was much closer and much more tangible for her. And all I could do was stand back and watch. I felt hopeless. Unable to do what I normally do when situations aren’t what I want them to be: fix it.

We stood in the kitchen having the same discussion we’ve had every month. The sadness was making Sarah cry and I stood there helpless. I hugged her, but I couldn’t do anything else. I couldn’t fix this. This was out of my control.

Helplessness is not a feeling I do well with.

As I held my crying wife, I didn’t cry, but quietly grieved and pulled back from hope. The grieving brought on by infertility is different than other grief I have experienced because you do not grieve what was lost, but what never wasAt some point you start grieving for what never will be.

Men don’t talk often about infertility. But if we started the conversations, my guess is a lot of guys would voice something akin to helplessness. When people dream of starting their family, no one sees years of disappointment and frustration as part of the process. No, when we dream of starting our family it is a nice and tidy schedule. “First we will go off birth control, then in 3-6 months we will get pregnant.” Wouldn’t that be nice?

Instead those struggling with infertility find themselves dealing with resignation, bitterness, anger and exhaustion.

Exhaustion from fighting to hold on to hope.

Infertility is a brutal cycle that steps on hands gripping hope. The cycle begins each month with hope only to be followed by disappointment.


False alarm.









At any point in this cycle you are constantly reminded of what you cannot do by running into countless pregnant women in the grocery story, at church, or at the gym.

Church is a good place to find support, but it isn’t always a tower of refuge. The American church is one place in our culture where marriage and kids is an expectation. Singles are constantly met with questions about when they will get married, and unnecessarily pitied or prayed for when a potential spouse isn’t in the picture. Young married’s are bombarded about when they will start having kids, as if their marriage doesn’t really matter until a child validates it.

Around church, having kids is talked about as if it is like scheduling a tune-up for your car. “Isn’t it time the two of you start having kids?” is one of the most painful questions a couple dealing with infertility can hear. Because thats exactly how they feel! It is time for them to start having kids. They’ve been hoping and praying and wanting and waiting for a long time for God to respond to their request. So yes, it is time, but no, kids don’t show up on a time table.

My wife and I struggled for 14 months before we surprisingly found ourselves expecting our now 3 year-old son. We were literally starting to have all the testing done the next month when my wife woke me up with the news that she was pregnant.

So many couples never wake up to that news.

It’s now been over two years that we have tried for another child. Two years and an ectopic pregnancy that we had to end. I’m not writing because my wife and I have discovered some secret to living with infertility. I don’t think there is any. I’m not writing because I have some great pastoral wisdom to help comfort those who are struggling with infertility. In fact, I don’t even know how to end this post. All I have is this:

You are not alone. Your struggle may be in silence, but you are not alone.

I don’t have a magic Bible verse of comfort, or prayer of peace, or words of wisdom, or any answers.

I only have “me too.” Us too. We know. We understand. And we mourn with you.

So may we, together, accept that there is nothing wrong with us and see we are simply sharing in the human experience – which is simultaneously beautiful and painful, disheartening and hopeful.

The Mythical Attack on Manhood

Apparently, there is an attack on manhood going on in America. The news report is that men everywhere are being persecuted for being men. The lifestyle of the American male is the going the way of the Dodo bird – destined for extinction because of the relentless and coordinated attack of feminists, homosexuals, and an overactive liberal media. Men, if they do not stand up and fight for their right to be men, will be complicit in the ruination of society. To save masculinity is to save society.

Stop it.

Masculinity is not under attack. A quick survey of history shows that men have feared the feminization of men since…well…forever. This idea became rampant in America around the time of the American Revolution. The elite, aristocrat men of Britain were cast as feminized and soft by the fathers of the Revolution in order to embolden men to fight for independence. After all, what man wants to be ruled over by a woman?

This created a deep sense of anxiety in the American man.  One had to earn their masculinity by displaying strength, power, and independence as they proved their ability to become the American Self-Made man. Since this time, men have been fearing the worst: that men would become like women. Actually, let’s be intellectually honest, that fear didn’t originate at the birth of America, but has been around since men and women looked at each other and saw a physical difference.

Perhaps, it is because boys must, at some point in their lives, prove themselves separate from their mothers. They begin in the womb, are born, nurse at the breast, and grow up in the presence of women. In a culture that says a “real man” provides for their families, even the most family oriented of fathers are out of the house more than they are in the house. In other words, the expectations we place on men creates the systematic abandonment of boys. Boys, then, must learn to be a man by distancing themselves from women, not by imitating men. This is why one of the biggest fears of men is to be seen as a “pansy” or “sissy.” It is why men are cajoled into “growing some balls” and “manning up.” Boys never learn how to be men in the presence of women, but only know how to be a man by proving they are not a woman. This places men and women at constant odds with one another.

Obviously, this isn’t healthy – for men or women. Intuitively, men understand how unhealthy this situation is, but this is where the problem comes in. Rather than looking holistically and humanly at the problem, we do what we already do – we seek to further separate men and women by crying that manhood is under attack and we blame those who we believe to be to blame:  the more feminine – women, homosexuals, and liberals.

In other words, we as men have become so insecure in our masculinity that we recast those fears as attacks from those we believe to be a threat to our masculinity. In response to the threat men feel, they last out. Thus, the attack on manhood has become the attack of men on others.

No, manhood is not under attack. Being human is under attack.

It is time for men to stop being so insecure of the feminine. We need to start embracing the feminine qualities that are not just for women, but are for human beings. This isn’t to say that we should eliminate any distinction between men and women. Quite the contrary. I believe women need to learn from men AND men need to learn from women.

Christian discipleship is the process by which men and women become like Christ. One of the measures of growth in a the Christian is their embodiment of the fruits of the Spirit as outlined in Galatians 5:22. That list isn’t full of manly characteristics. Just the opposite. Gentleness and kindness, two of the fruits listed, are more likely to be identified with women than men. This is why I need women in my life. They teach me to embody these qualities thus making me more of a man by making me more human.

It is time we lay down the sword. Men, it is time to stop playing victim and crying as if there is some attack on our masculinity. It is time to stop worrying about becoming real men and start working on becoming real humans.

False Future of Ideologies

I’ve never considered myself a feminist. I still don’t. I cringe with a lot of people at the term because of the connotation associated with it: brash women who hate men, never smile, and want to invert every system and structure the world has ever known by creating an angry militia of man killing Amazonians ready to rid Earth and Mordor of any organism with a Y-chromosome.

Perhaps there is a slight exaggeration in there for literary purposes, but I think I’ve accurately described the perception, no?

So I’ve resisted identifying myself as a feminist. I still do. I’ve joked that I don’t think of myself as a feminist but a “non-hierarchical complementarian who desires equal treatment of genders.” Over the last few months a number of people have challenged me on this saying I’m simply a feminist in denial. Admittedly, I do identify with some of the issues feminists raise. I believe men and women, while different and complementary to each other, are equal. I believe hierarchy and patriarchy are not a part of God’s intended design. I do not ask my wife to submit to me, but rather we both work to practice mutual submission to each other as commanded by Ephesians 5:21. I hope for the day when women’s voices are valued as much as men’s voices in the church and that value wouldn’t just be lip service. I believe modesty rules are often set up and talked about as if men are helpless victims of evil seductresses; as if men have no control over their eyes, thoughts, and genitals (which enrages me as a man! Seriously. I can lead a church but I can’t not look lustfully at a women in a bikini? Stop it.)

Yet, I still do not call myself a feminist.

Maybe I’m in denial. I could be. But there is something inside of me that resists that title. That resistance isn’t directly tied to the term feminism. It’s tied to any “-ism.” I couldn’t put my finger on it until I had a recent conversation on Twitter. Questioning why so many ideologies move into an exercise of cognitive dissonance, Chris Green, assistant professor of theology at Pentecostal Seminary, gave me this insight:

@NatePyle79 @livingmartyrs I think ideologies are inherently violent and overreaching, false eschatologies

— Chris Green (@cewgreen) November 14, 2013

This blew the door open for me. Ideaologies promise something they cannot deliver on: a perfected future. Pick your “-ism” and you will find a promised future free of the evil causing the need for the ideology. Feminism promises a future free of inequality between women and men. Socialism promises a future free of inequality between the rich and the poor. Nationalism promises a a future where ones nation embodies the best the world has to offer while surrounded by evil nations.

Ideologies do not appear out of thin air, but are born out of legitimate injustices. There is inequality between men and women. There is oppressive inequality between rich and poor. There are evil nations. However, ideologies are unable to deliver on their promise of a future where justice has been served,

For the Christian, real injustices need to be met with a prophetic voice crying out in the wilderness for the justice of the Lord. The same injustices that seed ideologies should be injustices that cause the Christian to stand up and decry: socio-economic inequality, racism, sexism, and on and on. It behooves our witness if we, rather than attacking an ideology because of it inability to deliver its promised future, listen to its legitimate – and often firsthand account – of injustice so that we might enter into their suffering and intercede for the Lord’s justice.

This is why I resist being called a feminist. Or a socialist. Or a nationalist. Or a conservative. Or a liberal. I fear getting sucked into the ideology until its false eschatology becomes my idolized eschatology. I believe in one true eschatology. The one where Jesus returns and the new creation is ushered in. At that point, every injustice will be put to right at the one just judge administers justice. All those -ism’s and their eschatology’s will fail to bring the holistic justice that’s coming.

My intention is not to discredit the work and hope of some ideologies. Again, feminism is something that I share many values with. I want women to be seen as equals with men. But that isn’t the end goal. It can’t be. As good of an end as that is, it isn’t good enough for the whole world and all people and all creation. Equality is great, but it falls short when we talk about a broken creation.

It also seems, at least to me, that most ideologies are still held captive by unimaginative thinking dominated by the “way the world works.” What I mean by that is, ideologies seek justice using methods known by this world. Christians shouldn’t want more of this world; we should want more of the world to come after the new creation. Christians should not use the known methods of this world; we should use the imaginatively creative methods of the Spirit. This drastically changes how we work.

Rather than desiring power, we witness to the power of being powerless.
Rather than arguing for position, we wash feet.
Rather than leading, we serve.
Rather than being busy, we pray.
Rather than thinking we have all the answers, we pray.
Rather than believing in the dichotomy of this or that, we act in the possibility of a third way.
Rather than fighting to get a seat at a table, we accept the invitation to the table set with bread and wine.

Christians are not to withdraw from the world and its injustices, rather we must faithfully engage them with the foolish wisdom of a crucified, servant King. 

I’m not clear what that looks like. But I am clear that’s what I think.

Stop Using the Bible

The meeting was more tense than I expected. One elder at our church was frustrated that people weren’t putting value in the Bible studies that were being offered through the church. In their mind, if we were to be a church that pleased God, people would be coming in droves to our studies. The reason (according to this elder) for the people’so apathy was simple: the leadership wasn’t concerned enough about the Bible (on a side note – if you ever want to spice up a monotonous elder meeting, accuse the other elders of not caring enough about the Bible. Things get interesting after that!). At one point the elder leaned forward, and with an enormous amount of conviction and passion, slapped their hand on the Bible and said, “People just need the Bible!”

The conversation stopped.

Have you ever noticed how often people use the Bible to stop a conversation?
Or use the Bible to beat up another person?
Or use the Bible to prove their rightness?

There is something about knowing the Bible that makes us feel good about ourselves. It justifies our opinions and worldviews. It secures our anxieties. It makes us feel right. Besides, how could it be a bad thing to know, study, and use the Bible? So we read and study and quote verses and we demand people use the Bible to back up their opinions. It becomes a sword, not to reveal our own hearts, but to kill a conversation and diminish a threat.

Don’t get me wrong, there is an aspect of using the Bible that’s good and right. Basing our worldview on the Bible is absolutely what we should do. Having our beliefs formulated by the Bible and not our opinions is appropriate. But when we use the Bible to prove ourselves acceptable to God by being more right than others, we are misusing the text as modern Pharisees who feel justified by our superior knowledge of the text.

We cannot use the Bible to proclaim the gospel of free grace and at the same time use the Bible to gracelessly lord our righteousness over another person.

We cannot use the Bible to encourage people to mourn and use the Bible to correct them for mourning wrongly.

We cannot use the Bible to celebrate the diversity of those who bear the image of God and use the Bible to demand a lack of diversity in thought.

We cannot use the Bible to make much of Jesus and use the Bible to shield ourselves from Jesus’ words.

As I write this I becoming more uncomfortable with the phrase “use the Bible.” We cannot use the Bible. But do we ever try. Therein lies the problem with the modern approach to the Bible. We are seeking to use the text. We are not coming to let the text open and expose us. We use it. Like a tool. Like something cheap.

Like a road map for life.

Which, by the way, must be the most inane metaphor for the Bible ever. Let’s take the inspired broody, complex, mystical, and beautiful words and compare them to an oversized origami puzzle with coffee stains that’s crumpled up in the dashboard of our car. Not to mention the fact that the Bible makes a horrible road map. Go ahead and ask the Bible “Bible, which way should I go?”

Do you know the response?

“Whether you turn to the right or to the left, your ears will hear a voice behind you, saying, ‘This is the way; walk in it.'” (Isaiah 30:21) Which is horrible if you are looking for direction, but awesome if you are looking for a God who will be with you no matter where you find yourself in life.

I think we use the Bible because we are too comfortable with it. It’s too familiar. The stories and ideas do not shock us or capture our imaginations. The truth of the words do not reveal the brokenness of our hearts, but are, like the words of the newspaper, descriptive of events that happened and facts that are. Our comfort with the text is the same comfort we share with a legal document. It serves us. It lays the world out in black and white. And so we use it as such. Read it. Ingest the information. Regurgitate the information at appropriate time to prove cognitive understanding of content. Which is a great approach if we are looking to win trivial pursuit, pass a test, or win a debate. It’s a horrible practice if you want to be transformed.

We are so comfortable with the Bible as a book that it fails to bother us. It fails to shake our understandings of how the world works. We are left in our old patterns of being because we fail to allow the words to penetrate the depths of our hearts. Instead, we use the text to point out the mistakes of others. Or we find the passages that everyone else needs to read. We are comfortable using the Bible to win an argument or stop a conversation, but we are uncomfortable letting the Bible be the Bible. We’ve insisted that it stand up under the scrutiny of science when it was never meant to. We demand it draw lines in the sand. It frustrates us that the text may actually want us to improvise the use of Christian ethics, as outlined in its pages, rather than giving us black and white stances to take on modern issues.

No, the Bible was never meant to be used. It was meant to be interacted with. Like any relationship, the text longs for a conversation; a dialogue of back and forth. 

Using the Bible, I believe, is rooted in a belief that in them life is found. There is an aspect where that is true, but as people who diligently study the Bible, we should take heed of the words Jesus speaks to the Pharisees.

You diligently study the Scriptures because you think that by them you possess eternal life. These are the Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life.”

Diligently studying the Bible, while not inherently a bad thing, can be futile. Our love of the word does not mean we will come to the Word made flesh. Our use of the Bible may actually be a false belief that, in our study and knowledge and ability to use it, we have come to posses eternal life. But life is not found in the words on the pages, rather life is found in the one who embodied the words.

The Bible does not, and cannot save us. Only the Word made flesh can save us.

It was never intended for us to use the Bible. The intent was for us to come to the one who embodied the Word.

Because knowing the Bible doesn’t mean we know Jesus.

The room was really silent as the elder’s words rang through the room. I quietly leaned forward and, in as non-anxious a voice as I could muster said, “I love the Bible. But people don’t need the Bible. They need Jesus.”

That’s why we come to the text – to come to Jesus.

The Bible, Swearing, and Redeeming the Profane

Almost two months ago I wrote a post about the often misquoted axiom, “God won’t give you more than you can handle.” In that post I uttered one of the 7 words not allowed on radio (at least public radio). I used the word because it captured my feelings more accurately than any other word I could think of.

Boy did that trigger some reactions.

I don’t know why you felt the need to swear to get your point across. It gave the good, thought provoking article a distaste.

However, the language you used was not necessary; therefore I could not “share.”

I can understand a believers emotions and all the conflict involved, but this mans language and ignorance is an embarrassment.

Any supposed Christian writer who uses profanity and foul language to prove their point isn’t very Christ-like.

Those are just from the comment section. The emails were a little more harsh and hurt more than I would like to admit. Honestly, it took a lot in me to not reply to each and every one of these critiques about language. I didn’t respond to any of them and I realize that putting your thoughts out on the internet opens yourself up for criticism – especially when you’re writing about religion. I just never imagined the number of responses and the force of those responses because of one word.

It shouldn’t surprise me though. Christians place a high value on morality. As we should. Morality is important. Part of what it means to be holy and sanctified is to be a moral. However, morality isn’t the end of all of being a Christian. The goal of Christianity isn’t to make moral people. The goal of Christianity is to become like Jesus. This is a subtle but vast difference. For Christians to say that Jesus was moral is easy after two thousand years of interpretation are applied to the stories of Jesus. But if you were a first century Jew you might not think so. Jesus seemingly broke the sabbath, didn’t require his disciples to fast, hung out with drunks, and let a prostitute clean his feet with her hair. Jesus blew the moral sensibilities of his contemporaries out of the water.

Being like Jesus is extremely difficult because, on the one hand you will be moral, but on the other hand it is so much more than being moral. Imitating Christ is difficult to define, which creates problems because we like to define and categorize. How does one measure if you are like Jesus? Morality is much easier to measure. You are either moral or you are not. You either lie or you don’t. You either sleep around or you don’t. You either steal or you don’t. You either use profanity or you don’t. Morality is easy to track. Being like Jesus is much more difficult. Heck, we can’t even agree on whether he is Republican or Democrat let alone whether he would swear or not. How in the world do we track being like him?

So we emphasize morality. We give out purity rings, burn Metallica CD’s, avoid rated-R movies, banish dancing, wash our mouths with soap, and refuse to be around people who don’t do these things. Being moral is evidence of one’s declaration of Jesus as savior.

And I wonder, have we become more moral than the Bible?

In Philippians 3:8 Paul writes:

What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowingChrist Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ. (NIV, emphasis mine)

The word translated “garbage” in the NIV is the Greek word skubala. It is an emphatic word that is rarely translated into English with the force it has in the Greek. The Greek word is vulgar. It literally means excrement or dung and can refer to human or animal excrement. Literally it means “shit.” In its rawest form this is what Paul is saying. He is trying to drive home for his readers how much he disregards the human accolades he has. In a day and age in which garbage and refuse are useful for composting and other things, this reading of the word skubala is appropriate. It drives home Paul’s point – these credentials mean nothing.

Let’s honestly ask ourselves, would the evangelical Christian world let Paul speak like that? Would his book make it past the editor? Would his album get published? Would the Christian bookstore put it on the shelf?

In 1 Samuel 20:30 Saul rages against Jonathan his son and calls him a “son of a perverse and rebellious woman.” Saul is in a rage because Jonathan lied to Samuel about David’s whereabouts while Saul was trying to kill David. Soon after this exchange, Saul hurls a spear at Jonathan trying to kill him. Don’t forget that Jonathan is Saul’s son (I challenge you to find a soap opera with better plot lines).

Now, “son of a perverse and rebellious woman” is the literal translation. But once again the force of the phrase is lost in translation. Put yourself in the scene. What is Saul implying here? What would someone say in English if they were in a similar situation? Just finish the sentence. “You son of a …..” Right.

This is why I love the Bible. The Bible does not try to pretty up the facts. It is raw and edgy and reports history as it is. For me, this makes it extremely believable. I can relate to it. I cannot relate to a world in which the only frustrated speech allowed is Ned Flanders gobbledegook. We can substitute all the approved words and nonsensical sounds for words we label as profane, but often times the sentiments behind those words is nothing different. Words mean nothing without the sentiment behind them. And if the sentiment is the same, then why not use the word? Or saying it another way, you can be just as obscene and profane using words considered to be decent.

Read Ezekiel 23. I won’t even quote it here. But read it (if graphic sexual imagery triggers things for you then please do not read it). Ezekiel is relating Israel to prostitutes and uses some of the most explicit language you can imagine.

Ezekiel 23, Song of Solomon, and other passages like them are rarely, if ever, read in church. Our moral sensibilities keep us from publicly reading certain portions of the Bible. Some of us don’t even know they are in there because they have been brushed aside in an attempt to forget about them.

The point is this, the Bible records the very raw human experience and uses language that matches our experience.

Please do not hear me advocating the frequent public use of profanity. I am not. People who feel the need to consistently decorate their speech with censored words drive me nuts. However, I think we walk the line of legalism when we create extra-Biblical rules for Christians to follow. I wonder, in our efforts to become good moral people, have we come up with rules that the Bible would fail to live up to?

I know what you are thinking. Yes, the Bible does speak about swearing and cursing. However, careful reading of the text and context shows this has to do more with swearing oaths and pronouncing curses on people than it does about our modern understanding of cursing.

Some will point to Colossians 3:8 and say, “Well what about Paul’s command not to use “obscene language.” But we have to wonder what he was really talking about. Is the obscene language the words we use, or the intent behind them? Is he talking about language that degrades, dehumanizes, and abuses? This seems to be more in line with the anger and malice that are also warned against in this list.

It could also be something else entirely. In fact, the Greek the word for “obscene” is two words. The first means “disgraceful, shameful, dishonest,” and the second means “oracle.” It might be helpful to think “false prophesy.” Well, that changes things doesn’t it? Under this definition obscene language belongs to those who falsely prophesy in the name of the Lord. Think charlatan televangelist here. Personally, there is nothing more obscene than the filth that comes from their mouth.

I wonder what damage we do when we make it wrong to rightfully name a situation as profane? Does it make the person wrong and ashamed for wanting to name it as such? Does it lessen our longing to see the kingdom of God reign on earth? Do we minimize the pain and injustice of situations?

My goal in writing this post isn’t to argue for swearing. My goal is to get us to think beyond morality when we approach the Christian faith. Being Christian isn’t just about being moral. Yes, morality matters. But it isn’t the starting point. Nor is it the ending point. Starting with morality leads to legalism and a salvation based on what one does or does not do. Ending with morality leads one to empty religion that does not embrace the human experience. Being Christian is about being fully human and fully alive. It is about embracing the whole human experience, the raw and the profane, and placing them before the feet of the one who makes all things beautiful and letting him redeem and restore.

After all, that’s what the Bible does.

Rethinking Jeremiah 29:11

Growing up I spent a good deal of my youth in evangelical circles.  On one hand I am thankful for that.  I believe it saved me a lot of mistakes and pain.  But growing up in evangelical circles isn’t without pressure.  Within this circle is an odd pressure to find God’s plan for your life.  You know, the plan with only one right path.  The one college God has planned for you to attend.  The one major he wants you to study that will lead to the one job he has for you.  The soul mate.  Ahh…the soul mate.  The Christian oompa-loompa that completes you (never mind Jesus’ role there).  You have to find your soul mate lest you marry someone else’s soul mate and they have to marry someone else’s soul mate starting a cataclysmic chain reaction ruining the matrimonial bliss of the world’s population.  Yes, do not screw that one up. God has a plan.

Sure, we would talk about the grace of God.  But it seemed like God exhibited little grace when it came to his plan.  As a youth pastor I saw countless students paralyzed over the decision about what college to attend because they didn’t want to miss out on God’s plan.  Grace was for our sins, but not for “the plan.”  That you have to get right.

Much of this anxiety stems from one of the most misused verses in the Bible – Jeremiah 29:11“‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.'”  The conclusion is simple.  God has very specific plans and if I get those wrong then the rest of my life will be spent in joyless wandering as I work to get back on the right path.

Often this verse is used to encourage people.  It is put on mugs, bookmarks and cards given with Dr. Seuss’s “Oh, the Places You’ll Go” at graduation.  While delivered with good intentions, I have seen the misapplication of this verse produce anxiety, fear, and paralysis as people worry about missing out on God’s plan for their life.

It doesn’t need to.  

Because this verse isn’t about you.

Context is everything, especially when we read the Bible.  The context of Jeremiah 29:11 is that Israel is in exile under the Babylonians. This means they were ripped from their homes, separated from friends and family, and exported to Babylon.  Right away we see this verse is not intended for people making difficult decisions like which job to take or who to marry.  This is for people wondering if God has left them.  Jeremiah is writing to people who are crying out for God to simply remember them and to see their pain.

This verse was never meant for individuals.  It was for a people in exile.

Given the misuse of this text it is fascinating to read Jeremiah 28.  In Jeremiah 28 we see Jeremiah arguing with the prophet Hananiah.  Hananiah prophesied that the Babylonian exile would end after two years.  That’s it.  After two years in exile Nebuchadnezzar would be removed from the throne and Jehoiachin would be placed on the throne over Israel.  In other words, Hananiah told the people exactly what they wanted to hear – suffering will be short and wealth is right around the corner.

Contrast that with Jeremiah.  Jeremiah prophesied that the exile would last for 70 years.  In fact, we learn the exile would last 70 years in Jeremiah 29:10, the verse right before we learn of God’s plan for our lives!  God is essentially saying, “Hey, this is going to last a while.  It is going to be hard.  But I haven’t forgotten you.”

Can you imagine those who were in exile who received Jeremiah’s prophesy?  Which one do you think they liked better?  Jeremiah’s or Hananiah’s?  70 years or two years?  It’s pretty easy to figure out who had the popular vote here.

Here is where we get this verse wrong.  We pull it out of the context of exile and give it to a student graduating college and fill their heads with the promises of prosperity if they live into the plans God has for them.  This leads to a preoccupation with figuring out God’s plan because it alone leads to prosperity.  The problem is that God doesn’t promise prosperity to all individuals.  Jeremiah 29 is not a promise of prosperity for individuals but for a people, a nation.  Nor is the promise of prosperity a promise of wealth.  The Hebrew is more along the lines of ‘welfare’ or maybe even better – peace.  Which I like a whole lot because it connects back up to Jeremiah 29:7 which says, “Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile.”  That sounds an awful lot like, “Pray for your enemies” and “Do good to those who persecute you” as commanded by Jesus.  Honestly, neither Jesus nor Jeremiah are as concerned with God’s plan for my life as I am.

Jeremiah 29 is one of the more difficult passages of scripture.  It promises years of suffering and then encourages people to bless those who are causing the suffering.  It tells them to settle down, build homes, marry, and have kids because the exile is going to last a long time.  That is a difficult pill to swallow.  Not really coffee mug material if you ask me.

And yet, it is an extremely hopeful passage.  God promises his people hope.  He promises them a future.  By stating he has a plan for them, God is telling his children he has not abandoned them.  This is why he says in verse 12, “Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you.  You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart.”

We will find God.

Hope.  Restoration.  Relationship.  Intimacy.  Jesus.  That is the promise of Jeremiah 29.

I do believe God has a plan for our lives.  But I do not believe it is a detailed plan about where we will go to college or live or who we will marry or how many kids we will have.  God’s plan is simply relationship with him.  Or as Jesus said, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind…and the second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself.” (Matthew 22:34-40).

Frederick Buechner said, “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”

St. Augustine said, “Love God and do whatever you please: for the soul trained in love to God will do nothing to offend the One who is Beloved.”

You want to know God’s plan for your life?  Go get a job and love God and love others where you work.  Get married and love your spouse as Christ loved the church and let your marriage shine grace and mercy and intimacy to the world.  Move where you feel led to and love God and love the people in your neighborhood.  Bless those around you.  Do good to those who persecute you.  Foster a life of intimacy with Jesus.

That’s the plan.  The rest will fall into place.

Confronting the Lie: God Won't Give You More Than You Can Handle

The past three weeks have been the most difficult I have ever gone through.  These three weeks have been filled with illness, the terrible-three’s (the terrible-two’s are an out-and-out lie), a friend suffering the consequence of sin, a ministry I am a part of reeling in confusion and pain, having to cancel a trip to celebrate my parents 60th birthdays, and our family experiencing the emotional roller-coaster of finding out we were pregnant only to be told the pregnancy was ectopic and could be life-threatening to my wife if it was not ended.

Needless to say, I have had enough.

I know I am not alone.  As trying as the last three weeks have been for me, I know some people who have dealt with far more for far longer.  But that doesn’t change the fact that this has been painful for me and my wife.  In the face of all this, I can honestly say I feel no pressure to be the “pastor” and have the answer for this.  Honestly, even as a pastor, I have no answer for this.  My questions before God about the reality of what my family has experienced over the last three weeks are the exact same questions anyone would ask.

Why not step in?
Why not act?
Why wouldn’t you make it right?
Why couldn’t you part the clouds and provide a moment for us to catch our breath?
Why everything at once?

Not only am I okay asking those questions, but I think there is something holy and sacred in being courageous enough to ask them.  Don’t be fooled, those questions are only to be asked by the courageous.  It is easy to spout trite Christian platitudes designed to make people feel better with bumper-sticker theology.  But insipid axioms do little in the face of the actual brokenness of the world.  It is more courageous to ask the hard questions of God and wait for him to answer than it is to find hope on the side of coffee mug.  Asking those questions requires courage because, in the end, it is very likely they will not be answered.

Ultimately, it isn’t about the questions.  Behind the questions is a deep current of emotion threatening to overtake us.  But too often, when the fracture in the universe threatens to swallow us up in pain we fail to get fully present to our emotions.  In those moments I think we do one of two things.  Either we ask the questions but never investigate what emotion is driving those questions, or we resort to some banal Christian slogan to try and make us feel better.

This experience forced me to look at one such statement that gets spouted often when people go through a lot:  God won’t give you more than you can handle.  If I may be so bold, let’s just call that what it is:


Tell that to a survivor of Auschwitz.
Tell it to the man who lost his wife and child in a car accident.
Tell it to the girl whose innocence was robbed from her.
Tell it to the person crushed under the weight of depression and anxiety.
Tell it to the kids who just learned their parent has a terminal illness.

Limp, anemic sentiments will not stand in the face of a world that is not as it should be.

Now that I have said how I feel, let me back up this argument with some actual Biblical evidence.  This particular statement, that “God won’t give you more than you can handle,” isn’t even in the Bible.  There is a statement that sounds like it.  1 Corinthians 10:13 says, “No temptation has overtaken you except what is common to humankind.  And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear.”  But notice that verse is about temptation.  That’s it.  You won’t be tempted beyond what you can stand up against.  This text is not saying that you will not experience more than you can bear.  That idea just isn’t Biblical.  If anything the exact opposite is true.  Look at this text.

For we do not want you to be ignorant, brothers and sisters, of the affliction we experienced in Asia. For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death. But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead (2 Cor 1:8,9, emphasis mine).

Later, Paul will write it is when he is weak that the strength of Christ is seen.  In other words, when we can’t do it any longer.  When we are fed up.  When it has become too much.  When we have nothing left.  When we are empty.  When it is beyond our capability to deal with it.  Then, in that moment, the strength of the God of resurrection will be seen.  Until we get to that point, we rely on ourselves thinking we can handle it and take care of the problem.

Don’t hear me saying I am rejoicing because of the last couple of weeks.  I am not.  Not once have I danced around our house shouting, “Yeah suffering!”  Instead, in the midst of pain and hurt, I am actively expecting God to do something.  I don’t know what.  I don’t know when.  But I am expecting the God of resurrection to heal us.  I am expecting God to restore us.  I am expecting him to redeem this situation.  I am expecting him to do this and so I will be actively looking and waiting for him to do something.  I believe expectant waiting can only happen when we exchange our feeble platitudes for an authentic faith that engages God with the full brunt of our emotion and pain.  Only then can salvation been seen.

But that exchange takes courage.