Church of the Unseen Promise


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A few years back, “cardboard testimonies” were all the rage.

If you haven’t seen them, it’s essentially a very very simple “before and after” story of the difference God has made in a person’s life.

On the front of a small sign, you write the before, something you were struggling with before coming to know the Lord. On the back, you write the after, how that struggle has been resolved.

Churches would have services were lines of people would wordlessly come out, show the front of the sign, flip it over, and show the back. It’s an incredibly powerful demonstration, a starkly simple and focused presentation of the transformative power of grace.

But at church recently, I got to thinking about what happens to the cardboard signs that only have one side.

It seems sometimes like we have set a very performance-based value proposition for God.

I went to a church service recently where people were being baptized and sharing their stories, and couldn’t help noticing how easy it to discuss God in terms of our lives. “My life is great, so God is great!” “God is good because He does so many good things for me!”

But what if He doesn’t?

There’s a gentlemen in one my church groups who has been fighting a very long and very heated custody battle, and recently marked a major victory along the way. Everyone in the class talked about how faithful he’d been, and how God had honored that, and used it as evidence of how good God is.

But what if it had turned out differently? What if the custody situation had turned out differently. In any battle, there’s a winner and a loser. What happens when you’re on the losing side? What does that say about God? What does that say about His goodness?

The Bible talks about the people who didn’t get to see the fulfillment of the promise. The people who didn’t get the happy ending they wanted. Moses, who didn’t get to enter the promised land. David, who didn’t get to build the temple.

We like to downplay those stories. They don’t fit our version of a performance-based system for rating God.

But what do you do with that when your story isn’t happily ever after?

Where would Moses and David fit in our churches? Do they get to walk across the stage with their pieces of cardboard? “Spent 40 years in the desert.” Flip. “Died without entering promised land.” I’m sorry, Mr. Moses, that’s not the sort of testimony we’re looking for; why don’t you watch from the pews?

God isn’t performance-based. He never promised you a happy back side of your piece of cardboard.

He promised comfort in the hard times. He promised eternity. He promised Himself. We need to stop selling Him short by promising people happy words on cardboard when what He has is so much better.

I want to see a church where people walk across the stage with their pieces of cardboard, and flip them over to reveal blank reverses. I want to see the same thing written on the back as the front. I want to see the back side be worse than the front.

And I want that to be OK. I want the church to be able to celebrate those stories, and those people. I want people with those stories to know that there is a place where they are welcome and valued. I want a church where Moses and David could share their testimonies.

I want to go to the church of the unseen promise. Anybody want to come with me?

Good Lord Willing


There’s wisdom, and then there’s wisdom.

Back when I was working for Cottage Senior Living, I had the chance to interview a guy who was living at The Commons, the 55+ active-adult apartment community.

And while the gentlemen, Bill, was definitely in the 55+ category, he was also definitely in the active-adult category as well. Most notably, several years back, he had started skydiving for his birthday every five years. Most recently, he had jumped a couple of years ago for his 80th.

There were plenty more interesting parts to Bill’s story, like how he had built his own airplane or had the chance to fly a helicopter, and it made for a really good story for capturing the sort of people that might be interested in The Commons.

But as much as I loved meeting Bill and want to be like him when I grow up and loved his story professionally, the thing that really stuck with me was a story he told about his late wife.

One on of his skydiving adventures, he asked his wife to join him, and she agreed. She got all sorts of questions, he said, about whether she was too old and so forth.

What if something happens to you, people would ask her.

To which she would reply, “If that’s the way the Lord wants me to die, I’d better get up there and do it.”

Amen.

He Is Risen Indeed!


I guess I really kind of wrote my Easter post for this year Friday, but I will link back to the Easter manifesto post I wrote a couple of years ago.

I hope you and yours have a blessed resurrection day.

The Gospel of Job


This is not the blog post I was planning on writing.

The blog post I was planning on writing was called “Sometimes The Enemy Wins,” and it was going to talk about the fact that sometimes Satan does get his way, and what happens when he does. I may yet write that blog post sometime, but not today.

In it, I was going to write about the times in scripture that Satan tests people, including my favorite prayer in the Bible. But as I was planning that post, I got caught up on the story of Job, and got to thinking about it in a way that I never had before.

Job’s one of the better-known stories in the Old Testament. There’s this guy, Job, and he’s a pretty awesome and upstanding guy. So Satan comes up and visits God in heaven one day, and is generally putting humanity down, and God’s like, “You seen my boy Job? He’s pretty awesome.” And Satan says that Job’s only all about God because God treats him so good, and if that changed, Job would turn on a dime.

So God says, go for it, and gives Satan permission to test Job, to take away all the cool stuff he’s got and see what happens. So Satan blows up his sheep, and kills his kids and turns his skin into something out of a horror movie. And all Job’s friends come by and tell him he should admit it’s his own fault, and his wife comes out and says he should just curse God and die and get it over with.

But Job, true to God’s assessment, stays the course, and doesn’t curse God. And so, at the end, God shows up to talk to him, and Job’s all, “Dude, … the hell?” And God’s all “OK, look, I’m God, who are you? ‘Cause, um, yeah, unless you’re God, you really don’t have much ground to tell me I’m doing my job wrong, because you couldn’t begin to understand it, much less do it.” God, pretty much by definition, has to be a pretty humble guy, in as much as that He is, by definition, infinitely awesome, and thus can’t really do justice to how awesome He is without taking an infinite amount of time. But the end of Job is one of those rare times where He kind of points out, just a little, that He is, in fact, rather amazing.

And so Job is blessed with new sheep and kids and clear skin, and they all live happily ever after.

And because of this story, we hold Job up as a pretty commendable guy. Even those who don’t know his story may know his name from the phrase, “the patience of Job.” And we put this story down in the W column in the God versus Satan scorecard, and, while we perhaps acknowledge that it’s a messy story to deal with in some ways, chalk it up to the virtues of being virtuous.

But …

What I got to thinking about was, what if it wasn’t. What if this was one of the stories were Satan “wins”? What if Satan had been right, and when he took everything away from Job, Job says, “This is crap; up yours, God!”? How is it different? What do we do with that story then? Would it have even made the Bible with a different outcome?

And what I came up with is this — I’m not sure it would matter.

In fact, it’s really not hard to imagine pretty much the entire book playing out the same way, save that one small detail. God brags on Job; Satan tests him. His friends and wife all give their little pep talks. Job curses God. And God shows up once again and still says, “OK, look, who are you?” and still makes Job understand that His ways are not our ways, and that He is above our ability to comprehend; that it’s not our place to second-guess the job He does unless we fully grasp the job requirements. God still restores his sheep and kids and skin, and everyone still lives happily ever after.

Because, ultimately, the lesson is this — it’s not about us.

God doesn’t show up and tell Job, “Hey, man, great job; you deserve to have everything restored! Congratulations!”

God shows up and says, “Job, son, it’s not about you. It’s about Me. It’s about grace.” And then He demonstrates that.

And we love the other side of grace.

We love that when Christ died on a cross on Good Friday a couple thousand years ago, it meant that our sins, our failings, our fallenness don’t have to matter. It’s not about us; it’s about Him. He paid the price so that we don’t have to. And that’s a rather agreeable thing.

But we sometimes lose sight of the fact that the opposite is just as true. Grace also means that when Christ died on a cross on Good Friday a couple thousand years ago, it meant that our virtue and our good deeds and our righteousness don’t matter, either. If our good deeds mattered, then by definition our sins would have to also, since they affect our good deeds.

None of this, of course, is license to act without thought of Him and His ways; we follow His path not to earn anything, but because He laid the path out because it was best for us.

It just means that it’s not about us. It’s about Him. Our sins and our virtues, our failings and our righteousness, are all irrelevant; however good we are, it’s still not good enough to earn salvation. When Christ paid the price for our salvation, He paid it in full, with no room left for us to pay off any part of it through our own merit.

The Gospel of Job is this — in His grace, we don’t have to worry about the end of the story, because we aren’t the ones writing it.

Ultimately, it’s about Him.

T’was Grace That Taught My Heart to Fear


I’ve been judging Jonah unfairly. And I didn’t realize it until I read someone else judging him the same way.

You know Jonah, right? God tells him to go preach to the rather nasty folks in Nineveh. Jonah hops on a boat and high-tails it in the opposite direction. Big storm comes. Jonah tells the crew to throw him overboard; storm stops, fish swallows Jonah. Jonah has a big heart-to-heart with God; fish spits him out three days after he was swallowed. Per God’s instructions, Jonah preaches to the nasty folks in Nineveh. Ninevites repent; God spares them. Jonah gets ticked off at God’s grace in not destroying the people he doesn’t like. Tree grows; tree dies; Jonah learns nothing. The end.

Jonah’s come up several times this year — in a series of sermons I heard, in a study I was given to read, and now again in the latest book I’m reading.

And the unfair judgment of Jonah I made, that was also in the book I’m reading, was this — Jonah was quick to want grace for himself, but resented it being given to others. What a hypocrite, right?

The book I’m reading made another assumption, though, and that’s what triggered my realization that I’ve been unfair.

The author talks about how unpleasant it must have been inside the fish. And, you know, that’s almost certainly true. In fact, the author says, Jonah probably started praying for deliverance and grace immediately.

That makes a lot of sense. But it’s not what scripture says. This is what scripture says:

Now the LORD provided a huge fish to swallow Jonah, and Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights. From inside the fish Jonah prayed to the LORD his God. He said: [[Prayer Omitted]]. And the LORD commanded the fish, and it vomited Jonah onto dry land.

The fish swallowed Jonah. Jonah was in the fish for three days. He prayed. Got responded immediately.

Now, you could make the assumption that the timetable is general instead of precise. But, I don’t think so.

Jump back a little bit. Jonah’s on the boat. The storm comes. Jonah knows it’s from God, and he knows it’s because of his disobedience. The sailors confront him about it.

At that point, someone else might have been on their knees, praying for God to stop the storm and promising to do whatever He wants. I mean, it sounds like the sort of storm that would have gotten someone’s attention, and probably inspired some reconsideration.

Not Jonah. He looks at the sailors, and tells them to throw him overboard, knowing it means almost certain death.

Jonah’s not quick to ask for grace. He’d rather die.

But he doesn’t. A fish swallows him.

Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe the author’s right. Maybe Jonah started begging for mercy at that point. But, you know, given his behavior on the boat, I don’t think so.

I think he was waiting to die. As the author was quick to point out, without a miracle, there’s no way a person could survive that. Jonah was that, since the storm didn’t kill him, being digested would.

And so, he waited. Patiently. In unimaginably unpleasant conditions. Waiting for death.

Sitting there, inside the fish. “Any minute now …”

And on the third day, he realized it wasn’t going to come. God wasn’t going to let him die.

Those three days were God waiting for Jonah. Waiting for him to stop wanting to die. Waiting for him to start wanting to live. Waiting for him to humble himself to ask for grace.

Jonah wasn’t a hypocrite. He wasn’t quick to want grace for himself. He was just as willing for himself to die as anyone else.

But God wasn’t. His grace wasn’t just freely offered to Jonah. It was, literally, irresistible.

Because sometimes grace is difficult. Grace isn’t a free ride. Grace for Jonah meant that he still had to do the thing he didn’t want to do. I’ll admit, I’ve been at the point before where Jonah was,  where it seems easier to give up. But God wasn’t going to let Jonah have that option.

What about  you? Are there times you’d just as soon avoid God’s grace? And what does it take to make you accept it?

The Safety of Bondage


Joseph and Moses being awesome.

Be patient with me, this is going to ramble a bit. But hopefully it’ll make sense in the end. And, really, that’s kind of the point, but we’ll get back to that.

We’re going to start with Joseph. Not the stepdaddy of Jesus one, the and-the-amazing-technicolor-dreamcoat one.

For those that need a (very) quick refresher. Joseph’s dad loves him more than all his brothers and gives him a technicolor dreamcoat and Joseph goes around wearing it and telling everyone how God sends him dreams about how awesome he is and for someone reason this makes everybody rather dislike him so his brothers decide to kill him but they put him in a hole instead and sell him and he gets taken to Egypt where his life basically kind of sucks for a very very long time but eventually he becomes friends with pharaoh and is all sorts of Egyptian awesome which is convenient because there’s a famine and his brothers who thought he was dead come to Egypt looking for food and the run into him and he’s all like, hey, even though you tried to kill me, your my brothers and I love you and here have some food. Cool? Cool.

And Joseph, at that point, is able to show grace to his brothers, and be all cool about the whole trying-to-get-rid-of-him thing, telling them that what they meant for evil, God meant for good.

And everybody enjoys the food and learns a good lesson from the moral of the story and they all live happily ever after. The end.

Except …

It’s not. While we love to treat the Bible like it’s an anthology of collected stories, it’s really one big narrative. The story keeps going from there. Joseph and his brothers ride out the famine in Egypt and decide to stick around, where eventually his family starts breeding like rabbits and become slaves and are forced to make bricks without straw until a Charlton-Heston-lookalike tells pharaoh to let his people go.

So let’s replay that moral, shall we: “What you meant for evil, God meant for good — to wit, FOUR HUNDRED YEARS of slavery and oppression.” Um, thanks?

To be sure, God knew it was going to happen, too. When He was working all of this for good, He knew that good was going to be centuries of bondage. In fact, He had told Abraham it was going to happen: ““Know for certain that for four hundred years your descendants will be strangers in a country not their own and that they will be enslaved and mistreated there.” In fact, God even tells Abraham which generation it’s going to start with, which makes you wonder why they didn’t think to be a little more careful with the whole going-to-Egypt thing, but that’s another story entirely.

So, yes, God had the entire Joseph-and-his-brothers story play out not only for the happy redemption for that family, but also so that he could put his chosen people into slavery for centuries. As much as the former was His plan, so was the latter.

In fact, since we’ve already established that you have to look at the thing as a continuing narrative instead of short-story collection, let’s jump back a bit. Not too terribly long before this, there was no chosen people of God. There were no Jewish people, no ten commandments, no ark of the covenant, nothing. There were just a bunch of pagans ever since the tower of Babel.

And God decides He needs a chosen people, so He goes to this one pagan guy named Abram and tells him he’s going to be the father of a new nation, and changes his name to Abraham. And Abraham has a son named Isaac, who in turn has two sons, Jacob and the other guy. And one day Jacob wrestles with God, and so God gives him his new Indian name, “Wrestles-With-God,” or, in his language, “IsraEl.” This name is so perfect for God’s chosen people and their ongoing wrestling with Him that the nation carries it to this very day. And Israel has a bunch of kids, including the aforementioned Jacob, and this generation of twelve is the first generation of the “people of Israel,” God’s chosen nation.

So sending them into slavery is not only something God chose to do with His people, it was the very first thing God did with the people of Israel. He picks Abraham to father His people, He picks Israel to be the namesake of His nation, and He takes the first generation of Israel and packs them off to Egypt first thing.

Ultimately, this would become a very key part of their history, their narrative. At the end of the bondage came the exodus and the passover, key elements of the Jewish faith and important bellwethers of the messiah. The events surrounding the end of their bondage becoming defining for the nation of Israel and serve as a touchstone for their faith in God. God had to lay that foundation in the beginning, because everything that came after would be built on it. Four hundred years of slavery, followed by one of the most important events of the Torah. What man meant for evil, God meant for good.

Still with me? Good. Because I have one more place to go, and this one involves a little bit more of a leap.

Remember the prophecy God told Abraham, about his descendants going into bondage? God told him a few other things that day. He reiterated His promise that he would father a nation. He told about the four hundred years of bondage, and added that it would end with His people coming out with great possessions. And God also told Abraham that the land where he then was would belong to his descendants.

Abraham was there then, and his descendants would be there again, and when they returned, it would be promised to them. But, in the meantime, there would be four centuries of bondage.

Now, jump ahead four hundred years. While they were in Egypt, the Israelite people had increased greatly in number. This was what led to them being put into slavery in the first place, but apparently continued the entire time, since it was what led toward the end of that period to the culling of the first-born sons, which was how pharaoh’s daughter ended up finding Moses in a basket. So a much-much-larger nation of Israel comes out of Egypt than the one that went in, and it goes back to the land that God had given to their great-great-…-great-granddaddy, and, oh crap, it’s full of giants. Well, that’s no good.

Despite the fact that God had promised His people they could take the land from its occupiers, twelve scouts went to check it out, and what they found was that it was populated by an incredible fearsome number of giants. Ten of the scouts said they couldn’t beat them, the other two said they could, but only because they believed they would have supernatural intervention.

Because of the doubt of the majority, God makes them wait a while before they take the land, but, ultimately, the Jewish population of 3 million moves in, wipes out the existing population (to be fair, after giving them the chance to leave peacefully) and claims the promised land.

So replay that four hundred years, but ignore what’s going on in Egypt and focus on the promised land. In the time of Abraham, the promised land is a great place to be, but, sometime in the intervening centuries, an occupying force moves in and takes it, a force so large and powerful that it frightens the millions-strong nation.

Given that wiping out the incumbent population when you conquer an area was not that unusual at the time, what would have happened if Israel had not been in slavery in Egypt at the time? What if, instead of being taken into bondage, Abraham’s descendants had stayed in his promised land, and had been there when the new occupiers came in?

The story might have been a whole lot shorter.

If you only look at what’s happening in Egypt, the story of the Israelite slavery is one of suffering and woe. But if you look at the larger picture, it may well be the lesser of two evils. Yes, there is hardship, but if the alternative is complete destruction, hardship looks a whole lot better.

In that light, the time of God’s chosen people in Egypt is not a story of suffering, but one of gestation. The Egyptian slavery was a protected womb in which the nation not only survived but flourished, growing safely in number to the point where it could conquer and hold the promised land.

What man meant for evil, God meant for good.

… To Build Him An Arky, Arky


So on Friday, I wrote a post that alluded to Noah. And that reminded me of the Noah post I’ve been meaning to write for a while.

See, Noah is one of those Bible characters that I would love to get the chance to interview. In fact, I’d be happy with just one question. I mean, there are probably any number of people I would love to talk to, but if I got the chance to talk to Noah, I’ve had the one question I would ask picked out for a while.

That one question would involve filling in one of those details the Bible leaves out that to me would be awesome to know.

We’re introduced to Noah a little before the main ark narrative begins — we know he was, at some point in time, 500 years old, we know he had three sons, we know he “found favor in the eyes of the Lord,” and we know he “was a righteous man, blameless among the people of his time, and he walked faithfully with God.”

So in Genesis 6:13, God shows up and tells Noah, “I am going to put an end to all people, for the earth is filled with violence because of them. I am surely going to destroy both them and the earth. So make yourself an ark of cypress wood; make rooms in it and coat it with pitch inside and out.” And He goes on at some length telling how exactly to build this ark, and about the flood that’s going to come, and what Noah should put in the ark, and that sort of thing.”

And when God finishes with the instructions, we’re told, “Noah did everything just as God commanded him.”

And the very next verse, Genesis 7:1, says, “The Lord then said to Noah, “Go into the ark, you and your whole family, because I have found you righteous in this generation.  Take with you seven pairs of every kind of clean animal, a male and its mate, and one pair of every kind of unclean animal, a male and its mate,  and also seven pairs of every kind of bird, male and female, to keep their various kinds alive throughout the earth.  Seven days from now I will send rain on the earth for forty days and forty nights, and I will wipe from the face of the earth every living creature I have made.”

And once again we’re told, “And Noah did all that the Lord commanded him.”

So then, of course, there’s a big flood, everybody dies, yadda yadda. But that’s beside the point for the moment.

I’m fascinated by a word in verse 7:1, and that word is “then.”

Because that makes it sound like, God said this, and Noah did it, and then God said that, and Noah did it. Which, I guess, is true, technically.

But in between the two “God said”s is a period that is estimated to be anywhere from 120 years on the unlikely long end to maybe about seventy on the conservative short end.

And I’ve heard any number of preachers talk about what that period must have been like for Noah, in terms of people questioning and mocking him for spending decades building this boat with nowhere to go.

What I wonder, though, is whether what the Bible tells us really was it. Did God show up one day, say “build an ark,” leave Noah to it, and then show up around a century later when it was done, and say, “OK, get ready to load up”?

I can’t imagine what that would be like. Sure, you have a word from God, and that’s a pretty good foundation to start building an ark on. But at some point, do you start to question it? Even Abraham, that paragon of faith, became dubious in less time than that. At some point, a decade or two or five, do you start asking yourself, “OK, how well do I remember what happened? Am I sure that wasn’t just a weird dream? Shouldn’t something be happening by now?” Was there ever a time that Noah kept building the ark solely because he didn’t want to admit to others that he might have been wrong about whether he should be building an ark?

On the other hand, we’re told Noah “walked faithfully with God.” Was that going on the whole time? Did God occasionally stop by and say, “Hey, man, great ark-building! Keep it up!” If so, was that, what? Every week? Every year? Every decade?

There have been times I’ve felt like I’m doing what God wants me to do. And so I do it. But, I’ll be honest, without reinforcement, I don’t think I could spend a century doing it, even if I were to live that long. I’m not sure I could spend even a decade, without reassurance that, yes, this is right. Or, really, a year.

So I would love to know — “What was God doing while you were building the ark, Noah?”

Because, to be honest, it would make me feel a little bit better knowing that there was the occasional encouragement.

Though I still doubt it was as often as I would want it to be.