The Bible Isn't an Instruction Book (Except for when It Is)

The Bible is the most important text in the world.  Beyond it being the bestselling book every single year (save one) since we have been tracking sales, beyond its incredible impact on countless artists, politicians, and philanthropists, I believe it is the Word of God. Or, to quote second Timothy, “God-breathed.”  It is because of this high view of the Bible that I say it is not an instruction book.

I have recently received several emails Facebook messages and conversations asking me questions that circle back to this key question:  what is the Bible? That’s what this article is about.

When you look at the contents of the Bible you find a brilliant rainbow of material from ancient history (which often has quiet different values from modern history), law, poetry, allegory, prophecy, apocalyptic literature, lecture, and philosophy among other things.  That’s why it can be hard to pin down a solid answer as to what the Bible is.  Depending on which part you are reading it can appear to be everything from poetry to law.  

However, when we take the Bible as a whole we can say definitively that this collection of ancient literature is scripture.  And scripture has a single goal: to form us spiritually. That is important because understanding that every page shares a single category means that whether you are reading a passage of history or allegory, the words are ultimately seeking to do the same thing: form you spiritually.

That is why boiling down the Bible to a divine VCR manual is a bad idea. I don’t know many people whose spiritual lives have been affected by a manual of any kind.  When we read the Bible like that we miss out on much of its power.  Approaching the Bible as anything other than scripture can distract us causing us to focus on all the wrong things ultimately missing the biggest points of powerful passages.

Don’t get me wrong, there are clearly times when the Bible is giving us very specific commands that we are supposed to take literally and follow strictly (like when it tells us not to lie and murder). But then you come to scriptures that are simple and direct and tell you to kill your child if they are rebellious.  If we read it like an instruction manual at that point we would have very few people make it to adulthood. Luckily there is more to the Bible than an ifixit repair guide.  

That’s why when we open the Bible, it is imperative that we approach it with the reverence and awe that it demands because it it not a manual.  It is scripture.  It is the word of God.

Now, let me take a turn and argue with myself. Though the Bible is not an instruction book, it clearly is meant to be put to use in our lives.  In fact, that scripture from 2 Timothy says that it is not only “God-breathed,” but it is also “useful.” That’s where the “forming” part comes in. The Bible is not meant to just inform us of interesting information or dazzle us with beautiful metaphor.  The Bible is meant to be lived out.  It is to be used by us to change ourselves and our world to be more like the vision of creation it reveals.

That passage from 2 Timothy brings us even more clarity about the Bible.  Here’s the whole passage: “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness,  so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” Each one of those words reveals a different way that we put the scripture to “use.”

  • Teaching: the Bible conveys new information to us.  It shows us who God is, who we are, who Jesus is, and how God desires creation to be.  It tells us about the Exodus and the Crucifixion and where the whole world is headed in the future.  In short, it conveys information.

  • Rebuking:  the Bible tells us when we are wrong.  Because we are born into a sinful world it is easy to live a life of sin and not fully understand when and where we are wrong.  Luckily, when we listen to the Bible as it forms us, we hear it saying, “Don’t do that!” Like a parent showing us when we have stepped over the line, the Bible offers a rebuke when we begin to engage in evil, injustice and oppression in one form or another.

  • Correcting: it’s nice to know when you are wrong, but that doesn’t really help.  That is why the Bible calls us to repentance.  It asks us not just to stop doing bad things, but turn away from our sinful ways and walk in the ways of God that lead to life. the Bible doesn’t just tell us we are wrong.  It guides us in the paths of righteousness.

  • Training in righteousness:  We need more than being told where we are wrong and shown the right way.  We need to be trained in how to know where God is calling us and follow him.  Like it or not, the Bible doesn’t give specific instructions on everything. Like, there is literally no reference to Facebook! But we don’t need that.  We need training in a new way of thinking and being in the world.  A way that works to bring the kingdom of God more fully here on earth as it is in heaven.  And the Bible is full of that. 

I say all of that to say this:  the Bible is not an instruction book (except for when it is).  So, let’s find bigger, more accurate language to use when we talk about it so that we call people to engage with it in the most expansive way possible.  And, if I may be so bold, I’d like to suggest that language: scripture.

Before I go, I’d be remiss if I didn’t give you a better, more theological description, and I really like this one from my denomination’s founding documents. I hope it gives you a lot to think about: 

We believe the Holy Bible, Old and New Testaments, reveals the Word of God so far as it is necessary for our salvation. It is to be received through the Holy Spirit as the true rule and guide for faith and practice. Whatever is not revealed in or established by the Holy Scriptures is not to be made an article of faith nor is it to be taught as essential to salvation.


Did God Create Other Universes?

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I loved acting when I was in elementary school. I was always in the plays at our church, but I played the roles of young characters in local high school and college plays too. I loved every second of it and thought that maybe one day I would move to New York and become a star on Broadway.

This is an excerpt from my book All the Best Questions. You can buy it on Amazon.

When I was going into the fifth grade, I had an opportunity that I thought might give me the big break I needed to become a huge star. I had auditioned for an acting camp that happened outside New York City. The final day of camp was a performance in New York City in front of a bunch of agents and managers. After a lot of talking about how we could afford it, my parents gave me the news that I was able to go. That wasn’t even the best part. After camp, we would spend a couple weeks going to auditions in New York City!

It was as if my brain had been given a shot of pure imagination. I instantly saw my future landing major roles in Broadway musicals that would, of course, put me in the perfect position to begin a long and lucrative career in movies. Every time I calmed myself down, I would ramp up on another subject, such as what it would be like to live at the top of one of those New York skyscrapers or if I would be able to keep myself together when I performed for the first time on the Today show.

I could tell my brother wasn’t sharing my excitement, so I picked up the phone and called one of my best friends who had already decided that she would move to New York with me after high school and become a professional dancer. I assured her that I would use my extensive contacts to help her get a job, and I’d let her stay with me for free because I would most certainly be a millionaire by that time.

I think a similar shot of pure imagination is at play when people think about everything God created. We barely understand our own planet, which represents a fraction of a fraction of a fraction of everything God made. All of that unknown begs us to dream. It calls to us to seek to understand. We spend most of our time thinking about our faith in terms of what has happened here on earth, but how does our understanding of everything else interact with our faith?

Before we go much further, it’s probably helpful to bring you up to speed on the whole multiple-universes idea. As scientists seek to explain how our universe began a little over 13 billion years ago, they have begun to consider a major idea: What if there were multiple universes?

The idea put forth by Stephen Hawking and others is that entire universes are constantly being born and dying, with many lasting only fractions of a second. The idea is that each universe begins with a new set of laws and ideas that govern it (like our law of gravity). Since the majority of combinations of laws will not support a viable universe, most of them collapse. But every once in a while, the conditions are perfect, and a sustainable universe is created that grows and develops, like our own. It’s a pretty incredible idea.

But where does God fit into that? For those answers we have to explore the creation story in the Bible. The problem, though, is that the creation story in the book of Genesis was written by and to a people who had no idea of quantum physics or the theory of relativity. They didn’t know what we know about our universe. They didn’t even know that the earth orbits around the sun!

If they didn’t have even the most basic scientific understanding, how do we use information written by and to them to respond to modern science? The key is trying to enter into their mindset to understand at the most basic level what the Bible was saying to them. Then we can figure out what that might mean in the modern day.

The very beginning of the Bible gives us the most insight: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters” (Genesis 1:1-2).

Imagine you are living long before humans knew that the earth was round. You are sitting next to a fire listening to a priest tell this story. You look up at the thousands of stars in the sky and then are told that the two biggest things you can see, the land and the sky, were created by God. What would that mean to you? I think it would say to you that everything was created by God because everything you have ever known was either in the sky or on the land. Every camel, every bird, every tree, and every cloud—it all existed either in land or sky. Okay, or the sea, but later in the story God creates that too.

Now, as we fast-forward several thousand years into the modern day and try to translate the deepest truth of the creation story into a world that is as familiar with the electron as with the donkey, the task is pretty simple. That basic truth makes a lot of sense even today: God created everything. God created all the atoms and planets and solar systems and galaxies, and, if it turns out to be true that there are multiple universes, all the universes too! When we read the book of Genesis we have to say that if there are other universes, God must have created them too.

If there are other universes that God created, that could lead to some significant questions about God and how God relates with us. For example, did Jesus die just for humans or for all beings everywhere? What if the beings in another universe never chose to sin like we did?

The more you think about it, the more questions you can create. It’s like another one of those shots of pure imagination. To have a full answer to all of the questions, we usually need information we don’t have because we haven’t experienced other worlds or universes. However, the questions all seem to ask whether God relates the same with all creations or if God relates differently from one to the other.

For that, we can offer an answer. Though the relationship may be different based on the specifics of the creation, if all of these universes were created by God, then they would all be cared for by God as creator. Or, in the words of my mom, “God may love us in different ways, but the same amount.”

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A Prayer for Annual Conference

credit:  AWFC

credit: AWFC

We are gathering for Annual Conference again, God.

And we confess 
Though you created us all and 
Love us all and
Speak to us all, we are divided.
We are in a season of deep disagreement 
and cry out for your mercy.

Lord, have mercy
Cover our gathering with your grace,
Bring about the miracle of peace,
And open our eyes to the presence of the Holy Spirit in each moment.

Lord, have mercy
As we make speeches for, 
Light the path past our perspectives and 
Use our voice to proclaim your truth
As we make speeches against, 
May they not be against people or groups, 
Give us the voice of the prophets calling people to faithfulness.

Lord, have mercy
As we elect our delegates, 
Make our votes an agent of your voice
Calling our people to leadership
Lift our eyes above our caucuses and 
Our pet issues and 
Our earthly allegiances and 
Cast our lots under the direction of your Spirit.

Lord, have mercy
Give us your heart
That reaches out to the whole earth
That sacrifices itself so that all people can know your love
That calls out to the broken, hurting, and lost
Offering healing, comfort and direction.

Lord, have mercy
Move us out of this season of disagreement
To the garden of grace
Speak to us
Love us
And create something new in our Annual Conference

Lord, have mercy
Christ, have mercy
Lord, have mercy


>>> More: Can God’s Voice Be Discerned in Committee

I Want to Pray, but ADD... What do I Do?

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It’s not a secret. I have ADD. When I pray, my prayers are all over the place (surprise!). I recently got a question from a reader about this (it happens a lot more now since the publication of All the Best Questions).

Anyway, back to prayer (see, I told you). Over the years I have found a couple of big ideas and tools that have helped me when it comes to prayer, and if you have diagnosed or undiagnosed ADD, ADHD or just general scattered brain disorder, I think this will help.

1. I have the gift of ADD, and I don't have to fight it.  
Some people sit down to pray and are so focused that they never get to wander down crazy paths and pray about all kinds of creative things. They only pray about what's on their list.  I don't have to do that.  Because I have this fun, creative mind that leads me down all kinds of curious trails, I can let myself go when I pray.  

Look, God made me this way.  If God wanted someone different to talk to, God could have created them, but God created me. That means when we have a conversation God gets to start talking to me about the pain I have in my neck and then get to hear about how I love the sound the leaves make when the breeze blows through the forest and (I actually got distracted while I was writing this part and started thinking about doughnuts) then about my sick relative.  I say what I want to say and let my mind wander in prayer because a lot of times when I let it wander I end up praying about things that are important that I didn't think about when I initially sat down to pray.

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2. Prayer books help me keep praying when I keep getting distracted from praying.
For centuries people have been putting together prayer books to help people focus their mind in prayer. For people who have ADD, it can help to have words to read to guide your prayers.  I like to think of prayer books kind of like the rails of a prayer train.  Sometimes I am not being distracted in a good way (like I mentioned in number 1) but I stop praying altogether. A prayer book can be the tracks leading to prayer that keep the train from going somewhere you aren't wanting to go.  

In fact, that's part of why I wrote The Book of Everyday Prayer.  In it I wrote brief prayer services for different times in the day on each day of the week. The book is a tool so that whenever the urge strikes you to pray and you don't really know where to start, you can open the book and put your prayer train on some tracks that will help keep you engaged with talking to God.

3. There are kinds of prayers that help me learn to focus in general.
There is a whole category of prayer called contemplative prayer that is not as much about the words we say as helping our mind rest and be present with God.  Those payer practices have actually helped me over the years learn how to quiet my ADD mind and focus on God (or something else).  These methods of praying teach you how to let go of distracting thoughts rather than be ruled by them.  It's a nice thing for anyone to learn, but it is especially helpful for those of us with the gift of ADD.  Discovering tools that help you stop the whirlwind of thoughts and focus are REALLY helpful.  (I have instructions on several contemplative prayer practices in The Book of Everyday Prayer).  

One of the simplest (and also most difficult) ones is called centering prayer.  The metaphor used by one of my favorite christian monks (I'm a nerd ok... I get it), is that your mind is like a river and each boat is a thought.  Sometimes the river of our mind get clogged with too many boats and when we want to pray, or just be present with God, there's no room for that boat on the river of our mind.  Centering prayer is focused on clearing that river so that there is only one boat, the boat of our prayer.

You start centering prayer by sitting in a comfortable spot that doesn't have a bunch of distractions.  From there you choose a word that means God to you.  It might be "God" or "Jesus" or "love" or whatever, but you choose a word.  You close your eyes enough to not be distracted but not so much that you will fall asleep. Then, you begin to pay attention to the word you have chosen.  As each distracting thought comes up, you simply answer it with your word and allow it to pass.  You continue doing that until all you are left with is the word and you rest in the presence of God.  Pretty cool right?  I have found that sometimes this is the only thing that will help me carve out space for prayer in the crowded river of my ADD mind.  And practicing that also helps me learn how to focus in general... BONUS!

Having ADD does not somehow disqualify you from engaging in deep prayer, and it is definitely not something that makes it more difficult to be a Christian (there’s a whole chapter on that in All The Best Questions). It just means your prayers are different than other people. But here’s the best news. God loves it when we pray… however we pray. So let go of being self conscious about prayer and just do it.

And if you have a question you’d like me to answer, fill out the contact me form on this page!



Us for Them not Us or Them

It is time for me to speak out clearly against a pervasive evil in American society.  Over the past several months I have had several moments of deep grief watching people I love exclude each other, demonize each other, and deeply wound each other.  I have listened to people offering up a thousand versions of the statement “it’s us or them.”

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This undertow of division has swept many of the people I love out to sea. When someone choses to maintain close ties to people on all sides of an issue, they are viewed at best with skepticism and at worst as a traitor by people on all sides.

I get it, but they voted for Trump (or Hillary).  They are pro-choice (or life).  They want gay people to be married (or not).  But, can I let you in on a secret?  God created them (whoever “they” are for you) and God loves them!  Not only that, God wants to bless them and wants to spend eternity with them.  

And here’s the craziest thing, God sent God’s one and only son to die as a sacrifice for their sin.  You know the one.  The one you hate.  The sin they commit that causes you to say horrible things about them.  Jesus died so that horrible sin would no longer separate them from God, so that they could be part of the family of God. It grieves the Spirit of God when those who claim to be following Jesus become part of this evil system of division. 

Earlier this week I was talking with a mentor and heard myself slip into it. I heard myself saying that I’d rather not have to be in the same group as someone else God loves dearly that disagrees with me.  Thank God my mentor responded with “But, we have to love them too.  We have to try to see them the way God sees them.” There I sat having lamented this evil of division moments before, now participating in the furtherance of this vile sin myself. 

I believe it is time for us to stop passively trying to resist it.  It’s time to wage war against it.  The band Gungor has a perfect metaphor in a song that is , in part, about this very thing.  It says:

Prepare the way of the Lord

Wielding mercy like a sword

Every mountaintop will be made low

Know, He holds the earth like dust

And His judgement comes to us

And His judgement is love

His judgement is love

That’s it.  Fighting this evil of division requires that we take up the sword of mercy.  The only way to kill it is to offer audacious, gratuitous mercy to everyone. It is to build bigger tables and include more people, even people who think they are our enemies. When they exclude themselves from us,  when they demonize us and say all kinds of false things against us, we pick up our sword of mercy and prepare the way of the Lord. The song goes further:

We will not fight their wars

We will not fall in line

Cause if it's us or them

It's us for them

It's us for them

I think that’s where we have to begin. We have to start listening for the “us or them.”   Then, when we hear it, when we feel that primal urge to choose a side and fight for it, we pivot.  We recognize the real war that is being waged is not us against them but against unity itself.  When we hear “us or them” we choose to pull in closer and fight for unity.  We choose to make it. “us for them.”

Can God's Voice be Discerned in Committee?

Can I make a motion to call the vote on God’s will?  Every time a major Christian denomination gathers for their business meeting (The United Methodist Church is doing that right now) people begin to hurl critiques about the process being ineffective or unholy.  For those who join in the live stream or show up to observe in person, the process of motions and amendments and points of order is a far cry from their personal discernment that often happens in personal prayer, and in my case over a good cup of coffee.

Delegates Pray before their work at the Special Called General Conference of the United Methodist Church in 2019

Delegates Pray before their work at the Special Called General Conference of the United Methodist Church in 2019

We ask the question, how could all of this be holy?  How could the Holy Spirit be speaking through something as dry as a committee meeting? Or, if you want to phrase it in terms of an angry Twitter user “You can’t take vote on God’s will.”

As it turns out, the history of Christianity is rife with committee meetings (often called councils) going all the way back to the upper room.  

You remember this moment right?  Jesus brings the disciples up to the mountain, commissions them and ascends to heaven. After the disciples recover from that incredible sight, they return to Jerusalem and head into the upper room. Once in the room, the biblical account begins with a list of who was present in (Acts 1:13). After some time in worship together, Peter rises and says “‘Brothers and sisters, the Scripture had to be fulfilled in which the Holy Spirit spoke long ago through David concerning Judas, who served as guide for those who arrested Jesus. He was one of our number and shared in our ministry.’” (vv.16-17) 

Peter is talking about the fact that Judas had committed suicide, but that is just the beginning.  Peter is about to make a motion.  After offering scriptural support from Psalm 69, he makes the motion saying “‘Therefore it is necessary to choose one of the men who have been with us the whole time the Lord Jesus was living among us, beginning from John’s baptism to the time when Jesus was taken up from us. For one of these must become a witness with us of his resurrection.’” (vv. 21-22)

Peter is asking for the group present to decide on a replacement for Judas.  How do they do it?  Do they wait on the sky to open and write the name on their first century white board?  Not quite.  They do what churches do all over the world when they are deciding on new leaders:  they make nominations. “So they nominated two men: Joseph called Barsabbas (also known as Justus) and Matthias.” (v. 23)

Implement of discernment: a voting device use in the Special Called General Conference  of the United Methodist Church in 2019

Implement of discernment: a voting device use in the Special Called General Conference of the United Methodist Church in 2019

If this sounds familiar, it should.  We have a word for a gathering that takes roll, makes motions and nominations:  a committee meeting. Lest you think it’s the only one, we see several other committee meetings in Acts.  There’s one on sending Peter and John to Samaria (Acts 8), deciding how to deal with Gentiles (Acts 15).  These meetings inspired many verses that aren’t in your Bible memory flash card set.  Classic verses like “The apostles and elders met to consider this question.” (Acts 15:6) Riveting stuff.

Throughout the movement of God in the world from that time to this, God has moved in powerful (and often boring) ways through committees.  The Holy Spirit has been active in legislation through the prayer of devoted disciples offering motions and taking votes.

Next time you have the opportunity to watch or participate in these meetings, may you walk into that room with the reverence that you would walking along the streets of Jerusalem or along the sea of Galilee.  May you walk into that room knowing that you are walking in the footsteps of  Christians like Peter and James and John. May you approach your work with reverence and submit yourself to the leading of the Holy Spirit who has the power to move through anything and everything, yes, even committee meetings.

A Prayer for General Conference

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God of creation, 
the God who spoke
and brought something out of nothing, 
brought light out of darkness,
who warmed the heart of Wesley, 
and brought to life this church in the soil of the great awakening,
we cry out to you.  
Hear our prayer.

We find ourselves in the valley of the shadow 
and we need your rod and your staff.
We need the lamp that lights the path.

What we want, deep within our hearts
deep within our souls,
Is that your will be done.  

If we are honest, God, none of us can fully see the way forward.
At times we have sensed hints of it, 
echoes on the wind of your spirt, 
But we have allowed our own opinions, 
our own pain, 
our history, 
to cloud our vision.

As your church gathers in St Louis, 
we need to hear your voice,
the voice of the creator,
speaking into existence that which does not yet exist.

As the 864 delegates and countless others assemble for worship 
We pray that your kingdom would begin to break forth.  
As your people continue in a legislative assembly 
we pray that the kingdom would continue to break forth, 
that your spirit would speak through their motions and votes. 
As the work concludes in the plenary session 
we pray that your kingdom would be seen descending out of heaven, 
and we would hear you say “Behold, I am making everything new!”

Evangelism is not a Four Letter Word

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I was sitting in a dark youth room listening to a guy trying to use chocolate bars to explain how to talk about Jesus to strangers.  I was at an evangelism seminar for teenagers at my friend’s church and was excited to get better at sharing my faith.  

After three hours of tips and tricks  worthy of one of those list-style internet articles, they set us loose in pairs on our local shopping mall armed with one all important question:  if you dies tonight, do you know where you would go?”  We were instructed to go up to strangers in the mall asking them this question with the goal of ultimately leading them in the sinner’s prayer somewhere between the Gap and Spencer’s

My duo struck out as far as salvation were concerned but we did learn several interesting hand signals and four-letter words that were not part of the seminar.  We all loaded back on the church bus to debrief and then were taken to the strip on Panama City beach with an additional instruction:  look for inebriated people (they were apparently more open to receiving the gospel).

For the longest time this is what I thought of when I heard the word “evangelism.”  Ok, that and the people who stood on the side of the street with bullhorns.  But let me say unequivocally that what I was taught was not evangelism.  It was couched in evangelistic terms, but it was so far from what true evangelism is that I no longer think you can use the same word to describe both things.

Over the past fifteen years, I have discovered that evangelism is far bigger and far more important than I had ever imagined.  Evangelism is how we offer the loving embrace of God’s grace to our world through word, deed, and sign.  I know that is a lot, but this metaphor of embrace that I learned from Dr. Kim Reisman reveals the loving, grace-filled practice that I believe is TRUE evangelsim.  

She says that we begin by opening our arms to the world.  Having an open posture to the world is a major part of evangelism. In order to enter into this embrace we have to be open and aware of those in need of the grace of God in our World.  Not only that, opening our arms is a stance of welcome to those around us.  Being open and welcoming is the essential first step in being true evangelists.  The problem is that our world encourages us to be closed off, unwelcoming, and even suspicious of everyone around us.  If we are to offer the loving embrace of God’s grace to our world we must begin by changing our orientation to that world.

At that point Dr Reisman offers a brilliant second step in the metaphor that seems to not be a step at all:  waiting.  We wait.  We don’t coerce or try and do some sort of surprise-hug attack like I was taught at the evangelism seminar in my youth; rather, we wait for someone to open their arms to us and express an openness to receiving this loving embrace of God’s grace.  In the waiting, we are asking the Holy Spirit to do the work of wooing the people in our world to the good news of Jesus.  We are waiting for the Holy Spirit to open the arms of another so that we can enter into this embrace.

At this point, we enter into the moment where we get to close our arms in embrace and share the love of God in our words, in our deeds, and in signs revealed to us by the Holy Spirit.  It means talking about Jesus, feeding hungry people, and praying for peace for our coworker.  In this embrace it is not a one-way thing, we are both embracing the other person and being embraced in return as we are used by God to communicate his love and grace.

Finally, we open our arms again.  A hug can get creepy real quick when we don’t let go.  In opening our arms we release the other to walk out into the love and grace of God in their world and we open ourself up to embrace another.  There is a reciprocal nature to this process.

This is evangelism. It is not the process by which we make people feel guilty about their sin, confess to us and say an emotion-filled prayer asking for forgiveness.  That can happen, but evangelism is much more than that.  And, those things are only truly evangelism when they are expressed in this holy pattern of embrace.  When they are not, they turn from evangelism to spiritual manipulation or worse spiritual abuse.  

Evangelism is an essential aspect of what it means to be a faithful Christian, and I believe that at his moment in church history it is imperative that we recover evangelism in its pure form.  Some would have us move away from talk of evangelism for fear of offending others or being disrespectful, but it is only offensive and disrespectful when it is being twisted from this loving, holy practice into other coercive, manipulative forms.  

We must reclaim true evangelism because our world needs to experience the love and grace and mercy of God. It needs to be embraced by the power of the Holy Spirit and empowered to walk away from sin.  If we ever want to see the New Jerusalem descending out of our clouds, we must seek the redemption of this world and its people, and that flows through evangelism.

This is also why I am part of an incredible group called World Methodist Evangelism that seeks to train up evangelists all over the world so that the world will be filled with believers that not only know the grace and love of God, but know how to offer that grace and love of God to the others in their world.

If you are looking for an organization in addition to your local church worthy of your prayer and financial support, this is it.  Their world has a powerful, global impact in training believers to step into their God given calling to be evangelists everywhere God has planted them.

What's the Deal with the Dinosaurs and the Bible (All the Best Questions)

We had just left Disney World, and I was excited because for the first time, I was getting to ride in the front seat on a big trip. It was late and dark as we drove through the night to get back to my grandparents’ house several hours away. As we drove I remember being surprised by how much brighter all the headlights seemed when you were in the front seat. Sometimes I would find myself squinting as the big trucks passed us, wondering how my dad could see anything as they drove by.

But, I had a question for my dad. A big one. I had been saving it up for this moment because I knew I would have him all to myself as my mom and brother slept in the back of the minivan. I couldn’t wait to hear his answer. As far as I was concerned, he was the smartest person I had ever known. It seemed like any time I asked him anything, he had an answer.

I had seen a movie (Back to the Future) where one of the characters was warned by a scientist that if they messed things up when they traveled back into the past, they would create another possible future and might not be able to get back to their current time. I had spent an enormous amount of time thinking about it and had figured that if that were possible, it might mean that every decision we made would create a different universe.

As we drove down the highway with Cinderella's castle in the rear view mirror I asked my dad just that. Is that what happened? If so, how did you know if you were creating a different universe? Also, did the other universes keep going or did they stop happening when you made a choice?

After my long list of deep questions, my dad said nothing. For a second I wondered if he was asleep at the wheel or if he just wasn't listening. I studied his face and could see he was thinking, so I decided to wait. I hated it when people interrupted my deep thoughts.

He did speak eventually, but what he said surprised me. “I don’t know.” I felt like I had never heard those words come out of his mouth before.

“But… I mean, what do you think?”

“I think we don’t know, and we can’t know at this point.”

I was stunned. I thought Dad would have a lot to say about my question. But he explained that there wasn’t any data on time travel or on the nature of the way time may or may not divide. Even worse, there wasn’t really a clear way that we could even try to come up with an answer based on scientific data. Anything we could come up with would just be an educated guess.

You are reading Chapter 24 from All the Best Questions. You can buy a copy wherever books are sold!

I think about that conversation with my dad every time someone asks me about dinosaurs and the Bible, because it’s the basic answer to the Biblosaurus question: we don’t know and we can’t know. By that I mean that the Bible doesn’t say anything at all about dinosaurs.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve heard a million theories about dinosaurs in the Bible. People have told me everything from dinosaurs being the devil and other angels kicked out of heaven to the Nephilim in the story of Noah to them not even being real at all, but something God put in the ground to test our faith.

The problem with all of these theories is that they are putting things into the Bible that aren’t there. Either they misinterpret words to mean more than they do (the Nephilim), completely make up things that aren’t there at all (the devil and fallen angels), or totally contradict science (bones hidden by God).

This question does bring up an idea that is important to know: The Bible doesn’t address every issue specifically, and that’s ok. However, I don’t think there is any part of our lives that the Bible doesn’t address. Let’s think about those two ideas.

First, the Bible doesn’t give specific insight into every issue. Depending on what part of the Bible you are reading, it was written somewhere between 2,000 and 6,000 years ago. That means that most ideas, discoveries, and pieces of information that have been thought of or invented since then won’t be discussed specifically. If you want to know whether or not God thinks iPhones or Androids are better, you’re going to have to keep wondering, because it won’t be in the Bible. Basically all of modern science fits into this category. Our modern scientific concepts, discoveries, and ways of thinking about life simply weren't around when the Bible was written. Therefore, anything you find in the Bible that you think addresses some modern scientific concept or discovery will have to be sort of a hint in that direction.

But that’s not to dismiss the Bible and say that it has nothing to say in the modern world. Even though it was written a long time ago to people in a very different culture and world, the stories, poetry, and law it contains are able to reach beyond their specific moment in history as long as we are careful with them.

That's the incredible thing about the Bible. Even though it may have been written to people living before the invention of gunpowder, it is the word of God, and as we read it, we hear the voice of God speaking across the millennia to us today. But because we are so far removed from the original moment it was written, we have to be careful to not make it address the modern day too specifically.

For example, if we read a Bible verse forbidding people from having statues in their house, we need to stop before we dump all our statues into the trash. Before we do that, we need to understand what was happening to those original people. Why did they have statues? What was it about the statues that made God ask them to throw the statues away?

In the case of statues, it was usually because in those days most religions used statues as idols to represent other gods. Once we understand that we can take the bigger idea into our modern time and try and apply it. If the statue thing was about not worshipping other gods, what is it in our world that might tempt us to do the same thing? When we find the answer to that question, we can act accordingly and remove whatever tempts us to worship other gods from our lives and homes.

But what about the dinosaurs? Since the Bible doesn’t say anything about the dinosaurs specifically, we have bigger things that we can say about them. When I think about the dinosaurs, the words that come to my mind are from Habakuk 3:2a: “LORD, I have heard of your fame; I stand in awe of your deeds, LORD…”.

When I think about the dinosaurs, about their beauty, size, and incredible variety, I am amazed by them. I am in awe. I think that for those of us whose imaginations are captured by the incredible animals that were the dinosaurs, we can allow that wonder to stretch beyond the dinosaurs to God. Or, to paraphrase Psalm 19:1, “The dinosaurs declare the glory of the Lord.”

Want more answers to great questions? This is an excerpt from my book All the Best Questions published by Beaming Books. You can get one everywhere books are sold!

It's Not About That!

Studying the Bible can be tricky. Sitting in my office in the United States in 21st century can cause all kinds of distractions as I try to hear the voice of God speaking through the word of God.  I can't tell you the number of times I have gone down a rabbit trail of my own curiosity only to end up shaking myself back into reality saying, "IT'S NOT ABOUT THAT!"

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This sort of distraction is fueled by the fact that most people live in cultures that are very different than the ones in the Bibles with very different definitions as to what constitutes good history and literature and a plethora of other cultural values that cause us to bump on countless portions of the Bible.

One of the classic issues like this comes from the book of Jonah.  The amount of time I have spent thinking about and talking about the issue of whether or not God could make a fish with a mouth so big and stomach acid so weak and a buoyancy so high that... Seriously.  You can see the fascination.  The story is such a sensational tale.  

But the story of Jonah is not about whether or not God could create a fish with just the right physical attributes that it could sustain human life.  It is about things that are far more important.  It's about getting mad at God when God forgives our enemies.  It is about the way that a prophet of the Lord ignores God in a crisis while heathen sailors pray in the middle of a storm.  It's about the mysterious ways that God calls us to live our lives more as questions than as answers.

But what if it was one of those sea-dwelling dinosaurs?  Could it be something... stop it!  It's not about that!

The word of God is seeking to change our hearts.  It is seeking to transform us as the Spirit uses its words to call us into deeper levels of surrender.  And if I'm honest, when I head down one of those fascinating rabbit trails of distraction, I am usually headed away from the path of personal transformation. Most of the time, I am walking down a path that does not lead to me being called to act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God.

The challenge for Christians as we read the scriptures is to take a posture where we are not so much reading the Bible as we are allowing it to read us.  Where we are not looking so much at interpreting it as we are about it interpreting us.

Or to go even deeper... through our interpretation of scripture we allow it to interpret us.  There is a mysticism to engaging with the word of God that, when we get it right, allows us to transcend the rabbit trails and read with our heart.

Its the same mystical perspective that allows us to stop in the middle of one of those rabbit trails and say, "It's not about that!"

 

Want to dive deep into the Bible with me?  

Starting next week I am going to be sending out a weekly Bible insight email for those who like things like Cultural background or the meaning of a particular Hebrew/Greek word in a passage. It will be focused on the verse(s) we preached on the previous Sunday. If you’d like to sign up for the email list, click this link and add your email. 

Ancient Perspectives on Romans 13

One chapter in the book of Romans has caused centuries of controversy that has stretched throughout the ages to this very day. Understanding it is important, indeed essential, to living in a world ruled by earthly authorities.  

As the Christian studies this chapter it is important to listen to the voices of ancient Christian theologians who have left us their perspectives on this chapter.  I offer their words to you as you read and study this important chapter.  These come from the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture New Testament Volume IV pages 312-314.  I will add dates for the writer and a link to their page on Wikipedia.

Origen (c. 184 – c. 253)

Origen (c. 184 – c. 253)

Origen (c. 184 – c. 253) "Is an authority which persecutes the children of God, which attacks the faith and which undermines our religion, from God? We shall answer this briefly. Nobody will deny that our senses — sight, sound and thought — are given to us by God. But although we get them from God, what we do with them is up to us. . . . God’s judgment against the authorities will be just, if they have used the powers they have received according to their own ungodliness and not according to the law of God"

Apollinaris of Laodicea (died 382 or 390) "Judas the Galilean revolted in the days of the census says Gamaliel in the Acts of the Apostles [Acts 5:37] and drew away some of the people after him refusing to obey the order of the Romans and register their goods, for which Quirinius had been sent to Syria... But as Judas’s decision was the cause of domestic murders and of a rebellion against the authorities which did much harm to the people, it seems to me that here the apostle is condemning any attempt to imitate him based on the illusion that it is a godly thing to disobey rulers. He has a good deal to say about this, condemning it as a mistaken way of thinking’."

Ambrosiaster (c. 366–384) "As Paul has already ordered that the law of heavenly righteousness be followed, he now commends the earthly law as well, so as not to appear to be slighting it. For if the earthly law is not kept, the heavenly law will not be kept either. The earthly law is a kind of tutor, who helps little children along so that they can tackle a stronger degree of righteousness. For mercy cannot be imputed to anyone who does not seek righteousness.

Therefore, in order to back up the authority and fear of the natural law, Paul bears witness to the fact that God is the author of both and that the ministers of the earthly law have God’s permission to act, so that no one should despise it as a merely human construction. In effect, Paul sees the divine law as being delegated to human authorities."

Chrysostom (c. 349–407) He does not speak about individual rulers but about the principle of authority itself. For that there should be rulers and ruled and that things should not just lapse into anarchy, with the people swaying like waves from one extreme to the other, is the work of God’s wisdom’

Augustine (354-430) "Most rightly, Paul warns against anyone who is puffed up with pride by the fact that he has been called by His Lord into freedom and become a Christian, and therefore thinks that he does not have to keep the status given to him in the course of this life or submit to the higher powers to whom the government of temporal things has been confided for a time. For because we are made of soul and body and as long as we are in this life we make use of temporal things as a means of living in this life, it is fitting that, as far as this life is concerned, we be subject to the authorities, i.e., to the people who with some recognition administer human affairs. But as far as the spiritual side is concerned, in which we beileve in God and are called into his kingdom, it is not right for us to be subject to any man who seeks to overturn in us the very thing which God has been pleased to grant us so that we might obtain eternal life.

So if anyone thinks that because he is a Christian he does not have to pay taxes or tribute nor show the proper respect to the authorities who take care of these things, he is in very great error. Likewise, if anyone thinks that he ought to submit to the point where he accepts that someone who is is superior in temporal affairs should have authority even over his faith, he falls into an even greater error. But the balance which the Lord himself prescribed is to be maintained: "Render unto Caesar the things which are Caeser's but unto God the things which are God's". For although we are called into that kingdom where there will be no power of this world, nevertheless, while we are on the way there and until we have reached that state where every principality and power will be destroyed, let us put up with our condition for the sake of human affairs, doing nothing falsely and in this very thing obeying God, who commands us to do it, rather than men." 

Pelagius (c. 360 – 418) "This is is an argument against those who thought that they were obliged to use their Christian freedom in such a way that they gave honor or paid taxes to nobody. Paul wants to humble such people in any way he can, so that they will not suffer reproach on account of their pride instead of on account of God."

It seems that Paul is speaking of secular authorities, not all of whom will be just, even if they received their authority from God .... Thee ruler is set up by God to judge with righteousness, so that sinners might have reason to be afraid should they sin. 

Theodoret of Cyr (c393-466) "Even priests, bishops, and monks must obey the commands of secular rulers.  Of course, they must do so insofar as obedience is consistent with godliness.  If the rulers demand something which is ungodly, then on no account are they allowed to do it.

The holy apostle teaches us that both authorities and obedience depend entirely on God’s providence, but he does not say that God has specifically appointed one person or another to exercise authority. For it is not the wickedness of individual rulers which comes from God but the establishment of the ruling power itself. . . . Since God wants sinners to be punished, he is prepared to tolerate even bad rulers’"

The Kingdom of God is not Filled with Clones

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I love lists in the Bible.  They draw me in because on the face of them, they are mind-numbing. They are the parts that when we read them, our brain yells "BORING... SKIP!!"  and we move past it to the "good part" of the story.  Exhibit A:

" Large crowds from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea and the region across the Jordan followed him." (Matthew 4:25)

See what I mean?  Yet sometimes, the boring stuff[1] is filled with some fascinating information that can bring new life and new perspective to the "good part" that comes after it .  

This list (the one above from Matthew 4) is an incredible one.  It comes right before the Sermon on the Mount and it gives the reader a sense of who is in the crowd, and that "who" is pretty awesome.  Let me explain the list with another list:

  • Galilee - This was the super holy people.  These people were known for their faithfulness to the Laws God gave the people in the Old Testament.  Even if the rest of the world drifted, they were determined to stay o the narrow path of faithfulness to God.
  • The Decapolis- This is a ten city region where people mixed the God of the Bible with other Gods.  Rather than being all-out heathens, they were this sort of in-between.  Many of them considered themselves Jewish, but had no problem doing all the things their culture said were ok that were in direct opposition to the Bible.  The most faithful people wouldn’t even go there.
  • Jerusalem: Think of these people as the urban-dwelling powerful people.  Jerusalem was where the centers of both political and religious power existed. 
  • Judea:  This was the place where a large number of Jewish people lived that was not Jerusalem or Galilee.  I like to think of these people as the people we would think of as "normal people." 
  • Across the Jordan:  Now we are getting really far.  This helps us grasp that Jesus’ fame had spread a long way.

What is fascinating to me is the diversity of the people that are following Jesus.  It's all kinds of people!  Many of these groups of people don't approve of the other groups, yet they are all there, listening to Jesus.  They are all drawn by his words and his power.  Somehow Jesus transcends the divisions and brings together a group that under other circumstances would never associate with each other.  

I love this list because I know this list.  I have been in churches that are filled with all kinds of people.  I've been in rooms where there are people who think they are holy enough to deserve to be in there and those who are afraid the church might fall down because they are there.  I've been in rooms filled with people who post all about love on Facebook and people who constantly post divisive things on Facebook.  

I love those rooms because they look to me like the Kingdom of God.  The Kingdom of God is a diverse place with diverse people and diverse opinions.  But most of the churches I walk into aren't like that.  They aren't diverse places.  They are monocultures where everyone is dressed the same, talking the same and watching the same shows on Netflix.  

When that happens, when our churches lack diversity, we stop reflecting the movement of Jesus because it is a movement that calls ALL people. We are not called to be clone makers but disciple makers.  That means that we find people where they are, welcome them as they are, and help them figure out what following Jesus means right there.  

This isn't easy because diverse groups are messy, but that diversity brings power and beauty that cannot be matched by a sea of sameness. So, I think it's time to challenge our churches to step up to the plate of diversity.  

I think that starts with each of us, individually, committing to leaving our echo chambers to develop relationships with people who are different. It starts by changing our perspective to see those who are different as beautiful compliments rather than faceless enemies.

Because if the church of Jesus Christ is going to be the light of the world, it is going to need all of us working together.  It's going to need all of us connecting with those around us and pointing them to a loving savior who calls ALL people to himself.  Not just the people we like.  Not just the people who look like us. Not just the people who agree with us, but ALL people.  

Now, let us pray that God would begin this change by changing us.  May God give us the courage to become as diverse as the list in Matthew. 

[1] Like foot notes.  Footnotes are also one of my favorite things.  In fact , I realy think I might go and write an Ode to footnotes in a minute.

School Shootings: Step up to the Plate

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Our country is being racked by wave after wave of grief as school after school falls victim to mass shootings.  A couple weeks ago we had the second school shooting that injured over 10 people this year (http://www.gunviolencearchive.org). There is definitely a political dimension to the solution, but since I am not a politician, I’ll leave that to them.  However, as Christians, we have a call to be light in our world.  We are commanded by God to love each other and work to bring peace and justice. 

I feel like it is time for the church to step up to the plate.  I believe that it’s time to stop listening to the voices that divide us and work together to change this culture that creates an environment where this kind of evil happens over and over again. 

How do we do that?  I think it’s simple:  Act and Pray.

It’s time for Christians to act.  I’m not talking about lobbying congress, though that may need to happen too.  I’m talking about personal action: right here, in our community.  Every time I see another one of these stories my heart breaks not just for the victims, but for the perpetrator. It is almost too depressing for me to think about how dark the life of these kids must have been, how confused, how depressed, how angry, and how sick their minds had become.  

Every single time I wonder where were the people loving them?  Where were the teachers and librarians and store clerks and waitresses and peers and pastors speaking words of grace, peace, and love?  Where were the Christians who, seeing a lost soul, sat down and befriended them?  Where was the church that opened their arms to hurting teens that had discipline issues and bad habits?

Friends, it’s time for you to act.  While the pundits are finding new ways to use this tragedy to make us hate each other and the politicians are debating over a new shade of grey for our laws, it’s time for you to do something.  The solution to these issues is not to separate and guard against what might happen.  The solution is for every teen in our country to be loved.  The solution is for every adolescent to be surrounded by people who were trying to help in small ways and big ways.  The solution is for every single student to know that they are not alone, and that is YOUR job.  That is MY job.  

I want to challenge you to stop by the office at the school you pass every day and tell them you are there to volunteer.  I want you to say that you want to be there for the kids that the teachers can’t handle.  I want you to ask to be set up as a mentor for students whose parents don’t give them enough.  I want you to offer to do whatever is needed in the wealthy kids lives who are still isolated and alone.  I want you to offer to love.

Because it’s our job.  It’s our job as Christians to fill this world with the love and grace and peace and justice of our loving God.  It’s our job to follow Jesus’ example and lay down our lives for each other, and right now the people in need of that are these kids.

I want you to call the youth minister at your church and ask how you can be a small group leader or Sunday School teacher.  Whenever you see a student in your church, I want you to smile.  When they text during the service I want you to make it your mission to make them feel especially welcome.

Because, it’s your job.

But it’s also time for us to pray.  To get on our knees and beg for God to heal our land and transform the hearts of our teens and young adults.  But here’s the thing, I don’t want you to pray an anonymous prayer that God would help.  I want you to pray a courageous prayer.

I want you to pray that God would make you part of the solution. I want you to pray that God would open up opportunities for you to show love to the young people in our community.  Everywhere.  I want you to ask God to open up opportunities for you to be a light of love on a local school campus, and I want you to pray that God would give you the courage to obey.  They courage to obey his call to love.  Because, that is our job.

Love God.  Love People.  Change the World

 

Immersive Worship at Magdala

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In 2005 land was purchased to begin a dig that would reveal one of the most important archaeological sites in recent history.  This place was the home of one of Jesus’ most famous benefactors: Mary Madelene.  The way we say her name in English makes us imagine that her last name is Magdalene, but in fact this is a misunderstanding. In the text she is Mary OF Magdala.  Or Mary the Magdelene.  

First century mikveh (ritual bath) at Magdala

First century mikveh (ritual bath) at Magdala

This excavation that began in earnest in 2005 would uncover the city that was home for this important woman in the life and ministry of Jesus. This was an incredibly faithful Jewish city as you can see from the many MIkvehs (ritual baths) found within.

But what is most overwhelming about the archaeological discoveries is the first century synagogue.  Because this city stopped being inhabited after the first century, the remains from the first century are in impeccable condition. What will strike you about this synagogue is the intense beauty.  

Entrance to first century synagogue at Magdala

Entrance to first century synagogue at Magdala

Because the passage of millennia and repeated destruction, we generally lose the features of color and decor in the archaeological remains.  For me, it has made me imagine the ancient world as a colorless beige in all directions, but that is far from what we find at Magdala.  

First century mosaic floor at synagogue in Magdala. 

First century mosaic floor at synagogue in Magdala. 

As you walked through the door to the synagogue in Magdala, just wide enough for two people to pass, you would be struck by the beauty of the place.  Looking down you would see an incredibly intricate mosaic floor.  A darker color tile was used to make an ancient infinity symbol carrying on in a beautiful pattern all around the perimeter.  

But the beauty was not only on the floor. The wall was covered with beautiful frescoes  (paintings) that were the most vibrant red and gold colors.  The benches were set into a sunken floo so that the faithful could gather to hear the reading of he word of God.

Beautiful fresco on wall of first century synagogue in Magdala

Beautiful fresco on wall of first century synagogue in Magdala

But the most beautiful element was the table on which the scroll was set.  This table was made to support the precious message of the Lord for the people who gathered in Magdala.  It was decorated with columns and flowers and menorahs.  All of these symbols of the temple brought the symbolic power of the priesthood to bear on the reading of the scripture.   

Jesus taught here.  He pulled out the scroll (most likely after doing a ritual dance with it around the room), set it on the special table and read to the people. He read and taught and ministered in this beautiful setting.  His feet stood on this very mosaic floor.

Scripture table at first century synagogue in Magdala

Scripture table at first century synagogue in Magdala

All of that reminds me that our modern efforts to make worship an immersive experience have deep roots. Some of our churches use stained glass instead of frescoes, others use moving lights instead of mosaic tile floors, and many use screens and projectors instead of carved tables for the display of scripture, but it all flows from the same heart.  

Our God is a God who deserves a beautiful space for worship.  Our God deserves more than stark empty rooms.  Worshipping this creative God calls on the people of every age to reflect that creativity in the spaces he is worshipped.  It calls us to pull out all the stops to create environments that surround us with creative elements that draw us into the presence of God. 

A Major Moment for Humanity at Caesarea by the Sea

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Caesarea by the sea is the kind of place you’d want to go for a vacation.  This seaside town has beautiful views of the emerald green and blue waters of the mediterranean.  It has one of those shell-filled beaches that feels wonderful as you walk and is filled with ready-made souvenirs.  Though it’s view is breathtaking, its beauty is far surpassed by its significance to humanity.  

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In the first century this was a bustling center of Herod’s power.  He was able to sink huge pilings in the ocean to create a port adding incredible commerce to the natural beauty.  He build a palace here to make sure he always had a place to stay when he came to relax by the shore.  But his construction went far beyond a beach house he built an incredible hippodrome (chariot racing facility) a beautiful amphitheater, two temples, and several other impressive structures that put caesarea by the Sea on par with many of the major Roman cities.  

It was here that Paul would eventually be brought to stand trial only to be sent on to Rome as he appealed for a higher ruling as a Roman citizen.  

Likely site of Paul’s hearing

Likely site of Paul’s hearing

Though these are all incredible facets of this beautiful locale, it is a moment from the book of Acts that gives it cosmic significance.  It is here that Peter came in the first century to visit a gentile named Cornelius (Acts 10).  As he spoke to that family, the Holy Spirit messed everything up.

Up until this point, the movement of Jesus followers was gaining popularity and respect as a Jewish sect.  They were having some overwhelming success proclaiming the good news that Jesus was the messiah of the Jews, but what was about to happen would change that, and all of humanity, forever.

Into the home of Cornelius the Holy Spirit came and filled the gentile family.  Like a second Pentecost, this moment changed everything.  The Holy Spirit broke down the walls That separated Jew and Gentile and revealed to Peter that God had bigger plans for humanity and Christianity.  This was not a Jewish movement, this was a human movement that would push beyond the Jewish people grafting all nations into the vine of blessing of the children of Abraham.

First century Mikveh (baptismal) at Magdala

First century Mikveh (baptismal) at Magdala

”Surely no one can stand in the way of their being baptized with water. They have received the Holy Spirit just as we have.” So he ordered that they be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they asked Peter to stay with them for a few days”. (Acts 10:47-48)

This was not a Jewish home. They did not have a Mikveh like this one from Magdala. Instead, they would have gone down to the Mediterranean, to these waters on the shell laiden soil and baptize the first Gentile believer.  What a moment!  For Christianity and for humanity at Caesarea by the Sea.

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I’m a pastor and sometimes I don’t know what to pray

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I’m going to confess something.  Sometimes I don’t know what to pray.  Sometimes it’s because I am facing a new, difficult situation, sometimes I’m looking in the face of someone hurting so deeply that my words don’t seem big enough, and sometimes I’m just distracted.

This isn't a new thing for me.  I’ve always had this problem.  I remember being in a prayer meeting as a teenager at youth camp sitting on a screened in porch in a metal folding chair. I was in awe of everyone else in the group.  Without any time to think of what they wanted to say, they would go on and on pouring their hearts out to God.  It was beautiful, but when It came my turn to say something, I stumbled over a couple sentences that sounded as confused as I felt.  

It was the same when I was by myself.  Often I would feel a deep hunger to pray, but when I tried, the words came out all wrong.  So, I asked a couple different mentors in my life what I should do.  The first told me I should keep a list of prayer requests.  My list quickly grew to a couple pages in my notebook, but I always felt weird just rattling off requests like God was some genie in a bottle.  

The other mentor said I should begin by naming things I liked about God, then thanking God for what God did in my life.  After that they said I should ask God anything I needed help with or wanted done, and then I could close the prayer by sitting in silence.  Though I got better the more I tried, I never felt fulfilled in that area of my spiritual life.

It wasn’t until I was well into my twenties that I discovered that all of this was really one type of prayer: spontaneous prayer. And for many people, spontaneous prayer is not the best option in every (or even most) situations.  

That’s why for millennia, people have been writing prayers and compiling those prayers into prayer books. They offered those works as tools so that people who wanted to spend time communing and conversing with God had a sort of scaffolding on which to stand as they built their house of prayer.

Beyond that there were many spiritual leaders who pioneered more contemplative approaches to prayer that helped people clear the clogged stream of their mind and rest in the presence of God.

As soon as I discovered these beautiful prayer books and ancient, mystical prayer practices I couldn’t get enough.  I kept digging and reading and learning until what once was the most difficult aspect of my spiritual life was the most rewarding.

Several months ago I began working on my own version of that scaffolding in the form of a new prayer book.  I began gathering old Christian Poetry, powerful Bible verses, and ancient prayer methods and putting them together into something new.  I created several prayer services for each day of the week that were written with a different time of day in mind (dawn, morning, afternoon, end of day and midnight).  I wanted people to be able to pick up the book at any moment of the week and have words to express their hearts to God.

Then I sat down with a group of young adults and asked them to help me come up with a list of of the moments in life where they came up empty when trying to express their hearts to God.  Over many late nights I crafted words to do just that.

After thousands of words, it became clear that there was one thing missing.  Sometimes we need less words.  Sometimes less words=more prayer.   The final movement of the book is a brief introduction to the mystical prayer practices that have lasted for many centuries and helped many spiritual pilgrims connect with their creator.

The book is called The Book of Everyday Prayer, and it’s for everyone who, like me, needs more than what comes off the top of their head.  It's for the teen, young adult and adult who are ready to claim old hymns, beautiful Bible verses and a new word or two as their own prayers.  It’s for all of us who need something to help us focus on God in those stolen moments in the parking lot or when we wake up earlier than we planned.

It’s The Book of Everyday Prayer, and I hope it helps.  You can order it now here.

How can I connect with God if I can’t feel him?

Youth retreats can completely ruin your spiritual life.  Don’t get me wrong, I love youth retreats, and have seen many people make important decisions for their life there.  However, much of what people talk about in regards to those youth retreats is an emotional sense of the presence of God.  Worse, many people end up making the two things mean the same making statements like “God was so present that I couldn't stop crying.”

But, what happens when you don’t feel it, or cant feel it, or stop feeling it?  Does it mean that God has left you or you have left God?  

I want to answer that with a clear and passionate NO.

God is not a feeling, and God’s presence is not somehow tied to our emotions like some sort of God gauge with the more emotional we feel indicating the power of God in any given situation.

The reality is that there are many people who rarely if ever experience God emotionally, but who live devoted lives to Jesus and have a close, intimate relationship with him.  

I think that most people have a favorite or common way that they experience God.  For some people it’s through their emotions, for some it is more mental, while for others it is in their relationships with other people.  All of those ways are good and can lead you further along the path.

Now, what about the question?  I think that when we don’t feel God we need to take stock of who we are.  If you are a very emotional person in your relationship with God, it could mean that you have drifted away and need to reflect and confess.

However if that’s not you, if you aren’t an overly emotional person, then look at who you are.  Maybe you love reading.  If that’s you then pick up a good book or open the Bible.  If you are a person who is always around people, call up some friends and go to church.  If you are an artist, spend some time googling different stories in the Bible and looking at the art that has been made and create art yourself.

At the end of the day, whether you feel God or not, God is present.  Always.  Right there with you.  All you have to do is find a way to open up and pay attention to that presence, and you do that by using who you are to be aware of the presence of God wherever you are.

How do I talk about my faith with my Atheist friend/coworker/family member?

This isn't as hard as you might think.  Over the years for whatever reason, God has given me the gift of being the person that people send their friends and family members who do not believe in Jesus.  If I’m completely honest, some of my favorite people to interact with are atheists, but that is another story. 

This question is usually motivated by a genuine concern for people loved dearly by Christians and a confusion of where to start. 

Well, where do you start? How do you talk about your faith without pushing the person away, fighting with them, or making your faith seem shallow?

Don’t Argue

This is key. I don’t know any atheist that has ever been convinced to be a Christian through a theological or philosophical argument with a friend, family member or coworker.  The whole argument approach is fraught with all sorts of difficult issues.  

First among them is that atheists don’t believe in the sources of authority Christians take for granted like the Bible.  You can quote as many Bible verses as you want and even explain the historical reliability of the ancient text, but it will not matter because they don’t believe in God.  For them, the words in the Bible are interesting philosophy, but unable to be inspired by God because God doesn’t exist.  

Atheists are also intensely skeptical which is something for which I personally have a deep respect.  However, unless you have the same level of skepticism, you will likely be caught off guard by the fundamental truths/realities that they question, and will be at a loss for how to respond.

Then there is the problem of logical argument.  There has never been a logical proof for God that has not been able to be dismissed by a group of freshman philosophy students (trust me, I’ve seen it).  That is because one of the most troubling aspects of religion to atheists is that God exists in some part beyond logic.  That is not to say that faith is illogical, but that it talks about ultimate things and spiritual realities that extend beyond our rational existence.  Because of that our logic and language does not have all the tools needed to fully convey that reality.

Finally, there are often deep non-propositional issues that undergird their viewpoint.  Like every human ever, Atheists have experienced deep pain and loss. Some have been torn apart by Christians in their school, some have been shamed by Christian parents, some have watched as their children died, some have been alienated by pastors, and some have suffered even more horrific things.  These sorts of trials would shake the faith of even the most devout Christian, but in the life of a person who was not 100% sure about God they represent proof that this world lacks the presence of a loving God.  

Though there are philosophical and theological answers to all those problems, those answers provide little comfort to the deep emotional pain and unsettling loss that is wrapped up in those stories. And no one, NO ONE, has ever found healing from abuse or loss through a theological argument with a person of faith.

Your story

When it comes down to it, all you have is your own story.  When you are interacting with a person whose beliefs are in direct contradiction with the most fundamental elements of your own, all the elements of your theology have no validity from their perspective. When the Bible is irrelevant in the discussion along with all the theological stances of your particular denomination, all you have left is your own story.

But, that is a lot!  Your story contains the same truth of God that exists in the Bible, but in a narrative, personal form.  There is real power in our stories because though others may not share your theological beliefs, they do share the human experience.  You have both loved and lost and been hurt and experienced beauty. 

In sharing how you have experienced God you are sharing the Gospel.  In revealing how you deal with doubts, you are giving voice to the Holy Spirit, and when you talk about experiencing the transcendent presence of God in nature you are speaking the words of God that have been written into sunsets and fields of flowers.  

1,000 interactions

All of this leads me to what is possibly the most important piece.  The way you talk to your atheist friends is to have a thousand interactions about faith not just one.  The goal is not to convert them in a single moment of Billy Graham-fueled glory, its to share the story of God unfolding in your life as often as possible.  

The standard posture towards this relationship for most believers is to avoid talking about faith because you don’t want to make the person uncomfortable, but its only uncomfortable when it only comes up as part of a concerted effort to change their mind.

Instead, we need to live our faith openly and publicly so that they can see the work of God in our lives.  It is about mentioning that you spent time in prayer before you got ready for the day or how much it meant to you that your small group leader came by the hospital and prayed with you before your surgery.  It is about sharing a scripture that helped you out or talking about how the evil in the world frustrates you.

And it is also about letting them see you question and doubt and find an answer or live with the unknown.  It is about expressing when you are angry at God for allowing humans to have free will and do evil things, and offering to pray for them when things are less than good in their own life.

It is about allowing the Holy Sprit to speak a thousand tiny messages of hope through your words and actions.

Trust the Holy Spirit

When it all comes down to it, there is very little we can do on our own to convert anyone to Christianity.  If your friend decides to follow Jesus it will not be because of something you said, it will be because of the Holy Spirit working in their heart.  That means that in this situation you are a tool for the Holy Spirit to use.

This is a stretching moment for most people.  The question is whether or not you trust the Holy Spirit.  The answer may be “no” in which case you should study all kinds of arguments against atheism and make sure to have a lot of fights with them.  But if you truly want them to experience the love and power of being filled by the Spirit as they follow Jesus you are going to have to grow in your own faith to the point that you can trust the Holy Spirit with the soul of your friend.

Which should lead you to your knees because when faced with the fact that we are going to be the vessel for the Holy Spirit we are always confronted with our own brokenness and the need to be healed.  So, pray.  Pray for your friend, pray for yourself, pray for the Holy Spirit to use your story and the thousands of interactions you have. Then, trust because at the end of the day it is not up to you.

>>> Read More: 5 Ways to Keep Skeptics Out of the Church

The Holiness Lies that are Killing the Church

The church was dying.  Every Sunday all over the country you could walk into mostly-empty sanctuaries that were built to hold hundreds of souls crying out to God.  The worst part was, the death was happening at the hands of the church itself.  It had no evangelism to speak of and no deep expression of community within its walls.  Most churches’ outreach amounted to feeding a couple hungry people out of what was left over after paying the bills.  

Its leadership was full of highly educated clergy who were highly lacking in passion.  This lack of passion and vision had become institutionalized to the point that passionate preaching, real outreach that brought in the wrong kind of people, and true evangelism that focused on turning hearts to Jesus was marginalized and even discouraged.

This was Wesley’s England.  This was where the Methodist movement began, and I wish it was further from our current situation. It was into that moment that Wesley spoke a scandalous message: scriptural holiness.  With passion and determination he crisscrossed England with his clear goal to “spread scriptural holiness across the land.”  

He was met with opposition.  When he used emotion in his sermons from the pulpit, he was shown the door.  When he was seen developing relationships with the people on the wrong side of the tracks, he was persona non grata in the elite religious circles, and when he began engaging in evangelism he was gossiped about in all the nearby sanctuaries.

As radical messages often do, his message sparked an awakening.  His message brought to life a movement of people committed to what he called “going on to perfection.”  Though they resisted it at every turn, this movement woke up the church all over eventually spreading across the ocean to America and ultimately all over the world.  His message was at the core of what God used to free people from the sin that held them hostage for years and restored people to their family, faith, and community.

We have lost that message. Travel across the country via a quick sampling of podcasts and you will find very few that speak of anything close to Wesley’s message of holiness.  Why is that?  Why has the church allowed its zeal to cool?  I believe we have bought into a couple of half-truths that have taken us out at the knees and helped us develop a tolerance against the call of the spirit to go on to holiness.

“I would be a hypocrite because I am not holy.” I think that if most church leaders were honest, deep within them they are afraid of being found wanting.  We are afraid that if we begin to take up the revolutionary message of Wesley that we would be exposed as hypocrites.  Wrong!  That assumes a very erroneous understanding of holiness.

The Bible is clear “There is no one righteous, not even one” (Romans 3:9) holiness is not some sort of advanced self-help program where we work harder and harder at fixing ourselves until we have become perfect.  That is not possible.  Holiness begins with a clear sense of our ultimate powerlessness against sin.  Holiness begins with us saying “I can not do this on my own and I need help.”  A church leader who is afraid of being exposed as a hypocrite is a leader who is thinking far too much of themselves and far to little of God.

Scriptural holiness is recognizing the life-corrupting power of sin and our need for the grace of God to restore our life to what God desires most for us.  That is a life of holiness.

“But Scriptural Holiness excludes people, and might even hurt some”  That is absolutely right.  Study the Bible and you will see the fact that at the same time Jesus is opening his arms to embrace the whole world he is asking them to change.  Jesus doesn’t just say to the woman caught in adultery “It’s all good.  I’ve taken care of it.”  No!  He protects her, then restores her to the community and finally says “Go, and sin no more.” (John 8:11) The grace of God in the life of the believer calls them to holiness and empowers them to live those lives. When our church leaves behind that call we leave behind the second half of the Gospel message.

What about it hurting people?  Again, we find the truth.  It hurts when someone has the audacity to tell you you are wrong when you are.  It hurts when you discover you have made a mistake, and it especially hurts when you realize that mistake has caused others to follow down the same road.  Holiness hurts because it refuses to ignore our sin.  

But that is the kind of pain that brings healing.  The error in this concern is that hurting people is always bad.  Now, we don’t have to be mean to people, but sometimes God needs to say something that is going to hurt, and that’s ok.

What I love about Wesley’s message of scriptural holiness is that it defies any sort of modern marketing wisdom.  It is not cool.  It is not trendy.  It makes people mad, yet when we honestly offer people the fullness of the message that scriptural holiness contains, we offer them a changed life.  And changed lives change lives.  If we want to grow the church and recover from our downward spiral.  If we want to have a rebirth in this dying organization, I believe we must recover our message.  

That may mean struggling with our own sin.  It may mean being the vessel God uses to heal-hurt some people.  It may mean leaving the empty church buildings and heading out to the coal mines with Wesley.  However it happens, it is my prayer that we take up the charge once again and use our lives to spread scriptural holiness across the land.

Real Hope for the United Methodist Church

I have a great hope for the United Methodist Church which, I am told, is an odd sentiment to have at this moment.  As this General Conference came to a somewhat tentative conclusion, I found myself in a unique position. I am on the eve of my ordination as a full elder in the denomination after 18 years of lay ministry and 12 years in the ordination process.  

Many of my older colleagues in ministry look on me with pity seeing a tumultuous season ahead for our church, but I have been surprised by my sense of hope as I look forward into the several decades ahead of me.  It has taken a while to understand, but over the past several days I have begun to figure it out.

My hope for the future of the UMC comes, in part, because I believe in the Holy Spirit.  The real one.  The one I find in the Bible not the magic show version peddled on television.  The Holy Spirit I find in the Scripture is focused on transformation.  The Spirit takes grief and transforms it to comfort.  It takes war and transforms it into peace.  It makes the seemingly impossible possible.

But what I love most about the Holy Spirit is that it is personal. For any who surrender to the transforming power of the Holy Spirit, they find their hearts and lives made new.  I believe this because I have seen it with my own eyes in my own life and the lives of countless others. 

This morning I walked into my 2-year-old daughter’s room to find her in pieces on the floor screaming (again).  Neither of us could locate the precise cause of her crisis (you rarely can with a hysterical 2-year old).  Knowing I could not fix it I did the only thing I knew, I asked if I could hold her.

She screamed “NO” while reaching out for me with pleading arms.  So, I gathered up the pieces of my daughter and held her together while she healed from whatever was causing her so much pain.

She couldn’t do it herself. She needed someone to hold her together which brings me, of course, to catholicism. (That’s catholicism with a little “c” not a big one.) Its the word that describes the church Jesus created: one body in one ministry to one the world.  

There’s power in that word.  That word describes the opposite of the brokenness that prevails throughout our hurting world.  That word is the hope of unity that connects every Christian who has ever lived to every other Christian through the body and blood of Jesus.  

That word describes what happens in the second chapter of Acts when the Holy Spirit takes 12 men and unites them into a supernatural whole that is empowered to proclaim the hope of the Gospel to the entire world.  It is more than the tongues of fire over their heads, it is the Gospel being spoken in the myriad native languages of everyone listening.  It is supernatural unity flowing forth in the mission of God.

That is why I have such great hope for the UMC.  I have hope that voices of all shapes and sizes and colors and ages would join together in this commission.

I have hope that even as entrenched voices scream no, they would reach their arms out to the Holy Spirit who longs to hold them together.

I have hope that God will not remove God’s hand of blessing but will empower a new catholicism within the UMC: one that flows into the mission of God in the world.

I have hope that a new great awakening will happen as the people called Methodist show a broken world the transforming power of the Holy Spirit to bring unity out of brokenness.

Why?  

Because: 

I believe in God, the Father Almighty,
maker of heaven and earth;
And in Jesus Christ his only Son, our Lord;
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
born of the Virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, dead, and buried;
the third day he rose from the dead;
he ascended into heaven,
and sitteth at the right hand of God the Father Almighty;
from thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.

I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting. Amen.

 

>>>More: A Prayer for the Methodist Church (and Annual Conference)