I Saw Jesus at the “Place,” and He Wept

Dad has recently settled into an assisted living facility. None of us is particularly glad about it but we’re seeing some benefits.  Within three years he’s gone from 2,500 square feet to 700 to 120.  It’s metaphorical, really.  As we get older our world gets smaller and more temporary, more lonely.  Dad has yet to call it “home” and I’m not sure he should.  At best, he calls it where he “stays” or his “place.”  And that’s what it is: a place, not home.

He’s stronger some days than others but he still inches toward the midnight hour.  John 11 escorts me out when we leave Dad in his chair in his room.  And I take tearful comfort that Jesus has been there, too.

The apostle John put  Jesus on peculiar display in John 11.  It’s only one of two occasions the Gospel writers refer to Jesus crying (cf. Lk 19.41).  The fullness of God and the fullness of man swirling heavenward to stir up faith in the Bethany township.  The Son of God who raises the dead is also the Son of Man who weeps in graveyards. 

Because he is the Son of Man, fully human, Jesus had a beloved friend on his deathbed (v3). Because he is the Son of God, fully divine, Jesus had already written the end of the story (v4).  Or more appropriately, the beginning of the story.

The Son of Man went to a funeral as good friends do (vv15, 17). The Son of God would end the funeral.

The Son of Man consoled a grieving and theologically astute sister (vv23-27).  As the Son of God Jesus eased her pain, not with platitudes, but by drawing her to himself.

The Son of Man was “deeply moved in spirit and was troubled” that his friends suffered (v33).  The Son of God Jesus could actually do something about it:  “Where have you laid him?” (v34).

The Son of Man wept as he stood before his beloved friend’s newly-sealed tomb (vv35, 38). The Son of God broke the seal and solved the dilemma of death by commanding life back into his friend (vv33-34).  “Remove the stone” (v39).

And somehow the man “bound hand and foot with wrappings, and his face…wrapped around with a cloth” “came forth” (v44).  Maybe he shuffled.  Maybe he floated. Maybe he just appeared.  But when Jesus spoke a living soul returned to a reeking corpse, oxygen filled Lazarus’ lungs, decomposition reversed course, strength returned to his legs. As if speaking to death itself Jesus commanded, “Unbind him, and let him go” (v44).

As John’s famous seventh sign, the raising of Lazarus echoed the seventh day of creation: God’s salvific rest.  John’s Gospel would slow down to the last week of Jesus’ mortal life as chapter 12 begins “six days before the Passover.”  It would be The Passover to end all Passovers.  John covered eternity past to AD 33 in eleven chapters.  John would took the next ten chapters to cover a few days. Raising Lazarus was the literary equivalent of an emergency brake on a locomotive.  With Lazarus’s resurrection, the preface to John’s Gospel was finally complete and he could get on with the story.

The Beloved Son would die, be sealed in a tomb behind a stone, and his friends would mourn.  But God would remove the stone (Jn 20.1) and the Beloved One would come forth.  Only this One would leave his burial clothes in the tomb (v5).  Unlike Lazarus, Jesus would never need them again.

Jesus knew he would raise Lazarus from the dead long before Lazarus ever died: “This sickness is not to end in death” (vv4, 11).  Yet, Jesus he was moved by the sorrow (v33). Jesus knew he would raise Lazarus after a short prayer (v42) and yet he still wept before he prayed (v35).

Scholars debate why Jesus cried at Lazarus’ tomb.  Maybe he was mad.  Maybe he was frustrated.  Maybe he was disappointed in Martha.  Maybe he was put out with naysayers (v37).

Or maybe he was human.

Jesus entered into the fullness of human suffering (Heb 2.14; 4.15).  As the Son of Man Jesus would take on and endure the curse we welcomed into his world.  Therefore, the Creator and Goal of all things (Col 1.16) – who created a good and perfect world, who is Life and Light (Jn 1.1-5) – chose to stand before the lifeless, lightless cave of a beloved friend. Knowing he would ransack death, Jesus stood in the middle of wailing mourners before a stonewalled tomb and cried as if to say, “This is what my world has come to! Look how far we’ve fallen!”

When God said “Let there be” he didn’t create any tombs.  Jesus didn’t create caves to hide rotting bodies.  He created flowers to stretch upward in praise, not to wilt over graves.  He created the morning, not mourning.

But there he was.  Engulfed in the tidal wave of human depravity. Satan’s playground.  The one who created the Tree of Life tasted the bitter fruit of death.  And he wept.

It was this very death he would undergo for his beloved friends: the children God gave him (Jn 6.37-40).  For them he will be the resurrection and the life.  He will endure their death and then some so that they will have his life.  There was a we-ness about Lazarus’ tomb.

It is a John 11 moment when we visit Dad at his “place.”   We know Jesus has been raised and will raise us on the last day (Rom 8.11).  But until then we stand with and before broken people crying “This ought not be!”  Look at what this world, the world we wanted, has come to.  It’s broken.  Really broken.  There are folks far worse off than Dad but there is a we-ness about things at the place.

Image-bearers of God should not lose their minds or their legs or their sight or their continence.  We should not be so disgraced.  God’s people should not need wheelchairs or eat through straws or drool or wear diapers.  They should not live on chemicals and in isolation.  They should not stink (v39).  Satan should not make sport of us.  Humans should not be so dehumanized.  A Living God should not have a dying people.  We are rightly compelled to provide as much dignity as possible in such situations because dignity is becoming of the imago Dei.

In our attempt to become gods ourselves we became rather sub-human (Gen 3.2-3), ruled by those things we should’ve ruled over.  In the most ironic consequence of sin, we actually now live in a world where we consider death to be an act of mercy.  God’s world is so upside down that we actually pray for death as an answer to misery.  What we want for our loved ones often opposes what is necessary for them.  This ought not be.

It was that sort of day in Bethany.  So Jesus wept just like every other human would and should.  Jesus would say to us what he said to Martha: “I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in Me will live even if he dies, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.  Do you believe this?” (vv25-26).  The one who dies will never die.  Only the Son of God could reconcile that antimony.  Jesus, our Jesus, entered into our suffering with both feet.  Better yet, he was baptized into it.

In the meantime, we live in the proverbial “two days” in which Jesus is staying where he is (v6) until he returns with his word of Life (Jn 5.28-29; 14.2-3).  We live by tear-stained faith in the Risen-and-Returning One.  Until then we mourn and cry and pray and hope behind the stone with a small shaft of Light at the edge.  While we mourn here Jesus prays for us there that we will keep believing (Jn 11.42; Heb 7.25).

I saw Jesus at the “place.”  And he wept.

Friday Hymn Meditation: O Christ, Our Hope, Our Heart’s Desire

My favorite hymn is O Christ, Our Hope, Our Heart’s Desire.  John Chandler translated the 8th-century Latin hymn into English in 1837.  There are two different tunes, one arranged by Handel in 1751 (Bradford) and another by George Greatorex in 1851 (Manoah).  I’m familiar with the latter because it’s far easier to sing (and I need all the help I can get!).  Robust theology jam-packed into a simple, childlike tune makes a great combination for congregational and family worship.

Notice the progression of Christ’s glory: creation, cross, enthronement, our sanctification in him, the goal of salvation and eternal praise to our Trinitarian God.  All of redemptive-history in six stanzas.  It’s like stained-glass for your soul.

Although in The Baptist Hymnal (#414), I’ve never sung it in church except when I sneaked it a time or two in Texas.  Perhaps you might listen and nudge your church’s music leader(s) to sneak it in, too.  As usual, there are more original stanzas than often included in our hymnals.

O Christ, our Hope, our heart’s Desire,
Redemption’s only Spring!
Creator of the world art Thou,
Its Savior and its King.

How vast the mercy and the love
Which laid our sins on Thee,
And led Thee to a cruel death,
To set Thy people free.

But now the bands of death are burst,
The ransom has been paid,
And Thou art on Thy Father’s throne,
In glorious robes arrayed.

O may Thy mighty love prevail
Our sinful souls to spare;
O may we come before Thy throne,
And find acceptance there!

O Christ, be Thou our lasting Joy,
Our ever great Reward!
Our only glory may be it be
To glory in the Lord.

All praise to Thee, ascended Lord;
All glory ever be
To Father, Son, and Holy Ghost,
Through all eternity.

Angels & Interns

…and he will speak words to you by which you will be saved, you and all your household (Acts 11.14).

While in Joppa (the same port city Jonah put on the map), Peter raised Tabitha-Dorcas from the dead like he’d seen Jesus do for Talitha (Acts 9.36-43; cf. 5.40-41).  Expectedly, Joppa became fertile ground for the gospel so Peter bunked at Simon the Tanner’s house while the iron was hot.  Unexpectedly, God was busy arranging Peter’s next stop up the Mediterranean coast.

The Holy Spirit is master of the redirect.  Luke just reported that “many believed in the Lord” in Joppa; therefore, “Peter stayed many days there” (Acts 9.42-43).  We would expect then to read about even more stories of gospel’s success in this prolonged Joppa revival.  But Luke followed up with “Now there was a man at Caesarea named Cornelius” (Acts 10.1).  Caesarea?  That’s thirty miles north up the coast.  Cornelius?  He’s a Gentile Italian.  What does the revival among Joppa Jews have to do with Cornelius in Caesarea?

Well, everything.  In Acts 10-11, we hear this story told and then retold twice.  It must be important.

Cornelius was a good man by Southern standards.  He feared.  He gave.  He prayed.  He was a friend of Israel (10.22).  But he wasn’t a Christian and that made all the difference in the world.

As any good Southerner does, Cornelius was sipping his sweet tea one afternoon when a Lord-like angel showed up in some sort of vision.  God had taken notice of Cornelius’ humility and generosity.  God would now make his Gentile move through this Italian soldier.

The angel told Cornelius to send some interns to Joppa.  They were to bring back this man called Peter.  He will have a message for Cornelius and his household.  So, Cornelius dispatched his interns to Joppa.

As any good Jew does, Peter went on the roof for his lunchtime prayers.  Little did he know this was only a day after the angel appeared to Cornelius. As Peter’s stomach grumbled, God played out a scenario before Peter.  Because of Jesus, he could now eat anything he wanted.  Peter was appalled. Hungry as he was, he’d never eaten anything unclean and wasn’t about to start.  God replayed the scene two more times before leaving Peter to contemplate the vision.

We find out this wasn’t really about food at all.

As a perplexed Peter tried to make sense of the vision he heard a knock at the door.  It was Gentile Cornelius’s interns (i.e. unclean).  The Spirit commanded Peter to go with them without hesitation or discrimination (10.20). Not only would Peter eat “unclean” food, he was to extend and receive the hospitality of “unclean” people (10.28).  Without hesitation.  Like Jesus.

What happens next is the Gentile Pentecost (10.34-48).  What the Holy Spirit did for Jews in Acts 2 he was now doing for the Gentiles.  One body, one Spirit, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all (Eph 4.4-6).

Word quickly got back to Jerusalem that Gentiles “also had received the word of God” (Acts 11.1).  This did not sit well with “those who were circumcised” (i.e. the Fundamentalists) (11.2).  Gentiles?  Peter actually and knowingly ate with unclean people?  Had he lost his mind?  Or worse, his faith?

Peter explained the whole situation (11.4-17).  Once they heard the story there was nothing to do but quiet down and glorify God (v18).  God was saving Gentiles, too, just like Jesus said.

As he retold the stories about angels and visions, Peter inserted an interesting detail.  The angel had told Cornelius to send for Peter in Joppa so “he will speak words to you by which you will be saved, you and all your household” (11.14).

This begs the question.  Why didn’t the angel himself simply tell Cornelius those words?  Why not save Cornelius then and there before the sweet tea warmed?  If Cornelius was that important then why risk so much?  What if the interns were killed on the way?  What if Peter had already decided to go back home to Jerusalem?  So much was riding on every detail.  Why not use the angel to speak the saving words to Cornelius and his household?

Simple.  Because God “has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to shame the things which are strong, and the base things of the world and the despised God has chosen, the things that are not, so that he may nullify the things that are, so that no man may boast before God” (1 Cor 1.27-29).  God sovereignly saves those he loves.  He sees to it the right people get to the right places with the right message.

It didn’t matter how many angels Cornelius saw or believed.  Or how many Jews he helped or prayers he prayed.  He had to hear and believe the saving words if he was to be a Christian. And God would see to that.

Jesus demonstrates his power and populates his kingdom, not by mobilizing angels, but by the most unlikely of means.  Rather than preach through angels, Jesus preaches through fallible, former deserters.  His gospel spreads by hands, feet and mouths, not wings (Is 52.7).

Sure, God could’ve bum rushed Cornelius with angels.  And it would’ve been impressive in all the ways the world defines impressive.  But our God is different.  He would cause Peter to love those he would’ve never been caught dead around.  God creates his people through and unites them around The Loving Truth, not visions and personal angelic experiences.

We need not pray for or wait for angels to show up in dreams and visions.  Jesus hasn’t sent them to speak the saving words.  He awakens us to love and sends us to our enemies.  We open our door and then open our mouths in love.  Without hesitation.

In the meantime, pour yourself a glass of sweet tea and keep an ear out for the interns.

Friday Hymn Meditation: At Calvary

Mom’s favorite hymn, At Calvary, was published in 1895 by William Reed Newell.  Newell was a Presbyterian pastor, assistant superintendent of Moody Bible Institute under the famous R.A. Torrey, and well-renowned Bible expositor.  His only hymn was forty years old when Mom would’ve started singing it in Itta Bena, MS.

The song meant little-to-nothing to me until five years after she died.  But the song itself anticipates that very situation. doesn’t it?  After years spent in vanity and pride, God brought me to the Calvary she so richly loved.  I would love to sing it with her again.  In God’s providence, the first time we sing it together will be for all eternity.

Years I spent in vanity and pride,
Caring not my Lord was crucified,
Knowing not it was for me He died
On Calvary.

Over 21 years, to be exact.

Mercy there was great, and grace was free;
Pardon there was multiplied to me;
There my burdened soul found liberty
At Calvary.

The eternal refrain of the gospel: mercy, grace, pardon, liberty.

By God’s Word at last my sin I learned;
Then I trembled at the law I’d spurned,
Till my guilty soul imploring turned
To Calvary.

No mystical experience.  Just God exposing my guilt through the simple, clear preaching of Scripture.  Trembling, repented to Calvary.

Now I’ve giv’n to Jesus everything,
Now I gladly own Him as my King,
Now my raptured soul can only sing
Of Calvary!

Jesus is the King who makes us sing.

Oh, the love that drew salvation’s plan!
Oh, the grace that brought it down to man!
Oh, the mighty gulf that God did span
At Calvary!

Calvary: the convergence of God’s love and grace for sinners.

For My Queen on Her Birthday

Listen, O daughter, give attention and incline your ear: Forget your people and your father’s house; then the King will desire your beauty. Because He is your Lord, bow down to Him (Ps 45:10-11).

Psalm 45 was a song written for the king’s wedding.  Israel’s handsome, valiant and humble king was joined to a radiant woman who “is all glorious within” (v13).  In vv10-11, the the bride’s father gave her away to her new husband.  He didn’t mean for her to forget her family as if the never existed.  He meant the King-Groom was crazy about her.  Any thought of homesickness would pale in comparison to how much he desired her.  She need not fear if she’ll be taken good care of or provided for.  Her new husband desired her and what was best for her.

Hebrews 1.8-9 quoted Psalm 45.6.  The psalm finds its ultimate glory displayed ultimately in Jesus Christ and his union with his bride, the church.  Jesus is the fair King with grace-drenched lips (v2).  Jesus is the Mighty One who is splendorous and majestic (v3).  Jesus earns his victory with meekness and righteousness (v4).  Jesus is God enthroned (v6) and praised forever (v17).  He loves his Bride, who leaves the world in which she was born to live forever in the loving care of Israel’s King.

There’s no more fitting text to honor my wife, my Queen, on her birthday.  She is indeed “all glorious within” and Jesus is her King.

When Idelette died in 1549, John Calvin wrote of his wife:  “During her life she was the faithful helper of my ministry.  From her I never experienced the slightest hindrance.  She was never troublesome to me throughout the entire course of her illness; she was more anxious about her children than about herself.”  I am no Calvin, but I’m as proud to say the same of and to my wife.  I can know Jesus loves me because she loves me.

She is my Queen.  Jesus is her King.  And I am a pauper who feasts on the crumbs at the King’s wedding reception.

I love you, my Queen.  Happy Birthday.

Death by Analytics (Why Stats Choke the Life Out of Your Church)

“but they desire to have you circumcised so that they may boast in your flesh” (Gal 6.13).

Baseball has its BABIP (batting average on balls in play).  Basketball has its PER (player efficiency rating).  Football has its AYPA (adjusted yards per attempt).

“Analytics” has taken professional sports by storm.  Calculus before coaching.  Algorithms over experience.  Xs-and-Os on a clipboard only arrange 3-D mathematics.  Losses once explained by how a fickle ball bounces are really the result of complex and predictable equations.  Successful coaches must play the averages, not the man.  Don’t take any chances.  Do the math.  Or else.

Players once valued for their leadership, guts, character and instinct (i.e. the “intangibles”) are now merely the sum of their stats. We mathematize a player’s every move and dehumanize the player himself!  Life-like video games and video replay are removing the need for real men to play and referee the real sport.  We need only the collision of statistics to know the thrill of victory.  We aren’t competitors, but producers.

Of what relevance could hockey’s Pythagorean Won-Loss Formula have on the church?

The church also suffers from its own dehumanizing advanced analytics.  We evaluate churches based on their BBB (buildings, budgets and baptisms). How many square feet do you have or did you build last year?  How much is your budget?  How many did you baptize?  Increase equals faithfulness. Decrease or stagnancy equals decline.

If trending downward, we expect the pastors do less exegesis and more analysis to ensure we produce more.  Pastors feel compelled to pad their résumés with attractive statistics. Rarely can pastors appeal as Paul did when the Corinthians demanded his stats: “you are our letter” (2 Cor 3.1-3). Instead, they must show a track record of increasing attendance, giving and building to keep or find a job.

The Gospels show us the nature of Christ’s kingdom.  His kingdom is “not of this world” (Jn 18.36) and therefore not measured by the finest MIT has to offer.  Crowds and worldly acclaim didn’t impress the Gospel writers.  They were impressed by occasions when Jesus confronted, healed, changed, loved persons.  A Samaritan woman.  A man born blind.  A father pleading for his sick son.  A short, greedy tax collector.  In fact, the “crowds” don’t typically fare well in the Gospels.  People with names and faces do.

Paul confronted the Galatian Judaizers who sought to seduce Gentile converts into a Torah-dependent life.  In a scathing rebuke Paul said, despite their pious rhetoric, they only wanted notches on their Mosaic belts (Gal 6.13).  They demanded circumcision so they could boast in the flesh and be on to the next promising market.

Would Paul say the same to us about our baptisms?  Do our stats tempt us to vain-glory?  Do we care more about how many we baptize than who it is we’re actually baptizing?  Do we boast in baptizing 500 last year but ignore the 200 professing Christians who stopped coming altogether or the faithfulness of the new widow who cherishes Jesus even more now?  Using Jesus’s otherwordly metrics, does it matter how many we baptize if we pay little attention to their perseverance in Christian faith?

How many did your church baptize last year?  Do you know their names?  Are they still faithfully pursuing Christ?  Do you know who is discipling them?  Better to baptize one whose name we know and progress we see than 100 whose names we forgot and progress we ignore.

Did we boast in our acreage or square footage last year?  Do we pride ourselves on having land/buildings we’ve never really needed and will probably never really use? A better indication of your church’s health could be how much land it sold or gave away.  Did your church do with less so that others in the kingdom could have more?  Perhaps not building for the glory of God is better than building for it.

We don’t enjoy sports because we love math.  We enjoy sports because of the inherent humanity in them.  Analytics rob us of that humanity and make competition about equations rather than people.  They choke the life out of the living.

Such is infinitely more true of Christ’s kingdom.  His church plays by different rules and rejoices in what cannot be measured.  When you have a crucified Savior, formulas never measure faithfulness.  We rejoice in the fruit of the Spirit (Gal 5.22) rather than the numerical outcome of strategies. We rejoice in particular names and faces more than numbers and trends. We don’t care as much about counting noses as looking into eyes. Not how many in the seats but who has Jesus saved.

When you gather with your church next Sunday don’t count the crowd and boast in (or bemoan) the math.  Look in the eyes of those sitting next to you and give them Christ’s peace.  Jesus calls us by name, not by our number (Jn 10.3).  We couldn’t ask for a better Coach.

Jesus Makes Nothing out of Something (and That Means Everything)

Paul wrote Galatians to confront and combat the attempted Judaization of the church.  Such was arguably the backdrop behind many of the New Testament letters. Intoxicated by the air of religious supremacy, Jews sought to enslave (Paul’s word for it) Gentiles under the burdensome yoke of Torah (cf. 4.7, 25; 5.1). Anyone wanting to be part of Yahweh’s people (i.e. Abraham’s people) had to come under the authority of Torah.  And the front door to the kingdom was circumcision (Gal 5.2-6).

But Christ had lived, died and lived again.  He was cut off in the flesh so that entrance into the new covenant would be faith, not a scalpel (cf. Col 2.11-12).  There was no going back to time when that hadn’t happened.  Therefore, the gospel of Christ revolutionized the nature of God’s covenant people.

While high-minded Jews insisted the mainstay of God’s salvation was Torah, Jesus’s (Jewish!) apostles taught otherwise.  All who were “baptized into Christ,” “in Christ Jesus,” “belong to Christ” were “sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus” and therefore Abraham’s children (Gal 3.26-29).  There was no need for Gentiles to become Jews because Jesus was the New, True Israel and they were “in him.”  You were either in him by faith or otherwise eternally excluded from God’s salvation (i.e. Abraham’s promise and inheritance).  Gentile Christians were as much a part of Abraham as any Jew thought himself to be, and in some cases even moreso (Rom 9.6).

Gentile Christians met all the demands of Torah because Jesus is the end/goal (Rom 10.4) and fulfiller (Mt 5.17) of the Torah.  There was no need for any Gentile (or Jew, for that matter) to be “in Moses” because even Moses was now “in Christ” (cf. Mt 17.1-5).  Need Paul remind them that Abraham never observed Torah either (Gal 3.16-18)!  The Jewish Messiah had to come just as far to save the Jew as the did the Gentile.

“There is one body and one Spirit . . . one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all who is over all and through all and in all” (Eph 4.4-6).

Paul could even say to the Galatians:  “I beg of you, brethren, become as I am, for I also have become as you are” (Gal 4.12).  Paul, a Jew of Jews (Phil 3.4-6), had become a functional Gentile:  a sinner brought into God’s covenant by grace through faith in Christ (Rom 11.1-6).  And now he pleaded with Galatian Christians tempted to become functional Jews to consider themselves Gentile sinners again.  In perhaps history’s greatest irony, they’d traded redemptive places!

Because of the gospel the arrogant oneupsmanship had to stop.  Anyone assuming themselves superior to others, no matter their heritage, was antithetical to God’s purposes in salvation.  No one was to seek vain-glory (Gal 5.26).  Even those restoring a weakened, sin-whipped brother should be aware of pridefully assuming they were above his sin (Gal 6.1-3).  They weren’t, and to assume they were was as much sin as anything the restored brother committed.

Such was the warning in Gal 6.4-5.  You may consider yourself “something” (i.e. superior to another) but God makes no such comparison.  He doesn’t grade on a curve. You’re accountable for your own sin on its own demerits.  You are not “something” but “nothing” when measured against the perfections and demands of the God who made you.

Calvin thusly commented on Gal 6.5:

“To destroy sloth and pride, he brings before us the judgment of God, in which every individual for himself, and without a comparison with others, will give an account of his life. It is thus that we are deceived; for, if a man who has but one eye is placed among the blind, he considers his vision to be perfect; and a tawny person among negroes thinks himself white. The apostle affirms that the false conclusions to which we are thus conducted will find no place in the judgment of God; because there every one will bear his own burden, and none will stand acquitted by others from their own sins.”

Was Calvin a racist?  Of course not.  He simply stated the obvious.  We will take any advantage to vault ourselves above others given the context. We will find a way to convince ourselves and others we are better than those around us.  In fact, we might go out of our way to find those contexts to feed our lustful ego.

(As an aside, we should remember black/white racism and related civil rights issues are nothing new.  We’re not the first to tackle these issues or morally superior to previous generations because they didn’t have hashtags.  Here is Calvin in the 16th century addressing a contemporary issue that was as much a problem in the church then as now. And the answer then is the same as now: the one and only gospel Paul commended to the Galatians.)

Perhaps Calvin recalled the famous quote by Desidirius Erasmus (43 years Calvin’s senior): “In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.” If there is vain-glory in being white then even the tan-skinned will consider himself white among the company of his darker-skinned brothers.  The opposite would also be true.  If there is benefit to being black then the tan-skinned will consider himself black in a room full of white folk.

In a room of adulterers, the faithful husband deceives himself to think he is superior (i.e. less guilty) in God’s eyes.  In a room full of thieves, the hard-working union man assumes himself more honest in God’s eyes.  In a room full of sinners, the Sunday School teacher assumes herself less sinful in God’s eyes.  In a room full of convicts, the innocent man assumes himself more innocent in God’s eyes.  In a room full of Arminians the Calvinist assume himself holier. In the end, everyone in the room is “nothing” (Gal 6.3) and those who are Christ’s realize that.  And the gospel is having its way among us when all the nothings in the room love the other nothings as though they’re everything (Gal 5.6, 13).

Christian maturity is the process of becoming lower.  We are growing in gospel grace when our noses turn downward, our hearts reach upward and hands reach outward.  You are no different than I and I no different than you.  We’re not equally impressive, mind you, but equally condemned and cursed by sin.  If you’re a Christian, Christ became as much a curse for you as he did me (Gal 3.13).  He has freed us both from the tyranny of vain-glory (Gal 5.1).  Therefore, let’s lock arms, bend knees and rejoice we need never be like the other but that Jesus became like us.  And we’re together because we’re forever “in Him.”

I Am Mephibosheth (Christ’s Glory in Fostering & Adoption)

“So Mephibosheth ate at David’s table as one of the king’s sons. . . . Now he was lame in both feet.” (2 Sam 9.11b, 13c)

“While we were children, [we] were enslaved to the elementary principles of the world.
But when the fullness of the time came, God sent forth His Son . . . so that we might receive adoption as sons. 
So you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God.” (Gal 4.3-4a, 5b, 7)

We woke up one April morning in 2008 with one child.  We would go to sleep that same night with three.  As foster parents, God schooled us about children, the State, welfare and depravity.  He still schools us in the gospel.  We’re all grandsons of Saul, lame in both feet, and dependent on the King’s mercy.I am glad to reprise some thoughts we had at the time and hope to encourage anyone considering foster/adoption.1. A real world of darkness and depravity is not nearly as far away as you think.  It’s not out there.  It’s right there.  Hell is real and gleefully torments the least of those among us and next door to us.  My middle-class, white, suburbanism could neither isolate nor inoculate us.  Nor should it.

2. During our process we heard from Christians a strange misunderstanding and misrepresentation of God’s sovereignty. Many said, “I couldn’t foster children because you put so much into them only to have them leave one day.  I couldn’t take that pain.”  Or, “What if the birth parents come and take their children back?” (obviously, there are careful legalities to prevent this).  How should we answer?

One, if a foster child returns home it will and should be painful.  That’s the price of love. We trust God will meet us with strengthening grace then. We believe God will help understand more of his own love and become more like Jesus through it.

Two, why not have the same perspective with biological children (or anything else for that matter)? Does God owe your “biokids” another day simply because they’re genetically yours? As certainly as God may send our foster children back home tomorrow, can he not call your biological child home all the same? We must hold all God’s gifts loosely. Thankfully and joyfully, but loosely.

Three, God did not temper his commitment to us by the amount of pain that commitment might cause. If we only did those things that carried little-to-no risk of pain we’ll never know the abundant life of Christ (Phil 3.10).

3. The State is God’s gift for restraining evil and rewarding good (Rom 13.1-7). But it is not a parent. God intends the State wield the sword, not a rattle. More Christians need to be involved in fostering and adoption. I say that as a recovering pious snot who who not so long ago thumbed his nose at “those people who need to get a J-O-B.”  It’s just not that simple.

Christians exhaust themselves complaining about the welfare system. Its the government’s fault kids are wasted and schools are dangerous. That may be true in part but our inaction has demonstrated faithlessness in the gospel to remedy social ills. We’ve buried our heads in the sand, refusing to put God on display to the world. Fostering and adoption provide a tremendous opportunity to prove that the gospel-centered worldview can and will do far more than “the system.”

In fact, the system is largely set up to perpetuate itself.  More federal dollars for more impoverished people mean keeping people impoverished to get more federal dollars. Children become the commodity that drives the market.

This is not a political issue, but a spiritual one. You want to see public schools change in fifteen years? You want to see children who know more about God’s glory in creation than man’s glory in XBox? Don’t look to a secular government for help. By faith, foster and/or adopt. Multiply that perspective throughout the church and our communities look much different in a decade.

Is our faith in the government or the King of Kings and Lord of Lords? Do we believe King Jesus to be a far better caregiver than Caesar?

Not all Christians should foster and/or adopt children, but more should than do. Let’s not couch this in terms of “calling.” We often justify disobedience to Scripture by claiming we’re not “called” to this or that (see Jas 1.27). There is one “Calling” and that’s to Christ (Eph 4.4). All efforts thereafter are outworkings of faith in that Calling.

Is fostering/adoption something you’d like to do? Do you have opportunity? Refuse to look on paper and calculate all the possible outcomes to all the “what ifs.” Don’t overthink it or you’ll never do it. Step out on faith, start the process and see if God prospers it. Be willing to put God on display for all your world to see. What better picture of the gospel could we paint for our communities than reaching into darkness to rescue helpless children from condemnation?

Know, though, it will be hard.  Very hard, with many dim, heart-wrenching days.

4.   Poverty is not necessarily sin and I am not a better parent because I could provide a few more toys.  I regularly and foolishly thought, “Clearly our home is better.  These kids shouldn’t go home to a one-bedroom apartment to live on food stamps.  Obviously, we’re better because we’re wealthier.”  May God have mercy.  We weren’t doing the world a favor.

Better that children have less and be loved more.  May God protect our children from becoming as snotty as I was.  Poverty doesn’t make anyone a bad parent. In fact, I wonder if affluence might do more to hinder good parenting than poverty.       

5. Fostering/adopting have helped us understand the gospel better. We have a small, but real, taste of God’s compassion for us. Staring into the eyes of abused children is to stare into a mirror. Children stuck in hellish situations is a part of a world where all of us are born slaves to sin. As bad as an abusive home is in this life it’s nothing compared to hell’s eternal abuse. To pity wards of the State is to understand God’s pity for me, otherwise a ward of Satan.

Fostering/adoption is making a child in fact what he/she is not by nature. God makes us in fact what we are not by nature: his children with all the rights and privileges of heaven. We are lame children who sit at the King’s table and feast on his finest menu. We don’t call him “Mr. God” but “Abba, Father” like Jesus (Rom 8.15; Gal 4.6). Therefore, to foster/adopt is to write a living tracts, a living parable, of God’s love for the least.

We also understand a little better that for there to be redemption, God must tolerate (in fact, sovereignly allow) abuse. Our joy in fostering has come at a huge expense.  A family had to dissolve and children had to suffer abuse. Likewise, God’s joy came at the universe’s ultimate expense: the death of his One and Only Son (see Acts 2.23; 4.28). It’s a hard truth to stomach but God must let sin takes its course so that grace can be grace.

While I’m thankful for two new children in whom we’ve invested for seven years now, I’m more thankful for children through whom God has invested in me. They’ve helped me understand that I was born on the other side of the tracks, too.

I am Mephibosheth.

Moonlight Graham & Christ’s Field of Dreams

Archibald Wright “Moonlight” Graham was a baseball player.  He was also a doctor.  He was immortalized in the classic American baseball film Field of Dreams.  And he can illustrate the glorious mystery of Christ’s incarnation.

Moonlight Graham spent seven seasons in the minor leagues, even having a cup of coffee with the Memphis Egyptians in 1906.  His claim to fame, however, was not what he did in the minor leagues.  It’s what he didn’t do in the major leagues.  After being called up to the New York Giants on May 23, 1905, Graham sat the bench until June 29 when he assumed right field in the bottom of the eighth inning.  He was on deck in the top of the ninth inning preparing for his first major league at-bat.  Claude Elliot flied out, however, ending the game.  Moonlight finished the game in right field but never played another major league game.  He was sent back to the minor leagues having never batted in the big leagues.

He earned his medical degree in 1905.  After hanging up his spikes in 1908 he doctored Chisolm, Minnesota for the next fifty years.

That much is true.

In the fictional movie, a much-older “Doc” Graham was afforded the opportunity to realize his dream on Ray Kinsella’s magical Field of Dreams.  Old and some long-dead players were transformed into their younger selves to play baseball.  “Archie” (the younger version of Moonlight Graham) hit an RBI sacrifice fly against White Sox pitcher Eddie Cicotte.  It was enough to make grown men cry.

Here is where an illustration of Christ’s incarnation comes in.  Graham was suited up for another game when Ray Kinsella’s (played by Kevin Costner) daughter fell from the bleachers.  She wasn’t breathing.  As panic set in, Kinsella’s eyes met Graham’s who was in left field with the other players.  There was no time to wait on a doctor and Archie Graham knew it.  What he knew, however, that Kinsella didn’t was that if he crossed the baseline to help the girl he would never be able to return to the field.  His baseball career would be cut short again.

In a pregnant moment, Archie Graham stepped off the field and immediately became old “Doc” Graham again.  He saved the girl and went home to his wife who he joked might think he had a girlfriend.

Such is the pregnant moment of Christ’s incarnation.

“Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men.  Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.  For this reason also, God highly exalted Him, and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus EVERY KNEE WILL BOW, of those who are in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and that every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phil 2.5-11).

Jesus did not become man for thirty-three years and then return to his pre-incarnate eternal form (whatever that was).  He became man and stayed man–the firstborn among many brethren (Rom 8.29).  He exists now as he always will: as the God-Man.  Our older brother, bone of our bone, flesh of our flesh.  Christus Incarnatus.

When the eternal Christ crossed the threshold between heaven and earth he knew he was never going back to the way things were.  He was baptized in our Jordan, immersed in our sin, tempted by the prince of our world, crucified by our hands, buried in our tomb and risen on our soil.  To save God’s children he had to become like us, live like us, die like us (Heb 2.14-18).  He humbled himself, laying aside his rightful privileges to breathe life into those who choked on sin and death.  The only scars in heaven will be his.

No wonder the apostles loved the word “mystery.”  Only God could condense Christ’s pre-world, pre-time glory into human form (Jn 17.5).  The eternal second Person of the Trinity, fullness of deity in bodily form (Col 2.9), exact representation of God himself (Heb 1.3) forever compacted in a Man.  A Man like us.  A Man for us.

The fullness of glory wrapped in the fullness of humility.  This is our God.  This is our Christ.  At the right time, indeed the fullness of time (Gal 4.4), he sacrificed so that we could come home.

Don’t Pray More or Better, Pray Like Jesus

Eugene Peterson writes in Tell it Slant: A Conversation on the Language of Jesus in His Stories and Prayers (pp51-52):

“Prayer can be learned only in the vocabulary and grammar of personal relationship: Father!  Friend!  It can never be a matter of getting the right words in the right order.  It can never be a matter of good behavior or proper disposition or skillful manipulation.  It can never be a matter of acquiring some information about God or getting in touch with myself.  It is a relationship, exclusively and unendingly personal.  And so it is imperative that we watch our language, for the personal is constantly and increasingly in danger of suppression by the arrogant and blasphemous claims of technology, the apotheosis of the impersonal.”

The pressure to pray more and pray better weighs heavy on the Christian soul.  We all want to pray more and pray better.  By that we mean praying more words and better words.  Peterson, however, suggests it’s precisely when we try to pray more and pray better that we actually hinder praying at all.  We fear getting prayer wrong or boast in getting it right that we aren’t even praying at all, even (or especially) when pious words flow from our mouth in Shakespearean rhythms.  Either we pray or we don’t.  And what I often consider prayer isn’t.

We’ve assumed certain rules in prayer that do more to hinder prayer than help it.  Rather than “lift up our soul” (Ps 25.1) we lift up our words.  So the church’s opening prayer will sound much like last week’s, and last decade’s.  Of course, the offertory prayer must ask God to “bless the gift and the giver.”  The pre-meal prayer must include “nourishment of our bodies” as surely as prayers for the sick must address “the Great Physician.”

We assume prayer is “a matter of getting the right words in the right order.”  It’s all so rote.  So rehearsed.  So impersonal.  So prayerless.  The harder we try to make prayer sound “prayerful” the less prayerful we become.

Or, we attach prayer to our behavior or disposition.  We can only pray when we feel really holy or have spiritual capital built up against which to draw.  We pray as if God were some cosmic banker that charges overdrafts on our heavenly account so we’d better have enough clout to collateralize our requests.

Or, we use prayer as “skillful manipulation.”  Jesus would call this hypocrisy and I’ve done my fair share of it.  My heart feels one way (and necessarily cries out accordingly), but I say words that betray my heart.  Like a child trying to say just the right thing to manipulate her father, I try to pull one over on God by saying words he wants to hear while he is seeing the words my heart is screaming.  We can do that with other people but we never fool God.  Yet, our God patiently listens while I lie to him because Jesus suffered the punishment due liars.

Jesus warned us against convoluted and pretentious prayer (Mt 6.5-15).  We mouth right words but God knows we are not praying.  It’s “meaningless repetition” and “many words” that do nothing but perform before men.  God is not impressed with prayer-as-performance.  His ear bends low to those who cry out, “Abba, Father.  Not my will but yours be done” (Mk 14.36).

Christ’s followers pray simply, honestly, genuinely and openly both alone and together.  We don’t pray as though God or men are grading our prayers.  We pray because God is a Friendly Father, a Fatherly Friend, who knows our heart.  And he’s not offended by it because Jesus assumed all the offense.

Prayer is not about our character but about God’s.  Not about our ability or fitness but about God’s mercy.  He knows what our heart cries so we do well to let those cries loose through our mouths.  Jesus has liberated us to pray with the lid off.  God knows, hears and is quite able to handle what he already knows about us.

Almost counterintuitively, let’s not resolve to pray more or better.  Let’s resolve to pray.  Jesus didn’t teach us a class on prayer.  He prayed . . . and forgave.

So get around those who lose the rules and rhetoric.  Pray with those who resist pretense and protocol.  Pray with those who know Jesus as a faithful–and personal–High Priest.  Pray with those who know the Father, not merely impressive words about him.  Who habitually commune with him.  Pray with those who don’t merely repeat the word of God, but reflect the word of God by forgiving.

We do not pray as God’s customer, performer or employee but as his child.  His beloved child.  Like Jesus.