Why I Refuse to be Tolerant

It is all the rage today, the call to be tolerant. It has reached such a fevered pitch that one of the most brutal things you can say about someone is that they are intolerant. To be intolerant has become the worst of all possible character flaws. It immediately casts the intolerant person in the light of being a neanderthal, a brute, narrow minded, bigoted, and self righteous. It is taken as a given by many in our society that tolerance is the highest of virtues and to be intolerant it the greatest of social evils. Listening to the rhetoric will quickly convince you that anyone with half a brain would see that tolerance is what we need to save the world from all the evils that divide us. High on that list is the evil of people who are convinced they are right about something and others are wrong. According to the call for tolerance they are the epitome of intolerance and all that is wrong in the world.

Well count me among those who are responsible for all that is wrong in the world. I refuse to be tolerant. In fact I think we are being sold a bill of goods by all this talk of being tolerant. We are being told it will fix everything when in fact I think it is making everything worse. I will go so far as to say that if I am tolerant of you, I am actually treating you in a way that is demeaning and even condescending. How can I saw that? Let me give you a description of what tolerance is really about. Picture yourself as a child in the back seat of your parents car. Your younger sibling is next to you and he or she is just being a pain, bugging you, poking you. sticking their tongue out at you and doing all the little annoying things that younger siblings are so good at doing. You complain about it and your mother says something like, “Now, now, you are the older one, you need to learn to not get so upset by your younger brother or sister. Just don’t let it bother you.” Of course they keep doing what they do and actually ramp up the annoyance by a factor of ten because they know mom won’t do anything about it. You find it incredibly difficult to deal with and protest again. At which point mom has some harsh words for you about not being more understanding of your younger sibling. Suddenly you are the one who is wrong for not “tolerating” their behavior. If you figure out how to tolerate your younger sibling and not react to them I can predict what your relationship will be like over time. You will not be close to them. You will not want them around. You will mostly be annoyed by them and try to avoid interacting much with them. Why? because tolerance means to put up with someone by basically ignoring them. So much for tolerance helping us to care more about one another.

As a follower of Jesus I have to ask myself the question, “Does Jesus want me to be tolerant?” The answer is a loud and resounding NO! Jesus never said to be tolerant. Being tolerant is the least virtuose way to approach relationships and it does nothing to bring people together. Jesus never said, tolerate your neighbors. He never said tolerate your enemies and put up with them. Jesus called us to something higher and harder than tolerance. He called us to love our neighbors and our enemies. If Jesus was just tolerant of us then He would have never gone to the cross for us. He would have simply sat in heaven and said, well I disagree with what they are doing and what they think, but if I am going to be tolerant then I need to not say anything and must leave them to their own devices. Instead Jesus came into the world and engaged it, out of a deep and eternal love for us.

Jesus was unwilling to settle for tolerance. Instead He set the bar far higher. He made love for one another the highest ideal. This is where the world gets love and tolerance confused. Tolerance allows us to ignore others and not engage them. Love requires us to engage people even when we disagree with them. In fact, love at times requires us to disagree with people. Jesus disagreed with people on a regular basis. He told the Pharisees and other religious leaders how wrong they were on several occasions, even calling them whitewashed tombs and hypocrites. He once rebuked Simon Peter by saying, “Get behind me Satan”. Jesus would fail the tolerance test today. And it is a good thing. Why? Because be understood that love is the higher calling and love sometimes requires disagreement. If I really love my sons and I think they are doing something that will ruin them, tolerance says I can’t disagree with them. Love says I do whatever is necessary to protect them and help them avoid disaster.

So for 2017 I refuse to be tolerant. What I commit to being is a follower of Christ who shoots higher than tolerance. I aim to demonstrate the higher calling of loving my neighbor not just tolerating them. I commit to loving enemies as Jesus would want me to, not just ignoring them out of an ethic of tolerance. I commit to having conversations with people who I vehemently disagree with and loving them with Christ’s love as best I can. Care to join me?

When Politics Divides Christians

20 “I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, 21 that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.22 The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, 23 I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me” A portion of Jesus prayer in John 17

For several years I have taught theology and leadership courses at International Leadership University in Burundi, Africa. Burundi is right next to Rwanda and is made up of the same Hutu and Tutsi tribes. The Rwandan Genocide was made infamous in America and Europe by the motion picture, Hotel Rwanda. The same thing was happening in Burundi at that time and in fact lasted much longer. It is estimated the in the mid 90s, close to 300,000 Burundians were killed in the violence that divided the country. The population at the time was about 7 million people. To give you a sense of the impact this had on the country, from a percentage of the population standpoint it is the same as if 16 million Americans were killed in just a few years of political and racial violence.

A few years ago I was teaching a class on leadership to 40 officers in the Burundian Army. They were several months away from a potentially divisive presidential election that could easily open old wounds and renew the bloodshed. I asked them to consider this question, To whom or what is their highest allegiance? Are they first a member of their tribe or of Burundi? Are they first a citizen of Burundi or a member of the Army? Are the first a follower of Christ or a follower of a political or tribal leader? This was a serious and difficult question for them. They knew that there was a high potential that they could be forced to make life and death decisions that depended on their answers.

When I see what is happening in the church in the current presidential election I have thought back many times to what I saw happening in Burundi. It was not only officers in the Army that I asked those questions, but also to more than 150 pastors who we trained in church planting. You see when the political clashes erupted into violence, the church was caught up in it. People who claimed to be followers of Christ, turned against their neighbors who were of the other tribe. In some cases, pastors turned against people in their own flocks. Countless numbers died because of that kind of tribalism that superseded unity in Christ.

Now before you dismiss this by saying, that’s Africa. This is America. Can’t happen in a “civilized, western, enlightened culture”. Let me remind you of Germany and Italy in the 1930’s. The atrocities of the Holocaust were born out of the cultures that gave us Mozart and Michelangelo. Human depravity is not limited by cultural boundaries. But let’s step back from the edge a bit. I don’t for a minute think America will erupt into a genocide over this presidential election. But what I do think can, and may already have happened, is that followers of Christ will abandon the oneness Jesus calls for in his prayer in favor of political tribalism in which we vilify people who support the other candidate.

I have already seen it from both sides of the aisle. People supporting one candidate question whether you can really be a Christian and support the other candidate. It doesn’t matter if it is the Republican, Democratic, Libertarian, Green, or any other candidate. All sides seem to be raising who you vote for as one of the marks of being a true Christ follower. I have read the Bible from cover to cover numerous times. I have never found any verse, or group of verses, that even taken out of context and twisted,  could possibly be used to justify who you vote for as a measure of your salvation.

What Jesus prays for is that all His followers would be united and one as He and the Father are united and one. What does that unity look like? Is it political, social, economic? No! It is a unity of love for one another, no matter what. That’s what Jesus is talking about at the end of the passage. Father, let the world see your love for them and me and our love for one another. That doesn’t mean agreeing on everything. That means honoring, serving, caring for, respecting one another, and even humbly admitting that the other person may have a point or two. That is what unity looks like. Jesus does not pray for uniformity in which we are all looking, talking, acting, and voting alike. He is praying that we love one another, even in the midst of our differences.

What concerns Jesus deeply in this prayer is that if His followers do not show that kind of love and unity then the world will never really believe us. If the world never believes us then it will never believe in Jesus and never believe that the Father sent Him into the world as the Savior. They will never believe that Jesus and the Father are one because we are not one. The very message of Jesus and the heart of the Gospel is at stake.

It’s not about who you vote for. That is actually of little concern to God by comparison. Yes you read that right. God has very little concern about who you vote for. If He did then Jesus would have made that the focus of His prayer. By the way He prayed this as He was only hours away from His death on a Cross so that should tell you something of the importance He placed on this. What Jesus prayed about was not who we vote for but how we behaved towards one another. That’s what He cares about. He cares that we are one in our love for one another, no matter what. We can discuss, disagree, argue, and do so passionately. But we must do so in the knowledge that at the core of it all followers of Christ share the indwelling of One Holy Spirit and are One in Christ. We also share being sinners saved by grace and not by works, political affiliation, how we vote, or our stance on immigration, taxes, or any other political issue.

Do you think this is the first time an election has been so heated and divisive? If your answer is yes then I know you slept during American History class. It may be the most divisive in our memory, but in the history of our country this is not unique. The election of 1860 ended up resulting in a Civil War and there was nothing Civil about the campaign leading up to that election. My point being, God is bigger than the election. Presidents come and go, every four or eight years. And the country keeps on. God is still sovereign. What He cares about is that in the midst of such vitriol and divisiveness, His people would be One, united in Christ, loving one another, loving God with all we have an all we are, and loving our neighbor as ourselves.


More or Less Religious?

There is lots of hand wringing going on over the rise of the numbers of people in America who claim no religious affiliation. Tagged with the title “The Nones”, they tend to be younger which leads people to project the death of religion in the future. Among evangelicals it is easy to find people who fall in lockstep with the tales of woe. Far from being something that concerns me, I look at the rise of the Nones as a huge opportunity. The reason for that view is that people are less inclined to thoughtlessly align themselves to a religious group. That can only be good for Christianity which requires a dedication of one’s whole self and not just lip service.

Marcia Pally is a friend and fellow writer who focuses on issues of religion in culture and teaches at both NYU and Fordham. I had the privilege of being interviewed by her as she did research for her book The New Evangelicals: Expanding the Vision for the Common Good. In this blog post she does a wonderful job of pointing out what is really going on with religious affiliation in America.

The implications of what Marcia says are numerous for people who want to provocatively follow Christ. Perhaps on the top of the list is that people are looking for a faith experience that has power to it, real answers, and gives them purpose and meaning. Ideally that is what the life of every Christ-follower should look like.

Here is the link to Marcia’s blog post. Enjoy!

Are People More or Less Interested in Religion?

Of Refugees, Politics, and Jesus

If there is something sad that characterises how we approach difficult or controversial issues in the age of internet memes. It is that the extremes move to center stage and gain all the attention. The pithy, mic-drop sound bite becomes the be all and end all in the debate. Emotion packed retorts push out any chance for real dialogue and the process of using our brains to do the hard work of thinking becomes replaced by visceral, knee jerk reactions.

Nowhere is this more evident today than the argument over the fate of Syrian refugees in the wake of the terrorist attacks in Paris that resulted in the deaths of more than 120 people. On one end of the spectrum is a view that sees every Muslim as a Kalashnikov toting, bomb vest wearing, destroyer of the western world. On the other end of the spectrum is a view that sees every refugee as an innocent child, or elderly woman, on the verge of starvation being left to die by heartless, angry racists. Those positions either focus on the need to protect ourselves from terrorists by keeping all refugees somewhere other than where we are or the need to supposedly be like Jesus and welcome all of them without hesitation. Those on the protection end of the spectrum are castigated by the other side as being hypocritical, unchristian, violators of Jesus command to love others. Those on the welcome them all in end of the spectrum are castigated as being foolish, weak, idiotic, and naive.

At the risk of being run over from both directions and castigated by each end of the spectrum, let me suggest that both are wrong and both misunderstand the teachings of Jesus.

First, both are wrong in thinking that memes, sound bites, 140 character tweets, and Facebook postings are the way to have a dialogue about this issue. Those things may make us feel like we stuck it to the “other” side and allow us to puff out our chest and claim the moral or intellectual high ground. But that is a fantasy and self deceiving. It does nothing for the refugees.

Second, both are wrong in thinking that this is an all or nothing issue. It has become normative in the debates of today’s issues, whether they be political, moral, social, or religious, to make a simplistic either/or argument for a complex problem and leave no room for a both/and solution. I have a theory that the reason this is a growing trend has to do with us becoming intellectually lazy. It’s just easier to make something an either/or issue and entrench ourselves in our ideologically or emotionally driven position than it is to actually engage our brains, look at the bigger picture and acknowledge that the other side may have a point or two worth considering.

Third, as this discussion enters the religious world and invokes Jesus I find that there is a major failure to wrestle with the totality of what Jesus taught. Calling people to embrace all refugees with open arms because Jesus was a refugee may tug at emotional heart strings or promote guilt but it is hardly presents a viable biblical answer for dealing with something as chaotic and even terrifying as several hundred thousand refugees on the borders of your country. Telling people they are unchristian for being afraid in that situation does nothing to help them get over their fear. On the other hand, the calls for no refugees what-so-ever fails to take into account that Jesus was serious when He said to love our neighbors and our enemies. He made those statements knowing full well that such love was dangerous and risky and yet fully expecting us to obey Him.

So what is the answer? I think it is to be found in the words of Jesus in Matthew 10:16 when He sends the disciples out into a dangerous world to do ministry. He said,“Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.”  Jesus acknowledged that the world is dangerous. That did not mean we withdraw and hide for our own safety. Rather, He intento On the other hand He did not advocate naively rushing off willy-nilly without considering the danger and taking some precautions. Jesus did not propose and either/or solution. He proposed a both/and solution. What He proposed was that we be both gentle and wise.

So how does that apply to the current crisis? Be gentle by taking every step we can to care for refugees, provide shelter, food, clothing, medical care and as followers of Christ, bring the message of the Gospel, make disciples and plant churches among refugee communities. It also means be wise, do what is necessary to make sure, as much as we can, that wolves in the midst of those sheep are prevented from using this crisis to make their way into our midst and spread greater evil.

It is equally easy to say either, “welcome them all” on the one hand or on the other hand “welcome none of them”. Both positions are in my mind, lazy, simplistic, and only make things worse. The hard answer is to think through what it would take to be wise and gentle at the same time and then do that. Governments need to do the work of protecting their people. Paul makes that clear in Romans 13. Followers of Christ need to do a better job of loving people. Do I even need to quote chapter and verse for that? Both need to find a way to work together better which, in a time of hyper-separation of church and state, may be the hardest part of all. As governments do the work of finding the wolves in the midst of the sheep, so the sheep can be taken in and cared for, there needs to be a place for the church to come and help provide some of the love and care that refugees need. But that means Christians must be willing to take the risk of serving those refugees and possibly being confronted by a wolf in the process. Now that is something I am confident Jesus would do.


Provocative Devotion: Psalm 49:13-15 “Rescued by God”

13 This is the path of those who have foolish confidence;
    yet after them people approve of their boasts.[b] Selah
14 Like sheep they are appointed for Sheol;
    death shall be their shepherd,
and the upright shall rule over them in the morning.
    Their form shall be consumed in Sheol, with no place to dwell.
15 But God will ransom my soul from the power of Sheol,
    for he will receive me. Selah

From time to time we see the stories of someone being rescued from captivity. It can be a group of soldiers being held prisoner in a Japanese prison camp as depicted in The Great Raid, or it may be a group of young girls kidnapped and held for years in a Cleveland suburb. No matter the circumstances there is always this sense of helplessness on the part of those who are being held captive. They have no way to rescue themselves. Their only hope is that someone on the outside has not forgotten them and is determined to find them and free them. When that rescue comes, the shock, joy, delight, tears, and smiles are all evident at the same moment on the faces of the rescued. Their gratitude towards their rescuers is immense. Their devotion to them is life long.

Psalm 49 reminds us that we are all hostages. We are all held captive to sin and death. No matter your station in life, you will eventually die. You will be consumed. There is no way out, nothing you can do to change your circumstances. You are indeed utterly helpless. Your only hope is in an outside rescuer. Verse 15 points to that rescuer. God can ransom your soul. It is what He has done through Jesus Christ and His death and resurrection.  Our problem is we don’t always recognize the reality of our captivity. We have always lived captive to our sin and death and that somehow seems normal. We need to awaken to the fat that our lives had an expiration date and because of our sin and rebellion against God we will spend eternity in captivity. But because of His great love for us, God has never forgotten our need and provides for it if only we would trust in Him.

Recognizing that you are rescued by God, that Jesus went to the cross for you, should result in shock, joy, delight, tears and smiles. It should result in love for God and a lifelong devotion to Him. I need to remind myself everyday that Jesus went to the cross so I might live and I need to live for Him above all else.

Provocative Devotion: Psalm 48:9 “Pondering the Love of God”

We have thought on your steadfast love, O God,
    in the midst of your temple.

What do you think of when you think of going to church? I hesitate to use the phrase, “going to church” because there is a very real sense in which we do not go to church but rather followers of Christ are the church. But I will bow to the common understanding of the phrase and speak of going to church. So what do you focus on when you go to church? Are you thinking about the songs that you don’t like singing? Are you pondering how long the sermon is because your favorite team is kicking off at 1pm? Are you thinking about those people who have wandered into worship and they clearly are not dressed appropriately? Are you annoyed with your spouse because they made you run late or because they nagged you into going to church? Maybe you are thinking about how the preacher really didn’t understand or explain the passage correctly and you are now wondering if you can trust the rest of their teaching.

The author of Psalm 48 reflects on what a gathered group of people focused on when they went to church, the temple. They thought of the steadfast love of God. They pondered the strength of God’s love for them and how that love would never die or never end. That love from God to His people is the strongest motivating force you are ever going to experience. To fully experience the love of God in your life and see that love demonstrated in the death of Jesus on the Cross is the most powerful, life changing experience you will ever have. It becomes the motivator of your worship.

My best times in worshipping God are those times when I am struck once again by God’s love for me. That love breaks me. It breaks me of my pride. It breaks me of my anger. It breaks me of my insecurities. It breaks me of my love for sin. In that brokenness I find myself enthralled with God because of His love. Indeed it is true what Jesus said, “Greater love has no man than he lay down his life for a friend”. Jesus laid down His life for me. What great love! He also said that I love Him because He first loved me. When I was still His enemy, when my life was opposed to God, when my heart desired only my sin and my selfishness, Jesus loved me with such a steadfast love that He went to the Cross for me. Pondering such love brings me to my knees and to tears and my heart pours out love to Jesus in response to His love.

Provocative Devotion: Psalm 47 “Enthusiasm in Worship”

Last night I watched the Pittsburgh Steelers win a football game on the last play of the game as time expired. It wasn’t a playoff game and certainly was not the Super Bowl. It was just a regular season game. But I still clapped and cheered loudly enough and with enough enthusiasm that I woke my wife who had gone to sleep long before the end of the game. That is what fans do. You cheer for your team. You get excited when they win and you celebrate. If you are actually at the game you get caught up in the excitement of it all. People color their hair to match the team colors, paint their bodies to match, wave towels with the team colors and generally get more emotional than they do over most anything else in life. It doesn’t matter if it is American Football, Baseball, Soccer, or Rugby. It doesn’t matter if it is in the USA, England, Brazil, China, or Latvia. People get excited about sports to the point that it takes on religious overtones.

This morning I wake up and read Psalm 47 and am confronted with the juxtaposition of how we cheer for our teams and how we should cheer for our God.

Clap your hands, all peoples!
    Shout to God with loud songs of joy!
For the Lord, the Most High, is to be feared,
    a great king over all the earth.
He subdued peoples under us,
    and nations under our feet.
He chose our heritage for us,
    the pride of Jacob whom he loves. Selah

God has gone up with a shout,
    the Lord with the sound of a trumpet.
Sing praises to God, sing praises!
    Sing praises to our King, sing praises!
For God is the King of all the earth;
    sing praises with a psalm!

God reigns over the nations;
    God sits on his holy throne.
The princes of the peoples gather
    as the people of the God of Abraham.
For the shields of the earth belong to God;
    he is highly exalted!

So much of worship in the Bible is a public demonstration of love for God. There is shouting, clapping, dancing, singing, waving branches in the air. When Jesus entered Jerusalem on what has become known as Palm Sunday, it probably looked more like a parade celebrating a championship sports team than the typical worship time in most churches, at least most western churches. For some reason Christians in Uganda, Egypt, Bangladesh, India, and Brazil have no problem publicly expressing their love and affection for God. They don’t seem to care that they are being emotional and enthusiastic about God. They don’t fear being seen as fanatical in their devotion to God. I wonder, what it is about many western Christians that we will insist on quiet, emotionless worship at 11am on Sunday and then break loose with all sorts of shouting, clapping, fist-bumping, and chest thumping at 1pm?

Provocative Devotion: Psalm 46:1-7 “Finding Security in God”

We are a people consumed by the need to feel secure. We want to have a secure financial future. We want our children to be secure in school and their car seat and on their bicycles. We have color coded security levels at airports and train stations. We have metal detectors going up all over the place. For all our efforts at being safe and secure the reality is one can never be one hundred percent secure in a world infected with sin.

Yet this Psalm gives incredible hope for being secure. It does not say we will be free from turmoil. Quite the opposite. The earth still gives way. The mountains fall into the sea. The waters rage and roar like a tsunami. Kingdoms fall. Nations go to war. Bad things still happen. Our security is not in a world in which bad things never happen. Our security is in a God who is our fortress and no matter what happens to us, He is the Rock on which we stand. We also know that even should this world pass away, there is a city that will not be moved. There is a river that does not rage. The City of God is that place. It is His dwelling place and all who trust in Him have the security of a home there because He has promised it to be so.

God is our refuge and strength,
    a very present[b] help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear though the earth gives way,
    though the mountains be moved into the heart of the sea,
though its waters roar and foam,
    though the mountains tremble at its swelling. Selah

There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,
    the holy habitation of the Most High.
God is in the midst of her; she shall not be moved;
    God will help her when morning dawns.
The nations rage, the kingdoms totter;
    he utters his voice, the earth melts.
The Lord of hosts is with us;
    the God of Jacob is our fortress.

Provocative Devotion: Psalm 45 “A Love Song”

Love is clearly a major theme in the Bible. From cover to cover it speaks of God’s love for humanity. Jesus tells us that the greatest commandment is the two-pronged exhortation to love God with all we are and to love our neighbor as ourselves. But for all the discussion about love in the Bible people rarely if ever think of the Bible promoting romantic love. Psalm 45 is all about romantic love. It affirms and glorifies the relationship between a righteous king and the woman he loves.

Consider these words from near the end of the Psalm

Hear, O daughter, and consider, and incline your ear:
    forget your people and your father’s house,
11     and the king will desire your beauty.
Since he is your lord, bow to him.
12     The people[b] of Tyre will seek your favor with gifts,
    the richest of the people.

13 All glorious is the princess in her chamber, with robes interwoven with gold.
14     In many-colored robes she is led to the king,
    with her virgin companions following behind her.
15 With joy and gladness they are led along
    as they enter the palace of the king.

The Psalmist leaves us with the picture of the young virgin bride, being accompanied by her bridesmaids as she enters the palace of the king and leaves her father’s family behind. The king greatly desires her and her beauty and she is gladly entering his palace. It is a picture of romance and love.

The emphasis of loving God and loving our neighbor is certainly deserving of our devotion. But that should never be to the exclusion of the value God places on the romantic love between a man and a woman. God has created us to be in relationship and to have the deepest and most beautiful of human relationships between a man and woman. Christians are often too quick to pass by the joy and glory of this relationship. If it gets spoken of at all it is usually a very forensic discussion about biblical morality. But this Psalm is a love song, it is not directed to God and the praise of His name, at least not directly. Rather it is in honor of something God has created to exist between a husband and wife that only poetry can begin to describe.

Perhaps our marriages would be stronger if we added a touch of romance and poetry into them. Perhaps if Christ followers were more open to the wonder and beauty of romantic love, there would be a more complete understanding of love. The Greeks had multiple words that we translate as love. The understood that there are numerous facets to love, like the most brilliant of diamonds. Love is full, rich, beautiful, deep, intimate, glorious, and precious. It is the stuff of poem and song. The Bible affirms and even promotes such love and because it does we should embrace it as a gift from God.

Provocative Devotion: Psalm 44:1-8 “History is His Story”

History is not the favorite subject for most people. They think of history class and all that comes to mind is trying to memorize dates, names, and places from the past that seem to have little or no relevance to life in the present. I am not one of those people. I love history. I mean absolutely love it! Ancient history, medieval European history, The American Civil War, it doesn’t matter. My library includes close to 300 books that are nothing but history. Not only do I love to read about history but I love to visit places of historical significance. A visit to Stonehenge is as exciting to me as visiting Gettysburg, or Bastogne, or the Tower of London. For me history has always been about far more than the dates and places. It has been about the people, their experiences, the lessons to be learned from their lives, the successes and the failures.

Coming to faith in Christ added a whole new dimension to my love for history. The realization that all history was actually His story written in the lives of people was breathtaking to me. Reading the Bible is often an adventure in seeing God at work in the lives of people and learning from those stories. It involves learning how God has worked through history, both on the macro level of creation and nations and on the micro level of families and individuals, then taking those lessons and applying them to life today.

In Psalm 44 we see the importance of history and how God is the prime actor in the story. It is about remembering the deeds that God had performed in the days of our ancestors so we can trust Him to perform similar deeds in our day. It is about learning that the victories of our ancestors were really God’s victories and we need to both rely on Him and give Him the credit He is due for those victories.

Jesus affirmed the value of history and that all history is actually His story. He told the religious leaders that if they truly understood the scriptures and all they speak of from the past, then they would have known Him because the whole story of history in the Old Testament and the New, is the story of Jesus. He also told His closest disciples that when they come to the communion table they are remembering history. We eat and remember. We drink and remember. We remember and we proclaim His death until He comes again. We remember His story.

I take great comfort and gain strength for my faith knowing that God has actually stepped into history time and again. He has never abandoned us to our own devices but has consistently made Himself known in the story. The people of the scriptures reminded one another of the things God had done in the past in order to have strength, wisdom, and direction for the future. When you read the Bible and the stories of the people in it, remember that God is telling us the story of history so we will see how He, as the lead character, is the whole reason for the story. It is so we can live confidently in the present and move boldly into the future because He is with us as He has always been with us.

O God, we have heard with our ears,
    our fathers have told us,
what deeds you performed in their days,
    in the days of old:
you with your own hand drove out the nations,
    but them you planted;
you afflicted the peoples,
    but them you set free;
for not by their own sword did they win the land,
    nor did their own arm save them,
but your right hand and your arm,
    and the light of your face,
    for you delighted in them.

You are my King, O God;
    ordain salvation for Jacob!
Through you we push down our foes;
    through your name we tread down those who rise up against us.
For not in my bow do I trust,
    nor can my sword save me.
But you have saved us from our foes
    and have put to shame those who hate us.
In God we have boasted continually,
    and we will give thanks to your name forever.

Provocative Devotion: Psalm 43:3-4 “Truth Still Matters”

Send out your light and your truth;
    let them lead me;
let them bring me to your holy hill
    and to your dwelling!
Then I will go to the altar of God,
    to God my exceeding joy,
and I will praise you with the lyre,
    O God, my God.

“That may be true for you but it is not true for me”. That phrase may be causing more confusion and damage in the world than any other soundbite you will hear. It is rooted in the idea that all truth is relative, meaning that in different situations or for different people, truth is like beauty, it is in the eye of the beholder. We end up with situations in which people are perfectly willing to accept two fundamentally contradictory statements as both being equally true and valid. We do this in defiance of all rules of logic. In practice it means I can say that for me the sky is green and no insistence on your part, no use of scientific instruments to measure the color spectrum and define the sky as blue and not green will make any difference. The actual reality of the sky being blue and not green is irrelevant. Why? Because for me it is green, that is my truth.

What we have done is confuse the differences between truth, opinions, values, and personal experience. Just because I experience something in a certain way does not make it objectively true. I used the color of the sky intentionally. I suffer from what is usually called being color blind. People immediately think that I only see in black and white. A better phrase would be color deficient. Absolute color-blindness is extremely rare. Rather it is a matter of degrees. I see lots of colors but the receptors in my eyes to pick up color are less robust than those in most people. As a result I have trouble picking up shades of red and green. That means light pink, which has very little red in it, can looked washed out and gray to me. Certain shades of green look more brown. When I was a kid having the names of colors on the crayons was a must. But here is the point, the fact that it is brown to me and not green does not change the objective truth of the color. It is brown. Everyone who does not have color deficiency issues will see green and objective scientific equipment will say it is green. What I need to do is adjust my understanding. I can say, I see it as brown but I must acknowledge that my experience is deceiving me and keeping me from the truth.

The push to say all truth is relative is a push to make my experience what determines truth. That is both arrogant and lazy. Arrogant because it sets me up as the pinnacle of all truth. Lazy because it excuses me from ever having to do the hard work of thinking, debating, researching, and even changing my mind. What the Psalmist is saying in these verses today is that it is God’s truth that really matters. What determines the reality of things is not what is true for you or true for me but what God has determined to be true. I may experience something, but my experience is extremely limited. My experience will help shape my opinions and ideas but that is not the same as something being objectively true.

I suspect that one of the reasons we are drawn to the idea of relative truth is that in the short-term it is a comfort to us. It is a comfort because it requires so little of us and we are lulled into thinking that all is right with the world and we understand it. It is far more comfortable for me to ignore the reality of the color shirt I am wearing and that it clashes badly with my pants. It is harder to work through the truth of the issue and either ask my wife for advice on clothing or to remember what shirt to not wear with what pants, We think that by ignoring the hard work of finding truth and just living in the world of all things being relative that we will be much happier and at peace, that we will have joy and freedom and not be bound by someone else’s ideas of truth. But this Psalm points out that true joy and freedom are only to be found in God’s truth. That truth is Jesus Himself who made the shocking statement, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me”. I must cling to Jesus as the truth and the light. Only in Jesus am I truly free. Only in Jesus am I equipped to face the world and find joy.

Provocative Devotion: Psalm 42:1-2 “A Healthy Obsession”

Usually when we say someone is obsessed it is not a compliment. We generally mean to imply that the obsessed person is out of balance, a bit off their rocker, myopic, even mentally unhinged. We think they need to back off a tad and get a life. They are missing so much by being obsessed with whatever the object of their obsession may be. This is also the case when it comes to God. Most people are fine if you have a little bit of God in your life, just don’t make Him the center of everything. Keep a healthy balance people say. But Psalm 42 will simply not allow for that kind of ‘balance”.

As a deer pants for flowing streams,
    so pants my soul for you, O God.
My soul thirsts for God,
    for the living God.

The Psalmist compares our need for God to that of a deer in desperate need of water. A deer, or any creature, in desperate need of water is going to be obsessed with finding that life-giving liquid. Nothing will distract the deer from the hunt for water. There is no such thing as a healthy balance at that point. Health, indeed life itself, is utterly dependent on fulfilling the need for water. Health can only be found by having a laser focused obsession for water.

True health as a human being can only come by being obsessed with God. God must be the center of our lives. Everything must revolve around our relationship with God for us to be healthy. In fact balance is only found by having God at the center. We get out of balance and unhealthy when we allow other things to get in the way of our quest for God. Just like a deer would get sick and eventually die if it let chasing butterflies get in the way of finding water.

There is nothing more important in life than thirsting for God and having that thirst met. Anything less is substituting a false cure, an idol, in place of God. Our very souls are longing for God but in our sinfulness we let other things compete with God and we suffer in the process. True health and true balance, something we long for, comes through total, laser focused, obsession for and devotion to God through Jesus Christ.

Provocative Devotion: Psalm 41:1-3 “What Goes Around, Comes Around”

The Bible says that you reap what you sow. Put another way, what goes around comes around. In other words, your actions have consequences and if your actions are good and helpful and just, then eventually goodness, help, and justice will come your way. If your actions are cruel and deceitful and wicked, then eventually cruelty, deceit, and wickedness will come your way. In the first few verses of Psalm 40 we see the same principle at work. In this case it is good things coming from the Lord to the one who considers the poor.

Blessed is the one who considers the poor!
    In the day of trouble the Lord delivers him;
the Lord protects him and keeps him alive;
    he is called blessed in the land;
    you do not give him up to the will of his enemies.
The Lord sustains him on his sickbed;
    in his illness you restore him to full health

The specific topic is how one treats the poor. It is interesting to note that the author does not give a specific program or plan of action that pleases God. He simply says, “Blessed is the one who considers the poor”. In other words, blessed is that one who even gives a thought to the situation of the poor, and by implication does something about it. Most if the time we don’t consider the poor. We flip right passed the commercial with hungry children in it. We avert our gaze from the homeless guy at the street corner with a cardboard sign. We do all we can to keep from considering them and especially from having any human connection. Why do we not consider them? I suspect it is because if one really considered the plight of the poor then one would be compelled to do something about it. It is the person who does not really ponder their plight who does nothing. If you consider the poor you are forced to deal with the fact that they are real people and that often their reason for being poor has nothing to do with laziness or trying to scam the system.

The Bible has ways of dealing with laziness and scam artists. But more far more often than warning us about such folks it commands us to consider the needs of the poor and do something about their situation. One’s political affiliation should have no bearing on if you consider the poor and do something about it. It should only have bearing on the what. You may think the answer is to provide more in the way of food and medical assistance. Then again you may have huge philosophical reasons to oppose that, saying people need to work. That’s fine. Then maybe you should be supportive of job training programs and daycare for single moms so they can go to work. There is no political ideology that wants people to remain poor. So there is no political reason for not considering the poor and finding something you can do about it, no matter who small the gesture seems.

The point I am making is not to promote any particular political or social agenda. Rather the point is to highlight a biblical teaching that jumps off countless pages of the BIble. Followers of Christ are to consider the poor and in their considering, find some way to make their plight less dire. It can be a small thing that helps one person or a massive program that helps many. But you will never do any of that if you do not first consider them. Look into their eyes and consider them. Look into their lives and consider them. Look at their children and consider them. As you consider them, put yourself in their place. Consider what it would be like if you were the one uncertain of your next meal, or living out of a large garbage bag and a grocery cart. What would it be like if you were the single parent with three kids who had been abandoned by a spouse and left with nothing? Consider those things. And then, simply do what the Lord puts on your heart. It is that easy and that hard all at once.

Provocative Devotion: Psalm 40 “God Does Not Want Your Religion”

Bashing religion has become something a the intellectual sport du jour. If you want to make a splash then write a book about the death of God ro the evils of religion. Even among evangelical Christians religion bashing, and bashing the church along with it, has grown in popularity to immense proportions. People think it started with the likes of Freud who said we created God to assuage our guilt, and Marx and Nietzsche who said it was all about holding power over others.  But in reality Jesus was the biggest religion basher to ever walk the planet. He refused to allow people to use religion in order to justify themselves and their behavior. He challenged the religious people, who justified themselves because they tithed, gave ten percent of their resources, all the way down to counting out peppercorns, “9 for me, and 1 for God”. Jesus said they were completely missing the point. Yes your tithing is correct he said, but in the midst of your being so religious, you were leaving out justice and mercy for the poor, the widow, and the orphan. Then he reminds them that God desires mercy and not sacrifice. In other words, God wants you to truly love your neighbor and not try to justify yourself for following all the rules that make you feel so spiritually superior.

Psalm 40 get to exactly that point. God is not delighting in the offerings and sacrifices of the Psalmist. Rather, God is rescuing the Psalmist from his sin and destruction. not because of the religious efforts of the Psalmist, but because of the great mercy of God. Then comes the crucial point. Because of God’s rescuing him, the Psalmist is now motivated from the heart to sing God’s praises and even to follow God’s law. not so that God will accept him or that he would justify himself, but rather because of what God has for him. His motivation is not religious but relational. He loves God and wants to express that love, in gratitude for God’s salvation.

On the outside the behavior of the religious person seeking to justify their actions and the non-religious person seeking to love God for His actions may look the same. But as the Word says, “God looks on the heart”. This is not meant to excuse bad behavior that has a good heart behind it. Rather this is meant to call out hypocritical religion that looks good on the outside but is dead on the inside.

In the end God does not want your religion, He wants your heart. If your heart is deeply in love with the Lord for all His mercies, then the outside will eventually reflect that.

40 I waited patiently for the Lord;
    he inclined to me and heard my cry.
He drew me up from the pit of destruction,
    out of the miry bog,
and set my feet upon a rock,
    making my steps secure.
He put a new song in my mouth,
    a song of praise to our God.
Many will see and fear,
    and put their trust in the Lord.

Blessed is the man who makes
    the Lord his trust,
who does not turn to the proud,
    to those who go astray after a lie!
You have multiplied, O Lord my God,
    your wondrous deeds and your thoughts toward us;
    none can compare with you!
I will proclaim and tell of them,
    yet they are more than can be told.

In sacrifice and offering you have not delighted,
    but you have given me an open ear.[a]
Burnt offering and sin offering
    you have not required.
Then I said, “Behold, I have come;
    in the scroll of the book it is written of me:
I delight to do your will, O my God;
    your law is within my heart.”

I have told the glad news of deliverance[b]
    in the great congregation;
behold, I have not restrained my lips,
    as you know, O Lord.
10 I have not hidden your deliverance within my heart;
    I have spoken of your faithfulness and your salvation;
I have not concealed your steadfast love and your faithfulness
    from the great congregation.

11 As for you, O Lord, you will not restrain
    your mercy from me;
your steadfast love and your faithfulness will
    ever preserve me!
12 For evils have encompassed me
    beyond number;
my iniquities have overtaken me,
    and I cannot see;
they are more than the hairs of my head;
    my heart fails me.

13 Be pleased, O Lord, to deliver me!
    O Lord, make haste to help me!
14 Let those be put to shame and disappointed altogether
    who seek to snatch away my life;
let those be turned back and brought to dishonor
    who delight in my hurt!
15 Let those be appalled because of their shame
    who say to me, “Aha, Aha!”

16 But may all who seek you
    rejoice and be glad in you;
may those who love your salvation
    say continually, “Great is the Lord!”
17 As for me, I am poor and needy,
    but the Lord takes thought for me.
You are my help and my deliverer;
    do not delay, O my God!