Nothing

Sometimes things don’t work the way we planned.

After nearly 40 hours, an overnight airport delay, and two itinerary reroutes, I found myself cuing in a mass of disgruntled travelers in the Addis Ababa airport waiting for our now twice-delayed Ethiopian airline flight to board for Nairobi. Our original team of twenty had been split up twice already, and my wife and three kids were the only 4 left with me. We were trying to count that blessing as my children, travel novices at best, were questioning why we ever left our quaint Midwestern suburb for dad’s claim of a life-changing missions adventure. In all my travels, I had never experienced anything quite like this. We were exhausted, we were hungry, and we were stuck in one of the least desirable airport terminals in the world. And to top it off, I was powerless. There was absolutely nothing I could do about it.

So we pulled a few snacks from our carry-on bags and tried to keep each other in good spirits as many of our irate East African co-passengers argued with the gate-check agents in unknown tongues about the unexplained delays and lack of communication. The intensifying scene was already beginning to make me a little uncomfortable when I glanced down at my 11 year old son. He had been complaining of an upset stomach since we arrived in Addis, but now his face had grown a bit pale, too.

What happened next unfolded in slow motion. His knees stiffened, his eyes rolled back in his head, and his body tumbled backward like he was doing the Nestea plunge. Had it not been for his oversized backpack, his head would’ve certainly cracked hard on the concrete floor. His sister’s scream silenced all other activity and conversation in the buzzing terminal, and we found ourselves on our knees tending to our unconscious son surrounded by a circle of curious and concerned Ethiopian onlookers.

This was not the beautiful journey I had promised my kids for the last 6 months.

Thankfully, he had just passed out, the result of extreme fatigue, lack of food, and airplane dehydration. After convincing the airport officials he was not suffering from some horrific communicable disease and in need of quarantine, we were finally allowed to board the plane to reunite with the rest of our companions (although I can’t say as much for our luggage).

This was not the trip I had planned. It was nothing like the picture I had painted in my head. But there are unexpected blessings to encountering moments of complete powerlessness.

Many of you know my son’s personality. He’s a strong-willed negotiator, never content with an answer he doesn’t like. On many occasions I’ve told my wife, “I wish he would just listen to his dad sometimes. I wish he could find rest in my decisions, that I know what’s best, that I can be trusted.”

This terrifying moment deeply impacted him. In this new unknown environment, he’s humbly asked a lot more questions, he’s paid attention to my instructions, he’s literally clung to me physically as our days have unfolded here in Kenya. He falls asleep grasping my arm. As a dad, there’s nothing you long for more, even though the circumstances that got you here could not be desired less. He’s sought refuge in his father, and together we’ve both found refuge in The Father.

Powerlessness can be a gift. It can connect us to God in unmatched ways, draw us into His covering and protection, and tap into a strength so much greater than our own. We were made to find our rest in the Father, but to get there we usually have to walk the uncomfortable road that leads us to the end of ourselves.

“You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope. With less of you there is more of God and his rule.”
–Matthew 5:3 (MSG)

So here’s to powerlessness. It just might be more powerful than you think.

LoveHands

Moralism is the byproduct of religious self-sufficiency. It’s a form of self-righteousness that may start with professed dependence on Christ, but lives itself out as if pleasing God is an outflow of a person’s ability to outwardly obey the rules (or at least only break the ones that are socially and culturally acceptable to ignore).

Moralism is comparative righteousness. It completely misses the transformational power of the Gospel because it misidentifies our core problem as bad moral behavior. In today’s shifting moral climate, religious moralists are finding the cultural to be more and more hostile toward them. They’re called out as modern day Pharisees (or worse), accentuating their own virtue by looking down their noses at the lack of virtue they see in others. Jesus definitely had strong words for people like this.

But here’s my rub…

Tolerance is just secular moralism.

I texted the following to my brother-in-law earlier this week after the news of the horrific Orlando massacre began filling the airwaves and our social media streams:

I hate the word hate. Secularism can’t solve any problems because it refuses to identify real causes. If “hate” is the problem, then “tolerance” is the answer. Unfortunately, we humans have proven for 4,000 years that more and more enlightenment doesn’t seem to change us all that much.

But if SIN is the problem, then we have to acknowledge we don’t have the answer – in ourselves. And herein lies the rub for human hubris.

If good behavior is the moralist’s redemption, tolerance is the secularist’s redemption. It’s a battle of varying forms of self righteousness, and it all completely misses the beauty, the power, the hope, and the true transformational ability of the Gospel message.

That we are all horrifically broken.

That we are completely incapable of fixing ourselves.

That we already have a Savior.

And His name is Jesus.

Religious moralism and secular tolerance are just two sides of the same self-righteous coin. If we really want to learn to love each other, to truly get along, it’s going to take a whole lot of humility and dependence on Someone greater than ourselves.

EnvyBlog

I opened the newspaper Sunday morning to a full weekend spread on the housing market in Indianapolis. It’s booming. And the full-color photo collages were there to prove it. One in particular caught my eye. It was a wide-angle shot off a beautiful custom kitchen, complete with high end, hand-made cabinets, stainless steel appliances, marble countertops, and stunning hard wood floors.

“We need a house like that,” I thought to myself.

“And, you know, our bathroom could sure use a makeover, too. Our shower is too small, and the space isn’t segmented properly.”

“You know, I wonder if we could swing a bigger mortgage? Maybe get into a nicer part of town?”

“I tell ya, some people are just luckier than we are. I wonder what kind of work they do to be able to support a home like that.”

If we didn’t have to think about getting three kids through college, I bet we could afford something like that. It just doesn’t seem fair sometimes.”

It’s amazing where the sinful mind instinctively takes you. We have a beautiful house with a huge finished basement, some custom features, and a mortgage payment I am fortunate enough to be able to make every month. And I’m lucky enough to have three incredible kids I get to try and help make it through college.

Here’s some irony: it’s often hardest to see what you actually have. It’s much easier to see what you don’t.

And when I really begin to feel what I don’t have by meditating on what others do have, I can even begin to despise them for their “good fortune.” Catch me in a really fleshly moment, and the road to bitterness will lead to an even darker place. It’s called envy.

We talk a lot about greed in Western contexts, and rightfully so. We are the wealthiest culture in the history of the earth. We roll around in abundance like no generation before. Add Christian faith to the mix, and we are admonished by Christ to care for the poor and to serve the least of these among us. We need to be challenged not to hoard, to live with an open hand. It’s biblical.

But while greed causes us to say “I deserve to keep all that is mine!” envy drives us to scream “I deserve to have what is yours!” For some reason, we don’t seem to challenge envy quite as much. Perhaps it’s our love for the underdog. Perhaps it’s something darker.

When you dig right down to the bottom of it, both greed and envy are symptoms of the same root cause – sinful desires.

You want what you don’t have, so you scheme and kill to get it. You are jealous of what others have, but you can’t get it, so you fight and wage war to take it away from them. Yet you don’t have what you want because you don’t ask God for it.And even when you ask, you don’t get it because your motives are all wrong—you want only what will give you pleasure.”
–James 4:2-3

It’s interesting to me, especially in a hotly contested political season like we find ourselves in today, to watch how different candidates have learned how to tap into our visceral, sinful natures.

“Build a wall!”

“It’s not fair!”

“You should keep what you have!”

“You should have what they’re trying to keep!”

Greed.

Envy.

They’re two sides of the same broken coin. We need to confront the scourge of both in our lives.

What about a Gospel solution? A third way? A free people willfully generous with all that they have, while simultaneously content with all that they have. Wouldn’t that be refreshing?

Come, Lord Jesus.

3 Stories of

My phone seems to blow up daily with news of yet another horrific terrorist attack somewhere in the world. Each new atrocity births endless socio-political pontification on how to end the violence, from dropping bombs, to building walls, to endeavoring to understand and appease the hatred of the killers.

These are scary times. Yet from the shadows of 24-hour fear-filled news cycle emerge three hope-filled stories. Stories that won’t be celebrated by the masses, but stories that illuminate the only Solution to the underlying problem. It’s not “the culture of the West is better than the culture of the rest.”  It’s not Christian moralism trumping Islamic moralism. It’s not our version of self-righteousness finally defeating theirs.

It’s the transforming work of the Gospel – the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and the promised work of His Holy Spirit in the lives of broken people humble enough to surrender themselves to a holy and loving Power greater than themselves. The Gospel isn’t just something “they” need, it’s something we all need. It’s not just healing for “them,” it’s healing for me, too. This is how we fight radical terrorism.

“For we are not fighting against flesh-and-blood enemies, but against evil rulers and authorities of the unseen world, against mighty powers in this dark world, and against evil spirits in the heavenly places.”
–Ephesians 6:12

These 3 stories come directly from friends on the ground in the Arab World. I wrote them down exactly as they were shared with me. No extra details and no embellishment. When the news sends chills down your spine, remember that the Gospel is at work in this world. Here’s some proof that true hope has nothing to do with which party wins the next presidential cycle.

Backstory:

Eight years ago, there was a man connected to Hamas who worked in the mosque as a librarian. His job was to approve every book that found it’s way into any of the mosque libraries. Through a series of events, he gave his life to Christ and was discipled by one of the workers in his city. He began to share his newfound faith with his muslim friends, and slowly many of them also became believers in Jesus.

As their numbers grew, they used the same organization techniques he learned as a member of Hamas, formulating groups of no more than 6 people. Those six did not know who the other six were so that if one group was compromised, the underground church could still continue to flourish and grow. These small groups meet weekly, not in hiding, but in the open courtyards of the community mosques all over the city! They sit in study groups, they talk about the bible, they take up an offering, and they give it to whichever one of their members is most in need.

They call themselves the “Jesus-ites,” and they are slowly reaching critical mass. Last year, they baptized 140 new believers. And this year, they’ve already baptized over 300. Altogether there are close to 500 believers in this Middle Eastern city. It is out of that context that the following three stories have unfolded.

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Story 1:

This group is becoming very bold in their witness and has begun passing out bibles in the streets of their community. One day, a radical muslim approached one of the believers, grabbed the bible from his hand, and began ripping out the pages. As he’s throwing the pages into the air, his arm freezes above his head. Stuck. He can’t pull it back to himself.

More than a little freaked out, he takes off for home (with his arm still stuck in the air) and the believers follow him. When they get to his house, they offer to pray for him with the understanding he will declare that Jesus is God and forsake Islam if God heals him. And that’s exactly what happened.

The believers want to baptize him in his bathtub but he declines, declaring “I disgraced Jesus publicly by tearing up that bible in the street, I must profess him publicly as well.” So they walk back into the center of the city, find an old tub, use buckets to fill it with water, and baptize him in the center of this strict Muslim city.

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Story 2:

A young man shares his newfound faith with a man in his community. The man gets so violently angry he beats the young Christian and kills him. The believers gather together to discuss how they are going to respond to the death of one of their own. They set out as a group for the old man’s house, grab him, and tie him to one of the cement pillars in the center of his house (I don’t recommend this). Then, one by one, they force him to listen to the testimonies of how each of them came to Christ. The man is violently angry, spitting and yelling at them as they speak (but hey, where is he going to go?).

When they were finished, they untied him and left. But the next day they returned, laid hands on him and prayed, and the man gives his heart to Jesus. Now he is one of the believers in the underground church.

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Story 3:

A woman and her grown son from this same community come to Jesus. The husband comes home one day to find his wife listening to a chanting of the New Testament story of Christ in their home. In his anger, he begins to beat her. His grown son intervenes, but in his fury the father throws him against the wall, he hits his head on the concrete, and falls to the floor unconscious.

The mother rushes to the aid of her son, but as she’s bent over his body her husband grabs her from behind and attempts to slit her throat with a butcher knife from the kitchen. In the struggle he misses, yet still slices her chest from clavicle to clavicle. The neighbors hear the commotion and intervene. They take the woman and her son to the hospital, and the father to the authorities.

At the police station, the man simply states that his wife had become a christian and they let him go. No further questions asked. At the hospital, they stitch the woman up, and the believers once again gather to decide what they are going to do.

So they get a copy of the Gospel chanting the woman had been listening to, put it into printed form, and head to the hospital to visit the woman as she is recovering. While there, they begin going from hospital room to hospital room disbursing the message to each muslim patient and asking, “does someone deserve to have their throat cut for this teaching of Jesus?”

The woman recovers, but when she’s released she does not feel safe going back to her husband. Yet she feels the conviction of the Holy Spirit to forgive him for what he has done, and to share that forgiveness with him. So she goes to visit him and says, “I want you to know that I forgive you for what you did. I love you, our son loves you, and Jesus loves you.” And then she leaves.

Without collusion, her son also visits his father and also says, “dad, I want you to know that what you did was wrong, but I forgive you. I love you, mom loves you, and Jesus loves you.” 

That same night, the man had a dream. Jesus appeared to him and said, “you wife loves you, your son loves you, and I love you.”

The man gave his heart to Christ, was reconciled with his family, and is now a member of the Body of Christ.

Conclusion:

It’s taken 8 years, but the seeds of the Gospel are beginning to grow in this spiritually arid land. Regardless of what you see in the media, never question that God is at work around the world. You can’t stop the message of Jesus.

Our dog is an idiot.

If it isn’t bad enough that this 6 pound Yorkshire Terrier wears pants to keep him from hiking his leg on anything bigger than he is (which is basically everything), last night he decided to hold a 20 minute licking session with his back right foot on the blanket where I sleep. Here I am, still recovering from my DST hangover, and this stupid canine decides to create a puddle of slobber for me to lay in.

I lost my mind.

As the dog scurried to hide himself on my wife’s (dry) side of the bed, she got a good late-night laugh at my expense.

Why do we let animals live in our homes? (Alas, that question is for another post).

The truth is, I had some unresolved angst living inside of me last night that had nothing to do with the dog – some stress from work and the weight of a few heavy circumstances that were poking at the broken places and insecurities inside of me. Add fatigue to the potion, and the dog gets blasted for a silly and unintentional offense.

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The problem was inside of me, but I needed somewhere else to lay the blame. Something outside of myself. Dogs are good for that.

As silly as it may sound, this story is a microcosm of our human condition. Our fallen instincts scream at us to look outside of ourselves for the source of our issues.

Poor leaders.

Oppressive culture.

Intolerance.

Family of origin issues.

“If ‘they’ were just better, I would be better!”

And those same instincts challenge us to search inside of ourselves for the solution.

More courage!

The pursuit of happiness.

Self-love.

Self-expression.

“I will make my own way in this world!”

And while all of these things may have some merit, this worldview helps us dodge the root problem that is at play. As usual, the Gospel turns our human assumptions on their head. 

The primary source of my issues resides inside of me:

Sin.

Sin is a virus that infects every aspect of our lives with self-absorption, self-obsession, and self-worship. It puts me at the center and everything and everyone else (including God) in my orbit. It’s the root of everything ugly and broken, and I am incapable of remedying it on my own.

The only Solution is outside of me:

The Gospel offers us wholeness as a gift. It’s given from the outside, not conjured up from the inside. The finished work of Jesus Christ clothes us in redemption. All I have to do is give up. Stop blaming. Stop striving. Stop trying to be my own savior. Stop pointing at everyone and everything else.

This is Good News, but it takes humility to truly hear it.

The brokenness is inside. The Answer is outside.

Maybe it’s time to stop blaming the dog.