Saturday, April 24, 2010

Too Many Stories

Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written. (John 21.25)

Finding Words

Suppose we’re gathered in a vast hall with every believer who ever lived. A docent enters, followed by a legion of assistants with arms full of those blue books commonly used for essay exams. (Do they still use them? Maybe not.) After they’re distributed, the docent says, “Take out your pens and answer this question: ‘What has Jesus done for you?’” Some of us tear into the exercise, writing feverishly detailed accounts of every blessing we can think of, filling the pages until our prose curls around the margins and our hands seize with writer’s cramp. Others of us pause to consider what the examiner is looking for and put down what we hope are the best answers. But there are many of us who stare at the blank page a long while. Where do we begin? Written words can’t express how much Christ has done for us. His ineffable presence makes it impossible to limit our thoughts to what He’s done; our awareness of Him centers on Who He is. Although we’re the last to start, we’re the first to finish, as our essays run less than a sentence long: “More than I can tell, in ways I can’t describe.” Below that, we write, “(Thank You.)”

After 21 chapters composed of over 15,000 words, John reviews his draft and judges it woefully incomplete. He concludes an exhaustive account of everything Jesus did during His time on Earth surpasses human capability: “Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written.” (John 21.25) For John, the challenge goes beyond finding words for Christ’s deeds. Simply having sufficient space to contain them exceeds our capacity. The unwritten corollary to John’s statement is even more astounding. To undertake a complete, authoritative record of Jesus’s life, year-by-year and day-by-day would require untold thousands of historians to commit their entire lives to finishing the project. Now, let’s take this one step further. John is talking only of Christ’s 33 years as a mortal. The whole of His works and ministry is impossible to capture in one place because His story continues to grow exponentially and has no end. There are just too many stories.

Forever in Progress

We tend to read the Gospels along these lines: Birth, Ministry, Death, and Resurrection. We include Acts 1 so we don’t omit the Ascension, and then we move on to the next volume: Early Church History and Correspondence. But The Gospel of Christ—the Good News of His revelation and redemption—is a work forever in progress, because we are works forever in progress. The moment we allow Him to enter our lives we enter His story. We are etched in its pages alongside every other human who meets Jesus. As with the multitudes privileged to follow Him when He walked the Earth, He beckons us, speaks to our innermost beings, teaches us how to live, touches our infirmities, guides us to His cross, and transforms us through His resurrection. What we receive from Christ is no less real or valid than what the first disciples received. We are no less essential to His Gospel than they. The glory revealed in us through faith in Him is the same as what we see in them; the redemption we claim is the same as theirs.

We are part of The Gospel of Christ because we participate in His story. Peter tells us this: “His divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness. Through these he has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature and escape the corruption of the world caused by evil desires.” (2 Peter 1.3-4) Participation in “the divine nature” is where our story and Jesus’s intersect. We believe His promises and reset our course to follow His example. Like Peter and virtually every other character in the recorded gospels, we struggle between controlling our narrative driven by worldly corruption and yielding to Jesus’s narrative, which testifies to His power to provide “all we need for life and godliness.” Since this ongoing battle involves Him, our successes and failures, strengths and weaknesses, virtues and vanities get woven into the inexplicably beautiful story of Christ.

Solving the Space Shortage

“You show that you are a letter from Christ,” Paul says in 2 Corinthians 3.3, “written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.” Solving the space shortage John describes comes about exactly as Paul explains. A literary account of Jesus’s life after His Ascension—i.e., our participation in His story—is no longer needed. “When the Counselor comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who goes out from the Father, he will testify about me,” Jesus promises us in John 15.26. The Holy Spirit adds our contribution to the Gospel, according to Paul, not with pen and paper or chisel and stone, but by inscribing it on the hearts of those around us. He records our lives as current testimony—breaking good news, if you will—of Christ. All of those details John can’t find adequate room to document and store on bookshelves? They’re stored in our hearts and the hearts of others as a living archive of every incident and item attesting to what Jesus has done for us, given us, and means to us.

Honestly? Perceiving themselves as active participants in the unfinished Gospel of Christ may not mean very much to some believers. But for those of us who’ve been told we have no place in Christ’s story—that characters like us get edited out after it’s written—knowing the Author and Publisher’s intentions makes a world of difference. We abide in John 6.37 as one of those “great and precious promises” Peter refers to: “All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never drive away.” When Jesus enters our lives we enter His story. And since space isn’t a problem, there’s room for everyone.

Our relationship with Christ includes us in His story, a Gospel no longer recorded in ink, but written on human hearts by His Spirit.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Straight Street

The Lord told him, “Go to the house of Judas on Straight Street and ask for a man from Tarsus named Saul, for he is praying. In a vision he has seen a man named Ananias come place his hands on him and restore his sight.” (Acts 9.12)

Not Much to Tell

Luke introduces Ananias with two slim facts: “In Damascus there was a disciple.” (Acts 9.10) Other than his interaction with Saul of Tarsus, soon to be Paul the Apostle, that’s all that we have. We don’t know if he traveled with Jesus or if he’s among the disciples at Pentecost. Is he on a first-name basis with Peter, Mary Magdalene, and John? Or is he a newer disciple—part of the 3,000 who join the 120 after the Upper Room (Acts 2.41), or one of those “the Lord added daily”? (v47) We don’t know. He’s just a disciple who lives in Damascus, not far from where Saul encounters Christ. While we’d love to know more about someone who plays an enormously pivotal role in our faith, I believe we’re not told more about Ananias because there’s not much to tell. He’s just one of many, a disciple. He’s chosen to end Paul’s blindness because being in the right place at the right time qualifies him for the job.

Ananias has heard of the infamous Saul “and all the harm he has done.” (Acts 9.13) He’s aware this tireless persecutor of Christ recently stumbled into town, blind and shaken on the arms of his companions. Nonetheless, Ananias seems convinced Saul “has come here with authority from the chief priests to arrest all who call on [Christ’s] name.” (v14) He admits this during a vision in which Jesus instructs him: “Go to the house of Judas on Straight Street. Ask for Saul. He’s seen a vision of you restoring his sight.” Ananias has concerns about his safety, and rightly so. But the Lord tells him, “Go! This man is my chosen instrument to carry my name before the Gentiles.” (v15) He bravely enters Straight Street, finds Saul, and says, “Brother Saul, the Lord—Jesus, who appeared to you on the road as you were coming here—has sent me so that you may see again and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” (v17) Brother Saul….

Courage to Obey

The Church has never been more dynamic than in its infancy, when believers’ days and nights are jammed with activity. The task is so great Acts 2 says they pool their resources to devote more time to teaching, fellowship, dining together, and prayer. Yet the Church also has never been at greater risk, as zealots like Saul work equally hard, with solid backing, to stamp it out. Thus, as we read of the bookend miracles of Saul’s transformation into Paul—the vision that blinds him and his healing three days later—we can’t overlook the one connecting them: the transformation of Ananias from a believer troubled by fear to one emboldened by faith.

That he’s given the name and address of Saul’s host inclines us to think Ananias walks into unfriendly quarters. For Ananias to accomplish his mission, he has to trust he’ll pass through Straight Street unharmed, he'll be welcomed into Judas’s home, Saul’s consorts won’t attack him once he arrives, and the man himself will listen to what he says and allow him to do his work. With all these factors in play, what Christ asks of the disciple sounds unreasonable—except for the reason why Ananias must ignore his doubts and fears. God plans to use Saul to destroy faith boundaries. In his blind state, he’s already seen Ananias and heard his name. He believes the disciple will arrive. If Ananias doesn’t show, Saul’s faith won’t be honored. His life won’t change. So Ananias not only holds the key that will open Saul’s eyes and unlock The Way for millions of Gentiles. He also holds the key to saving hundreds, possibly thousands of fellow believers from future oppression. Not surprisingly, they’re the same key: courage to obey.


Ananias has to rely on confidence his vision is real and not an imaginary figment or erroneous impulse. Personally, I’m not convinced many of us could get past those doubts. Thankfully, we don’t have to. In Matthew 7.7-8 Jesus assures us: “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened.” Everyone. This promise gives us courage to obey the call to Straight Street—the summons to unfriendly places where blind eyes await healing and the gift of God’s Spirit. And we must go, not for our sake, but for the benefit of those who’ve been told to expect us, the lives they’ll impact as a result of our obedience, and the fellow believers who will be spared from oppression because we courageously complete God's work.

How much quicker it would have been had God told Saul to send for Ananias. How much easier it would have been if Saul’s emissaries had knocked on his door and invited him to Straight Street. But how much more powerful it is for God to show Saul He honors faith and endows His people with courage to obey! Quick and easy aren't important to God. Deploying His plan and displaying His power are how He changes lives.

When situations put us in the right the place at the right time, we must believe we’re right for the job and do it. Gay believers can’t wait for Straight Street to open up. There are doors there, waiting for our knock. Women disciples can’t wait until roadblocks to Man Avenue fall and other rejected Christians can’t wait for Faith Boulevard to widen its lanes. There are doors there, waiting for our knock. And when they open, we embrace old adversaries, saying, “Brother Sexist, Sister Homophobe, Reverend Judge, the Lord has sent us so that you may see again and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” Acts 9.18 says, "Immediately, something like scales fell from Saul's eyes, and he could see again." As his blindness fell away, it took his hatred, false piety, and proud name with it. The same happens when we allow God to use us. Without Ananias, there would be no Paul. Without us, who else may there not be?

It’s not about us. It’s about who’s behind the doors we’re led to and what God wants to do through them after He uses us.

Postscript: Friendly Reminder

I’ll be interviewed on The Drew Marshall Show this Saturday between 2 and 4 PM EDT. Live streaming audio will be available at the show’s Website. Please listen in and keep me in your prayers!

Monday, April 19, 2010

Lost in the Shuffle

Thinking he was in their company, they traveled on for a day. Then they began looking for him among their relatives and friends. (Luke 2.44)

Caught Up in the Drama

The 90’s BBC hit “Absolutely Fabulous” is an outrageous sitcom about two women, Edina, a rich divorcée, and her best friend, Patsy, a supermodel past her prime. They’re joined at the hip by wantonly immature preoccupations—to the constant horror of Edina’s prim daughter, Saffron. In one episode, a video the women plan to show at a swingers’ party gets swapped with a tape Saffie intends to use in a school presentation. When they determine Saffie grabbed the wrong video (patently “unsuitable for young or sensitive viewers”), Eddie, Patsy, and their guests make a mad dash for the school. The group splits up, hoping to retrieve the tape in time. Along the way, a gay couple—one of them in full drag—glides by. “What are we looking for?” one asks, to which the other replies, “I don’t know. We’re just caught up in the drama!”

For reasons I can’t fathom, that goofy episode pops up when I read Luke's story of Jesus, age 12, being inadvertently left behind when His parents return home from Jerusalem after Passover. It takes a day for them to discover He’s not traveling in their caravan, and three more to locate Him. They find Him at the Temple, astounding the teachers with His insights. I assure you I find nothing at all funny about a lost child. Nor am I suggesting Mary and Joseph are irresponsible, oblivious parents. Yet I can’t help imagining the search for Jesus evolves into a chaotic situation not unlike the “AbFab” scenario. It must include people we don't hear about—family and friends, surely, as well as strangers who get caught up in the drama with no idea Whom they’re looking for. And since I’ve already made a wild leap by connecting Luke with a bawdy TV show, I’m going take a second leap based on experience and observation. Many strangers join the search for the same reason they make the Passover pilgrimage: to get lost in the shuffle.

Mistaking Invisibility for Inclusion

The Jerusalem Temple at Passover is the New Testament equivalent to today’s cathedrals and megachurches. It’s a place to be seen without being recognized, where all that’s known about you is what you reveal. For many, Passover in Jerusalem is the one tendril tying them to their faith. In villages where they’re well known, some are banned from synagogue and others stay away for fear they will be banned. The Passover Temple is a haven for anonymous worshipers. Getting lost in the shuffle gives them a sense of belonging they can’t find at home.

But there’s a problem—a big problem—in mistaking invisibility for inclusion. The same dogma and restrictions governing local synagogues also apply to Temple rites. Temple rulers and lawyers directly influence hometown rabbinical councils. Furthermore, since the overwhelming majority packed into the Temple come from provincial congregations, it’s foolish to believe they’re more apt to embrace you here than in smaller confines. Neither congregational size nor apparent sophistication is a reliable gauge of open-mindedness. The test for inclusiveness passes or fails in the preaching and practices. If they don’t passionately lead their people to find and reflect God’s unconditional love revealed in Christ, all anonymity offers is a chance to disappear. It changes nothing—not you, not them, not the dogma that divides and harms you and them.

A Place to Be Found

When Mary and Joseph track Jesus down, He’s confused by their anxiety and why it took so long to find Him. “Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?” He asks. (Luke 2.49) If we fault Luke for anything here, it’s for not including a sample of Jesus’s dialogue with Temple leaders. He settles for: “After three days they found him in the temple courts, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. Everyone who heard him was amazed at his understanding and his answers.” (v46-47) Based on all Jesus says and does as an adult, however, it’s probable He’s already questioning the climate of rejection that emanates from the Temple and seeps into every area of Israel’s life. It’s also possible His uncanny ability to divine the inner turmoil of those He helps is starting to surface. If so, young Jesus spends the Passover looking into eyes of people hoping to get lost in the shuffle. And if there’s any merit to this, it significantly alters His response to His parents from “Didn’t you know where to find Me?” to “Don’t you know My Father’s house is where you go to be found?”

Later on, Luke recounts an incident with a little man who gets caught up in the drama and tries to get lost in the shuffle. This occasion has nothing to do with Jerusalem or Passover. It happens in Jericho, the home of Zacchaeus, a tax collector whose profession qualifies him as a “sinner”—an excommunicated Jew. When Jesus comes to town, Zacchaeus shimmies up a tree, ostensibly to see what’s going on. Jesus finds him, calls him down, and invites Himself to Zacchaeus’s house. It appalls the townspeople that Jesus would enter the home of someone legally barred from their synagogue. Yet the moment He steps into the house, it and its owner are transformed into everything the synagogue and locals are not. Once Zacchaeus experiences Christ’s acceptance, he has nothing to hide. He gives half of his wealth to the poor and offers to repay anyone he’s cheated four times over. Jesus declares, “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost.” (Luke 19.9-10)

What’s extraordinary about this story is it’s not extraordinary at all. Over and over, Jesus seeks out people who feel compelled to get lost in the shuffle. He turns houses into temples and outcasts into insiders. He finds them so they know they’re worth finding. He ends their drama so they know it’s not worth getting caught up in. Size and sophistication of the crowd are irrelevant. He defies a religious posse set on stoning an adulterous woman by banishing her shame. He heals seven lepers and instructs them to show themselves to priests who barred them from worship. When an ostracized woman brushes His garment, Jesus calls her out and corrects the menstrual problem that prohibited her temple access for 12 years. Trying to find Jesus by getting lost gets everything backwards. First, Jesus isn’t hard to locate. He’s readily seen through every door that’s open to His Father’s unconditional love. Second, He came to find us so we won’t be lost. There’s no such thing as Christians Anonymous, because there’s no reason any authentic believer—gay or straight—should ever need to hide.

It’s easy to get lost in overcrowded cathedrals and megachurches. Yet that’s not what any church is meant for; our Father’s House is where we go to be found.