The Lord handed over Israel because of idolatry: “You have not obeyed my voice… .” How had Israel erred? By worshipping Baal and Asherah.

Gideon is beating out grain in a winepress to keep the wheat hidden from the Midianites, who were taking by force whatever food the Israelites produced. He was working in secret. Living hand to mouth made Gideon shrewd and resourceful, yet the angel did not appear to him in the first year but the seventh year. Why did God wait to rescue his people? Apparently, both Gideon and Israel had some lessons to learn:

Disobedience opens the door to oppression. God gives us boundaries to create the best kind of life for us. When we outsmart ourselves and try to live life apart from him. We settle for less.

An angel of the Lord appears to Gideon, and speaks, “The Lord is with you…”

[Have no fear. The Creator God stands by your side.]

“…O mighty man of valor.”

[Remember who you are—a warrior. Claim your identity. Live in the truth of God’s power that resides in you. I gave you not a spirit of timidity but of power and love and self-control.]

The angel calls out in Gideon what God has already placed inside of him. He resituates Gideon in the truth: the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is above all gods. His children have nothing to fear.

Gideon wrestles with the angel’s words. He even questions God’s faithfulness:

“Please, sir, if the Lord is with us, why then has all this happened to us? And where are all his wonderful deeds that our fathers recounted to us, saying, “Did not the Lord bring us up from Egypt?” But now the Lord has forsaken us and given us into the hand of Midian.” (Judges 6)

Gideon falls into the worn trap of blaming God for his suffering and that of his people. Why do we suffer if God loves us? If he performed signs, wonders, and miracles in the past and delivered his children from oppression, why has he abandoned me in this pit? If he is all-powerful, why won’t he soothe my pain, save my marriage, resurrect my sweet child from the dead?

The angel offers no answer. God gave Job no answer. I have a hunch that God will meet our balled-up fists banging on his door with similar silence. The answer, I think, is complex and only available to us in part. As revealed in Christ, our suffering becomes our glory. The cross we take up becomes an avenue of sanctification. I also think that we live in the world that we have created. We chose life apart from God. We rebelled. We broke trust, and now we live in a broken world that breaks us. We point the finger at God rather than at ourselves. 

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Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about passivity and courage.

I spent last weekend in the Smokies at a men’s retreat. Both of these words came up in our conversations.

Do we want to live in cages? Are we willing to trade being truly alive for safety and security?

Are we willing to lay claim to those people, ideas, organizations, places, resources, and problems that fall within our sphere of influence?

Doug, the pastor of All Souls Church, did the teaching. He spoke at length about how after the exodus from Egypt but before entering Canaan, the Israelites sent out twelve spies, one from each tribe, to scout out the land and return with intelligence on its inhabitants and resources. Once the spies returned, ten of the twelve declared that the land couldn’t be taken. The inhabitants were too strong.

This news floored everyone who was listening. Had they traveled all the way from Egypt only to turn around because God defaulted on his promise to Abraham?

Caleb quieted the people, and said, “Let us go up at once and occupy it, for we are well able to overcome it” (Numbers 13:30). Joshua agreed with him. Two against ten.

No one listened to them. The Israelites railed against God:

‘Would that we had died in the land of Egypt! Or would that we had died in this wilderness! Why is the LORD bringing us into this land, to fall by the sword? Our wives and our little ones will become a prey. Would it not be better for us to go back to Egypt?’ And they said to one another, ‘Let us choose a leader and go back to Egypt.’ (Numbers 14:2-4)

God cursed that generation of Israelites. Only those under the age of 20 at the beginning survived the 40 years of cleansing in the wilderness that followed. Caleb and Joshua were the exceptions. They rejected passivity. They chose to trust in God’s faithfulness. His power. His promises. God decreed that they alone of that generation would come out of the wilderness alive.

My favorite part of that story is what happens forty-five years after Joshua and Caleb explored the land of Canaan and followed God “wholeheartedly” (Joshua 14:8). They put their whole hearts and lives in God’s care.

Moses has died, and Joshua is the new leader of Israel. Caleb goes to see his old friend at his camp at Gilgal, and he says:

“And now, behold, I am this day eighty-five years old. I am still as strong today as I was in the day that Moses sent me; my strength now is as my strength was then, for war and for going and coming. So now give me this hill country of which the LORD spoke on that day, for you heard on that day how the Anakim were there, with great fortified cities. It may be that the LORD will be with me, and I shall drive them out just as the LORD said.” (Joshua 14:10-12)

Caleb lost no strength or vigor. He still went to battle. Can you imagine facing an 85-year-old with 70 years of training and technique on his side? Can you imagine his wisdom and experience yoked together with his physical strength and his courage? All of the people Caleb knew in his youth were dead, yet he was still a young man.

His vitality was bound up in his wholehearted trust in God. His strength was preserved because he believed in the face of staggering opposition that God would follow through with his promises.

I imagine him with a mane of white hair and fire in his eyes. I bet he had a handshake of iron.

I’d like to hear him pray.

Joshua granted Caleb’s request. Caleb took his clan and chased the Anakim from the land. They were supposedly descended from giants, the Nephilim, the “sons of God” who bore children with daughters of men (Genesis 6; Numbers 14). The giants ran from Caleb and his kin.

I want to live with that kind of boldness. Caleb was truly alive his entire life. He lived alive. He never grew old.

I want to follow God “wholeheartedly.” I want my vitality when I’m eighty-five. Courage and boldness are close to God’s heart, and as we travel to God’s heart, we will discover them in ourselves.

Peace is proactive

April 9, 2009

Scripture is full of our agency, our walking and working.

God does not call us to idleness or to frenetic activity. He says both, “Be still and know that I am God,” and “For we are God’s fellow works.”

What does that look like—grace in action, activated grace?

Paul talks less about specific vocations or schedules and more about the fruits of the Spirit, which are our fuel and our destination.

Paul writes that humility, gentleness, and loving patience put the right swing in our gaits. We do not walk too fast or with an inflated sense of self-importance. We are not too focused on our pace or what others say when we seem to slow down. In fact, we have to slow down to notice the countryside or a lonely person who could use a brief conversation and a smile.

Yet, we must walk with eagerness, with bright and peaceful urgency, because we open our arms to unity with the Spirit at every step. Christ walks with us, yet we also journey to meet him face to face. The Prince of Peace glues everything together; peace preserves the unity. You can’t be too concerned with winning arguments and sue for peace at the same time. You can’t make signs of peace with a closed fist. You cannot talk about Sarah’s unscrupulous boyfriend on Saturday night and greet him with a holy kiss in the sanctuary on Sunday morning.

Peace is proactive.

Fullness in Christ and the ability to speak truth in love that comes with maturity depend on how we walk, rather than how far we walk.

We build the kingdom of God through grace activated in humility, gentleness, loving patience, and peacemaking.

My junior year of college, I read Walker Percy’s Love in the Ruins, and one particular passage still haunts me: 

The truth was that Samantha didn’t want to go to Lourdes and I didn’t want to take her. Why not? I don’t know Samantha’s reasons, but I was afraid she might be cured. What then? Suppose you ask God for a miracle and God says yes, very well. How do you live the rest of your life? (374)

We pray to see God. We pray for signs, wonders, and miracles to confirm that He is real and sovereign. We ask for an experience like Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus—something dramatic and irrevocable.

Let the scales fall from our eyes, and let us witness resurrections and restore sight to the blind. Allow us to speak in the tongues of angels, to cast mountains into the sea, to walk through fire unscathed. Make us freaks of faith. Sear true belief into our souls.

Tom Moore, Walker Percy’s protagonist, knew us better than we know ourselves. He didn’t deceive himself. His daughter’s miraculous healing would destroy his complacency. He wasn’t ready, and he knew it. Consumed with fear of change, he avoided an encounter with the Living God.

Do I truly desire authenticity? Am I ready for the many forms of martyrdom that follow miracles?

Jesus will wreck my comfortable life even as he saves my soul. Do I want the risen Son of God or a fairy tale?

Am I willing to take my cross and watch suffering turn my life to ash or do I want the easy hell of lukewarm faith?

If I let Samantha die, I never have to change.

Easter Hallelujah

April 7, 2009

God the Father desires to forgive us.

He loves redemption and restoration. He looks for ways to withhold His righteous judgment, as evident in this passage from 2 Peter 3: “The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.” The story of Hosea illustrates that God’s love always precedes his wrath. 

He looks for ways to satisfy his holy wrath and set us free from bondage. In the death and resurrection of Jesus—in Easter and everything it represents—two facets of God’s character emerge.

Think of the seasons. Spring follows winter, rebirth follows death. Summer, harvest, and feasting follow rebirth. Though different, ice and snow and warm rain and sweat both bring cleansing.

God does not send his children out into the desert to die. He plans to call them back into his gardens better prepared to choose a life by his die.sunset

I also think of the cities of refuge in the Old Testament where fugitives could seek refuge. I think of fields left fallow so that the nutrients in the soil might replenish and the celebration of Jubilee every fifty years to forgive debts and redistribute wealth—to give everyone a clean start. 

God has woven into every process and practice of the natural world and Judeo-Christian culture ornate designs of death, cleansing, and rebirth. We will see baptism in every minute detail of our existence if God opens our eyes.

The prostitute Rahab is in the genealogy of Jesus Christ. Moses killed an Egyptian in a fit of rage then led the Hebrews to the Promised Land. David seduced Bathsheba, had her husband Uriah, one of David’s Mighty Men, killed, and then conceived Solomon with her. Solomon built the temple. 

God redeems prostitutes, murderers, and adulterers. His power is most evident when he restores those people with the most rotten souls. Every one of us is “the worst of sinners,” and every one of us has hope. 

God can turn pedophiles, rapists, and cannibals into saints. He loves pornographers, pimps, and you.

Accepting Jesus is a lifelong confession of our sins, our bloody hands and our need of a sacrificial lamb and a joyful surrender to God’s ineffable love, the power of the Holy Spirit, and the sweet grace of an empty tomb.

Hallelujah.

Passivity: Part 1

April 6, 2009

In his novel A Separate Peace, John Knowles wrote these words from the point-of-view of his narrator, Gene: “It was only long after that I recognized sarcasm as the protest of people who are weak.”

I know too well that kind of sarcasm that cloaks disappointment, anger, resentment, or bitterness in the form of passive-agressive insincerity.

For example, if the rest of us were waiting for our friend Cody to show up so that we could leave for the lake, I might say when he finally pulled into the parking lot, “Cody, thanks so much for being on time!”

Rather than press into the real issue—my friend’s willingness to disrespect our time by keeping us waiting—I expressed my frustration through indirect, facetious remarks. I spoke in poison-tipped code.

I fell into the trap of passivity.

Passivity is a hound biting at the heels of most men I know. We run from conflict. Passivity requires honesty, and honesty requires vulnerability, actually telling another person how her behavior makes you feel.

What if I had taken Cody aside and explained how his habit of showing up late and keeping everyone waiting made us feel like we were unimportant? We saw no respect or honor in his behavior. His tendency to justify this behavior added insult to injury. If we were all able to follow through on our agreement to meet at a certain time and place, why was he exempt? After several dozen apologies, we found it difficult to believe that he cared. His saying “Sorry I’m late” began to look like a preemptive effort to deflect our irritation rather than accepting responsibility for his actions and agreeing to change.

How often do we love our friends enough to reject passivity, sit down with them, and start difficult conversations? 

“I think you have a drinking problem.”

“I’m worried about how much weight you’ve lost in the past few months.”

“I’m uncomfortable with your girlfriend spending the night.”

Passivity sucks out a man’s strength and vitality. Boldness swells his heart.

[More on this subject to come…]

I give up

April 2, 2009

I sometimes get frustrated with being left-handed. 

As I write, my hand drags across the fresh ink and smears the words. No matter how lucid or pithy what I’ve written is, the messiness bothers me. Anything worth writing should be clean and legible on the page. I’ve developed a complex—writing slower and slower and taking great care to keep my palm from dragging through my words. 

Despite my fastidiousness, my skin is always darkened with graphite or ink, half a word printed on my pinkie finger or the side of my hand because I was too engrossed—as I should have been—with capturing my thoughts to worry about something so trivial as the cleanliness of the page. I take pride in a well-written page, good penmanship, but I am left-handed so smudges and smears come with the territory. 

In other words, no matter how I careful I am, I still make mistakes. Gritting my teeth and trying harder, sticking with it for just a little longer because just maybe—trying to muscle my way through an uncomfortable situation, conversation, or friendship is exhausting. I become vulnerable to spiritual sickness. Ideal results dance in my head, and I start to believe that I am responsible for making them a reality. 

Perhaps letting go, walking away, giving up—perhaps surrender sometimes connotes the deepest faithfulness, especially if it involves the death of pride—“Father, I cannot do it by my own power”—and confession of my weakness and need of God’s guidance and protection.

I am often unable to take care of myself, and on a regular basis, I stumble into problems and messes that require more than I have to offer. 

Humility can be unbearable until we make a lifestyle out of it.

A dogged commitment to living apart from God can come disguised as perseverence in the interest of justice, reconciliation, or evangelism. We care more about “results” than we do about dwelling in God’s presence.

In what scorched places in your life do you need to throw up your hands and declare before your Maker, “I give up!”?

Confess that you want clean pages, but you’re left-handed.

No amount of effort makes us holy. Effort can kill us quicker than complacency.