Sometimes I’m Sad

… that I can’t be the kind of Christian everyone expects. You know?

The kind with a contemporary Christian hymn in their hearts all the time. The kind who is always eager to tell someone about Jesus at the first excuse. The kind who goes to church faithfully, every time the door is open. The kind who gives generously every week he attends. The kind that can vote a certain way with no qualms in their conscience. The kind who believe God is in control of every minute detail all the time because He chooses to be. The kind whose kids turn out the way everyone expected them to. The kind who doesn’t question the traditions. The kind who gets along.

But that’s just not me. Some of those things were never me; I just didn’t make a big deal about them.

The fact is, I can’t be that kind of Christian. And I won’t pretend.

I’d rather be genuinely me than someone who says and does what must be done to fit in.

The contemporary Christian hymns — frankly, all the songs sung at church — are not the comfort they once were. They remind me of my departed Angi, who loved them and had them in her heart all the time and listened to them in the car and on her iPhone in the office. And that just raises difficult questions for me about God’s goodness that nobody actually has answers for, so it makes the faith and the trust in Him that I still have even more difficult.

My eagerness to share a gospel message is not what it was. For one thing, people find it off-putting and self-righteous and often not credible from people who can’t live up to it, and I am one of those far-from-perfect people. I’ll be glad to tell anyone who asks about the reason for the hope that lies within me (to put it in scriptural language), but most of the time it’s all I can do to try to be like Jesus of Nazareth. I used to preach. Now it’s just a matter of practice. In this case, practice won’t make perfect. He has to do that. I get that. I grasp the concept of grace, even if I can’t fathom the depths of it.

And I haven’t been to church but a couple of times in the past two years and more. I have questions and concerns about what church is and should be and how it’s done and what its purpose and expectations are that far exceed the word count of a readable post.

Giving to support some of those things I’m not sure I can believe in … well, that’s just not an option right now. I can give to support people I know who are in genuine need; I can give in other ways in total anonymity; I can give to the kinds of things that Jesus of Nazareth talks about giving to support. Did you ever notice He never once talked about giving to His church in scripture?

Frankly, I am horrified at the political tack that churches have taken to support a particular party and even economic/social ideology that I often find antithetical to the life that He lived and the way He loved and the extent to which He gave … even to His own life. For people who never earned it, never worked for it, never could, never will.

Because I can’t believe God shows favoritism, to rich or poor, one skin color over another, one ethnicity over another, one set of life choices over another, one religion over another, one soul over another. If He loves the whole world, then the Son He gave is for everyone. But God as micro-manager? Undoing everything in some karmic cosmic way that intentionally harms some people to the benefit of others; that’s one thing. But to undo the real-world consequences of it as if that doesn’t matter in this world at all? No. I can’t vote that way or believe that way because He doesn’t operate that way. Whether you take the story of Eden literally or not, the gist of it is that He gave us choice in the very beginning and He doesn’t interfere with the consequences and rewards of what we have chosen. Others might, but not Him. Evil still exists in this world because we still choose it; we choose self instead of others and Him. And that’s why there’s still death in the world, why there’s still suffering in the world, why there’s still inequity and hatred and greed and poverty and illness and crime and murder and bigotry and ….

Well, you get the idea. I don’t have all the answers. But that much seems obvious.

I choose. You choose. Our kids choose. Their kids choose. And we’re responsible for our own choices; no one else’s. I’m glad and proud that my kids are into adulthood, still forming their own spirituality just like their dad is. I’m proud that Angi and I helped instill and nurture a yearning for a deep spirituality in them. I can hope it leads them into good lives that care deeply about others. So far, it’s looking that way to me. What they do for a living, as far as I’m concerned, is relatively inconsequential compared to how they live their lives.

If they turn out anything like me, they’ll never accept tradition for the sake of tradition; never choose to go along just to get along; never be solely what someone else expects of them.

But sometimes I’m sad I can’t.

Rarely. But sometimes.

Because that would be easy.

The Math

Let’s do the math.

Jesus surrounded Himself with twelve called-out disciples for special training and ministry; we call them apostles. He trained them and sent them out over a period of, as nearly as we can tell, about three years.

One of the eleven turned on his Master and turned Him in. That left eleven.

What would have happened if each of those eleven, after that three-year period culminating in His death and resurrection, had done the same? Selected twelve people and trained them for three years?

And what if only two out of those twelve had remained followers who would do the same? And at the end of each three-year training period, there were no deaths or losses due to persecution?

Well, in the first three years, you would have 22 new mentors in addition to the original eleven; a total of 33.

At the end of six years, you’d have 99. Nine years? 297. Twelve years: 891. Okay, it’s a slow start compared to Pentecost and 3,000 in one day — but special circumstances intervened there.

What about 18 years? 2,673. And you’re almost up to that 3,000.

Twenty-one years: 8,019. Remember, these are not just baptized believers worshiping and sharing together, but discipling.

Twenty-four years: 24,057. Twenty-seven: 72,171. Thirty: 216,513. Thirty-three: 649,539. Thirty-six: 1,948,617.

That’s a long time, but we’re nearly up to two million in the lifetime of a fairly long-lived adult person.

So let’s drop out the original trainers from now on, and just double the number of believers every three years.

By the thirty-ninth year, there would be 3,897,234 mentors ready for the next generation of 7,794,468 disciples ready to train others after 42 years. With the success rate holding steady, by the forty-fifth year, 15,588,936 mentors.

More than 30 million in 48 years. Sixty-two million in 51 years. One hundred twenty-four million in 54 years. Almost a quarter of a billion in 57 years. A half-billion in 60 years. A billion in 63.

Keep going, and in 72 years, the equivalent of the entire current population of earth could have been reached and discipled.

And in less than a hundred years, the number would be larger than all the souls who are estimated to have ever lived.

Oh, yes; I understand that there are factors that would affect that outcome: travel limitations, disease, war, overlapping of available potential disciples (but the 2-out-of-12 odds might also have improved with more than one witness to each group of twelve, had they seen dedicated mentors persisting year after year with Christ-like lives and will to teach).

Not every mentor would have 24/7 available to do nothing but travel and teach disciples; there are jobs to do and income to earn.

Obviously, things didn’t turn out that way. This is just a math exercise. And math was never my strong suit.

But what if we tried Jesus’ way of doing things?

Just for a generation.

Why Jesus Came (In His Own Words)

Jesus replied, “Let us go somewhere else—to the nearby villages—so I can preach there also. That is why I have come.” ~ Mark 1:38

“Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave—just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” ~ Matthew 20:26-28 (also Mark 10:45)

“For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.” ~ Luke 19:10

“Now my soul is troubled, and what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it was for this very reason I came to this hour.” ~ John 12:27

“‘You are a king, then!’ said Pilate. Jesus answered, ‘You say that I am a king. In fact, the reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.’” ~ John 18:37

The incarnation of the Son of God is miraculous and wonderful in so many ways … but if the Story ends at the manger, or even in Egypt, then it is only a partial telling of the miracle and wonder; it only hints at the purpose.

For His purpose as stated is much the same as ours:

  • To preach good news
  • To be a servant; to give up our lives in service
  • To seek and save the lost
  • To face the hour of sacrifice with courage
  • To testify to the truth

Long ago the Preacher opined, “To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven” (Ecclesiastes 3:1).

Jesus knew His time and His purpose. We who believe should, too.

Our time is now.

Our purpose is His.

The Nativity Story from John 1

Yesterday, a friend on Facebook asked a group of mostly preachers what they would be preaching about on Sunday, December 25, Christmas morning.

I answered, “I don’t preach, but if I did, I’d preach on the Nativity Story from John 1. Yup, John 1. It’s short, but cosmic.”

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. … The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth. … For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in closest relationship with the Father, has made him known. ~ John 1:1-5, 14, 17-18

I love the baby-Jesus-in-a-manger version of the story as dearly as anyone. But this version has incredible power in its brevity.

The very Son of God, the Word, who was with God and was God from the beginning, took our form to live with us. The glory of which angels sang was now visible in Him. You could see grace. You could see truth. In Jesus, you could see God.

Want another tiny sample of this part of the Nativity Story?

“Very truly I tell you,” Jesus answered, “before Abraham was born, I am!” ~ John 8:58

They wanted to kill Him right there in the temple by throwing rocks at Him, they were so incensed to hear this. He claimed to be God. But truth is a defense against blasphemy as well as libel … and He walked away, unharmed. I have to wonder if their hands were stayed by doubt in their conviction that He was only a man; that a man could not also be God.

Another glimpse?

Philip said, “Lord, show us the Father and that will be enough for us.” Jesus answered: “Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Don’t you believe that I am in the Father, and that the Father is in me? The words I say to you I do not speak on my own authority. Rather, it is the Father, living in me, who is doing his work.” ~ John 14:8-10

God with Us. Immanuel.

Jesus knew who He was. He knew what Isaiah had prophesied in 7:14, and He knew that “Immanuel” meant “God With Us.” He had to have known what His mother had treasured in her heart for all those years.

And in telling Philip and the other apostles once again Who He was, He was promising to give them the very Holy Spirit within Himself so that God could do His work through them as well.

One more glimpse, this time from someone other than John:

In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:

Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross!

Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father. ~ Philippians 2:5-11

God became a single cell; a nothing; a thing invisible except through a microscope. God became a baby. A young man. A servant.

A sacrifice.

God intended all of this to happen, and that was why it was as good as done as soon as Jesus was born, and the angels could sing praise at His birth for what He would yet do as a man, and a servant, and a sacrifice.

Jesus showed us that God could be in and among man, so that God could continue His work in us and among us and through us by His own Holy Spirit.

Jesus showed us that we could be born anew; become something very different, something still like a human being on the outside, but full of grace and truth and God within.

Jesus showed us that the true glory of God is to serve, to give, to be given and spent out and used up in love to others.

He gave up a throne in heaven to wash dirty feet.

He gave up being in the Presence of God in order to be the Presence of God.

He surrendered His life there to surrender it again here, and to give it abundantly and without measure to anyone who hears and believes and asks.

What Is Sin?

It’s two a.m. and I can’t sleep tonight.

I can’t sleep because I’ve latched onto a question that absolutely, positively must be answered.

My blogging buddy Kinney Mabry asked it in his recent post “Sin,” and he is not the first and will not be the last. It’s the first question in his post. There are lots more that go with it. Kinney is full of good questions.

Every living person wrestles with this question and the ones that accompany it at one point or another in our lives, I’m convinced. When we shrug it off as inconsequential, that says something about our character (or lack thereof). Because I’m also convinced that God has placed within each of us a rudimentary, genetically-encoded moral compass; that’s part of what Romans 1 is communicating as well as our predeliction for ignoring it.

So I’m going to take a stab at defining sin, and then I’ll let y’all whale away at it:

Sin is what we think, say and/or do (or fail to say/do) which exalts self at the expense of God (and often, others).

It is what we think because that’s where it gets started. It’s what we say and do because that’s how it comes out.

It’s what exalts self at the expense of God because we buy into the lie — just as Adam and Eve did — that we know better than God. We know what’s best for our sweet selves, and He’s trying to keep us from it.

It comes at the expense of God because it cost Him the life of His Son.

It often comes at the expense of others because they have to bear the consequences of our selfishness, too.

It includes “fail to say/do” because we can know to do good and not do it – and leave others suffering.

And a fat lot we care about it.

There, I’ve said it. Obviously I’ve thought it. Perhaps not so obviously, I’ve lived it out in what I’ve said and done. Over and over and over again. So have you. So has everyone else.

We all stand between the two trees in the garden east of Eden, folks. We could choose Life, or the knowledge of good and evil. But the only way to know what good and evil are is to experience the difference between them, and that means disobeying what God has told us right down in the deepest place of our hearts. Life sounds pretty good, but we already have it, and He gave it to us and that must mean that He can’t be telling the truth when He says we’ll die if we eat from the other tree because He planted that garden and He loves us and He wants us to have life.

Yup, we’ve got it all reasoned out. We know better than God. We know what we want. We know what He wants. And He just doesn’t want us to have something that must be really good because He’s keeping it all for Himself and denying it to us.

So we betray each other out of what we profess to be love for each other, but at the root it’s the completely selfish fear that if the other one eats, he/she will have what I want and I won’t and we’ll be different. And we take the bite. And then we know.

We know what God didn’t want us to know that way. We know what He would have taught us out of love if we had trusted Him. But we don’t trust Him. We judge Him. We judge each other.

Yes, sin is rebellion against God and falling short of the mark and all of those other Sunday-school terms that we heard and pretended to understand but really didn’t because they don’t begin to get to the root of what sin is.

Sin is what we think, say and/or do (or fail to say/do) which exalts self at the expense of God (and often, others).

The other tree is Life, which is who Jesus was, is and will be … and what He came to give and to give more abundantly and what He gives through His Spirit and what God gives us in the first place. He does this because He loves us; it is not just His nature but His identity: God is love.

And if we love, we do not judge Him or others. We give up self for Him, and them.

That, I believe, is the long and the short of it. I think it’s staring us in the face and has been all of our lives and it could not be any simpler than if it were tattooed on the backs of our hands and wired into the compass of our feet that would always keep us pointed toward Him.

But then we would realize that our path in life leads to a cross where sin pinioned His hands and feet.

It was on a tree in Eden that death hung disguised as the fruit of knowledge, and on a crosstree of death that Life bore the fruit of love.

Pick one.

Now there’s a thought that isn’t going to help me get to sleep at all.

What Not to Preach, Reconsidered

A further thought on some previous posts (such as “What Is The Purpose of Preaching?”, “What Should We Preach?”, and “Preaching Jesus”) …

“Yet when I preach the gospel, I cannot boast, for I am compelled to preach. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel!” ~ 1 Corinthians 9:16

I can’t believe that in all those posts, I missed quoting this perspective from Paul. The context is his right to receive financial support from those who heard the gospel from him, and his refusal to exercise it in order to preserve his integrity as a preacher and apostle.

I find this a poignant extension of his expressed resolve:

“For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.” ~ 1 Corinthians 2:2.

A good rule of thumb.

So my answer to the question “What is the purpose of preaching?” would be phrased like this, I think:

To draw people closer to God through Jesus Christ.

There might well be a dozen better ways to phrase it, but for me this is the essence. Teaching is important, but if it doesn’t lead people closer to God through Christ, it doesn’t really qualify as good news (news, maybe) or gospel (because if it doesn’t involve Christ, it isn’t gospel), or preaching (because if it doesn’t involve gospel, it isn’t preaching).

I understand that this is a tedious and one-sided definition, and we can wheedle each other about it all we want to – but when all is said and nothing’s done, it’s what I strongly and deeply believe is the commonly understood definition of “preaching” among the believing proclaimers of century one.

What they preached and proclaimed was Christ, and Him crucified and risen – plus what I tend to think of as “the ongoing Story of Christ”: the effect of His gospel on the lives of His followers. That, too, is gospel (Acts 11; 15:12; 21:10-20).

I think they would have viewed the spending of too much proclamation and preaching time on anything else was not a worthwhile use of it. Some might well have thought time spent that way would have been too close to sharing men’s teachings, philosophy, controversy, genealogies, useless talk, and what is falsely called “knowledge.”

Heretics of that time were those who taught something other than the gospel, as nearly as I can tell.

So if I’m ever asked to preach again, I believe my rule of thumb about what not to preach will be: anything that is not – in one way or any other – the gospel.

Correct me if I’m wrong.

What do you think?

Hawking and Hacking the Gospel

But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let him be eternally condemned! ~ Galatians 1:8

The former preach Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely, supposing that they can stir up trouble for me while I am in chains. But what does it matter? The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice. ~ Philippians 1:17-18

Wow. Did I read those right?

Paul would rather that someone hawked the genuine gospel of Christ out of selfish ambition for personal gain than for someone to hack together a false gospel out of seemingly pure but misguided motive?

Evidently he believed that the power of the true gospel was sufficient to overcome delivery by a person of questionable character … but the character of a person who would lie about the gospel was unquestionably evil.

Is that what we believe?

Or do we accept the word of preachers who seem like people of noble character, yet teach a gospel that has no real basis in scripture or in God’s heart?

Preachers who say you must obey the gospel to be saved, but to stay saved, you must perfectly obey this doctrine and this doctrine and this doctrine and this doctrine – which scripture never talks about?

Are we in danger of falling into one of the errors of Corinth …?

For if someone comes to you and preaches a Jesus other than the Jesus we preached, or if you receive a different spirit from the one you received, or a different gospel from the one you accepted, you put up with it easily enough. ~ 2 Corinthians 11:4

The Gospel According to Nike

In Acts 9:36, it is said to be a habit of Tabitha.

In Acts 10:38, it is said to be characteristic of Jesus.

Romans 2:7 calls it rewardable.

Galatians 6:9 encourages us not to get tired of it.

TItus 2:7 says it’s a good way to set a good example; and 3:1 calls us to be ready about it. A few verses later in 3:8 and 14, we’re admonished to be devoted to it.

I Peter 2:15 suggests that it might silence our accusers – but warns five verses later in 20 that it may cause us suffering anyway – and confirms in 3:17 that suffering for it still beats the alternative.

And James 4:17 agrees.

What is it?

Scan through the gospels. Flip through the Acts of the Apostles. See if it’s not true that it was one of two primary foci of Jesus and His followers. One was good news. The other was doing good.

One let people know that God cares about them in the hereafter. The other let them know that He cares about them in the here-and-now.

The saints of scripture and their Savior didn’t seem to spend a lot of time in meetings discussing the best way to achieve it, or what the most efficient use of resources might be to get it done, or whether it was scriptural to do good on certain days or in certain ways. They simply followed the gospel according to Nike:

Just do it.

Responses to "What the Gospel Isn’t" – and "Is"

Laymond struggles with me – with all of us – to understand the nature of the Godhead and says, “What I believe is NOT gospel is; that Jesus was sent to earth to elevate himself to the level of God the Father. To make himself equal to the creator.”

Frank responds, “The gospel isn’t a denial of the deity of Jesus the Messiah.”

Tommy says, “One thing that is NOT the gospel is ‘You’re not good enough,’ ‘You’re not worth God’s love or time or effort,’ ‘God is a long way off.’ “

Michael says, “The Pattern is not The Gospel.”

Donna says, “The Gospel is not five clean and easy steps that ends in baptism and earns us a right to be a Christian. The Gospel is not something one group has a better handle on than another. The Gospel should NOT be a point of division.”

Royce agrees, “The gospel is not a relegious system, even if it was concocted by coC folks.”

From a different perspective, Bruce says, “The Gospel is not a new religion.”

PegC says: “… every word in scripture is not gospel. … I can trust God and instead of asking, ‘why me, Lord?’ I can ask, ‘Why not me, Lord?’ “

From a place of extraordinary sympathy for recently-paralyzed brother in Christ, Lacey speaks of the gospel inspiring: “… a trust and a faith that says … ‘Lord, we don’t know why all of this has happened…but we know that we love you.’ It’s that kind of trust and faith that allow us to have that love relationship with the God who is love. And anything else never has been and cannot be the gospel.

We all come to an understanding of what the gospel is – and isn’t – as the result of a long and ongoing journey. Each step in the journey adds to or subtracts from that understanding.

To me, in simplest form, the gospel begins with the Story of Jesus. It saves us (1 Corinthians 15:2). Yes, I know that many other things are spoken of in scripture as saving us (see By Grace, Through Faith, Expressed in Works? for a short list), and ultimately Jesus saves us (see The Gift of Baptism for steps in my journey to that point).

So, in the end – as so many of you pointed out in your responses to What Is The Gospel? – the good news is also the Story of Jesus and us. We become a part of it.

We see Him instrumental in creation. We are comforted at His incarnation when we fall. We witness His mercy toward those He calls and who are willing to follow. We learn from His laws. We see ourselves distanced from Him when we disobey. We yearn for His presence among us. We follow the star that leads to His manger-crib; follow Him in awe and listen as He teaches and watch as He heals and blesses. We follow and are heartbroken as we gaze at Him on the cross; are astounded when we peer into His empty tomb; are startled when we realize that all He has predicted is coming true. We are compelled to love as He loves; teach as He teaches; bless as He blesses; promote peace as He redeems creation and draws all of us closer to God. And we feel that sense that – even with the gift of His own Spirit inspiring each breath within us – it cannot be close enough until He returns.

What I think most of us agree upon is that the gospel – though long in the unfolding and the scriptural telling – is really very simple. When we are troubled by what seem to be complications in it, I believe it’s because we are demanding too much of the gospel to satisfy our heads, and ungrateful for the sufficiency it has for our hearts. When we focus on any single aspect of it to the exclusion of others, we rob it of its panoramic power. When we zoom in, for instance, on details of law and reason alone, we neglect the big picture that says “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind and strength” and “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

That’s what Jesus came to teach us, to show us, exemplify for us, to live out and die to achieve among us.

What Isn’t the Gospel?

I don’t want to draw to a close the comments in the previous post (Lacey, you’ve read all kinds of my declarations of the gospel in this goofy old blog!), but whether you’ve contributed already or not, I’d like you to feel free to go another direction:

What isn’t the gospel?

What are the things that no one in his or her right mind and heart would be likely to put in the comments of the previous blog post as the gospel according to them; the good news of scripture; the core message of God’s Word to man?

Tonight, a young man from my church has found out that his spinal cord was severed in the dirt bike accident he had last weekend.

That is not the gospel.

Yet his church family continues to pray for and over this young man; will conduct a blood drive Sunday in his behalf; and some will fast and some will attend his bedside and some will plead with God on their knees, not knowing him well but loving him as if there were an empty place at their kitchen table that only he could fill.


Yesterday, I spent the day hearing a case with eleven fellow jurors against the mother of two toddlers and deciding that she was guilty of five of the seven counts against her, two of which involved the endangerment of their lives.

That is not the gospel.

Yet we deliberated long and contentiously, trying to find the benefit of the doubt, because it was obvious that she was not the primary culprit behind the evil that had taken place at her house, and that she had tried to take ineffective steps to protect them. One godly older gentleman not of her race, serving on a jury for the first time, begged on her behalf for us to try to see her life from her point of view at each charge. And at each charge and specification, we tried to gently persuade him of the overwhelming nature of the evidence and testimony. It was difficult for him to vote unanimously with us, for at heart he still felt that those children needed their mother and she needed to be with them.


I’m convinced that it’s because there is a gospel, a Story unlike any other, a Word of God that gives meaning and purpose and direction to life itself, and that word is love.

Love that powerful and undiluted can temper even the fearsome justice and righteousness of God Himself. Unlimited love is a frightening thing to the faint-of-heart but the bold-of-brain; to those who fear the Lord but are afraid to love the God who is love, cowards and bullies and experts and self-appointed prophets and correctors and straightener-outers who have tried their damnedest to dilute that love with a lot of other things and then bottle it up and sell it as the gospel truth. They’ve been around for a long time, from the first moment that God dared to show His love for mankind until now.

So defy those impostors. Be bold. Be brave. Be specific.

Tell me about the diluting ingredients that have never been and cannot be the gospel.