Why the Church Will Always Fail You

“Just as surely as God desires to lead us to a knowledge of genuine Christian fellowship, so surely must we be overwhelmed by a great disillusionment with others, with Christians in general, and, if we are fortunate, with ourselves.” –Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together

This Sunday, after sitting through yet another sermon that left me feeling guilty and inadequate and worn out rather than refreshed, loved, and encouraged, I just wept. Our church of four years preaches social justice while neglecting the gospel, leaving a hollow shell of a community, rife with burnout, bitterness, and false piety. I was angry, but more than that I was just sad. Sad to see yet another church community fail to embody the truth of the gospel, the love of God.

It wasn’t the first time. When you’ve been a Christian and a part of Christian communities for as long as you can remember, you begin to rack up a significant list of the times the church has failed you. Personal sleights, leadership failures, organizational crumbling, members giving themselves over to sin. My heart breaks when I say that I’ve seen it all.

And like every other time I’ve been disappointed by my church community, I feel terrible about feeling this way. I mean, who am I to tell a church that they’re doing things wrong, that they’re missing the mark? For a long time, despite my previous experiences, I’ve been unwilling to admit that my current church has its problems too. People smarter and more spiritual than me have to be in charge, and they know what they’re doing.

But yet again I have to acknowledge the disappointing truth: the church is imperfect.

And I have to ask myself: why haven’t I just left? Why haven’t I given up on this project altogether? I know plenty of people who have left, who have rejected God because of His people. And I’ve heard it over and over again from people who have heard my war stories: “I just don’t see myself staying in the church after something like that.”

So why have I stayed?

I can narrow it down to a few foundational truths.

1. God is not people, not even church people.
The goal of the church is to be a community that embodies and reflects the heart of God through love, worship, thanksgiving, and service. In an ideal world, in which we do not reside, the church would be a perfect and accurate representation of God’s character. However, in this world, full of sin, trying to see God in the church is like trying to see an image in a broken mirror. We do our best, but because we bring our sinfulness with us into the community of the church, this community of people will never be a perfect reflection of God’s character.

This is why I have difficulty with the idea that I should have left God because of the ways I’ve seen church people fail. I admit that I have felt the temptation in my pain and disappointment to equate God with those who have hurt me or the community. After all, people are right in front of us while God is invisible, and sometimes it’s just easier to believe that how people treat us reflects how God feels about us. But in these moments of despair, I have to come back to the truth of God’s Word: He loved us enough to die for us, and He had to die because humanity is enslaved to sin. God is perfect love, and we are broken. Was God the pastor who had the affair? No. Was God the person who said something about me behind my back? No. God is Himself, perfect and blameless and loving and forgiving. People may fail in their attempts to emulate God, but this does not change God’s character. Our failure to embody Him does not make Him any less of a perfect model. God is not people.

2. The church is a community of sinners.
Though this was already touched on in the first point, it’s worth its own mention because it’s a truth so often forgotten. We would all like to think that when we go to church we are somehow escaping the evils of the world, that we’ve found a safe haven where we never have to worry about conflict and temptation and difficulty ever again. We want to feel completely safe, isolated from the sin we know lurks around in the world outside. In principle, this isn’t a bad desire. We are longing for heaven, and in its attempt to bring heaven to earth the church should look brighter and more heavenly in comparison to the rest of the world. But the church is not heaven. Its members are not completely sanctified, washed clean from all sin, except in the sense that they have been forgiven of those sins through the blood of Christ.

We all bring our sinful selves with us to church. In fact, that seems to be the point. In seeking out a church community, we seek out brothers and sisters who can help us combat our sinful desires in order that we may live closer to the holiness God desires for us. An acknowledgement of our sinfulness, then, seems a necessary first step for a healthy church community; unless we recognize sin in the church, we can’t do much to work on it, much the same as how an individual must recognize their sinfulness before God before they can receive forgiveness and salvation.

Bonhoeffer discusses this “necessary disillusionment” at length in his book about church community, Life Together. He insists that “only that fellowship which faces such disillusionment, with all its unhappy and ugly aspects, begins to be what it should be in God’s sight, begins to grasp in faith the promise that is given to it. The sooner this shock of disillusionment comes to an individual and to a community, the better for both.” In other words, Bonhoeffer argues, a church can only truly begin to understand God’s plan for community when it comes to terms with the reality of its own brokenness, when each individual member realizes that their church is not perfect, but rather a place where imperfect people have come together to strive toward holiness. To believe in the perfection of the church is to hinder its progress toward that holiness. “He who loves his dream of a community more than the Christian community itself,” Bonhoeffer insists, “becomes a destroyer of the latter, even though his personal intentions may be ever so honest and earnest and sacrificial.”

To avoid in the first place the illusion that the church is a perfect community, it helps to remind myself who I am. I am a member of the church, and I am not perfect. I am a sinner. Everyone else in this endeavor with me is a sinner. Therefore, why should I expect the church to be perfect?

So what do we do when the church disappoints us? Every time I’m disillusioned with the church yet again, I come back to this critical decision. It’s never an easy situation to face. But in addition to remembering the two most important points above, I try to determine the source of my disillusionment and my response to it by asking the following questions:

1. Is my disillusionment being caused by the church community as a whole or just one person?
Though it seems silly, this is an important question. I don’t know if this is true for everyone, but I know for me sometimes a person just ticks me off, and instead of dealing with my feelings towards this individual, I start lashing out against the community within which I am forced to interact with them. We might have been spurned or judged or rejected by one person, and yet we point to the music or the sermons or dissatisfaction with the children’s programming as our contentions. And we leave. As I’ve already beat to death, people are sinful. There will always be individuals or even groups of individuals who we don’t get along with at church, whether because of our sin or theirs or both. I have learned not to blame the church for the sins of individual members. Dealing with sinfulness is just a part of being in a community.

There are, however, also those times when we realize that our church is not theologically sound, and that is a more serious issue. Rather than our frustration being centered on the unavoidable sin of other church members, we realize that the church as an organization is not following the direction of God’s word. I won’t tell anyone what they should do in this situation. Certainly, discussions with pastors and elders about your concerns are a good, though difficult, first step. Sometimes, as hard as it is, this problem might even require leaving to find a different church community. But the first step is just determining whether this is actually the problem, or whether we are simply frustrated with the reality of the sinfulness of fellow members.

2. Is this a me and church problem or a me and God problem?
Sometimes church rubs us the wrong way because we just don’t want to hear what the community needs to say. For example, that annoying tithing sermon. Or that sermon that tells you that you shouldn’t be having sex outside of marriage, but you just really want to stay with that person you’re living with. Or when the pastor talks about the end times again. Some subjects of the Christian life just aren’t comfortable for us to hear. But that doesn’t mean that we don’t need to hear them. If I’m sitting in church and find myself getting angry at the pastor and/or the church I have to ask myself: Am I angry at the church because they’re making me feel guilty over something I should probably feel guilty over? The converse also needs to be asked. Am I angry because someone is making me feel guilty over something I don’t need to feel guilty about? This is an important question. In these situations, I take the time to search my heart and look to Scripture, godly advice, and what I know of God’s character. Sometimes we get angry at the church because we feel convicted, and that conviction is a good thing. But if a community is making us feel guilty in a way that doesn’t line up with God’s Word, we need to take a second look at what is being taught.

3. Is this something I can fix instead of just complain about?
This question always kicks me in the gut. It’s really easy to complain, but much harder to be a part of the solution. But the reality is that if no one in the church actively seeks to improve the community, then nothing will ever change or progress. If you see a visitor alone in a corner, don’t just get angry that your church doesn’t have a better greeting ministry. Instead, remind yourself that you are the church, walk over there, and say hello. Better yet, talk to your pastor about setting up a greeting ministry, so you can recruit more people to help you out in your goal. A handful of pastors and elders can’t be all things to a church. So if you see a place where your community is falling short, step in and fill up the gap.

These truths and questions can help us consider wisely our place within a Christian community and the reality of disillusionment due to sin. Just because we accept disillusionment as a part of the project of the church, however, does not mean that we should not also mourn whenever it occurs. When yet another sex scandal breaks on a church like a storm, we mourn. When someone we trusted as a fellow believer betrays that trust, we mourn. When we are unnecessarily hurtful or unkind toward one of our brothers or sisters, we mourn. But in our lament over our sinfulness, we should also look to God and His plan for the church in hope. No, this community is not perfect. But the fact that it exists, that God is moving it toward perfection, and that we have each other to lean on as we limp slowly toward that glory: this is a gift and a mercy on which we should never give up.

Stuff

As I wandered through the large, extravagant rooms and hallways, I found myself surrounded by thousands of relics and jewels glistening through glass displays, and I couldn’t help but think…

this is a lot of stuff.

(Now, before you start thinking this is yet another rant on how materialism-is-bad-and-everything-is-dust-so-we-should-stop-loving-pretty-things, please, keep reading.)

My family and I were touring the Hillwood Estate in Washington, D.C., one of the homes of the late Marjorie Merriweather Post, the only daughter and heiress of C.W. Post, the founder of the Post Cereal company.

Marjorie was renowned for her fine taste, her love for all things elegant, and her enormous art collection. Paintings, fine china, jewelry, furniture, chalices, and silver-covered icons filled her Virginia home. She had turned her mansion into a museum.

And it was beautiful.

I’ve seen my fair share of museums and art galleries, so I couldn’t wrap my mind around how a single person could collect and own so much art.

But then a semi-morbid thought came to me.

Marjorie Merriweather Post is dead. She doesn’t own any of it.

We’ve all heard those tired sayings about hearses that don’t pull trailers and how “you can’t take it with you when you go,” and that one of the great ironies of life is that we live and work and struggle to accumulate things that we can only own and enjoy for a short period of time.

But perhaps an even greater irony is that we never truly own anything at all. Nothing we “possess” is really ours. Our time. Our toys. Our talents. They all belong, ultimately, to God. He’s just letting us borrow his stuff for a while.

The writer of Hebrews tells us that “everything belongs to God.” The psalmist writes, “The earth belongs to the Lord, and everything in it.” Paul teaches the Romans that “from Him and through Him and to Him are all things.”

This reality hit me even harder when I realized that my soon-to-arrive first-born child (baby Max is due Oct. 2nd!) will not really, ultimately be mine. He, too, belongs to God.

And to say we don’t really own anything doesn’t mean we don’t have to take care of it. It actually means just the opposite. It’s when you’re borrowing someone else’s stuff that you really feel the pressure and duty to keep it safe.

In Genesis, one of God’s first instructions to Adam and Eve was to take care of his creation. They were the gardeners, but the garden was all his.

It’s the same with everything else we “own.” Because God is entrusting me with one of his kids, I have all the more responsibility to love, protect, and take care of him.

And just because everything ultimately belongs to God doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy stuff. It actually means we can enjoy it more. It’s only those who aren’t owned by their things that are free to experience the pleasures they offer.

It’s only the parents who refuse to worship or control or cling to their children that can actually enjoy watching them grow up and mature and come into their own unique personalities.

I think seeing our stuff as God’s stuff helps us hold things a little more loosely, to share them with others, and to eventually experience the great joy of giving God’s stuff away.

So if you ever live in a house full of art, great. I’ll come visit. Just remember you won’t always own it. In fact, you never really will.

Giving Up

My husband and I recently went on vacation in Door County, Wisconsin: a whole week of camping and biking and kayaking. The kayaking was my husband’s idea, but it sounded fun. Lake Michigan was still a lake, right, so how rough could the water be?

The answer: really, really rough.kayak3

If you’ve never kayaked before (like us), you find out that it’s a lot more difficult than it looks. In a two person rig, the person in front paddles to provide forward movement to the boat while the person in the back is in charge of ruddering with his or her paddle to keep the nose pointed in the right direction.

I took the front, while Jeremy was in the back. And we found the limits of trust and patience in our marriage.

Jeremy didn’t know how to steer, so every time we tried to go straight the wind would push us in circles. The waves were breaking over the front of the kayak, a terrifying sight as I tried to paddle as hard as possible with the nose of the boat tipping first up into the sky and then down into a deep valley of ominous blue-green water.

After five minutes, I was yelling. After ten minutes, I was threatening divorce (if we survived). After twenty minutes, I propped my paddle across the prow out of the water and just cried. We were going to die during our summer vacation, 200 yards from shore.

Eventually, Jeremy figured out how to steer and we had a nice day feeling pretty bad-ass as we crested the massive waves with growing skill. But my initial breakdown revealed something ugly I didn’t want to realize: the very shallow level of trust I had in my husband.

I should have remembered all the things he’s done, and then I would have known that if it meant jumping out of the boat into the freezing water to pull me to shore, he would have done it. He’s always sacrificed his own comfort for mine, faced down his fears so I don’t have to be afraid. But I was afraid. And I blamed him for it.

It made me realize how bad I am at trust in general. I can’t trust my husband for twenty minutes in lake-sized waves. And I can see him. I can touch him. But God is mysterious. He’s invisible. How could I possibly trust Him?

Lately I’ve been reading in the Old Testament, specifically the Pentateuch or Torah, or the first five books that detail the creation of the nation of Israel, God’s covenants with them, and His leading them into the promised land. Sounds like a great positive, happy story, right? But over and over again the Israelites complain. And rebel. And want to turn back.

If they were in the front of the kayak and God in the back, they would be putting up their paddles and crying.

Whenever I read about Israel, particularly when they tell God right to His face that they would be better off in Egypt, I just want to smack them up-side their collective head and say, “Don’t you remember the ten plagues? Don’t you remember the Red Sea?” I think to myself that if I had manna every morning and a pillar of cloud over my church every day that I would have no problem trusting that God was awesome and powerful and had everything under control. That if I had a God who gave me water in the desert and food from the sky, I would never doubt His good intentions and ability to carry them out.

But if I’m really honest, I don’t get upset with Israel because they’re stupid and I could do better. I get upset with them because they’re me.

God has come through for me time and time again. He’s saved me from staying put in bad situations, He’s given me material things I’ve needed right at the last moment, He’s plucked me out of what I thought I wanted and put me somewhere even better, fulfilling my wildest hopes and dreams. He’s showered me with blessings and love and goodness.

But all it takes is one big wave, one look at how far away the shore is, and I start yelling. And threatening to leave. And then just giving up.

Just like I do with the Israelites, I mock Peter when he fails to trust Jesus even after he has already taken several steps (!) across the water of the Sea of Galilee (which is just a lake, if you didn’t know). Just like them, Peter has seen the power and the awesome faithfulness of Jesus over and over again, but when he looks down at the waves, they just seem more real than God, and he sinks.

peter1Israel, Peter, and I all struggle(d) with the same thing: sometimes the scariness of the physical situation around us just seems stronger than God’s power. And we cry out to go back to Egypt. We start sinking beneath the waves.

But the Old Testament, the New Testament and personal experience all tell us that though we may try to give up on God, God never gives up on us.

God sticks with the Israelites through the entire Bible, thousands of years, and even incarnates Himself as one of them in order to suffer and die and offer grace to the entire world through them. If He has been that faithful to them despite their failures, think of how faithful He must be towards us who have been marked with the blood of the Son as His children.

So while sometimes I want to hate myself for just how faithless and pathetic I can be, I try my faltering best at remembering not just God’s power, but also His love. Yes, it would be better if I could just trust Him all the time no matter how big the waves are, and I should always be trying to improve my faith, but when I fail, I have God’s amazing character to fall back on.

I’m seeking to grow in double trust: faith in God’s power to lead me through what seems impossible, and faith in His character to never leave me even when I deserve to be left.

My husband didn’t push me out the boat and leave me to float in the middle of Lake Michigan, though he had good reason to. If he as a human being can be that patient and compassionate, I’m pretty sure I can trust God to get me safely back to shore.

kayak4

On Crucifying my Flesh, and Loving my Body

????????????????????????????????????????I’m a skinny white dude.

I’m tall – taller than most of the people I meet. But I don’t play basketball. At least not well. Basketball requires your hands and feet to do the things your brain tells them to do, and quickly. Mine usually don’t.

Because I’ve been an athlete most of my life, I’ve spent a lot of time with guys that have way bigger muscles than I do, and when I was in high school I set a goal to be able to bench press my body weight, because that’s the goal my weight training coach told all the skinny guys to start with. It was a good starter goal. You know, a goal for before we started getting strong.

I’ve never bench pressed my body weight.

Now I’m 31, and I’m somewhere in the awkward middle ground between balding and bald.

Despite my incessant gangliness and my disobedient hair follicles, I can’t say I’ve ever hated my body. But I’ve never been super-pumped that this is the one I ended up with, either.

It probably didn’t help matters that one of the most popular verses among the athletes at my Christian high school was I Corinthians 9:27, which encouraged us to “beat our bodies” and “make them our slaves.” Our bodies were the enemy. They had to be brought into subjection in order for us to achieve either athletic success or holiness.

But we also encountered Ephesians 2:10, which taught us that we were God’s “workmanship,” a word which could perhaps more appropriately be translated “masterpiece.”

Reconciling these two verses was so easy that I didn’t even see the contradiction – obviously, Ephesians 2:10 is talking about me, not my body.

Me was something I saw as wholly internal, a disembodied entity that had to fight through corrupted, rotting flesh to find freedom and expression in the world. I was a Platonist and I didn’t even know it.

But then in college I made the connection that the same guy that wrote I Corinthians 9:27 also wrote Ephesians 2:10.

And I took a human biology class, where I learned how indescribably intricate and beautiful, and how well-planned the human body is.

And I started listening to Louie Giglio and reading Dallas Willard.

I paid a little closer attention to the book of Romans and the Sermon on the Mount.

divineconspiracyWillard’s Divine Conspiracy challenged me to think beneath the surface of Jesus’ command to cut off my hands or gouge out my eyes if they cause me to sin.

I heard about Origen, a man who learned by experience that even a castrated man can lust, and I realized that Jesus must have known that it’s not our hands and eyes that cause us to sin. I realized that even if I did cut off my right hand, the first thing I’d do is figure out how to use my left hand to sin.

And if my body is evil, then why was it so important for Jesus to be incarnated? He was born in carne – “in flesh.” And when he rose from the dead, he didn’t leave his carne behind – he took it to heaven with him.

Jesus, in heaven, is carnal

If you have the same baggage with the word carnal that I do, that last sentence might short-circuit your brain. Or it might just offend you.

But the word carnal, at its most fundamental level, just means “in flesh.”

Here’s what I’ve been studying recently that has helped me understand this:

In Greek, the word soma is the primary word for “body.” It’s used when a writer wants to talk about hands, feet, ears, and epiglottises (Epiglotti? Epiglottoes? Epiglets? …darn plurals). But there’s another word that shows up all over the Bible. It’s the word sarx. Sarx can be used to talk about the body, but it can also refer to the things we usually mean when we use the word carnal. The NIV often translates this word “Sinful Nature,” and it is a word that is often specifically non-physical.

For example, in Galatians 5:16-26, Paul contrasts the works of the sarx (flesh) with the fruit of the pneuma (Spirit). Among his list of the “works of the flesh” are idolatry, hatred, discord, jealousy, rage, selfish ambition, dissention, and envy. This isn’t the whole list, but it’s most of it. And here’s the point: most of the things Paul lists as acts of the flesh don’t actually require flesh.

In Galatians 5, Paul is drawing a parallel between two primarily non-physical things – two life orientations. Granted, these attitudes result in behaviors that involve our physical bodies, but they don’t come from the body. They are first and primarily internal. Jesus said nearly the same thing when he compared the man who commits adultery to the man who only desires to commit adultery (Matt. 5:27-28). The deeds of the body always flow from our inward orientation.

As he makes clear in Romans 6:13-14, Paul’s view of the body is the same as Jesus’ – the parts of the body are tools (lit. weapons) that can be used for good or for evil.

And as Dallas Willard says, our bodies are our connection to the world, so if we’re going to make any kind of difference in the world, it’s going to be by using our bodies. But when we dissociate “me” from “my body,” we lose our God-given power to make a good and holy impact in the world. We deny that of all things in creation, we alone were created by the touch, and not only the word, of God. It should come as no surprise that our denial of God’s touch in the denial of His Word about our bodies has resulted in our corporate failure to touch the world.

But let us never forget that the ministry of Jesus was a ministry of profound physicality.

Let us never forget that when Jesus healed people, He almost always touched them. The One who had created them with his hands re-created them, restoring their wholeness just as he first knit their DNA.

So can we take delight in “fleshly” pleasure? Most definitely. Jesus certainly did. And he did so in such a way that he left us an example of how to enjoy the great gift God has given us in our bodies.

Anyone who pays even a little attention to the world can see that God’s instructions when it comes to pleasure and our bodies are simply His explanation of the best way of living.

One of the reasons God asks us to keep sex within the marriage covenant is that He knows sex is better there.

One of the reasons he asks us to handle our money wisely is that he knows the great joy of being free from debt and free to exercise extreme generosity.

He’s the one who made strawberries taste good, and poison taste bad.

Tim3He’s the one who first thought up the mountains.

And the flowers.

And sunsets.

And the ocean.

And our bodies.

I know a guy who flies all around the world just to take pictures of the most beautiful places on earth. That’s his job. And because he’s really good at it, he’s been able to make a living selling his pictures.

tim2

What I love about his job is that everything he photographs is already there. He just captures it. His job is to help people worship a God who didn’t have to make the world beautiful.

And according to Ephesians 2:10, we, that is, our bodies, are his masterpiece.

So, love your body. It’s your connection to the world. It’s a gift to you from God, and someday, in heaven, it’s going to be perfect, but until then, don’t let sarx use it for evil. Take care of it. And be like Jesus – use it to make other people’s lives better.

The Parable of the Lost Dog…er, Sheep

DSC03084I love my dogs. Yes, I’ll admit it. I’m one of those weird people (you know the ones) who talk to their pets in squeaky baby voices, buy them pretty collars and soft beds, cry on their fur after a bad day. I call them my “fur-babies.” I haven’t yet started buying them Halloween costumes, but if I don’t have human babies soon, its only a matter of time.

We adopted both our dogs from the same shelter. Amos, our first pet, is a wrinkly, cuddly, stinky mess of a beagle pug mix, otherwise known as a puggle. He deserves his old man/biblical prophet name, as his face perpetually looks mournful due to his sagging facial skin. We call him “spot jacker” because no matter how asleep he may seem, he always takes the warm place you were just sitting in if you get up to go to the bathroom or get more popcorn during a movie. He goes crazy whenever he smells chocolate. He sleeps with his head on a pillow like a human. He snores louder than my husband with a cold. All day.

We adopted Lucy last summer when we decided that Amos needed a buddy, mostly to remind him that he is, in fact, a canine. We thought a seven pound chihuahua mix would be a perfect addition to the house–a sweet little girl, submissive and barely noticeable, just a tiny little thing to distract Amos so he wouldn’t be so needy — like I said before, he’s a cuddler. Lucy fit this description…for a few hours. But a big personality came in a tiny package. She uses Amos’s face skin as a tug-of-war toy, she pulls off my socks and attacks my toes if she’s bored, she growls at pit bulls ten times her size. She wakes me up in the morning when she’s hungry by perching on my chest, fixing me with an unblinking stare, and furiously wagging her little stub of a tail. Her nickname, if you can guess, is “little beasty.” Or occasionally, simply “monster.” Oh, and if she gets excited she pees all over herself.DSC03072

So why all this talk about my dogs?

Well, first because I love them. And because living with them has taught me a few things about God.

For all of you non-dog people now rolling your eyes, let me digress into telling a story. Sorry, it’s still about animals, but this time we’re talking sheep. Sheep don’t jump on you or try to lick your face, so try to give them a chance.

Once upon a time, a man had a hundred sheep. He knew each of them by sight, and one day when he looked out over the herd, he noticed that a particular sheep was missing. Trusting the rest of the herd to stay together where they happily chomped away at a lush patch of grass, the man headed into the rocky hills where he figured the lone sheep had wandered.

Thorns tore at his clothes. He narrowly missed placing his hand on a rattlesnake sunning itself on a ledge. He kept his ears tuned to any hint of a lion, which would eat him just as readily as the lone sheep, if he didn’t find it in time. The sharp rocks cut his hands despite his calluses, leaving a crimson trail behind him in the hot sand.

Finally, after hours of sweaty searching, the man heard a faint bleating. The echoing, panicked cry led him to a rocky pit. At the bottom, there was his sheep. Using the last reserves of his strength, the man climbed down the crumbling wall of the hole, hoisted the frantically bleating sheep over his shoulders, and struggled back out into the sun. After applying soothing oil to the animal’s scratches and bruises, he took the beast on his shoulders once again and made his way back to the pleasant valley and the rest of the flock.

If you recognize this story, that’s probably because its’s one of a series of parables that Jesus relates to a large crowd, as recorded in Luke 15. Luke tells us that Jesus is hanging out with “sinners and tax collectors,” and that the religious authorities of the day, the Pharisees, are scandalized by the sort of company he chooses to keep. Jesus offers this story as an explanation.

Now back to my dogs.

Amos ran away once. It was in the middle of a pouring deluge, a sudden and terrific summer thunderstorm, and his extra neck skin made it easy for him to pull out of a wet collar. He’s not particularly afraid of thunder; I suppose he thought he could do better on his own, find a place safe and dry and warm if he wasn’t forced to obey the person holding the leash. In any case, we and a collection of friends and neighbors ran around in the dark and the rain for what seemed an eternity, calling and calling and calling Amos’s name between cracks of thunder.

As it turned out, he was circling the block as we were chasing him, too scared to stop, but just smart enough to know the general location of his home. He ran in the same direction we were chasing, round and round the same path. Someone sitting on their porch told us they had seen him pass several times, so we switched directions and caught him. All he would have had to do is stop, and we would have found him earlier and brought him in out of the rain. Or better, he could have just not run away in the first place.

SONY DSCBut Amos is dumb. I love him, but he just is. He doesn’t know what’s best for him. If he didn’t have my husband and me, if he didn’t have a master, he would die.  If he did whatever he wanted, he would run into traffic, he would get lost, he would pick fights with mean dogs, he would eat that half box of tacos somebody left on the sidewalk.  He would do whatever seemed best to him, and that would kill him.

As I carried him back into the warm apartment after we found him that night, I was so angry and so happy to see him that I just cried and squeezed him till he stopped shaking. Stupid dog. Stupid, precious dog I love so much.

I don’t know about all of you, but when I do stupid things I feel like God hates me. I feel like He’s looking down on me, disappointed and angry, giving me a silent look that says, “You got yourself into this mess. Now you’re going to have to get yourself out of it.” And in the times that I’ve run away, I feel like God will never be able to love me again, even if He condescends to accept me crawling back.

That makes me a Pharisee.

But Jesus, talking and laughing with a rough crowd, corrects that perspective.  He tells a story about a man, just like any good shepherd, who goes after a lost sheep. His story doesn’t talk about how stupid the sheep is, how the sheep deserved to be eaten by a lion. He focuses on the shepherd and how he without question goes after that one sheep.

Jesus implies that if a shepherd, as a part of his job, is willing to risk injury and death to find one stupid sheep, one of a hundred, then how much more do you think God is willing to do for just one human being? A human being that He made? A human being that He loves?

Most often we talk about this passage to remind church people to break down their walls and care about those God cares about, the “sinners” that a lot of religious people would rather avoid. But I think we sometimes forget: we are all those sinners. Even if we’ve already accepted God’s mercy through Christ to receive righteousness, aren’t there times that most of us have “run away”? Made mistakes? Decided we’re going to head out on our own? Just been plain stupid?

I know I have. And I feel like if I were God, I wouldn’t take me back.

But as I’m cleaning up taco-filled dog barf, standing in the alley in -15 degree windchill as they find that perfect place to pee, buy expensive food with real meat in it, brush dog hair off my favorite sweater, find holes in my new socks, urine on my floor, and Amos drool on my pillow, I realize I do these things because I love these stupid dogs. And if I do these things willingly, voluntarily, because I, in my limited way, love these dumb animals, then…could God, just maybe, love me even more?

So when I’ve run away again and I don’t want to come back or call out to God for help, I think about my dogs, and that story Jesus told about the sheep. I picture Amos in the rain, and that sheep in the hills, and I know that if I can understand love that much, then perhaps I can believe in God’s love. I see Him running through a thunderstorm, calling my name. I see Him hot and sweaty, worry and relief in His eyes, as He climbs down the side of the pit to carry me out. I see him suffering, humiliated, bleeding quietly, dying on a cross.

On the Death of Judas Iscariot, and Why it Matters to Me

In the weeks leading up to Easter, the church where I work dedicated four weekends to an examination of four characters who encountered Jesus. I was tasked with writing monologues for Nicodemus, James, Peter, and Judas, with the goal of giving people a chance to identify with each character’s very human response to Jesus.

The Judas monologue, as you may be able to imagine, proved challenging. So many portrayals of Judas demonize him, and perhaps rightly so, because he is the quintessential arch-villain. But he’s also a man who lived in a context not altogether different from ours, and my job was to show that context so that people could connect their lives with his. My job was to humanize him.

In a world of complex religious and political strife, Judas’s theology visibly identified him. Kind of like a profile picture of the cover art from your favorite band’s new album. Or Kony 2012. Or a red equals sign. Or a red equals sign with a cross through it…

I can almost hear Judas quoting the once-again-familiar, tweet-friendly quip from Isaiah 7:9 – “If you do not stand firm in your faith, you will not stand at all.”

This may sound odd, but I love the story of Judas Iscariot.

I love it because it’s human. Because it’s so deeply true.

And when I say it’s true, I don’t mean only that it’s historical. It is that, but it’s also a very real story. It’s a story that I can believe because I’ve seen it.

The story starts with a young man looking for significance. He wants to make a dent in the world. And like many young men, the first place he looks is for a fight. He finds a fight he can believe in, and he joins the cause. He’s a revolutionary. His life is going to make a difference, and people will remember him, because he’s joining a revolution that will change the world forever.

But his revolution doesn’t work out the way he planned it to. His hero – the guy he signed up to follow – betrays him. He changes the rules and decides it’s not going to be a revolution after all. It’s going to be a martyrdom instead. But not the glorious kind.

Understandably, the kid with the dream of making a dent in the world is beyond disappointed. Then he realizes he can do something about it. He can give a little, motivating push. He can remind the guy why they all joined up with him in the first place. He can make sure he sees the enemy face to face and remembers what they’re all fighting for.

So he tells the cops where to find him, thinking he’ll pull out all the firepower when things hit the fan. When push comes to shove, he won’t let the tyrants win.

But the guy doesn’t fight. He just lets them take him away. And worst of all, he calls the young man a traitor.

And that’s when the young man realizes he’s been wrong from the beginning. A bloody revolution was never the plan. Which means he really is a traitor.

He tries to get rid of the money he was paid for making the deal that he thought would spark a revolution, but the creeps that gave it to him won’t take it back. They don’t want anything to do with him now – he’s already done what they wanted him to do. And now he’s not just a traitor – he’s also a pawn.

So, he goes out into a field and kills himself.

I wish it wasn’t such a true story. I wish I didn’t know that this is how a young man like Judas really would respond. I wish I didn’t know that the shame of being wrong and of being used as a pawn by people you hate is enough to drive a man to suicide. But I’m guessing you know as well as I do that the story of Judas is true. Whether it actually happened in history or not, it’s exactly the kind of thing that teachers and professors all over the world see every day. Or, as Rob Bell once said about the beginning of the book of Genesis, the point is not whether or not it happened, but that it happens.

In literary study, some people call this a mythic element in a story. This means that there’s something so true, so powerfully symbolic, and so human about a story that it gives us the ability to understand and talk about ourselves or our experiences in a way we may not have before we read the story. We call it myth because it’s what the myths of nearly all ancient cultures did for people. Romeo and Juliet is one of our culture’s most recognizable myths. It’s a story that’s so true to our experience of complicated romance that we use it to describe and interpret real life.

Now, I’m aware that by this point a number of you are quite upset with me for suggesting that the story of Judas is a myth. But before you skip the rest of this post and go straight to blasting me in the comments section, let me explain something. In literary study, and particularly the literary study of the Bible, the terms “myth” and “history” are not mutually exclusive. In fact, the Judeo-Christian worldview affirms quite strongly that it is stories that most profoundly define meaning in our lives and experiences. And in literary terms, a story that defines meaning in this way is called a myth, regardless of whether or not it is historical.

When I was in elementary school, some younger kids from my neighborhood decided it would be fun to start a snowball fight with my sister and me as we walked home from school. It started out fun, but when they ran out of snow, they started throwing rocks. Being older, and being a baseball player, I had little trouble keeping them at a distance without actually hitting them with any rocks, but as we rounded the last corner right in front of my house, one of them proved a bit stronger than I thought he was and tossed a rock that hit my sister right in the nose. Being the protective older brother that I was at the time, I started crying and ran into the house.

As my dad cleaned the blood off her nose, he asked me what had happened. I don’t remember what I said, but I do remember the hot tears burning my face as I watched her cry. She wasn’t just crying because of the pain in her nose. She was also crying because I had failed to protect her.

I remember the empty feeling in my stomach, the feeling of wanting to crawl in bed for days and never walk to school again. And I remember when my older brother talked to me about it, when he explained to me what I could, what I should have done. He was gracious. He did exactly what an older brother should have done. He told me how I could have stepped in, and even if I couldn’t have kept it from happening, I could have made sure it never happened again. I was older, bigger, stronger. I could have made sure they knew that next time I would not be so gracious with them if they messed with my sister.

My brother handled it perfectly. So did my dad. But they were too late. As soon as I turned away from the fight and ran home instead of defending my sister, that story, that history, became myth for me. I had chosen weakness. I had chosen not to protect her. And for years, that story would define me. Even into marriage and becoming a father, I knew for a fact that I wasn’t a protector.

I’m guessing that you have similar stories – events in your life that were once just events, but have grown to become myths that define who you are. You know as well as I do that C.S. Lewis was right when he said that myth and fact work side by side to shape us into who we become.

Like the historical stories of the Bible, the histories of our lives become mythic for us when they take on significance beyond just the facts of the events.

There’s a second reason I love the story of Judas’s death. I love it because it contains two clear contradictions that remind me that the writers of the New Testament, and the people who edited it and put it together later, were very honest people.

Yes, you read that right. I said there are two contradictions in the story.

But maybe you know me well enough by now to know that I think contradictions in the Bible are simply wonderful, because every time I find a new one, it teaches me how trustworthy the Bible really is.

I guess I should explain…

Matthew 27 tells the story of Judas’s suicide, as does Acts 1.

In Matthew, we read that Judas threw the money he’d received from betraying Jesus into the temple and then went out to a field and hung himself. The priests couldn’t legally put the money into the temple treasury because it had been used to fund an illegal bargain that led to a very sketchy conviction of an innocent man. As you can imagine, the accounting ledgers would have had to have been quite creative. So, instead, they bought a field with it, which happened to be the field where Judas died. It makes sense for them to do this, because by using Judas’s money, they were in effect buying the field in his name.  The official record would then show that Judas himself bought the field where he committed suicide. Not only would this logical connection dampen questions, it would also benefit them in the end, because in ancient Israel, when a man died with no heir, his property was surrendered to the state, that is, the temple, that is, the priests who bought the field in the first place. They couldn’t put the money directly into the treasury, but they could buy a piece of property that they knew would immediately be surrendered back to them because the man who owned it was already dead. Today we call this money laundering.

Luke (the writer of Acts), however, tells us a significantly different story. He says that Judas bought the field and fell on some sharp rocks there, where his guts all gushed out onto the ground.

So we have two problems. Luke and Matthew can’t seem to agree on who bought the field, and they can’t seem to agree on how Judas died.

Before I tell you what I think really happened, I want to call attention to the fact that this problem is still in the Bible. I certainly think it can be reconciled, as I’ll show in a minute, but it’s a real problem, and it’s a problem that’s clearly evident to anyone who can read. It’s a problem that has caused a large number of Christians to question whether or not they can trust the Bible. It’s a problem many of us would rather do without, in fact I can be quite confident there are a whole bunch of Christians, and even pastors and teachers, out there who wish this one would just go away.

But I’m glad it’s there.

In fact I’m really glad it’s there.

Because it means that Luke and Matthew weren’t in on this thing together. They never sat down and compared notes to make sure their stories matched up. Apparently, they were more concerned with telling the truth than they were with making sure that the Bible was free from errors and contradictions. Their goal does not seem to have been to start a new, easy-to-swallow, theologically airtight religion. Their goal seems to have been to tell the story of Jesus as they had seen it and heard it and then let us decide what to do with it.

And it also means that they people who actually compiled the New Testament – the people who edited the final version and decided which books to keep in and which books to leave out – didn’t edit out the difficult and contradictory parts either. They seem to have been more concerned with preserving the words that had been written than they were with making sure their own religious agenda survived. It would have been very easy for them to change one of the records of Judas’s death, and they could certainly have justified doing so – such a glaring difference would most certainly cause many to question, and perhaps even cause some to fall away from the faith entirely. But they chose faithfulness instead. They chose to pass on the books just as they came to them.

Despite this confidence in the integrity of both the writers and the compilers of the New Testament, we still have to deal with these stark differences in the two records of the story. And unless we’re going to throw out the claim to biblical inerrancy, which is a major tenet of orthodox Christianity, these discrepancies are a problem.

Historically, most scholars have explained away the problem of how Judas died by saying that he hung himself, and then some time later the rope he was hanging from broke and he fell onto the rocks below him. Without any further explanation, such a story seems possible, but likely little more than an attempt to excuse the problem.

We have to remember, however, that when Judas disappeared, there are no logically defensible reasons to think that anyone would have gone looking for him for at least three days. And the day after he went to the field to hang himself was a Sabbath, which means that any law-abiding Jew would have spent the day counting his steps to assure he didn’t go over the allotted number and transgress the Sanhedrin’s interpretation of the law against work on the Sabbath. Such strict adherence to the law, which was quite common then, makes it unlikely that anyone would have been wandering aimlessly through someone else’s field that day. There would likely have been no one around to stumble upon the carcass of Judas hanging from a tree. And even if they did, two other regulations barred them from cutting him down – first, to do so was defined as work, which would have defiled the Sabbath, and second, to come into contact with a dead body made a person unclean, which would have kept him or her from participating in Sabbath worship at the temple or local synagogue. Most likely, even if someone did find Judas that Saturday, his body would have been left hanging until at least the next day. And when a dead body hangs from a rope in the sun, it bloats. The skin thins and dries, and it becomes a putrid balloon that would certainly “pop” if it happened to fall on sharp rocks.

So let’s say we accept that Judas really did hang himself, and then some time later he was cut down or fell down and his guts really did spill out all over the rocks. Why wouldn’t either Matthew or Luke give us the whole story?

Matthew, as a Jew writing to a Jewish audience, chooses the image of Judas hanging from a tree. Like his fellow Jew Paul (see Gal. 3:13), Matthew knew the importance of Deuteronomy 21:23 – anyone who dies by hanging on a tree is cursed by God. Matthew also knew that the people who would be reading his book knew this curse. So Matthew chooses the strongest image available to him – the image of a man hanging from a tree.

And so does Luke, who, being a gentile, has no connection to Deuteronomy’s curse. Like him, his audience will not be overly moved by such an image. So instead, Luke chooses the grisly image. He shows us Judas’s body splattered all over the rocks. And I’m guessing that unless you’re a Jew with an intimate understanding of Deuteronomic law, you, like me, connect more strongly with Luke’s image than Matthew’s. You’re his target audience, and you respond exactly how he hoped you would. Apparently, Luke was a good writer.

The point, though, is that each writer chose to portray Judas’s death by giving us the most shocking image available to him.

Our second problem is the purchase of the field. Did Judas buy it, or did the priests buy it?

Though I’ve already given myself away somewhat on this one, we haven’t accounted yet for the importance of source material.

Where Matthew was writing his own eyewitness account of these events, Luke was dependent on the retelling of others, and would certainly have consulted public legal records to build what he intended to be a full-fledged historical account of the events surrounding the life of Jesus and the birth of the Christian church. Matthew’s book is based primarily on his own observations, whereas Luke’s books are built upon his research of public documents and the compilation of multiple eyewitness interviews.

Luke’s examination of public records would have shown Judas as the owner of the field, because legally, he did buy it. But Matthew knew better. Matthew chose to expose the corruption of the religious leaders by showing how they worked the loopholes in their own system for the sake of financial gain.

Perhaps you’re still not convinced. Think of it this way. Let’s say that Jason and I are going to have lunch together at the office. I give him a $20 bill and ask him to go pick something up for both of us because I’m swamped with work and don’t have time to leave. While he’s gone, Peter comes in and asks me if I have lunch.

“Jason’s out buying it,” I say.

When Jason returns (most certainly with two Quizno’s subs) and we’ve begun to eat, Steve pops his head in. Seeing our delicious sandwiches, he inquires, “Who bought lunch?”

“Paul did,” Jason responds.

We’ve both told the truth, even though we’ve given different, and seemingly contradictory, accounts of the same event. I bought lunch because it was my money, but Jason bought lunch because he went to Quizno’s to get it.

In the same way, Judas bought the field because the money was still legally his when it was purchased in his name, but the priests performed the transaction.

So, why do I love the story of Judas so much? I love it because it gives me everything I need from the Bible. It gives me myth – a story that touches my soul because of its sheer, human honesty. And it gives me fact. It gives me a presentation of history that stands strong the face of my most vigorous skepticism and proves itself to be far greater than what I hoped it would be when I first began wrestling with its logic and its claims. It could have been a weak link, but proves instead to be the strength of the entire chain. It proves to be one more addition to the breathtaking marriage of philosophical profundity and gritty, concrete fact that is the Bible. Surely such a blending of art and instruction can only be the gift of God to us who so desperately need both.

***If you’re interested in pursuing the topic of myth and history and how they interact with the Judeo/Christian worldview, start with the C.S. Lewis essay linked above. And if you’re really ambitious, pick up a copy of N.T. Wright’s The New Testament and the People of God. Part II of that book deals with the interactions referenced above in full-fledged academic detail.

Heroes and Lions

Think back to your favorite stories. You might not have to think back terribly far at all, actually; our favorite stories have a way of sticking with us, of imprinting both our minds and hearts at the same time. Your favorite story might be one of the Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis. It might be a more contemporary series, such as The Hunger Games or even Star Wars. And let us not forget the ensemble of heroes that make up the legendarium of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth! The world of fantasy would hardly be the same without Frodo Baggins, Samwise Gamgee, Aragorn and the rest of the members of the Fellowship of the Ring. If you’re like many of my friends at Colorado Christian University, your favorite story revolves around some “Doctor” who travels around space and time in a contraption called a “Tardis” saving the world from evil or some such shenanigans. I don’t really know what it’s about.  I just know that it’s British television and somehow it’s awesome. But I digress.

I still remember the first time I saw Luke Skywalker dueling Darth Vader in The Empire Strikes Back. I’m not ashamed to admit, from that point on, no stick, pole or other pointy object was simply an object anymore. No, from that point on, they were all lightsabers! Whichever one of my brothers was around was instantly Darth Vader, regardless of their previous allegiances. And I, obviously, was Luke Skywalker. After all, every little kid wants to be the hero.

Think back to your favorite stories…the ones that really mattered. What’s one of the key elements to every fantasy story?

Every good story has a hero. But what makes a hero…heroic?

A hero doesn’t shy away from a fight, but he also doesn’t cause unnecessary bloodshed. He is strong, but in control of his strength. Strength without mercy is brutality, subjugation, and ultimately results in tyranny. As Gandalf states in the new Hobbit movie, “True courage is not knowing when to take a life, but when to spare it.” When he fights, a hero fights well. If he falls, he gets back up. He doesn’t give up after failing. He only gets stronger.

A hero also protects those who are important to him at any cost. Laying down his life for them is part of the job description. He does not shrink away from harm. This one is particularly biblical. There truly is no greater love that a man who gives himself up for those whom he loves. Back on 9/11, some amazingly brave men and women lost their loves striving to save innocent civilians from the wreckage of the Twin Towers. The brave men and women of New York City’s police and fire departments are remembered as heroes, and rightly so.  One of the most powerful moments of the entire Harry Potter series is actually before the main events take place. It is when Harry’s mother dies to save her young son. She is a hero in that moment and forever more.

I have to be honest. One of my favorite heroes of legend is Link. Who is Link, you may ask? Link is the main protagonist of The Legend of Zelda video game series. Most people have never even heard his name before; they often assume he is Zelda, but Zelda is actually the princess that Link spends the entire series attempting to rescue! I relate so well to Link because he is, at the onset of any given Zelda game, very normal. However, Link is destined to be a hero, and he eventually steps into this role after training and being made aware of his destiny. Link is a wonderful hero because he doesn’t ever speak, and doesn’t seek his own glory.

Link is a hero because he is selfless. He gives his life over and over for those that he loves.

But here, we’re really talking about human heroes and invented characters.

Don’t we all want to be heroes?

I’m not so different now than when I was a boy. Sometimes I still pretend things are lightsabers. Sometimes I dream of rescuing princesses from castles and traversing miles and misunderstandings to rescue my princess. And more often than not, when I read books and watch movies, I want nothing more than to be the hero of my own story.

But I’m not.

Really, though. I’m not.

Truth be told, I’m terrible at fighting for people. My main enemy is myself. Whether I’m letting my insecurities cloud my judgment or if I’m simply not looking out for others’ interests first, I am simply bad at fighting. I am my own worst enemy, and I hurt those I should protect and fight for. I’m not a very good hero.

Truth be told, neither are you. None of us are.

We can’t be the hero of our own story, because we really are the damsel-in-distress. We are the slaves behind bars. We are the broken who need to be healed. We try and try and try, but ultimately, we can’t rescue anyone, ourselves included.

We aren’t very good heroes. But luckily, we don’t have to be.

When Jesus came, He personified what it meant to be a hero. Link, Frodo, Katniss, Peter, Edmund…they may be heroes, but they are only echoes of the one true Hero.

Think about it…what keeps you on your toes while journeying through Narnia? What are the parts of those books that really make them worth reading?

Simple…it’s when Aslan shows up. Because He is the Hero. He is the Lion. The funny thing about when Aslan shows up is that, typically, those who haven’t seen Him before are rendered speechless, utterly in awe of this Lion that is striding among them. But those who know Him approach Him differently. They run to Him and bury themselves in His golden mane. Whenever Aslan speaks, you hang on His every word, and you search those words, desiring to know all their meanings. As a result of His words and presence, traitors like Edmund are made into kings. The lost are welcomed home as princes just like Cor. Obnoxious little Eustaces finally shed their dragon scales. And men like Peter finally learn what it means to protect those they love.

Aslan is the hero of Narnia. He is the rightful King.

We aren’t very good heroes. But luckily, we don’t have to be. Just as Aslan is the true hero of the Chronicles of Narnia, Jesus is the hero of our story.

Our pride drives us to act in self-interest, as if what happens to us were the chief element of our story. We’ve swallowed the lie that it’s all about having things our own way. If we are happy, if we are rich and famous, if we are known- then we will be living a good story. After all, we’re heroes, right?

Wrong. Our stories have never been about us.

It’s not our kingdom any more than Narnia was Peter’s. He may have been High King, but there was a King even higher than Peter, and Peter willingly bowed down to Him.

But not only is God the true King…He is also the best hero we could ask for. Our place is to admit our faults, admit our need to be rescued…and finally to let Him do it! We don’t get very far when we try to be our own rulers. We hurt those we love. We return like dogs to our own bile, our sin. We love so, so poorly.

But God is not us. He loves perfectly. In 1 John 4:8, we are told that God is love. 1 Corinthians likewise explains to us all the virtues that make up love. Following the logical connection between the verses, one might easily say, rather than “Love is patient, love is kind” that “God is patient, God is kind.” Let’s take another look at that passage (italics are added to show change):

 God is patient, God is kind. God keeps no record of wrongs.

God does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. 

God always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

God never fails.

Sounds like a pretty good hero to me. I really like thinking of God in a similar vein as Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings…He is never late, nor is He early. He arrives precisely when He means to. Which brings us to the final element of a hero:

He saves the day just in time.

We cannot see the whole story. God is not simply the Hero; He is also the Author and Perfector. His timing is perfect, because His plot is perfect, and He will reveal Himself in the perfect plan. We are at His mercy…but that is no bad thing, for He may not be tame, but He is very, very good, and mercy covers His throne. We must trust that He will come through with the perfect resolution at the absolutely perfect time! And He will! He is unable to fail!

Friends, let us not try to be our own heroes and solve problems in our own time and by our own methods. We are not meant to rescue ourselves. We are meant to be rescued, and He has already done it! On the cross our ransom was paid, our rescue finalized, our adoption secured. Jesus is the perfect hero because He won the ultimate victory and that can never be reversed or taken away. He is eternally victorious.

And because of that, so are we.

Let God be the hero of your story. Let Him rescue you at the perfect time. It takes humility…but that is Christianity: humility before God, and humility before others. Let’s face it…we’re really bad heroes. We need to be rescued.

Let us come face to face with the Lion who is also the Lamb who takes away the sin of the world.

Let us celebrate the one true Hero…and, after knowing Him and being made like Him, find a way to become little lions- little heroes- ourselves.