What Do You Miss Most about In-Person Worship?

The Eucharist.

My answer to this question is the Eucharist, without any doubt.

Ever since my church launched virtual services in the spring, I’ve served myself the bread and wine when the time came. It’s a special moment–it always is when Jesus meets you in a sacrament–but it’s hard to not do this with other people.

For now, we have to corporately confess our sins and seek forgiveness. But when our pastor proclaims that we are a forgiven people, I don’t have anyone nearby to hug.

For now, we have to trust other people are taking the Eucharist at the same time. I can’t look them in the eye when I hand them a piece of bread and tell them that the body of God was given for them. That always meant something to me.

What about you? What do you miss from actually worshipping in person?

The Grace We Owe

So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another. Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not make room for the devil.

Thieves must give up stealing; rather let them labor and work honestly with their own hands, so as to have something to share with the needy. Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear.”

Ephesians 4:25-29

There are a lot of ways to be false, and most of them aren’t malicious.

I have a number of things I’ve never told friends or family: about how much like Christ they look, how they inspire me to build my grit when I’m feeling discouraged, how they somehow see goodness in me that I hadn’t paid much attention to.

I don’t know what to call it when I withhold those compliments and observations. Scripture, though, seems to call it “theft”.

That’s how I can make sense of the passage I quoted above. The verses start by talking about not lying to people or becoming resentful. Then, they seem to veer off course for a moment with a brief lecture to thieves. Finally, they return to the subject of language and using it build people up instead of tearing them down.

Unless … the passage never veers off course at all.

Maybe we’re supposed to see that withholding the truth from someone is the same as stealing what belongs to them.

Just like a thief who commits to an honest living, a former liar should commit to telling the truth. And just like an honest person who works hard so they have something to share, so a truthteller should discipline their speech so they can share grace with someone who needs it.

Sometimes, grace will come through a difficult conversation, if only because it’s how you can finally repair a wounded relationship. Yes, we should be honest with people about what bothers us instead of–to name one example–making passive-aggressive “jokes” that the both of you know deep down aren’t actually jokes at all. We don’t have to focus just on difficult conversations, though.

We should think about everything we would say about a person in their eulogy, and then find a way to communicate that to them now. Why would we wait until someone passes before we share with them all the ways they made our lives better because they got to be part of it?

We owe each other grace. We are members of one another, which means that whatever you’re going through, other people are in it with you.

So, the question is, who are you stealing from right now? To whom in your life do you owe grace?

When “Don’t Be Afraid” Hasn’t Quite Kicked In

My church read from Matthew’s account of the Resurrection on Easter Sunday, and our pastor focused on what it means to take the angel seriously when he told the women not to be afraid.

It was a beautiful sermon–and an ironic lesson when you consider how the Gospel of Mark described the same encounter:

“As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. But he said to them, “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.”

So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.

These women were the first preachers in all of Christianity. None of us would be here if they hadn’t preached to the apostles, who in turn built the church that we’re a part of today. These women were the first ones at the tomb, where they were told not to be afraid because Jesus was alive.

And they left the tomb, afraid. End of gospel. (Thanks, Mark?)

I don’t blame them. It’s certainly a human reaction to what had already been a traumatic weekend. I’m not certain I would have done any better if I had been with them.

But here’s what I’ll point out from this passage:

Sometimes, it takes a while to cultivate a life of living without fear.

Being-not-afraid takes practice and time. It’s going to require us to unlearn a lot of habits that we picked up over the years. For me, that means being more vulnerable in conversations and more willing to give an honest answer to the question of “How are you?” (“Fine,” to the shock of no one, is rarely the honest answer.)

I think this same principle holds true to just about everything Jesus commanded us to do, whether it’s being more generous with your money, forgiving people instead of harboring grudges, and so on. Growing in love takes time.

I’m writing this with the hope that you’ll take it a bit easier on yourself. Becoming like Jesus won’t happen overnight. It’s going to take a lot more practice, and you’re going to fail a lot. Before the women at the tomb became Christianity’s first preachers, they were a group of people who struggled with fear. But they got there, and so will you.

Like a good parent, your Father is proud of each step you take, even when those steps don’t get you very far. So stop being afraid that He thinks otherwise.

Why is the Resurrection Good News?

There are many answers to the question I posed in the title, so for the sake of brevity I’ll give you just one: because the Person who walked out of the tomb is good.

Because when Jesus conquered death, he was still the same deity-in-flesh as he was prior to his execution. He is still the person who invited all the wrong people to dinner, who invited traitors to join his inner circle, who healed Gentiles and welcomed women disciples and touched the sick who had gone years without social contact.

This is the same God who prayed for our forgiveness while we stood by and watched him suffer.

Jesus lives, and it’s good news that it’s Jesus who lives.

Christmas is An Invitation

You could sum up Christmas in a lot of ways. I prefer this one: God is going to save the world, and He’s going to do it through Jesus.

That’s why the angel promised Joseph that Jesus would save people from his sins, why Gabriel told Mary that her baby boy would sit on a throne without end, why both Mary and Zachariah both saw this news as God making good on His vow to rescue Israel, exalt the lowly, and bring oppressors their just desserts.

God is saving the world, and He’s doing it through Jesus.

The question is, what will our role be?

Gabriel may have announced Mary’s pregnancy while she was a virgin, but it was still the teenage Galilean of little means who decided to embrace that fate. She was more than a host for Jesus–she was a willing participant in what God was doing to set things right.

We each have the same question before us, every single day. Do we believe that Jesus is God-made-known? When we pray the phrase, “… on earth as it is in heaven,” do we really believe this is something Jesus will accomplish, or are we too afraid to admit that we think it’s little more than a lovely thought?

Jesus is going to save the world, and you’re invited to be a part of that.

How that happens for each of us is going to be different. We all need saving ourselves, even if our vices aren’t always the same. And we each have different gifts, so how we join in God’s work is going to vary.

But it all starts when our answer is the same as Mary’s:

“I am the servant of the Lord. Let it be to me according to his word.”

Christmas is more than a story–it’s an invitation.

And it’s long past time for you to check your RSVP.

Sin is a Failure to Love (and Why It’s Important to Remember That)

I want to follow up on my previous post, in which I tried to show why you can’t screw up your life because God can use even the worst mistakes you’ve made to make you more like Jesus. If you love God, then everything in your life will be used to make you into the person you’re supposed to be (which is a very different thing than saying, “Everything will turn out okay.”)

In light of this, what is sin?

Sin is the failure to love.

Over and over, the New Testament tries to show us that love is not only our top priority but also the key to interpreting Scripture.

Jesus called loving God and neighbors the greatest commandment. Paul said that to love is to fulfill the law and that it binds all other virtues together in perfect harmony. The same apostle also wrote that love is greater than even faith and hope. James said that “love your neighbor” is the royal law and that a person who has faith but not love has a dead faith. (Granted, James actually uses the phrase “good works,” but it’s pretty clear in context that the lack of good works is specifically a lack of love.) In Revelation, Jesus threatens to remove a church from its city because it’s orthodox but not loving.

1 Timothy states that the purpose of the instruction we’ve received is to make us loving. 2 Timothy says Scripture was breathed by God to prepare us for good works–and as we’ve seen, the greatest work we could be about is loving others.

Clearly, love has a central place in what the New Testament demands of us.

I wrote the previous post because I sometimes worry about screwing up my life (and I know that some readers are sharing that same anxiety right now). But often, when I think of how I can screw up my life, I think about the things I could or couldn’t do, the money I could have made but different, the date I wish had led to something deeper, the weekend trip I didn’t get to take, the job interview I wasn’t called in for.

I also think about the sins I commit, such as the lustful thoughts I had or my failure to set aside some money to give to a person in need. I think about the times I didn’t pray enough or harbored resentment against someone.

There’s a pattern in all of this: I define “screwing up my life” primarily in terms of how I act and think.

That’s a huge problem.

If you think of sin primarily in terms of how you act, then your solution for not sinning is going to revolve around changing your actions. You’ll stop doing one thing and start doing another. You’ll stop thinking about that one thing and start thinking about something else. You’ll change your actions, which we think is what Jesus meant when he told us to repent. But changing our actions doesn’t necessarily lead to love.

We were made to love and be loved and find our identities in that exchange.

Our identities are too heavy, too real, to be supported by mirages–no matter how spiritual they sound.

God’s will for us is to love Him and be loved by Him, to mysteriously be included in the love shared by the Trinity. When we have this right, then we’re going to be what we’re supposed to be, no matter where we are.

But when we neglect that love because we’re convinced that we can find out identities in something else–even if it’s spiritual codes of conduct–then we’re running to danger, not away from it.

You Can’t Screw Up Your Life

When you’re taught to read literature, you’re usually told to pay attention to the recurring themes of the novel. The same principle holds for life: when you keep encountering the same message, over and over, it’s best to listen.

Late this week, my church’s young professionals group continued its series on quarter-life crises (and I’m a little bummed that I’m old enough to the point where I no longer qualify as “quarter-life”). The focus was on how to know God’s will for a particular situation in your life. While this talk was going on, I was texting a friend–yes, I texted in church and no, I’m not going to hell for it–who had just accepted a new job in another state and was now worried that he might have a made a mistake.

When a common theme emerges, pay attention. And since God’s will has been a topic of discussion lately, I decided to write about it.

I got to share this at our table discussion that night, and I’ll say it again here:

You can’t screw up your life.

***

People would often quote Romans 8:28 as one of those verses that they want to make themselves feel better about their present or future situations. The verse says, “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.”

Here’s how I hear people interpret this: “My life sucks, but God will make it better.” Or, “I’m scared of screwing up, but it’ll turn out okay.” Or, “I’m still single, and everything will work out as God wants it to, but it’d be nice if He’d stop taking His sweet time with it.

This interpretation fits nicely with how a lot of people understand God’s will. For many Christians, the divine will is like a cosmic game of Connect the Dots, and your job as a Christian is to find out the particular order God wants you to follow so you can paint the picture He intended for your life. For instance, the right college is Dot #1. Choosing your career is Dot #2. Finding the right guy/girl to marry is Dot #3. This will continue until you die–and hopefully, you won’t screw up your picture too badly in the process.

The common interpretation of Romans 8:28 fits this view nicely: everything will turn out as it’s supposed to. You won’t miss your God-intended dots as you try to complete the picture.

The problem is, that’s not what this verse is saying.

I’m going to write the verse out again, with the two verses that follow, to show you what I mean:

“We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family. And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified.”

Yes, all things work together for our good–that is, to become like Jesus Christ.

This is what we miss when we misread Romans 8:28. Our ultimate “good” isn’t going to be found in our circumstances, in whether we’re single or married, in whatever job we have. (You’ll notice that these are almost always the concerns people have when they’re trying to decipher God’s will.)
It has always been God’s plan, since before you and I even existed, to become like Christ–to enjoy the love of God and show that love to others, to be perfected and holy and walk in a new world with Him. This is a slow process that starts in the here and now. Sometimes, people take a long time to figure out what loving God and others mean. But no matter how long it takes each of us, we’re all going to eventually be made like Jesus.
I don’t just mean that we’re going to stop making stupid mistakes and no longer sin (although this is certainly part of it). I mean that we’re going to know what it means to be loved by God, to step into the loving dance that the Trinity has enjoyed for as long as the Trinity has been the Trinity. 
To become like Jesus is about much more than doing good things. Jesus knew what it meant to be loved by the Father and to find his identity in that love. This isn’t just one part of following Jesus; it is the whole goal of discipleship. It is everything that Jesus is trying to teach us. Because when your identity is rooted in the love of God, then everything changes and you’re free to be what you were always meant to be.
Jesus knew what it meant to be perfectly in the love of God. It’s what he prayed would happen for each and every one of his followers:
“… so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.”
That is the good being promised.

***

I mentioned before that you can’t screw up your life. Based on Scripture’s promises to people who love God, I hope it’s becoming clearer why that is.
If all things work together to make you like Jesus, even the worst decisions you’ve ever made, then there’s nothing in the world that can stop you from becoming what you were always meant to become. Even your mistakes will be used to draw you deeper into the love of God.
You can’t screw up your life when God will use even your poorest decisions to make you happier than you ever dreamed you could be.
The questions you should focus on aren’t, “What should I do? Who should I marry? Where should I work?”
We’re made to be loved by God and love Him in return. So the better question is, “Am I learning to love God right now? Am I pursuing love for my neighbors and my enemies, as Jesus taught?”
If you’re learning what it means to answer Yes to those questions, then you’re already in His will. You’re already living the story you were meant to have. And no matter what happens tomorrow or the next day or the day after that, your story is going to end just as it was always meant to.
Because of Jesus, your story is destined to end in one way and one way only: with Him, perfected in love.

Why (I Think) God Rested on the Seventh Day

There’s always been a question that comes out of reading Genesis 1: why would an infinitely powerful Being need to rest?

In the Bible’s first chapter, God creates the world in six “days” and rests on the seventh. You could come up with all sorts of explanations as to why this is, but I’ll give a possible one here:

As the narrative in Scripture unfolds, we learn more about this creative God. We learn that He fully revealed Himself in Jesus, but that Jesus and God are both divine and in union with each other but continue to be different persons. We learn that the Spirit, who was present at creation, is also Lord but still distinct from God and Jesus. The Christian tradition has always affirmed the doctrine of the Trinity–even if it didn’t always use the term. 

Jesus gave us a peak of into this relationship in his longest-recorded prayer:

“Righteous Father, the world does not know you, but I know you; and these know that you have sent me. I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.” (John 17:25-26)

In the Trinity is a mutual exchange of love that’s been going on longer than our minds can comprehend. This love isn’t based on how each member of the Trinity performed. The Father, Son, and Spirit loved one another because God is love.

Here’s my growing suspicion: God rested on the seventh day, in part, to show us that our goal is not to do work for Him but to know and join in this loving exchange. Even when God stopped working, He never stopped being loved. I think that’s the lesson some of us, especially myself, need to learn.

Our worth as people and our membership in the kingdom of God is not based on how good we are. We are members and we have worth because we are loved. We are a part of the eternal exchange of love because Jesus brought us to God. At no point will our acceptance be based on what we bring to the table. 

God rested to show that works aren’t the point. 

Being in loving communion with the Trinity is.

So stop fretting that you’re not doing enough, because that was never the point, anyway.