A Lifetime in Babylon

A friend of mine held a good job and was able to freely make a difference for God in her position, but she was terminated for no apparent reason. The subsequent positions she has held have been less than what she desires and full of difficulty. She knows that she took the original job after much prayer and careful consideration, but the loss has caused her a great deal of pain and confusion. “Where is God in all of this?” she wonders, especially given how much she loved her job and her obedience to God. So far, God has not revealed His plans or His reasons to her.

Her story is one of many like it. Sometimes the job is lost, and a better one never appears. The simple surgery does not go well, and despite the prayers and the assurance of the medical team, the family member does not survive. The relationship is not able to be mended, and the consequences echo for years to come.

How do we face those negative and hurtful, yet unchanging, situations of life?

I believe there is one key factor to begin to accept those moments with more grace and to reclaim hope in the middle of suffering: we must realize that there is more to come than the suffering we experience right now. We live in a sinful, temporary world in preparation for a sinless, eternal existence.

The Bible never promises that we will have worldly success and a lifetime of comfort while here. In fact, God promises quite the opposite…

“In the world you will have tribulation.” (John 16:33).

“Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Timothy 3:12).

“For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake” (Philippians 1:29).

But there is another promise that we can trust as well…

“And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28).

Notice that Paul does not write, “All things are good.” Some things are bad. Some are very bad. Suffering will come, but God will work and weave all things – the great times and the tragic moments, the happiest seasons and the darkest hours – for our ultimate good even if we do not see things become better during our earthly lifetime.

Take, for example, the words of Jeremiah as he conveys a message from God to the captives taken to Babylon. They want to return home and be free, but God tells them that they will be held captive for 70 years. He then commands them to live for Him in their exile assuring them that He has good plans for them and will return them to their land after a time (Jeremiah 29:4-11). Many of those in Babylon would never see God’s plans for that future fulfilled; they would die in captivity. But God’s ultimate plan is still good, and He is seeking a national restoration beyond many of their individual physical lives. Despite being held in a foreign country against their wills, God’s people are to make the best of the situation even though they are trapped.

You must live for God even if you are stuck in Babylon.

We might see God redeem some pain and certain situations, but all too often we expect a restoration here and now instead of seeking endurance to live for what is to come. Let’s fix our eyes on eternity and allow God to empower us to live for Him both in a dark world now, and also in the kingdom of light ahead.

These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of that land from which they had gone out, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city (Hebrews 11:13-16).

Muddy Water and Changed Hearts

We often miss what we need most because we refuse to see past the surface concerns of our lives. God will orchestrate events and allow pressures to come in order to expose the deeper issues and give us a clearer view of ourselves and our greatest need. Take the Old Testament character Naaman for instance (2 Kings 5:1-14).

Naaman was a great warrior and was held in high esteem, yet he suffered from leprosy. Hearing that a healing by the prophet Elisha might be possible, Naaman made a trip laden with riches to pay for a miracle. Upon arriving, Elisha sent a servant out with the message that Naaman should go wash seven times in the Jordan River, often-muddy and creek-like, for his healing.

“But Naaman was angry and went away, saying, ‘Behold, I thought that he would surely come out to me and stand and call upon the name of the Lord his God, and wave his hand over the place and cure the leper. Are not Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? Could I not wash in them and be clean?’ So he turned and went away in a rage.” (vs. 11-12).

Naaman’s arrival was not met by a welcoming committee, no fanfare and no red carpet, but a secondhand message to go wash himself in a muddy river.

Naaman thought that surely the clear rivers born in mountain springs back in Syria would have served him better. Why had he made this trip? For insult? For ridicule? To be ignored? After Naaman made such a journey, the prophet did not even bother to step outside to greet him, much less heal him.

His fury revealed a deep-set pride and showed that his most obvious problem was not his greatest problem. Naaman’s greatest problem wasn’t a skin problem; it was a heart problem. With his titles, his renown, his wealth and his victories, dipping into the Jordan seemed far beneath his station. Pride leads to spiritual poverty; it makes small things cost too much. Naaman saw his diseased flesh as too good for muddy water. You will never see healing as long as you are too proud for the cure.

Naaman did go to the Jordan eventually and was healed completely (his skin was not only repaired, but God restored it to a more youthful state).

God dealt with the heart before the skin and the deep truth before the surface issue. If you read the remainder of the account, you find that the greatest result of this event was not the physical healing, but that Naaman became a follower of God. When he stepped from the river, his skin was restored and his heart was too.

What “muddy stream” is God calling you to step into? He is leading you there not to deal only with your most obvious concern, but his greatest concern for you. So obey God, even if it does not make sense. Obey, even if your Jordan is far from home, and you don’t understand how God will work. Obey God knowing that when you step out into your waters, you’ll be changed into who he has in mind.

Looking in the Wrong Places

The women who arrived at the tomb of Jesus early that Sunday found it empty.

Well, almost empty.

Two angels were waiting, and preceding the announcement of the Resurrection of Christ, they ask the women the question, “Why do you seek the living among the dead?” (Luke 24:5).

The question is not just a question for Easter, but one to be asked every time we run to anything less than eternal to bring lasting meaning.

I shudder to consider how many times the “dead” things of the world are the focus of my pursuit instead of the “living” things offered to me by God.

We seek comfort from things that change.

We seek to build our private world with thoughts and dreams bent on tearing us down.

We seek anything other than God to set life right again.

We run to all manner of tomb-worthy endeavors…

Dead works incapable of bringing change.

Dead relationships stealing our peace and leading us astray.

Dead purposes keeping us occupied with less noble activities and choking our irretrievable time by the minute.

These things promise joy, contentment or love, but they can only bring temporary solace. Their end is not life-giving, but life-taking. We fail to see how much of ourselves these decisions will demand from us.

Everything we allow to come into our lives will either lead us farther from the tomb or deeper into it.

Where are seeking the living among the dead?

A Tomb, Two Spacecraft and a Blind Man From Texas

(My yearly repost of the reason I listened to a particular song just today...)

Blind Willie Johnson seemed to know early on that his future lay at the crossroads of two vocations. He built a cigar box guitar for himself when he was only five and told his father that proclaiming the things of God to the masses was his desire. He grew to become a preacher, and yes, a bluesman too. The story goes that, when he was seven, his father beat Willie’s unfaithful stepmother; she took bitter revenge by throwing lye in the young boy’s face, permanently blinding him.

Throughout the rest of his life, locked in a darkness fashioned by the fury of others, Willie sang songs of God, redemption and a much better future.

In his pantheon of verses and tunes, one remains my personal favorite: “Dark Was the Night (Cold Was the Ground).” Often re-recorded by other artists, none compare to the original 1927 version. The title is taken from an English hymn from the 1700’s describing the agony of Jesus as he prayed before going to the cross, but Willie Johnson’s song wordlessly encompasses the entire descent of Christ into the depths of suffering, isolation and death. Over the last few years, I have made it a tradition to listen to the song on the day before Easter because it reminds me of what that Saturday before the first Easter felt like for the followers of Christ. The Messiah was dead, and with Him perished hope, comfort and promise.

Since we know the end of the story, we often rush past any thought of that Saturday. We want to jump from the pain of Friday to the joy of Sunday without taking the in-between into account. The biblical text offers only brief detail about what happened on that day before the Resurrection. Matthew explains how the Pharisees asked for guards to be placed at the tomb (27:62-66), but there is no clear mention of the disciples’ activities on Saturday except for a line from the gospel of Luke: “On the Sabbath day they rested according to the commandment” (23:56). It was a Saturday of rest. No work was performed. No major task could be undertaken to occupy one’s time. The Sabbath was a mark of faith. To rest on the Sabbath was to acknowledge that God provides for His children; one’s own hand could never produce everything needed for life. Yet it seemed that God had indeed given, only to cruelly take away.

On that Saturday, hearts were broken. Mourning had just begun. Confusion and shock and despair overwhelmed the followers of Christ. They were waiting, not for Sunday, but for an end to the pain.

We all face a Saturday.

We face the in-between time.

We go through times when we compare “what is” to “what we expected” and are left speechless at the difference between the two extremes. Moments seem to stretch into agonizingly long periods of silence and pain. Perhaps you find yourself there now. You may be crying out to God, asking Him to work, to move and to show Himself, but you receive no answer. You may be waiting upon the glimmer of hope, the good report or the lifting of the pressure weighing you down right now, yet no relief comes.

The night is dark. The ground is cold. The grave is silent.

It is the Saturday experience.

In fact, one might view the entirety of creation as having a Saturday experience, for all of physical existence is in the in-between. A low and mournful cry rises up from the collective brokenness of the ages for “we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now” (Romans 8:22). The farthest corners of existence long for complete redemption. It seems only fitting that recordings of “Dark Was the Night” were placed on board the two Voyager spacecraft as examples of sounds from Earth. At this moment, an old blues tune about the “Man of sorrows” drifts along in the dark silence beyond the rim of our solar system as all of creation waits expectantly for the restoration and realignment of all things under Him (Acts 3:21; Ephesians 1:10).

We all live in a Saturday universe.

Just as the tomb of Jesus was not the final word on the matter, so too our Saturday won’t last forever. If you listen to Blind Willie Johnson’s song to the very end, you’ll find a hint of a better, coming day in the form of a tiny, bright end note. It is a note of resolution, but also a note of promise, a note of a song yet to be sung.

Saturday isn’t forever; Sunday will dawn.

The light shines in the darkness, and thedarkness has not overcome it (John 1:5).

“He is not here, for he has risen, as he said” (Matthew 28:6).

He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away” (Revelation 21:4).

To hear “Dark Was the Night…” click here.

Bare Spots

A friend of mine lost his wife years ago after a long sickness. He told me that he visited her grave every single day for a year. No matter the storms, sun or snow, he was there.

He said, “Do you know when I knew I had to stop going so often? When I looked down and saw that grass had grown over her grave, but the ground was bare in the place where I stood every day. I was not letting the grass grow over the bare place in my heart either. So, I started going less, and I started healing more.” When you have given something enough time, give it no more. When the healing comes, we feel guilty sometimes about moving forward, as though to take a step is to belittle the importance of what was lost or to disrespect the memory of what once was. We may never be fully free of the grief here on earth, but we can experience a healing that allows us to navigate the “new normal.” There is nothing wrong with thinking through what led you to a place, learning from past mistakes or having regrets, but careful examination can become morbid fascination. When that happens, the autopsy never ends.

When I think of healing and the strange inertia of pain, I remember the story of the man who could not walk…

When Jesus saw him lying there and knew that he had already been there a long time, he said to him, “Do you want to be healed?” (John 5:6). The man had been unable to walk for 38 years (John 5:5). It might seem strange that Jesus would ask him such a thing. But if you have slipped down the slope toward learned helplessness and into the deep valley of self-pity, you understand the question.

Jesus then tells him to “get up,” and the man is healed (5:8). Make no mistake, Jesus did heal the invalid, but the man had to obey Christ to know the full effect of the healing.

In other words, he could have been healed, yet never stood up.

Do you want to be healed?

On Crane Flies and Creation

A few days ago, I was leaving the church late in the evening. The temperature had dropped and the rains had passed, leaving a dense, cool fog hanging in the night air. As I walked to the doors leading outside, I noticed multiple crane flies dancing on the glass, trying to get in. The lights inside the building coupled with the warmth coming off the door attracted them, and they were flying about with spindly legs and delicate wings swaying.

I stood there in the dim light of the foyer watching them, thinking back to lessons I taught to my Biology students. Crane flies are sometimes called “mosquito hawks” because it was once thought by some that they fed on mosquitoes and other pests, but the reality is that crane flies cannot eat other insects. They cannot sting or bite at all; they are completely harmless. In fact, with the exception of a rare sip of flower nectar or dew, they don’t eat during their adult life stage. To make matters more interesting, the adult lifespan of a crane fly is only 10-15 days. All those facts went through my mind as I saw them out in the dark, searching for a way to get inside.

With a lifespan of two weeks, what is that time in comparison to an average human lifetime? But then, what is the lifespan of a human when we compare it to eternity? It’s not just us, it’s the whole universe. The world outside my window, your window, is growing old. Dying. Longing for redemption.

“For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now.”   – Romans 8:22

We see it in the weeds and thorns. In the suffering and cries of those enduring the wounds of life. In the violence and unrest and mistrust we witness daily. In the hospital rooms and nursing homes and gravesides. And yes, even in a few crane flies who will soon pass quietly like an evening fog.

We live in a world that will one day pass away (1 John 2:17), but we all will live forever…somewhere. Everyone you have ever met is an eternal being. When they leave this world, another awaits each of them: they either enter into the presence of God or are separated from Him for eternity. That is the reality of the need for redemption. Sin is serious, yet God is merciful.

Perhaps that is why the crane flies gave me pause when I thought how very much like the rest of the world they are: physically temporary and seeking light and warmth in the midst of the darkness and the cold. The dying world needs the one true light, Christ, to know what it means to truly live. “In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (1 John 1:4-5). One of the primary ways this happens is through those of us who follow Jesus when we understand that we are ambassadors to those outside our windows.

“You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” – Matthew 5:14-16

So, when the crane flies are on the breeze in their brief dance toward sundown, remember how short the time is, for all of us, and make the best use of the days as you live for Jesus in a cold, dark world desperate for light and warmth.

Of old you laid the foundation of the earth, and the heavens are the work of your hands.

They will perish, but you will remain; they will all wear out like a garment.

You will change them like a robe, and they will pass away, but you are the same, and your years have no end.

The children of your servants shall dwell secure; their offspring shall be established before you.

– Psalm 102:25-28


Endings can be hard. Beginnings can be harder.

We enter a new year often with fresh aspirations and new dreams. We plan. We make resolutions. We make promises to ourselves. Less dessert. More exercise. Better attitude.

Sometimes we succeed. Sometimes we falter with the follow-through, and at other moments we just give up. Why do we stop short when we could succeed if we pressed ahead? The answer is simple: we don’t want it badly enough to continue. Someone once said that we only seek something different when the pain of remaining the same exceeds the pain of change.

God will sometimes lead us into a season change by the pain of a burden. He will give a desire to see His will accomplished and will fan the embers of that passion toward His mission.

Take Nehemiah for example. The walls of Jerusalem had been torn down over 140 years earlier at the time of the events recording in the beginning of the book of Nehemiah. He was serving as the cupbearer to the king and, when he asked someone about how things were in Jerusalem, he heard that the walls were still torn down. This was not exactly what one might call breaking news as they had been that way for some time. But the point is not how long the walls had been down, but how passionately Nehemiah responded: “As soon as I heard these words I sat down and wept and mourned for days, and I continued fasting and praying before the God of heaven” (1:4).

It may have been old news, but it was a fresh burden.

So too, at this dawning of a new year, perhaps you need some divine sparks dropped into what seems like a cold hope. Maybe you have broken-down walls around you for which God wants to give you a burden for His change. And maybe you are facing old news, but a fresh burden from God will make you see things in a new light.

Nehemiah does return to Jerusalem, and he and the people rebuild the wall. Though they worked hard, faced opposition and pushed through difficulties, ultimately it was a divine mission favored by the Lord. In chapter 6 of the account, we find evidence of God’s hand at work in the rebuilding efforts: “So the wall was finished of the twenty-fifth day of Elul, in fifty-two days. And when all our enemies heard of it, all the nations around us were afraid and fell greatly into their own esteem, for they perceived that this work had been accomplished with the help of our God” (6:15-16).

A God-sized mission is only accomplished by God-given power.

As we begin this year, would you ask God to give you a fresh burden for what He wants to do in your life? Would you ask Him to break your heart for what breaks His? Would you ask Him to help you to see others as He sees them? Would you ask that He would give you a mission that you can only accomplish with His power so He is the only one who receives the glory?

Seek to fulfill His mission no matter the cost, because it is worth anything to make Him known.

Seasons Change

It’s safe to say that there was time when you did not consider you would feel this way right now.

You didn’t expect to be grieving.

You didn’t expect to feel such loss.

You didn’t expect to have a big, empty space inside when everyone else seems so very full of cheer.

You have questions too – questions that you might not ask aloud, but they still haunt your heart…

“When will this ‘new normal’ they talk about begin?”

“Will I ever breathe without this lump in my throat and the ache in my chest?”

“Will I truly laugh again?”

I wish I could give you counsel and wisdom that would assuage all your pain and heal your heart, but I cannot offer such gifts. All I can give is a few things that I, a fellow traveler on a road of grief and loss, have learned over the last few years. These truths have not eliminated the hurt, but they have provided some clarity and perspective that make a bit more sense of the journey and bring some hope to a soul longing for the light.

Death, grief and pain are common, but not natural.

Being a lead pastor and having served on church staff for a number of years, I am often in the company of death and suffering. Many times, when someone tries to offer encouragement to others, these phrases are used…

“Death is a natural part of life.”

“Pain is just natural, so we must learn to deal with it.”

“It’s natural to experience suffering.”

Those all sound quite pat and are accepted adages, but they are not accurate statements. Suffering, hurt and the end of life are common, yes. These things occur regularly. They afflict all who draw breath at some point in time. That is part of living as a human. But they are not natural. In other words, just because it happens to all, does not mean it is supposed to happen at all.

The plan was for humanity to live in perfect relationship and fellowship with God himself for eternity. We were fashioned for that reality. When sin entered the world, death and suffering entered as well (Romans 5:12). As a result of the corruption of perfection, we know that something about human pain is not right at all. It is unnatural. That is one reason it hurts us so deeply: it is not the way it is supposed to be.

God, in his mercy, sent Adam and Eve from the Garden after sin came into the world thus ensuring their physical deaths. We can say rightly that this was an act of mercy, because had they remained in the sinful state and continued to eat of the Tree of Life, they would have lived forever separated from God (Genesis 3:21-22). Though unnatural, our physical death became a means by which God could reunite us with himself through the sacrifice of Christ. It’s common, and it’s a hard mercy, but it is not natural.

Grief is a personal process.

Often someone will say to the grieving person, “I know exactly how you feel.”

That is a wonderful sentiment, usually offered as a statement to show empathy on the part of the speaker, but even then, the statement is not truly accurate. A person may know the same type of feeling and may have experienced something very similar, but no one knows exactly how you feel in your pain. It is impossible to do so.

You hold specific memories and enjoyed experiences with your departed loved one that no one else had, so your loss is highly specific to you.

There were moments of your lost relationship or ended marriage that are burned into your heart and mind that you sort through personally.

Your secret pain belongs to you; no matter how many have walked similar roads, the individual twists and bends are unique to your journey.

The Psalmist was no stranger to personal pain. “Turn to me and be gracious to me, for I am lonely and afflicted. The troubles of my heart are enlarged; bring me out of my distresses. Consider my affliction and my trouble, and forgive all my sins” (Psalm 25:16-18). Notice how pointedly individualistic the suffering is for him: “my heart,” “my distresses,” “my affliction” and “my trouble.” Might I remind you that this is recorded in the Bible itself and evidence that the people of God are not immune from pain.

Grief is common, but not natural; grief is not general, but personal.

It is also a process. You don’t get better overnight. Jeremiah penned the raw words, “Why is my pain unceasing, my wound incurable, refusing to be healed?” (Jeremiah 15:18). It’s personal (‘my pain,” “my wound”), but also a process that he feels has no end. There indeed is a “time to mourn” (Ecclesiastes 3:4). The process of grief is a process of healing. To rush along is to rob oneself of the wholeness built along the way.

Like you, I have heard people at times say, “Cheer up! You have so many things going for you! Stop grieving; you should just have your hope in Jesus!” Every time I hear someone say things like that to me or others, I think of the proverb, “Whoever sings songs to a heavy heart is like one who takes off a garment on a cold day, and like vinegar on soda” (Proverbs 25:20). It’s foolish to take off a coat on a cold day, irritating or even painful to take the coat from someone else and leave them freezing, and vinegar poured on baking soda fizzes and bubbles but accomplishes little. Essentially, when we encourage someone to ignore genuine grief, we leave the person chilled with meaningless words.

Grief. Takes. Time. Give it the time it takes.

God is not indifferent.

Psalm 77 has been my default passage when I feel forgotten by God. The raw and unabashed honesty of the writer in his state of grief stands as a minor monument to the reality of suffering in our lives. “Will the Lord spurn forever, and never again be favorable? Has his steadfast love forever ceased? Are his promises at an end for all time? Has God forgotten to be gracious? Has he in anger shut up his compassion?” (Psalm 77:7-9). In your suffering, it is easy to believe that God has misplaced you or overlooked your plight, or worse still, that he sees you in your pain and has decided to remain inactive.

But God is not indifferent to human suffering. I am reminded of John 11. When Jesus visits the tomb of Lazarus, he weeps. Now why did he weep, knowing that he planned to raise his friend from the dead? Certainly, given the earlier conversations with his disciples, it was in his plan to allow the death of Lazarus in order to show his power over the grave. But weeping? The reality of hope does not erase the sting of grief. Even God understands that.

God cares.

God knows where you are.

God loves you.

And God offers genuine concern when his children hurt, just as any good father would. Scripture points to the hard reality that we mourn, and shows us that comfort will come (Matthew 5:4), and God will bring that comfort.

Perhaps the hardest part of grief, regardless of the season, is the next hour. Each day seems to be unending. Grief nearly suspends time, slowing it to a crawl, and then extracts a moment-by-moment toll.

“Those who sow in tears, shall reap with shouts of joy” (Psalm 126:5). That is the difficult thing: sowing in tears. You sow to reap; you reap to eat. No sowing means no survival.

Despite your grief, you go shopping, buy groceries, clean your home, wash your clothes, go to work, make dinner and do the hundreds of different things that you must do in life. These are things that may have never seemed to be burdens before, but now, in the pain, they seem like Herculean tasks.

You sow in tears.

And those around you carry on with their own lives, busy with their own trouble and seemingly oblivious to your hurt. You might want cry out, “Don’t you know that things are not OK? Can’t you see the pain?” Suffering is an isolating experience. Psalm 88:18 reads, “Darkness has become my only companion.” The closest thing to you in hurt is the darkness, yet you want to articulate the grief to someone.

You just keep sowing. And keep crying.

But the promise for a time of reaping remains.

A time will come when things are better. All things will be set right on the day that Jesus removes all our pain for good. “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away” (Revelation 21:4). That will be a time of the greatest harvest of all.

But maybe you don’t have to wait until then. Perhaps you will “see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living” (Psalm 27:13). In God’s perfect timing, little by little, you’ll find your smile again, even if it seems hopelessly lost right now. Joy will come, even after great darkness. That wound you have may never be erased permanently here, but even the scar will speak of the grace given to you.

Will you ever be the same again?

No. You’ll be different. The loss will always be there in some way.

Your memories will still be bittersweet, but maybe just a bit sweeter with each passing season.

Keep sowing, even in your tears, and wait for the joy of the harvest.

(For those mourning the loss of a loved one at this time of year, this video offers some heartfelt encouragement: click here)

Christmas Plans

“What do you have planned for Christmas?”

That was the message from a friend of mine waiting in my inbox recently. Perhaps others have asked you the same question, and maybe your traditions or your schedule have already determined which relatives’ homes will be visited, what meals will be eaten and when gifts will be opened. We all make plans, and Christmas can be a season of loading the calendar to the brim with activities and logistics.

But in our planning, we mustn’t forget that God has plans too. In fact, the first Christmas was His perfect plan played out on a cosmic stage. He knew what He was doing then, and He still does now. Some moments regarding the birth of Christ are clear and dramatic evidence of divine action, like the angels appearing to the shepherds, but other moments threaded through the narrative reveal God’s hand and His plan, but only after delving a little deeper.

The moment that usually comes to my mind is Bethlehem. Why were Mary and Joseph going to that particular town anyway? In a word: Rome. A bit of history may be in order to give the cultural context of the world at the time of Jesus’ birth…

A man by the name of Gaius Octavius took control of Rome in 31 BC, and three years later the Roman Senate declared Octavius to be the official emperor. Two years after that, they gave him the title “Augustus” or “exalted one.” This title was one that symbolized great authority, a power so mighty that the bearer was believed to hold sway over all humanity and even nature itself. That title has come down to us in the word “august,” which is not only the name of a month on our calendar, but is also used to describe someone or something that is impressive or respected.

This is the same Caesar Augustus mentioned in Luke chapter 2…

In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration when Quirinius was governor of Syria. And all went to be registered, each to his own town. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the town of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be registered with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child. And while they were there, the time came for her to give birth. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn (vs. 1-7).

Under Augustus, a large number of reforms took place. Massive building projects improved the city of Rome’s physical appearance and practical functionality while the extensive system of roads stretching throughout the empire was expanded. The ever-present military and firm rule over would-be rebellions and conflicts ushered in a 200-year span of great peace known as Pax Romana, or the “Roman Peace.” In addition to these changes, Augustus instituted sweeping tax reforms resulting in a systematic and direct form of taxation in all the provinces governed by Rome.

The registration (or census) decreed as described by Luke served three purposes: to identity the number of people under the control of Rome, to establish the number of young men qualified to serve in the military and to calculate taxes to be collected. None of these sat well with the Jewish population. Rome was a conquering, yet pagan, empire ruling over the subjects with an iron fist of military might and occupying the traditional homelands of others, that forced the Jews (as well as all the other nations in the area) to bend to plans of domination and taxation.

These political-financial motivations moved Augustus to make the decree, and Joseph and Mary made their way back to the hometown of their ancestor (David) to register: Bethlehem. But since “the king’s heart is a stream of water in the hand of the Lord; he turns it wherever he will,” we can trust there is more going on than may first meet the eye (Proverbs 21:1).

There were two Bethlehem’s in the Holy Land; one was to the north and the other was in the south. God left nothing to guesswork about the location of the Messiah’s birthplace because He specified the southern of the two towns in a prophecy found in the book of Micah…

But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah,

    who are too little to be among the clans of Judah,

from you shall come forth for me

    one who is to be ruler in Israel,

whose coming forth is from of old,

    from ancient days (v. 5:2).

As we zoom out and view the whole of history, we see that Augustus, the “exalted one,” in expanding an empire, issued a decree that moved the Messiah, the Annointed One, to the exact prophesied place of birth where He was born the King of Kings. Not only that, the long peace brought by Augustus’ reign and the massive network of Roman roads later allowed for the rapid spread of the gospel of Jesus throughout the known world. Only God’s hand could stitch such a pattern.

If God can orchestrate the birth of His Son at the right time in the right place, despite what may seem like harsh conditions or unfair circumstances, He can do the same in all our lesser, everyday moments of concern.

So this Christmas, when your plans are disrupted or delayed, when unfair and hard moments arise or when you find yourself unhappily trudging to your own Bethlehem, remember that God has a plan in mind, and that plan is good.

Supper Club

Last night, my brother, his girlfriend and I had a little meal together. Dubbed “Supper Club,” we enjoyed fresh Maine lobster courtesy of Huckberry (for winning their caption contest on Instagram), bacon-wrapped shrimp, steamed asparagus and homemade mac and cheese. And, of course, plenty of sweet tea.

I retrieved my grandparents’ old kitchen table from storage and set it out in the field where my brother and I played often as kids. That worn table has been host to countless breakfasts of cinnamon toast, biscuits and grits, lunches of fried chicken and black-eyed peas, and now, I suppose we can add lobster to the long list of meals that have graced that simple wood surface.

The meal was one to remember: full of laughter, reminders from our childhood to “sit up straight,” and nature’s own light show. The crickets chimed along as the sky lit up like county fair cotton-candy as summer slipped away once again.

As the darkness fell, and the last plate was brought back inside, my brother looked at me, smiled and said, “Hey, let’s do this again.”
And we will.

The Preeminent Ordinary One 

Head of Christ – Warner Sallman (1940)

I once saw a mural of Jesus in the classic “sitting-on-a-rock-looking-over-Jerusalem-at-night” pose. The first thing I noticed was the way the painter had depicted the face of Christ: he was not attractive at all. In fact, the face was quite unremarkable in every way and quite unlike the “expected” image of Jesus.

Had someone taken the context of the painting away, shown me only the face and asked me to guess who it might be, Jesus would have been low on my list. In all honesty, there was a part of me that felt slightly offended by the way he looked.

There were no chiseled features.

No perfect beard.

No piercing, yet warm, eyes.

He just looked so…regular.

My view of Jesus can be too glamorous.

Certainly he is the King of the universe.

Yes, he is the unique God-man.

And all creation hinges upon him.

But then, I tend to forget about a passage in Isaiah…

For he grew up before him like a young plant, and like a root out of dry ground;he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not (53:2-3).

Jesus, in his humanity, “had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him.

In his appearance, he was unremarkable.



There was nothing attractive about him.

Why does that unsettle us?

Maybe it is because we have seen so many depictions of Jesus as a beautiful human, and a plain-looking Savior clashes with the artistic precedent in our minds. The expectation of a carefully-tended Messiah was popularized largely by the mass spread of religious artwork in the mid-1900’s and standardized by Warner Sallman’s work, “Head of Christ.” The painting even looks like a celebrity headshot from the 1940’s. But a not-so-handsome Jesus? That idea pushes back against our collective, media-influenced preconception.

Maybe we forget that a God who came as a baby, was born in humble surroundings and labored as a common workman is the same God who would move among the masses for years, unknown and without fanfare, until beginning his redemptive work. And even then, his own family members did not see him as being a candidate for Messiah (Mark 3:21, John 7:5).

But perhaps the deeper reason for the distaste toward an average-looking Jesus lies in Isaiah 53:3…

He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief…

Do I want my Jesus to be a regal human?

Yes, I want the human Jesus to be attractive to and accepted by society because he calls me to live as he did, and I don’t want to follow in the footsteps of rejection.

One does not aspire to rise to the example of Jesus, but must die to self and stoop to his example.

Would I have followed Jesus back then?

Would I have dismissed him?

Would I have been put off by his appearance instead of receiving the beauty of his message?

But a more pressing question is this…

Do I avoid following Jesus as closely as I should because I know rejection follows that kind of faithfulness?

BBC computer-generated depiction of Jesus based upon common characteristics of the time

Blessings From Below

“Position before submission.”

Those were the words spoken to me by an instructor in a martial arts class as I steadily ratcheted the force on my opponent in an attempt to make him tap out and thus end the match. The problem was not in a lack of force, but in the subtle details of the placement of the force. A corrective nudge with my elbow, a shift in my body posture and then a slight angle change caused a sharp cry of pain followed by the frantic slapping of my leg by my opponent’s hand. The submission followed the position.

What is true in physical combat is also true in spiritual battle.

To the church at Ephesus, Paul writes, “For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12). We wrestle against evil. We grapple with it. We do not participate in sterile, long-distance attack but heated, hand-to-hand, close-quarter combat. Satan works to position us for our fall. He is both sneaky and strategic. We are warned to “stand against the schemes of the devil” (Ephesians 6:11). He has wiles and deceitful plots fabricated for humanity as a whole, but also personalized for you.

Those crafty, evil plans executed with patience are designed to lead us astray, not only in the moment of submission, but in the time of positioning. We expect a frontal assault, not a systematic reduction of our defenses.

We make the mistake of believing Satan will always come as a roaring lion instead of an angel of light (1 Peter 5:8, 2 Corinthians 11:14).

Sometimes the subtlety is astounding.

James 1:17 shows us that every good and perfect gift comes from God (an idea I have expounded upon more here), but Satan would love for us to turn a good gift bad and cause us to stumble over the good thing God has given.

“But wait,” some would object. “But every good gift is from God, and Satan always works against the things of God! How could those things be used that way?”

Some things we view as good may not be truly from God, and some good things from God can be used by our flesh (the habits of who you are before you know Christ or that unredeemed part of our humanity) and used by Satan to work against us. But the thing we must remember is this: Satan will allow us to enjoy a short-term victory in order to lead us to a long-term failure.

That is a “blessing from below.” You undertake a cause, begin a relationship or move in a direction, and Satan might fight you at every step…or he just might allow you to have success in that particular area, and you move forward unimpeded not realizing that his plan is a push toward destruction made easy by your forward momentum.

When I learned to drive, my father taught me that, at night, I could accelerate beyond my speed to react to the limited amount of road I could see in the headlights. I could “outrun my light.” In the same way, Satan sometimes removes constraints so you can run freely, only to outrun your ability to slow down and careen out of control.

Sometimes the victory is used as part of the attack.

There is an old Japanese proverb: “After victory, tighten your helmet cords.” Success does not always eliminate the threat entirely. Dropping one’s guard can result in a renewed assault. The best course of action is vigilance in victory – tightening the helmet cords. When you win a spiritual battle, you are vulnerable to attacks because the tendency is to relax and strip off your armor. A win can be as deadly as a loss.

Few things will embitter you as quickly as someone else’s success, and few things will blind you as quickly as your own. The ease of success is not always from God. Satan will allow you to set yourself up for a fall by permitting success while knowing your flesh will seek to betray you. Your flesh will never be satisfied with spiritual wins, but will seek self-destructive gains. The ever-present traitor waits and works to destroy your spiritual well-being. Your flesh is loyal to the old you. Your flesh resists the regime change.

The blessing from below comes not only in the form of fighting the reception of the good thing, but in allowing you to pursue that good thing in the wrong way. Evil does not always come knocking at our front door in an attempt to cause us to hate God in an outright fashion; often it slips in the back door and distracts us with other, lesser things.

We might not hate God, but it is just as destructive to love other things more than Him.

So how do ready ourselves?

Set you mind and be on guard against the blessings from below (1 Peter 1:13).

Test all things (1 Thessalonians 5:21).

Walk with care (Ephesians 5:15-16).

Your enemy will help water your garden knowing that it can grow to the point where it blocks out your view of the sun.

A Paper Wasp, a Stoned Messenger and a Redeeming God

Sweet Pea, one of my mom’s horses, looked on with a placid stare as I growled, hissed and spat in the moments after a large, mahogany-colored paper wasp rammed its stinger into my lower eyelid. I was cleaning out the horse’s trough so I could feed her when the dive-bomb attack occurred. It was sudden, unprovoked and, all things considered, a dirty, sucker punch orchestrated in a brain the size of a pinhead. Continue reading

An Honest Review: The Chick-fil-A Rap

“The Chick-fil-A Rap,” the latest offering in the video pantheon of Emily Powell, sings the praises of the humble yardbird and elevates the ubiquitous food to a near-divine pedestal of ambrosial satisfaction. The understated opening begins with a tracking shot of the rapper Diggle-Wiggle walking across the parking lot of a popular Chick-fil-A (a specific location, I might add, that has been the source of a couple of deeply meaningful meals for this reviewer). As he enters, the revelatory shift comes: he is no mere customer, but a poultry evangelist. With the confident swagger and pleading earnestness of a tent revivalist, Wiggle warms to his theme of the desire for, or more accurately, the necessity of, menu item #7 (the biblical number of perfection). As his testimony builds, a robe-clad choir punctuates and encapsulates the message with the refrain: “Ain’t got nothing if I ain’t got Chick-fil-A.” Clearly, this is serious, life-or-death business. Only great providence meets the most desperate of needs.

The mood takes a somber and contemplative turn as P-Nasty makes her entrance. Stealing in under the cover of darkness, she confesses to falling away from the way of the Baptist bird. We are left to draw our own conclusions as to where her wayward path might have taken her. She may have succumbed to burgers sold by a clown, been lured by border foods wrapped in border foods held together with cheese, or perhaps she listened to the siren’s song of a purveyor of promised 11 secret herbs and spices (a number symbolizing disorder, something far from perfection). Whatever her transgressions, she knows that no other eatery offers the fellowship and membership under the beacon of the red-lettered sign. But to receive the invitation, she must make the journey; she must cross the road.

As she enters, the darkness dissipates as choir members welcome P-Nasty back to the flock. She spreads her arms in wing-like fashion as her hard-core street attire is enrobed in the dress of the faithful. Her sins are covered, and she is lifted up.

The prodigal has returned.

The party begins.

The fatted calf is feasted upon. (Or in this case, sweet tea is lavishly poured out as a drink offering.)

Ultimately, “The Chick-fil-A Rap” is not about chicken at all, but the grand themes of life. Wherever you may have fallen, mercy is available under the caring wings. The call goes out for all. Celebration follows reconciliation. Straying, redemption and returning home–it’s all there, distilled into 3 minutes and 21 seconds (3 being the number of divine unity and 21 being a multiple of 7 and 3…make of it what you will).

This work of art demonstrates definitively that P-Nasty’s words ring true: “I’m not finished; I’m just beginning.”

Click here for video.