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Here’s today’s question, posted by my brilliant sister Lisa: What’s the right balance between my action and God’s action? Where do my dreams and God’s dreams intersect? 

There are those who believe God is a drill sergeant who enjoys giving really horrible assignments to us. The harder they are, the more they make us suffer, the better, because that’s how God is glorified: we become less, and God becomes more. So we put our boots back on, heave our packs on our already sagging shoulders, and press on.

It is possible that this view of God is true, at least to some extent. But I’ve mostly seen it make tired people even more tired. Then they give up on their dreams and on God. And then they assume God moves on to fresher recruits.

There is another view, one centered around the greek word eucharisteo.

Eu means good; charisteo comes from the root word charis, which means thanksgiving, grace, or gift. The Great Thanksgiving. The Good Gift. When Jesus broke bread the night he was betrayed, first he gave thanks. Before he was handed over, he eucharisteo’d. What does it mean to give thanks before enduring a broken body, before watching your blood pour out?

Ann Voskamp writes about this word in her fantastic book One Thousand Gifts. Rob Bell speaks about it here.

The body of Jesus breaks, and his blood is poured out, for the healing of the world. Some of us come together on Sundays to “celebrate” that broken body, that blood poured out. This is traditionally called the Eucharist. Why do we celebrate? Isn’t that a bizarre word to describe something so horrific?

We celebrate because many of us partner with God in the healing of the world. We suffer and we create. We give and we offer and we march and we go beyond. We love so that others might be healed. Single mothers do this every day, all day. Supervisors who really love their employees do this. Parents, coaches, teachers, CEOs, pastors, professors, garbage collectors… anyone who is giving anything of themselves for the healing of the world is partnering with God.

And when you partner with God in healing the world, your body gets broken and your blood gets poured out.

You become empty.

It hurts when your body is broken and your blood is poured out. It takes something out of you to serve and give so that others might be healed.

And that is why we need to come back to the Eucharist table – the communion table – to mend our broken bodies, to pour the blood back in. We cannot heal the world by trying hard. We give and pour and create, then we stop to remember that we cannot heal the world. We partner with the work of Jesus. We are not Jesus.

So where do my dreams intersect with God’s dreams? Is what you’re doing contributing to the healing of the world? Then do it and be at peace. Augustine of Hippo wrote,

“Love God and do whatever you please: for the soul trained in love to God will do nothing to offend the One who is Beloved.”

And when you’ve done that for a while, and you become empty, go back to the Great Giver to be filled back up. Because the Great Giver was emptied all the way out and didn’t run out, we can go back to that table any time and any place and we can be filled.

Read other posts in this series here.

I wrote this post a little over a year ago, but it seemed like a good one to repost. I keep needing to work on this. Perhaps you do, too. Happy Thursday, friends. In it together.

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You don’t realize there are rules about how people behave in public spaces until one of them is being broken. Sociologists call these social norms. I know this despite the fact that I bitterly failed my first Intro to Sociology exam as a freshman in college.

I was having lunch at the Maple Grove Byerly’s last week by myself, because I apparently enjoy paying $9 for a salad. Between bites of arugula and mushrooms, I noticed that an annoying radio station was blaring overhead. An angry woman kept raining down rant after rant, and I thought this was odd for Byerly’s. Michael Bolton set to musak? Not odd for Byerly’s. Angry, petulant female shock jocks reflected perhaps an expanding target market for this gritty grocery chain.

Then I noticed it wasn’t a radio station. It was an actual woman, sitting in this actual dining room.

She was across the room, and one of her shopping bags was sitting in front of her face, so I couldn’t see her. She was on her phone, and she was livid. So I did what everyone else was doing: I pretended to keep reading my book while simultaneously trying to hear every word she said.

Though there wasn’t space for the person on the other end of the line to speak, she kept saying, “I swear, you better let me talk, or I will hang up on you right now.” She must have said this a dozen times. There was mention of lawyers, and it was all just really, really loud.

The rest of us in the dining kept awkwardly looking at each other, as if to say, “Doesn’t she know where she is? Doesn’t she know this is our place, too? Doesn’t she know that she’s being completely inappropriate? Doesn’t she know she should leave?”

It went on and on, and I finished my salad and decided to go get a flu shot. You can do this in Byerly’s now. Soon we’ll be able to book a room for the night, as God intended for us to do in grocery stores. When I was filling out paperwork and waiting, I kept thinking about this woman. And then I thought about my reaction to her. I noticed something:

When people act inappropriately, my first move is to judge them. What’s wrong with them? Don’t they know they can’t do that here? I wish they would leave! They’re ruining my lunch!

I almost never realize how incredibly lame I am being when I think those things.

Steven Covey writes about a father with young kids on a subway car. The kids are wild, racing around, being loud and inappropriate. They’re clearly bothering the rest of the people who are trapped in the subway car, while the father just stares off into space. Finally, an exasperated person next to him says, “Sir! Get ahold of your children, please!”

This breaks him out of his trance, and he says, “Oh, I’m terribly sorry. It’s just that we’re just coming home from the funeral of their mother, and I just have no idea what I’m going to do without her.”

We really have no idea what everybody else is up against.

After I got my flu shot, I started walking back towards the dining room to see if the angry woman was still there. I had resolved to try to talk to her if she was done with her phone call. This scared me to death because it was certain to be a conversation that was quicksand, sticky and messy and never over. I was relieved when she was not there, so I went to the bathroom and drove back to work.

We can’t help everybody. We can’t jump into people’s messes and expect to fix them. But I wonder if a warm smile, a touch on the arm, and maybe the gift of a vanilla latté might have gone a long way for this obviously hurting woman.

Let’s notice when our first move is judgment, and let’s see if we have it in us to do something different, even if it’s small.

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Today’s question is a doozie, from my friend Jenny:

I dare you to talk about healing and what happens inside a person when they don’t receive the healing they were hoping for. It’s a risky topic, but very real.

I will, Jenny, but you’re going to help me.

A man in my church is dying of cancer. I saw him yesterday, and he is very near the end. His breathing is labored, he has stopped eating, and his face is drawn and shrunken. He is in his early 70’s, and his cancer progressed very rapidly. I prayed with him, anointed his head with oil, and sat with him while his body spasmed with pain. He can no longer talk. I whispered in his ear that he is ready for this journey. When he dies, his wife will have buried three husbands.

One of my college friends, a pastor, father and husband in his early forties, also has cancer. It is spreading, and the treatments are not working. If you read his Facebook posts, you’ll see that many people are praying for him. I am one of them.

I believe God heals some people’s bodies, and not in a glamorized, fainting while a man in a white suit prays for you on television way. I have prayed for healing for quite a few people over the years, and while many have not been healed, some have. One woman’s eyes had been going cloudy with cataracts, and she believed God asked her to ask me to pray for healing for her eyes. And so I did, and her eyes cleared up. I don’t know how to explain that. I didn’t feel special that day. I just prayed for her, and she was healed.

I also believe that not everybody who prays for healing gets healed. I have thought about this for many years, and the conclusion that I have come to is simply this: I do not know why some get healed, while others do not.

I also believe anybody who claims to know the answer to this question with utter certainty does incredible damage to people who are already hurting so very badly. It is excruciating to believe that God is good when it seems God is withholding healing for some, while pouring out healing on others, for no apparent reason, other than perhaps whim.

I will say this: I believe God’s character is most clearly demonstrated while dying on a cross, suffering with us to the very end.

I have seen a courageous few begin to find a different kind of healing, other than physically, on this dangerous journey of faith. My friend Jenny Hill is one of those people. She is the one who asked today’s question.

Jenny wrote a beautiful memoir that attempts to answer her own question, and she does it beautifully. She was born with Cerebral Palsy, and her book is called Walking with Tension. It is unflinchingly honest, very well written, and full of hope. She was taken to faith healers over and over again as a child, but her cerebral palsy was never healed. On that journey, however, something else far deeper inside of her began to heal, and that healing continues to this day. Jenny is one of my heroes. She asked me to write the foreword to her book, which I will share below, in part because I haven’t found anything new to say on the subject, but also because I hope it encourages you to read Jenny’s book.

If you are a Christian who is experiencing the disappointment and disillusionment that comes with unexplained pain and suffering, you have most likely received two kinds of responses from fellow Christians. Neither one of them helps, and yet you hear them with such frequency that you wonder if everybody’s reading the same faulty instruction manual entitled, “How to Simultaneously Dismiss and Offend Those Who Suffer,” which nobody has had the decency to burn, or at least rewrite.

Response number one involves people who seem to be more concerned with defending the character of God, rather than walking alongside you in your pain. Their opening arguments begin with the insistence that God is all-powerful, all knowing, and all good. God both initiates and allows your suffering because a greater plan is in the works. They will carefully remind you that even though you can’t see it, and don’t know it, God must have a reason for your pain. God, after all, is in control, and your job is not to understand, but to simply shrug your shoulders and wait until God’s plan finally unfolds.

Response number two involves pressure to follow an immediate action plan through which your suffering will stop. This involves following a formula which, if followed exactly, will relieve you of your pain as soon as you simply put it to action. You hear stories of people who were “just like you,” and now are completely healed. Your hopes are raised and then dashed when these formulas fail. You feel betrayed by God, horribly defective because nothing “works” on you, and perhaps your friends have even given up on you because you must not have enough faith.

In Walking With Tension, Jenny Hill follows neither path. Instead, she blazes a new trail entirely. She tells her courageous story of learning to live with Cerebral Palsy, wrestling and engaging with God all along the way. Her story is captivating because it is raw and in some ways, disappointing. I cried my way through this manuscript, at times yelling at characters in her life that responded to her in ways that were damaging and unhelpful. Jenny writes poignantly and honestly about her struggle to make friends in junior high school while maintaining her identity through excelling in academics. She tells of her relationship with a Christian “healer” who promised results that never came. She writes passionately about both her belief and her unbelief. She teaches us that becoming fully alive in God is a course in which we all must enroll, whatever challenges our life may present.

In the end, Walking with Tension is a story of beauty and redemption. Jenny is learning how to honestly grapple with the disappointing reality that some things are not healed, but she’s also learning to gratefully and eagerly accept the gifts that God has given her in her unique journey. God’s gentle friendship, healing, and consistent leading has marked Jenny in deep and profound ways, and her journey blazes a new trail for those of us who are struggling to find God in our suffering.

If you are a Christian who is experiencing pain and suffering, this book is not the answer for you. But it is the story of a very courageous person, who is learning that God accompanies her in her pain. That God is partnering with her in discovering how her redemption is helping other people to grow and heal. And that healing is sometimes found as one learns to walk out one’s pain and suffering without resolution, but with tension.

I will also point you to my brother-in-law Joel Hanson’s song Either Way. It is also beautifully written, and offers a satisfying response to this difficult question, at least for me.

In it together, friends.

The Parking Ramp

March 12, 2015 — 6 Comments

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It was a rookie mistake.

Last Saturday morning was warm for early March in Minnesota, and I was about to run my first race of the season – a 10 miler. The race started at St. Anthony Main, the quaint cobblestone riverfront section of Northeast Minneapolis, and parking spots are a little tricky anytime after 8:00am on race days. There was a surface lot, as well as on street parking, if I was patient enough to circle a few times, which I wasn’t. So I pulled up to a six story parking ramp on the corner, blithely entered its treacherous maw *, snaked my way up to the fifth floor, and finally found a spot.

It was a beautiful day for a race, and I did fairly well. By fairly well, I mean I finished and wasn’t in too much pain. I ran with my friend Brad, and the sun grew warmer and warmer as we chatted and ambled along. At the end of most races these days, you get a free beer, which is a little odd when you think about it. But hey, free beer! So we chugged our beer, and said goodbye.

I walked the stairs up five floors of the parking ramp, because I was trying to prove something to someone while my knees cried out in displeasure. By the time I finally got up to the fifth floor, the beer had worked its way into my system, and I was vaguely aware that I needed to pee. I was only 20 minutes from home, I thought. It can wait.

Oh, sweet Lord.

I saw the line of cars winding around as high and low as I could see, and they weren’t moving. I thought that was weird, but I climbed into my car and waited for them to move.

Only they didn’t move. Not even a little.

I began to get panicky. My head darted around, trying to make eye contact with the other victims. Is anybody else panicking? Is there something I don’t know about? Why aren’t we moving? What if I’m stuck in this car until the next Presidential election? And then, I realized: I really needed to pee. Why aren’t we moving? We should be moving! That internal monologue continued for about seventy years.

Then the cars moved! And the Jeep who could have let me in didn’t let me in. 

I then thought some thoughts that are unbecoming to a pastor. Four letter thoughts filled with venom and fury. I wanted Jeep guy to pay. I strongly considered keying his car, or slashing his tires, or demanding his first-born. The next car, a slightly used blue Toyota Corolla, let me in.

I cried. Sweet tears of gratitude, joy, rapture. **

It had been 31 minutes of waiting in my spot before I could back out of my spot. And friends, at this point, I really had to pee. And still, we hardly moved. I glanced down at my water bottle, the water bottle that I loved. The water bottle that traveled to Israel with me. The water bottle that is pink, which is my son Ben’s favorite color, and with which we have a kind of solidarity. The water bottle with a wide mouth, perfect for easy consumption. Or for other sinister purposes, the ones you consider when you’re stuck in a parking ramp and really, really have to pee.

We slowly circled down the ramp; finally moving in fits and starts. My angry bladder had moved past rage and into a kind of despair, and I heard it softly weeping as it realized I wouldn’t desecrate my favorite pink water bottle. Everybody began letting everybody else in, because that’s what you do when you move through the stages of grief: Denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and letting people go in front of you while driving.

After sixty-seven minutes, I was on the open road, racing home, sometimes coaxing my bladder, sometimes chiding it. 

Free at last, free at last. Thank God almighty, free at last. ***

I realized a few things in that parking ramp:

1. It is remarkable how little it takes to make me feel like I’m suffering.

2. It is remarkable how much I want people to defer to what I want.

3. It is remarkable how generous people are in times of crisis.

4. It is remarkable that I didn’t pee my pants.

And now, a benediction: May you find yourself stuck this week; in a rabbit hole, a dead end job, a frightening layoff, or with a screaming toddler, and may you see remarkable things about this world that you would not see any other way.

In it together, friends.

* Foreshadowing. Plus, anytime you can write the word “maw” in a 600 word blog, you must.

** Hyperbole. I didn’t really cry. But I could have. And probably should have. 

*** Yes, I just compared my one hour stuck in a parking garage to MLK’s life’s work. Entitlement is subtle.

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So we’re diving into all the questions.

Last week, I wrote about God, sin, and choice. I loved reading your comments; I could sense the gears in your brains and hearts whirring and popping as some of you took the conversation further. These posts, remember, are meant to be conversation starters, not stoppers.

This week’s question, from Maria: How do we know, without a question, without a single doubt, that God is real? And above all, how do we know whether or not we will be with our loved ones in heaven, and will we go immediately after death or after judgment day? 

Well that’s it, isn’t it?

If there is a God who put everything in motion, in whose image we were created, and who will eventually restore and redeem all things, would it be so hard for that God to make things a little more obvious? The suffering we experience – in our own lives and in the wider world around us – tends to suggest that perhaps God isn’t real. If God is real, how could God possibly sit by and endure such violence? If God is real, shouldn’t things be better, or at least be getting better? Since they don’t seem to be, we’re left to believe in a God who could do something, but doesn’t (in which case God is aloof, which feels uncomfortable at best, unconscionable at worst), or we’re left to assume that God is a monster who somehow revels in seeing people suffer. If God isn’t real, that at least explains all the pain, suffering, and evil we see and experience. We are not seeing the reality of the actual world if we do not at least wrestle with this agonizing question.

Well, here’s the thing of it: we can’t know without a question, without a single doubt. The nature of faith itself makes that kind of certainty – without a single question, without a single doubt – impossible. In fact, I would argue that certainty in many ways undermines a faith that dares to be risky (what if I’m wrong?) and gritty (can this hold up to all the humanness that we obviously see)? Having faith that God exists does not necessarily equate with having utter certainty about that God which you believe exists.

Let me explain.

When we read the harrowing story of Moses leading God’s people out of slavery and into the Promised Land, we find lots of faith in God, but almost no certainty. Will God eventually lead them out of the wilderness and into the Promised Land? Will the Red Sea part? Will the children of Israel ever stop complaining? Will Manna appear again the next day? If BBC could have interviewed Moses around year 16 of their 40 year wilderness wandering, I don’t think they’d encounter a smug leader. I don’t think he would have exuded a breezy confidence. I think they’d find a sometimes desperate man who nevertheless believed (most days, anyway) that somehow, God was leading them somewhere, and that some way, they would eventually find their way through that desperate chaos.

And the followers of Jesus had no certainty. They were convinced until the very end that they were going to be the kings of a new revolution. They never accepted that their journey was going to end with Jesus dying on a cross. Their answers to his questions confounded Jesus, and he walked away wondering how they still didn’t get it. Yet, they remained the ones in whom he placed his faith to start his church.

What trips so many of us up is that we think we need to believe in all of it before we believe in any of it, and we just can’t, so we give up and move on. If you can’t believe a story about a man in the belly of a whale, or an ark that could hold all of those animals, or a good God that would drown everybody else except for a few people and those animals, then we can’t believe any of it. And while I understand that, I just don’t think that’s a helpful way to start.

Here’s my suggestion: Start with what you can believe in, however small. If you’re wondering where to start, my suggestion is that you start with Jesus (the man). Whatever else you believe about God or Jesus, it is generally agreed upon that a man was born in an obscure middle eastern city in the First Century, and despite the fact that he never traveled far, married, wrote anything down, or lived past 35, he remains the most talked about human being on planet earth. He started a movement that continues to this day, despite hundreds of years of unimaginable cruelty done in his name (Crusades, etc) that should have put an end to it.

Start with an assumption: If it wasn’t true about Jesus, it isn’t true about God; and if it was true about Jesus, then it is true about God. If you believe what the bible says about Jesus (and I’m aware that not all readers of this blog do or will), then you believe that Jesus is the exact representation of God (Hebrews 1:3) and the image of the invisible God (Colossians 1:15). Now, I realize that raises 525,600 questions (including how can you believe that Jesus was the exact representation of God)?, but let those questions linger while you get to know Jesus, the one whose best friends included tax collectors and zealots (sworn enemies of each other), and who was despised by religious leaders but embraced by disgraced prostitutes and dying criminals. And I’m not saying “get to know Jesus” in a kind of smarmy, blue suit and big hair on T.V. kind of way, I’m saying it in an inquisitive, bring all your questions, all your doubt, all your uncertainty, all your unbelief kind of way. Jesus is the most talked about human being in human history. The bible claims that he’s the picture of who God is. Just come and see. That’s the invitation he gave to some of his earliest followers, so I am going to assume it’s still a good invitation today.

There is so much more to say, but I’m out of space and out of time. And I’m sorry, Maria, we’ll have to leave the questions on heaven and the afterlife for another post.

For those of you who would like to read more, I’d suggest Benefit of the Doubt by Greg Boyd, and/or Who is This Man? by John Ortberg. Orthodoxy by G.K. Chesterton should most certainly be on your list as well.

Next Tuesday, we’ll examine another delicious question. This Thursday I’ll be back with a post I just couldn’t not write. In it together, friends.

Read all other posts in this series here.

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So let’s get a few things sorted out before we dive in:

1. This is the beginning of a blog series dealing with questions about God, life, joy, pain, sex, doubt, Satan, the church, forgiveness, regret, hatred, and my own inability to quit a troubling late night nacho addiction. It is meant to be a thoughtful exploration and an ongoing conversation; the first word and not the last word. 

2. Questions are not dangerous. Questions are good for our souls. We can breathe when someone finally asks the question, the one that’s been lurking around the edges in whispers and shadows. Questions lead us somewhere; something good begins when we honor each other by asking them. 

3. Questions require tension for them to take us where we need to go. I love what someone said, “Answers before questions do great damage.” Let’s let the tension linger and see where it takes us. Questions help us to move towards God, who is best understood with a healthy dose of mystery versus mastery. Mystery asks “what if?” Mastery demands to know exactly how we’ll get out of this mess. Both are good, but in most matters, mastery without mystery is dangerous (besides plumbing, of course, and perhaps algebra, neither of which I have any mastery over whatsoever anyway).

4. These posts will be relatively brief. I cannot possibly cover every nuance of such difficult topics. Hopefully my thoughts will lead to conversations and more questions.

So, let’s go. These are actual questions that actual readers have actually submitted. We’ll start with any easy one, submitted by my old friend Sara, who is feisty and funny and deep.

Question: If God is the source of everything, we cannot escape the fact that God created evil. He created Lucifer, an angel, who I always assumed never had free will, yet he chose to desire to be like God, thus casting him away from God. Satan provides us with the free will or choice. Is there true love without choice? Do I really love my husband if there are no other men that I am not choosing? God desires us and our desire for him. Does this even exist without the choice of evil. Thus does God love evil/satan?

Ok, to be fair, there are quite a few questions lurking within this paragraph, and all of them are delicious. Perhaps the biggest one is this: If God is love, how can evil run so rampant? And if God is love, what is the nature of that love? How are we formed by it and how do we participate in it?

So let’s answer a question with another question. When is love first mentioned in the Scriptures?

It may surprise you to know that love is first mentioned in Genesis 22, in the troubling story where a father is asked to sacrifice a son. “After these things,” we read in Genesis 22:1-2, “God tested Abraham and said to him, “Abraham! Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains which I shall tell you.”

The very first time love is mentioned in the Scriptures, it’s in the context of a father loving a son, and having to make a terrible choice. Can you imagine it? Taste the salty tears that must have flowed that day, collecting on Abraham’s beard. Watch him avert his eyes while explaining to his son’s mother what he is about to do.

What is a test? And why is God testing Abraham? Why does love put people through tests?

A test is designed to bring out something that is already inside. If what’s inside is evil, it will come out. If what’s inside is good, it will come out.

Love, by its very nature, invites reality to come forth. And the only way reality can come forth is when a choice is given. It is Love, not Satan, which provides human beings with choice. Satan also offers choices, of course, but is not the author of choice.

Love asks you with whom you will trust your future. Love gives you the opportunity to see what reality is, and to turn from evil and towards good. Love helps you to see. Love always gives you the opportunity to see what actually is, to bring it to God, and allow God to transform it into something beautiful.

What will you do when what comes forth is covered in hatred, jealousy, and death? Only Love is big enough to absorb all of that and transform it into something good, even beautiful.

Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for 27 years, yet when he was released, he led a movement of freedom and reconciliation (it was equally possible that he could have led a movement of cynicism, bitterness, and revenge). To the degree that it is possible for Nelson Mandela to choose what he chose, it must by necessity also be possible for Kony to imprison 66,000 children as soldiers and sex slaves.

Love cannot create beings that do not have choice; that would go against the nature of Love. Love asks the question, whom will you trust with your future, even when faced with devastating circumstances?

But God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Perhaps the most defining and unique reality of Christianity has to do with a father having to make a terrible choice about a son. And this is love: the son willingly goes. Love walks up the mountain and chooses to sacrifice itself, rising again so that everything that comes forth might be transformed. What else could Love do?

Next Question, for next Tuesday: How Do we Know, without a question, without a single doubt, that God is real? 

Very juicy. Can’t wait. In it together, friends.

Read other posts in this series here.

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I have heard thousands of sermons. Except for my four years of college, when I went to church less than a handful of times, I have been hearing sermons for my entire life. And when churches started making sermons available online (for us all to consume any time we wanted to, as God intended), I listened to even more sermons.

I remember very few of those sermons.

When I was 23, I heard a pastor begin his sermon by describing a Jimmy Buffet concert that he had attended, and enjoyed. I was immediately delighted, not because I liked Jimmy Buffet, but because I was used to pastors talking about our kind of people (those who attended prayer meetings, punctuated only by the occasional game of Uno or viewing of Little House on the Prairie) and those kind of people (the ones who attended Jimmy Buffet concerts). I’ll never forget that sermon. It was a small thing, but the main question I was asking at 23 was, “Can I be a Christian and also enjoy life?” It mattered to me.

Does the sermon still matter?

I am writing this post to pastors, because I think the sermon really still does matter, and I want to encourage pastors to preach really great sermons, ones that leave people hungry, not full.

These are some of the things I try to do as I prepare to preach. I don’t do all of them every week. Last week, I barely had any time to finish my sermon, but it was enough. I hope these are helpful.

1. Start With Questions.  My text for a few Sundays ago was Mark 1:14-20, the one where Jesus says his famous line about making his followers “fishers of men.” I asked: “Why is it important that we know right away that John the Baptist has been arrested? Why is it important that they’re fishing in shallow waters? Does it bother anyone else that we bait fish and then eat them, and is Jesus really calling us to do that to people?” Questions help us get underneath the text, where the good stuff is.

2. Capture your ahas Immediately. The best ideas come when you’re doing something else – showering, driving, running, even talking to someone. You need to have a place to jot down your ideas/ahas/inspirations as they come. Many people use Evernote. Some people use Reminders on their iPhone. Some even have a little notebook they carry around. If you are trying to write your sermons all at once, they’re probably going to be shallower than you’d like them to be.

3. The Lost Art of Longhand. Our heads and hearts have time to catch up with each other when we write things out longhand. I used to use post it notes for this part of the process, but now I have a huge black glass dry erase board that I use to start capturing ideas, questions, ideas, and quotes – it all goes up there, and then I start erasing as I start focusing. Don’t start on your laptop. A blinking cursor and a blank screen is not inspiring. I dare you to try it this week. Even if you still do your final draft electronically, writing things out longhand will help your creativity and thought process.

4. Create when you’re at your best. Block out times for sermon preparation when you’re at your best, and be okay with saying no to people who want to meet during that time. Certainly, emergencies are the exception to this rule, but you need time to create, to sit with your questions, and to let the text become fresh in your mind. It’s okay to say no to some things because you have to prepare a sermon.

4. NO B.S. Have you explored and navigated the questions that the text raises, or have you jumped right to the answers? Nothing creates a stale, unbelievable sermon more than a trite, though well meaning phrase (examples: God is in control, God’s ways are not our ways, God will never give you anything that you can’t bear). These phrases are usually taken out of context, and they are conversation stoppers. Don’t be lazy. Don’t be trite.

5. Let it sit on Saturday. Play with your kids on Saturday. Don’t look at your sermon. Go for a walk, or a run. Don’t endlessly tinker with it. You’re wasting your time. Get up early on Sunday morning, give it one more pass, and print. You’re ready.

6. When you’re actually preaching, commit fullyIf you’ve decided to say something a little controversial, assuming you’ve prayed that through and talked to the right people, say it. If you’re going to go there, go there. Your whole sermon can’t be redlined, but you do need to fully inhabit moments and be passionately all in when it matters. This video is a great example of committing fully.

Sermons matter. They’re not the last word, they’re not the only thing. But I believe teachers have the great privilege of helping people “come and see” where God is dwelling in their lives and in the world, and then inviting them to embark on a journey with God that will take them somewhere we never could.

In it together.

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Let There Be Courage

January 12, 2015 — 1 Comment

Last week, I posted a blog about the beauty and expansion that happens in the world when people take the courageous journey of creating. It isn’t easy to create. We have to push through our own insecurities, plow past other people’s criticism, and keep walking into a future that is unsure. I loved reading each response. Each one was oozing with courage and bursting with goodness. Thanks to everybody who took the bold step to write out what you had created! 

My friend Lee Hanssen is creating something very good, a way to encourage people and help them see God in a new way – so I wanted you to know about it. In fact, today is the first day of his Kickstarter campaign, and I was one of the first to back it. Perhaps you’ll consider backing him as well.

Please enjoy reading Lee’s story below. And let there be lots of beauty and wonder in your own creative process, and also in the outcome! 

Lee’s Story

A while back a friend asked me to bring her a few of my favorite articles of workout clothing, so I did. Then she told me about her start up company and that she needed to send my stuff to some obscure country. I said yes, and I never got my clothes back. I’m still a little mad about that.

But I got something so much better.

At that meeting we started talking about Christian clothing companies. I almost threw up in my mouth (my apologies to anyone currently wearing something from or associated with an existing aforementioned companies). I told my friend the last thing Christianity needs is another shirt that says ‘Jesus Saves’ or ‘John 3:16’ painted across the front. Jesus does save and God loves this world, more than we will ever know. But those types of shirts never really did much for me. I’m not sure those types of shirts ever did much for anyone but the person wearing them.

When I read something I love – in the Bible or a really good book — I write on my hand. It’s usually a simple word that reminds me of what I’m learning. I couldn’t tell you how many times people have asked me about what’s on my hand and I have been invited to talk about Jesus…and I love to talk about Jesus.

So we started a company so I didn’t have to keep writing stuff on my hands. It’s called Branded By J. Otto.

Here’s how it works…

You hop on our website and shop by theme. Our themes are printed on the outside of the garment and represent life events we all have in common.

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Scripture has been carefully matched with the appropriate theme. We have something fitting for any situation.

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You have a chance to include a personal message. The recipient will also receive a link to an inspirational video explaining the verse on their garment.

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Your loved one has something they will wear for years and hopefully never forget!

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I have had the privilege to preach, teach, write, and talk about God in many different ways. And when my friend invited me to join her in this endeavor, it gave me another way to invite others into the conversation. It gave me an outlet to create something new, something significant out of what God has been doing in my life.

I have no idea how to start a company, but here is where I find myself: at times blissfully unaware, and at other times terrified of all that’s on the line. For me, it’s never really been about starting a company. It’s more about seeing an idea come to life. I don’t know if we will make it or not, but I sure hope we do. I think what we have created is worth sharing. I think what we have created will meet people where they are and help them take their next step of faith. I think what we have created comes from a deep place in our souls.

But we need your help. Please check out this link to back us on our Kickstarter campaign!

I hope we make it because I think what we have created is good…so very good!

— Lee Hanssen

Branded By J. Otto – Clothing With a Purpose.

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Every day, my boys create. They often emerge from the downstairs laboratory (adults refer to it as a basement) clad in masks and capes, armed with swords and light sabers. More remarkable than the costumes they wear are the sounds they make as they fight imaginary villains and rescue captives. Boys play in surround sound.

My boys are creative. They are always making something out of nothing. Give them a cardboard box and a few markers, and suddenly, there is a time machine or a tie fighter in our house (and if you think they’re just pretending – that we don’t actually have a time machine or tie fighter in our house – then you’ve lost the plot).

“Every time we say, Let there be! in any form, something happens,” writes Stella Terrill Mann. What does it mean to have the power to create something out of nothing?

We generally believe only a select few have this gift, but my boys keep disproving us every day, with every mask and every cardboard box. Elijah wakes up every day needing to create. One day, he couldn’t focus on anything else until he had created a little green monster out of paper, with jagged teeth, and a mouth that opened to talk. Another day, Mary found him in his room, surrounded by dozens sheets of paper, covered with dragons and volcanos and dolphins. When she asked him what he was doing, his response was telling. “Mom,” he said. “I just can’t keep up with all the ideas.”

We pastors talk a lot about being created in the image of God, and yet we rarely talk about bearing the creativity of God, whose first recorded words are “Let there be…” And then God says it six more times, and after seeing what was created, God declares that it is good. How arrogant! How self-promoting! Who makes something and then has the audacity to declare that it is good?

If it is true that we bear the creativity of God, then every human being holds tremendous power. Each of us can utter the words, “Let there be,” and things will actually happen. Yes, words needs to be accompanied with courageous action, but we can, and we must. Yesterday, a new congress was sworn in, and there are those who believe that this will change things. But a new congress will not change things. Courageous people who are willing to see what needs to exist, and who are audacious enough to speak those things into being, will change things.

In the past fifteen months, I have written a manuscript, planted a church, and worked to free 62 teenage girls caught in sex trafficking. It is hard for me to write those three things in succession, because I surely will be seen as a shameless braggart and self-promoter (and maybe I am). But here’s what is also true: many good things have happened in people’s actual lives because those things were brought into existence. Maybe we need a few more people who are willing to own, out loud, that what they created was good. And yes, to God be the glory, because God is the catalyst for all creative things. But God desires creative partners, and when we say yes to God’s creative initiatives, we get to emerge from our own laboratories, clad in beauty and goodness and light.

In the past fifteen months, you have created beautiful things. You have spoken things into being, and you have courageously done the work to make it so. You have said yes. And what you have created is good. I dare you — I dare you — to write what you have created in the comments below, and also to boldly declare that what you have created is good. It will be hard. You will fight the voice saying you shouldn’t be so self-promoting, because you are so arrogant, full of yourself, blah blah blah. Silence that liar with a bold clap to the mouth. We need to see the beautiful things that you have made that are good.

I dare you.

In it together, friends.

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candle_by_Alorn

On Christmas Eve, we’ll bundle our kids into their Christmas outfits, we’ll sing carols, and we’ll light the Christ candle. We’ll listen to the story about the God who came in utter darkness, to a world filled with violence and oppression, to be the Prince of Peace who would set all things right. We’ll celebrate the God came in the form of a vulnerable baby.

What a story.

It involved a virgin birth, requiring the permission of a 14-year old peasant girl, requested by angel, during a dream. It included a heavenly birth announcement sung by a choir of angels, to a group of nameless, poor shepherds in the middle of nowhere. It revealed that the Son of God actually was born in a barn. And it resulted in a Jewish baby boy born in a time when every Jewish baby boy was being murdered by a power-hungry king.

God with us.

The God who was untouchable & unknowable became the God was a baby who needed to be constantly held. Then a toddler who needed to be whisked out of the country. Then a Messiah who went to the cross. Then a King who stole the keys of death and hell.

God with us.

And this year, we need God with us more than ever, it seems.

Meister Eckhart wrote, “We are all meant to be mothers of God, for God is always needing to be born.”

You see, the hidden undertone of the incarnation is this: that God wants to be reborn in each of us, again and again, at all times and in all moments, so that light can always be present to heal the current darkness of our blind world. Every single one of us who says yes to God – across every generation of history since that first silent night – becomes pregnant with Jesus, who is eager to be born into each moment, each life, each generation. It is precisely in times when things seem darkest that Jesus is born anew in simple people like you and me, shining bright hope in shopping malls, schools, living rooms, office buildings, cul-de-sacs, skyways and street corners. Even funerals.

Jesus says, “I am the light of the world. I am simply looking for somewhere to be born.”

And so the question that comes to us, this Christmas Eve, is simple: Who has room within them for Jesus, so that he can be born anew in you? It’s not lost on me that a shabby stable was the only spot in which there was room for Mary to give birth to Jesus. We are stables, each of us, shabby and poor though we may be, and the Light of the World comes when we agree to shelter him within us, shining up through the cracked rafters and into the cold, dark night.

Is there room in you?

“We are all meant to be mothers of God, for God is always needing to be born.”

So this Christmas Eve, it’s not time to despair. It’s time to make room, so that the Prince of Peace can be born in our world, moment by moment, through you and through me. He is the light of the world. We simply hold and house the light and let it shine.