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How Do I Know? Relationships Edition #2

[Part 2 of the blog adaptation from yesterday's message at The District Church: "How Do I Know? Relationships Edition." Read part 1 here.]

Holding handsHow do I know whom and how to date? Our city has one of the highest percentages of single people in the country; and our church is about two-thirds single.

Before you read this, you may want to read part 1 because how we view and practice Christian community has a tremendous impact on our dating lives. And that’s because how we view and practice Christian community has a tremendous impact on our lives, period.

It’s easy to think of romantic relationships as their own separate category: school, faith, work, friends, dating. But that sort of compartmentalization can be dangerous because faith is supposed to be interwoven through everything else. As theologian Abraham Kuyper said:

There is not one square inch of the entire creation about which Jesus Christ does not cry out, ‘This is mine! This belongs to me!’

So what does it mean for your dating relationships—or, taking a step back, the way you look at romantic relationships—to belong to Jesus? Last summer I preached a sermon on what it means to be single (July 28, 2013)—you’re welcome to go back and listen to that too, if you want. But this week, I was reading a book and a line in it jumped out at me:

Jesus was the greatest Lover who ever lived.

My first reaction was to get defensive—What do you mean? Jesus was single and celibate his whole life—and if you’ve been following the latest news, the so-called fragment that said that Jesus was married was shown to be a fake. How can you say he was the greatest Lover who ever lived?

And I realized that I’d made the mistake that’s so easy to make, the mistake that the world around us makes all the time: confusing sex with love; thinking that in order to be a lover, in order for you to know what love is (and I want to know what love is), you have to have had sex or at the very least, been in a romantic relationship.

But Jesus lived the fullest life any human being has ever lived, he lived the most loving life any human being has ever lived, and from what the Bible tells us, he was never in a romantic relationship. So maybe we need to reevaluate our understanding:

  1. of what it means to be human,
  2. of what it means to be in relationship, and
  3. of what it means to experience life to the full.

You are not incomplete without a romantic relationship.

You are not any less because you are not married.

You are not barred from life to the full until you’ve had sex.

Your worth and your value are not based on your relationship status.

Your identity is not found in how many boyfriends or girlfriends you’ve had, whether you have one now, or whether you will ever have one.

We are all incomplete, flawed, and broken human beings; and none of us will find our completion in another incomplete, flawed, and broken human being. The early church theologian Augustine wrote,

You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.

We are made for God, and God alone will truly satisfy the deepest longings of our souls. Our problem is that we often put the expectation of a need that only God can meet on the shoulders of another person—with his or her own baggage and needs and sin—and in doing so, we fall into the trap that C.S. Lewis describes, where: “Love, having become a god, becomes a demon.” When we put all of our emphasis on romantic relationships, it can become all-consuming.

Now I’m not telling you to kiss dating goodbye. We are created for relationship, but not necessarily for romantic relationship, though we may get to experience that too. Let’s look at 1 Corinthians 13, the passage where Paul talks about love, the passage that’s so often quoted at weddings:

Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

Two quick things I want to point out. First, Paul isn’t talking here about romantic love—yes, love in the context of romantic relationships should look like this, but all love should look like this. Loving your friends, loving your parents, loving your siblings, loving your roommate, loving the folks in your small group, loving your colleagues, loving your boss, loving your neighbor … and loving your enemies. Jesus commanded that too. This is what love looks like in every situation.

We often approach marriage knowing that it’s going to be about sacrifice and commitment and putting the other person first and love in that sense; but we approach dating thinking it’s all about me and who fits best with me and who is most compatible with me.

I realized a couple years ago that, with that approach, I was basically looking for a person exactly like me but female and much better looking—she’d fit right in to everything I was already doing: love the same TV shows, the same books, have the same political stance and the same life experience. That would require the least effort and the least change. And I realized that that would also mean the least growth. So when Carolyn came along and was different in what felt like almost every way, apart from the fact that she loved Jesus as much as I did and she loved me like I loved her, I had to decide whether I wanted to stick with it and to grow, knowing it would be hard.

Here’s the second thing I want to point out about 1 Corinthians 13: it takes maturity to practice this kind of love. It takes self-control and sacrifice. It does not come easy. You can have many years under your belt and not practice this kind of love because you’re still living like a kid; you think the world revolves around you.

One of the ways God grows us is through relationship, through community: by bringing us into contact with other people. It reminds us that God is far bigger than just our experiences of him and it challenges us to keep growing, to keep being transformed to be more like Christ. So, if you want to know how you’re supposed to know whom and how to date, think about it in this way:

What will help me to become more like Jesus?

This question is applicable not only to romantic relationships, but to life and to every single “How do I know?” question you’ll ever have.

In the realm of dating, the odds are that you’ll meet someone who’s different from you, and you’ll have the opportunity to grow because you’re different. Sometimes the question you ask may be the one Carolyn and I asked: “Are we different in a way that complements each other or are we different in a way that drives us apart?” But if we try to look at it in light of the goal of becoming more like Jesus, the question may become more like:

Is this relationship helping both parties to do that or are your differences so great that you spend more time arguing than you do praying, more time defending your corner than you do serving each other, and more energy recovering from your reactions than moving together toward Christ?

Maybe what will help you become more like Jesus right now is to stop treating people as simply a means for fulfilling your needs—whether emotional or physical or sexual. Maybe you need to step back and step away from dating for a while because you’ve been bouncing from date to date, from person to person, hoping that you’ll meet “the One” as long as you keep churning through. Maybe God wants you to stop looking for the one you think you want to be with, and he wants you instead—and we’ve said this before—to be becoming the kind of person the kind of person you’re looking for is looking for.

And that person that you’ll want to become is probably patient and kind and not boastful or envious or arrogant; that person is probably a 1 Corinthians 13-type lover; that person is probably not actually worried whether he or she will end up with anyone because that person will know that it is God alone who satisfies; that person is probably very similar to what Jesus is like—that’s the person God wants you to be because that’s who you were made to be, because that is life to the full.

I’d encourage you to start letting God do some work in you now, because unless you take action to make changes—to allow God to be at work in you—what you do before you date is probably what you’ll do when you date, which is probably what you’ll do when you’re engaged and probably what you’ll do when you’re married. And that applies to everything: checking out good looking women or men whenever they walk by, turning back to old addictions when things don’t go the way you hoped, using dating relationships to fill the void in your life and distract you from the deeper issues or from the fact you don’t feel like you have any control. God has given you control over certain things in your life, including the direction you walk in, the person you model your life on, and the God you choose to trust.

There is no formula to know whom and how to date—though there are principles you can follow: treating each other with honor and respect as image-bearers of God, for instance; or treating our bodies as temples of the Holy Spirit. There is no formula to know the ‘right’ friends to hang out with or how often—we are all wired differently and so are the people God has placed around us.

Formulas don’t help us to become better people; formulas don’t help us to develop character; formulas don’t help us to grow because formulas don’t force us to wait or to figure out who we are choosing to become rather than just looking for what we think we need right now. Formulas don’t help us to become more like Jesus.

Relationships and community can help us to become more like Jesus; that’s why God intended for us to be in community—and specifically in the community of faith—worshiping together and praying together and weeping together and supporting each other on the path toward God and Christlikeness—not just the path toward marriage (which is only part of the road, though we often make it the whole).

Community is not just meant to be something you pay lip service to—“Yeah, I love community”—but when you make big decisions about where to live and where to work and where to go to school and whom to pursue and whether to move away from DC, you make that decision on your own and then just “brief” everyone. It’s in community that we encourage one another and challenge one another and submit to one another and sharpen one another, like iron sharpens iron; it’s in this community—the body of Christ—that we help each other—regardless of our relationship status—become whom God intended us to be.

How Do I Know? Relationships Edition #1

[Part 1 of the blog adaptation from yesterday's message at The District Church: "How Do I Know? Relationships Edition." Read part 2 here.]

How do I know whom to spend time with? We all face the same conundrum: what do we do with our limited time and energy? How do we choose where and with whom to invest ourselves?

I’ve moved around a lot: I was born in Hong Kong, lived in London for eight years for school, and then the LA area for three before moving here. I’m used to starting over, to making new friends, to rebuilding community in a new place.

But DC was by far the most difficult place to transition to. Part of that was because I wasn’t entering a school community—when you’re entering a school community, you’ve got a whole host of people saying, “Make friends with me!” but when you don’t have that, you realize that people already have their friendship circles and their routines; and making friends requires more than just you putting yourself out there but also for someone else to open up their life and invite you in.

Sociologically speaking, it’s supposed to take about six months for relationships to develop to the place where you might call them good friendships, which is often what grounds a person in a place and makes that place begin to feel more welcoming. I have always hated those six months: I’ve always wanted to bypass those six months and jump straight to the part where I’m known and I’m loved and I have friendships that are deep and solid.

But that’s not how life works; that’s not how friendships are formed; that’s not how community is built. Community and relationships take time; it’s a process of growth and cultivation and intentional investment.

At this point, I think it’s important to say:

We are created for relationship.

As Christians, we believe that God is somehow Three—Father, Son, and Spirit—and yet also still one God. There is community even within the Godhead; there is relationship even among the persons of the Trinity. In fact, John Zizioulas argues that it is relationship that defines personhood, that it is because the three persons of the Trinity are in relation to one another that they even are persons—it is their relating to each other that makes them persons—and that were they not to be in relationship with one another, they would cease to be persons; they would only be individuals.

1 John 4:8 says, “God is love”—you may have heard that before. That verse used to put a strange picture in my head of God being this glowing, usually pinkish, fluffy mass of warm-fuzzies. But love is a relational word; love is communal by definition—it requires one who loves and one who is loved. Therefore, if God is love, God is relational. And if God is love and if God is relational, and if, as Genesis 1:26 tells us, God made us in his image, then that means we also are created for relationship.

Anyway, as I discovered, as time went by, that DC is full of awesome people. Unfortunately, as I also discovered, there’s no way you can get to know them all. You can try, but (1) you really wouldn’t make any deep or solid friendships, and (2) you’d burn yourself out pretty quickly. Because we’re only human, and like I said earlier, we only have a certain number of hours in a week—and a big chunk of that is taken up with work and with sleep and maybe with a significant other or a family.

So … part of what made DC a hard place to transition to was the school/work piece. The other factor is that we live in DC: cities are transient by nature, but out of all the places I’ve called home, I’ve found DC to be the most transient of all. People come for three months or six months or a year or two years, or maybe even three or four, if you’re lucky; but anybody who’s been in DC for more than six months has probably seen their fair share of friends come and go.

And that’s hard for friendships; that’s hard for building genuine and close community. Constantly saying goodbye to people you love—whether they’re leaving to go to grad school on the other side of the country, or leaving to move closer to family because they’re starting to have kids, or leaving because they don’t like the pace of the city—it’s exhausting because every time, you feel like you lose a little part of yourself, and you become a little more wary of investing in a new connection because you wonder if it’s really worth it.

These things that we feel—the push and pull of relationships beginning and relationships ending—are natural. They are, along with our limits, also part of being human. So how do we go about investing in community? How do we figure out whom to spend our time with?

Well, it’s always helpful to look to Jesus, because he’s the one we are called to follow, the one whose example we are invited to emulate. Jesus didn’t live life as a lone wolf; and yet he also knew that he couldn’t be tight with everyone: he knew his time and his energy were limited, and that he couldn’t go a mile wide and an inch deep in a relational sense, and expect to have any lasting impact on anyone’s life.

Luke 6:13 says:

And when day came, [Jesus] called his disciples and chose twelve of them, whom he also named apostles …

There were clearly more than twelve disciples—but twelve were chosen to be the inner circle. These were the ones he pulled aside and explained parables to; these were the ones he intentionally chose to do life with at a much deeper level than, for example, the 5,000 who came to hear him, or the folks that just wanted to be healed, or the people that clamored for a miracle.

It was in these relationships that the disciples really learned who Jesus was. They got to see everything: what he did and how he behaved and how he treated people—kind of like what we get to see because we have the gospel stories, but even more than that. These were the ones to whom Jesus said, “I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends …” (John 15:15)

Super Bowl Party 2014One of our core values as a church is community—connecting with one another; and one of the primary mediums for this is our small groups. Our hope is that no one would leave DC because they couldn’t find a place to call their spiritual home or people to call their spiritual family. Our small groups aren’t just so you can make new acquaintances; they’re supposed to be a place where you learn how to be better disciples, how to be true friends: encouraging and challenging one another to keep growing, to keep learning, to keep becoming more like Jesus. And like all relationships, these take time and investment and intentionality.

DC has a way of filling your life so full that you don’t even have time to think about what you’re doing—you’re just reacting, you’re just trying to keep your head above water—but a filled life is not the same as a fulfilled life. When Jesus said he came that we might have life to the full (John 10:10), he didn’t mean that in the quantitative way—that our calendars would be full—but in the qualitative way—that our lives would have the characteristics of wholeness, of health, of flourishing.

So you might need to start by stopping, sitting down, taking out your schedule, and having a good long look at it; take stock of where you are right now. If you’re engaged or married, you may want to do this with your significant other as well. Ask yourself questions like:

  • Who are you doing life with? What friendships are you investing in (and not just reacting to)?
  • Who are you learning from and, in turn, helping on the journey?
  • Who’s encouraging you and keeping you accountable in your walk with Christ, in your journey of faith, in the way you live your life?
  • What are the limits that are created by work and family and other constraints, and then what are boundary lines you actually may have some control over and, if you were intentional about it, you might be able to shift?

For some, I think the challenge will be to invest in Christian community: to join a small group, to stick around after the service and have a conversation that may lead to a friendship, to let go of the cynicism or the fear or the uncertainty and take the risk of putting yourself out there. When Aaron and Amy heard how difficult my transition to DC had been back in 2009, they invited me to spend Christmas with them. I didn’t know them that well at the time, and so I had to decide whether I was willing to experience what could easily have been awkward conversations and a car journey and a holiday with a family I didn’t know too well, or whether I’d avoid that awkwardness and, by extension, avoid beginning to cultivate a friendship with them. You can probably guess what, by the grace of God, I chose; and I can honestly say that if I hadn’t chosen that path, I might not be here right now.

For some, the challenge is to get out of the Christian bubble—you come to worship services and you hang out with your small group every couple days and maybe you work at a Christian organization at least 40 hours a week. You may need to make friends with people who may not yet know Jesus. Jesus says that we are the light of the world (Matthew 5:14), but if we’re just hanging out in a room with a whole bunch of other lights, then our light is really not fulfilling its purpose, no matter how brightly you may shine. Light is supposed to shine in the darkness.

If you’re getting the impression that I’m pitting these two things against each other—hanging out with Christians and hanging out with non-Christians—that’s not what I’m trying to say. Because they’re interconnected. It takes a community to truly live out the gospel: on a practical level, you’re going to need folks who can help you keep walking with Jesus because the enemy will use everything in his power to knock you off course.

We need each other to be who God is calling us to be: the family of God on the mission of God to see more of the kingdom of God here on earth.

[Read Part 2.]

How do I know my calling?

[Adapted from yesterday's message at The District Church: "How Do I Know ... My Calling?"]

“How do I know?” is one of the most common questions that comes up in counseling, in prayer, in conversations.

  • How do I know what God’s calling me to?
  • How do I know if I’m supposed to be with this person?
  • How do I know if I should marry this person?
  • How do I know if I should try and have kids, or adopt, or foster?
  • How do I know if I’m supposed to be in this city?
  • How do I know if I’m in the right job or if I should look for a new one?
  • How do I know how I should spend my time and with whom and doing what?

It’s probable that you’ve asked one of those questions at some point in your life.  It’s possible that you’re still wondering.

Here are three quotes that have shaped my understanding of calling. First, from C.S. Lewis, who describes the process of discovering your calling like this:

All of the things that have ever deeply possessed your soul have been but hints of it, tantalizing glimpses, promises never quite fulfilled, echoes that died away just as they caught your ear. But if it should really become manifest—if there ever came an echo that did not die away but swelled into the sound itself—you would know it. Beyond all possibility of doubt you would say, “Here at last is the thing I was made for.”

And then author and theologian Frederick Buechner wrote,

the place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.

And finally, civil rights leader and philosopher Howard Thurman:

Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.

Though they could be interpreted as being in opposition, I don’t think they are; I think they’re all true, just maybe not the way we may automatically think.

I grew up in the church, where people talk about “discovering God’s will” and “discerning God’s plan” and “asking God what he desires,” and I developed the image in my head of God’s will or calling on your life being like a map or a blueprint. You had to “discover God’s will,” as if that meant figuring out where on the map you were and then navigating along God’s route to point X; or “follow God’s will,” as if there were certain instructions on how to construct a godly life and if you skipped a step, you’d end up with a wonky product.

And so, for much of my life, I was kind of anxious:

  • What if I miss what God’s will is?
  • What if I end up doing a job that God doesn’t want me to do?
  • What if I don’t answer God’s calling on my life?
  • What if I don’t marry the person God wants me to marry?
  • If I fall off the path, what happens to the rest of the journey?
  • If I skip one instruction—even accidentally—can I go back and fix it or am I screwed for the rest of my life?

I wonder how many others have that image of God and of his will; I wonder how many others feel or have felt paralyzed because of that.

Understanding God's WillAbout ten years ago, I came across the late Kyle Lake’s Understanding God’s Will: How to Hack the Equation Without Formulas. One illustration really helped me see things in a different light. He references an article by Brian McLaren, who gave this analogy:

Imagine one of my sons calls me on the phone and asks, “Dad, what’s your will for my college major?”

I would say, “Son, I have raised you to this point in your life so that you can make that decision.”

“Yes, Dad,” he replies, “but I want to do your will, not my own will. So, please tell me what major to choose.”

“Son,” I’ll say, “I’d be glad to help you think this through. For example, we can talk about how much you hate history and calculus, and how much you love writing and business. I think I can help you eliminate some options, but I really want you to decide this.”

“Dad, don’t you love me? What if I make a mistake? I just want to do your will!” he says.

“But, Son,” I’ll reply, “it is my will for you to make this decision. Again, I’m glad to talk with you and help you think it through. But my will is for you to grow up, be a man, and make a life for yourself by making decisions, hard decisions, like this one. And believe me, whatever happens, whether you major in business or art or physics, whether it goes well or not, I will be with you. You can count on that, no matter what.” The point is that he lives with my guidance, but not my domination, because he’s my son, not my lawn mower.

And all of a sudden, the anxiety-inducing image in my head of God as a blueprint maker was done away with, and I learned about an important distinction, a distinction that may make all the difference: it’s between your general calling and your specific calling. As Kyle Lake explains:

A general will [or calling] applies to everyone equally; a specific will [or calling] applies to everyone individually.

When we ask, “How do I know what I’m supposed to do?” or “How do I know my calling?”, what we’re normally referring to is the second one, the specific calling. That’s the one we get most obsessed with, most concerned with, and most worried about.

The thing is, though, while it may be tempting to think that we’re starting from scratch—you feel like you have no clue what to do or where to begin—what God has left for us in Scripture, what God shows us most commonly in the Bible, what we have in abundance in what we call the word of God, is God’s general calling.

This is what God has said already, what he has said to generations past, and what he continues to say through these pages to our generation and to future generations. And when we follow these words, when we do what God asks of us in Scripture, then I believe we discover what Buechner calls “our deepest gladness,” what Howard Thurman describes as the thing that “makes you come alive.” Because this is our Creator God, speaking words of life to us, speaking words that will bring life to us if we listen and obey.

  • Deuteronomy 6:5: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength”—general calling.
  • Leviticus 19:18: “Love your neighbor as yourself”—general calling.
  • Matthew 5:44: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you”—general calling.
  • Genesis 1:28: “He made human beings in the image of God,” we should treat each other as such—general calling.
  • Micah 6:8: “He has shown you, O human, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”—general calling.
  • In the Gospel of Matthew: Jesus says, “Follow me” (4:19) and “Make disciples, teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (28:19) —general calling.

I could go on and on, and oftentimes when people ask me what they should do with their lives, I want to say: “Read the Bible first. You never know what God may say in there. You never know how what God has already said may impact your life. You never know who you’ll encounter there … Jesus, for instance.”

Now, I’m not saying the Bible is where you to go to solve all your problems, nor am I calling it a manual to follow literally and step-by-step in order to build the perfect life. Many of the contemporary issues we face the Bible doesn’t explicitly address. But if you want to know what God has already said, read the Bible.

Here’s one thing you’ll find in the Bible:

God offers far more instruction on whom we are called to be than on what we are supposed to do.

This is not to say that what we do doesn’t reflect or have an impact on or any relation to who we are, but the thing is, as author Os Guinness reminds us in The Call:

We are not primarily called to do something or go somewhere; we are called to Someone. We are not called first to special work but to God. The key to answering the call is to be devoted to no one and to nothing above God himself.

In fact, I would go so far as to say that unless you’re operating within God’s general calling, you’re unlikely to discover God’s specific calling. Unless you’re seeking to follow Jesus, to take up your cross, to be filled with the Spirit, to be living a holy life, to doing justice and being kind and walking humbly with your God; unless you’re treating the least of these as if they were Christ himself, putting the needs of others before yourself and putting God above all, it’s going to be really hard to discern what specific thing God may be calling you to.

Dallas Willard goes one step further; he writes in Hearing God:

people also often seem to lack desire to receive God’s word merely for what it is, just because we believe it is the best way to live. This is shown by a disregard of the plain directives in the Scriptures. Sanctification from sexual uncleanness (1 Thess 4:3) and a continuously thankful heart (1 Thess 5:18) are among the many specific things clearly set forth in God’s general instructions to all people. It is not wise to disregard those plain directives and then expect to hear a special message from God when we want it. … Anyone who rejects the general counsels of Scripture is in fact planning not to be guided by God and cannot then rely on being able to be delivered from their difficulties by obtaining God’s input on particular occasions.

The hope of God isn’t that we’d just always be asking him, “What do I do now?” and then doing it and then asking him again and then doing it and then asking him again (ad infinitum). The hope of God is that we’d grow into mature believers, we’d answer his call to follow, we’d be becoming the kind of people who are always learning from their Master and Lord, and to be children who reflect the family likeness. So please don’t let the fact that you may not yet know God’s specific calling on your life stop you from doing what he’s already asked you to do.

Nike+ RunningAnd how will you know what he’s already asked you to do? By spending time reading the Bible. Maybe you’re in a season where your Bible spends more time on the shelf than open in front of you—or maybe you have the app on your phone and it’s actually on your home screen, but it’s more to make yourself feel better because you know it’s there. Kind of like me with my Nike+ running app—just because it’s on my home screen doesn’t mean I’m getting any fitter! After a while, you get tired of feeling guilty and you’re either going to use it or you’re going to move it to a folder.

Let me encourage you to use it—the Bible (app), that is.

  • Take time in God’s word every morning: reading, reflecting, praying, studying.
  • Learn the vocabulary of God; learn the character of God.

You may not have a Damascus Road experience every morning, but one of my friends calls this “winning the first battle of the day” for a reason. I would guess that if we surveyed (1) folks in our church who read the Bible first thing in the morning and then moved to email and Facebook and Twitter and the news and (2) folks who did things the other way around, that first group would say their days are a little more centered. I want us to go to the word of God before we go to the words of others—because here’s what I think:

news + email + Facebook + Twitter – the word of God

= empty, jealous, hopeless, angry.

And I don’t think God wants an empty, jealous, hopeless, angry life for us. I think he wants much more for us than that.

I was almost thirty when I figured out that God was calling me to pastoral ministry. It was here at The District Church where I finally felt like all the strands of my life came together, all the threads were woven together—my passions for theology, music and justice. It was here that I finally came to know in truth and not just in theory that God doesn’t waste an experience. It was here that I was finally able to see that, while the journey had seemed for me a wild careening from one to another, it all flowed within the broad brushstroke of what God intended for me—and that God’s general calling and his specific calling, at least in my case, weren’t all that far apart.

Of course, I can point to all these things with hindsight. When I was going through these things, over the course of twelve years, I felt frustrated and uncertain, going from passion to passion—finding something I was interested in and then realizing I didn’t want to do it with all of my time—law, and then music, and then theology, and then politics and advocacy. I was trying to be faithful at every step and not sure how it would all fit together—not sure if it would all fit together; I didn’t know what I’d end up doing with my life. Anne Lamott describes her journey as a “series of staggers” and a “lurch” rather than leap of faith—and I can say that, in the moment, much of my journey of discernment has felt like that, too.

John Ortberg, author and pastor of Menlo Park Presbyterian Church in California, says that it wasn’t until almost thirty years into church ministry that he got a sense of God’s confirmation that he was doing the ‘right thing.’ He says, in “God’s Call Waiting”:

I never got marching orders. Partly, I think, it may have been because God knows that I will grow much more as a person if I have to figure things out and exercise judgment and make a decision and accept responsibility than if I just got a postcard and followed directions.

That’s how God’s worked in my life, too—not as a divine blueprint-maker but as my heavenly Father. Within the general calling of following Jesus and being a disciple who makes disciples, who studies the word of God and learns the character of God as revealed in Scripture—the character God seeks to cultivate in us by the presence of the Holy Spirit—God has more often than not allowed me to choose …

because I’m his son, not his lawn mower;

because he wants me to grow up and become a mature and responsible citizen of his kingdom;

because he wants me to learn what it means to love fully and to follow whole-heartedly.

I want to leave you with a couple of practical things you can start doing this week:

  1. Read the Bible—get in the word of God, not just at decision times, but at all times. Learn what God’s already said, read how’s he interacted with his people before, see what he’s already asked you to do, cultivate a sense of who God is and what he might be saying. Read the story of Jesus: know his character, his actions, his words—it’s awfully hard to follow someone if you don’t really know them!
  2. If you want something more specific, read through Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7). This is one of the parts of Scripture where, every time I read it, I’m grounded again in God’s reality, in God’s vision for life, in God’s kingdom. So, every day this week, try reflecting on a verse or passage a day from the sheet. What might God be saying to you through it? Take time to write down your thoughts in a journal or talk through it with friends. Start with the word of God before you go to the words of others.

Every single one of us has a calling on our lives, and it’s more important than what we do and who we marry and where we live and what job we take and how many kids we have.

The calling is to follow Jesus, to find a life more true and more real than we could ever imagine.

I can tell you that much for sure.

It is finished

[Last night, The District Church's East Side campus marked Good Friday at a joint service with The Table Church and Douglas Memorial United Methodist Church. We explored the Seven Last Words of Jesus, and this was my contribution to "It is Finished."]

It is finished. Three words in English, but one word in the New Testament:

tetelestai

One of the most powerful words ever spoken. One of the most definitive words ever spoken. One of the truest words ever spoken.

See, in Jesus’ day, that word tetelestai was very common; it was used in several ways.

1. It was used by a servant, reporting to his or her master. Tetelestai: “The work you gave me to do is finished.” In the gospel of Luke, it says, “Jesus was about thirty years old when he began his work.” And by that, it means the work that his Father gave him to do. It’s not that he wasn’t working before that—most of his life, he worked faithfully as a carpenter in Nazareth; but he also knew that there was a work to do that was greater still. In John 17, he prays, “I glorified you on earth by finishing the work that you gave me to do.” The work of making God known, the work of showing the world what God is like, the work of bringing the kingdom to earth, the work of inviting all of creation into right relationship with its Creator. This work is finished.

2. The word tetelestai was used by artists and writers. When a sculpture was done, a picture finished, a manuscript completed, the creator would say, “Tetelestai. It is finished.” The story of creation God had been writing, the tapestry of salvation God had been weaving, the masterpiece of love God had been crafting—since before the dawn of time—each of these found its completion in the Son of God hanging on the cross. Here at Calvary, God’s work of art is finished because somehow, out of the death of that one comes life for all.

3. The word tetelestai was used by merchants. In ancient times, just like today, people would sometimes use credit to make purchases—they would incur debt that they would have to pay off. And when they had erased their debt, when whatever it was they had purchased no longer had any payments to be made, the creditor would write that word on the document as a kind of receipt: “Tetelestai. Paid in full; the debt is no more.” There is no more to be done; Jesus paid it all.

4. The word tetelestai was used by priests. In Jesus’ day, people brought animals to the temple in Jerusalem to be sacrificed, both as a price to be paid for their sins and also as a sign of their worship and devotion to God. According to the Law of Moses, the animal had to be whole, uninjured, and spotless—the book of Leviticus says, “without blemish.” The priest would examine the animal and, if it was found to pass the test, he would declare, “Tetelestai!” meaning, “It is found suitable for sacrifice.” Jesus, the perfect, spotless Lamb of God, found suitable to pay the price for our transgressions.

5. And finally, the word tetelestai was used by jailers and judges. In those days, when someone was convicted of a crime, he or she would have what was called a “certificate of debt,” which listed all the crimes of which the person was convicted, and it was usually nailed to their cell door so that all could see. And when that person served his or her sentence, the word tetelestai would be written across that certificate of debt and that document would be given to the criminal to show that all crimes had been paid for. Jesus took the sin of the world upon his shoulders; for the first time in his life, he felt the separation from God that sin creates, and not because of any transgression of his own. The apostle Paul wrote, in his letter to the Colossians: “When you were dead in your transgressions … God made you alive together with Him, having forgiven us all our transgressions, having canceled out the certificate of debt consisting of decrees against us … and He has … nailed it to the cross” (Colossians 2:13-14). Tetelestai. The crime has been paid for.

Tetelestai. The work is complete. The masterpiece is finished. The story finds its apex. The tapestry finds its golden thread. The play finds its climax. The mission is accomplished. The job is done. The sacrifice has been found. The price is paid in full.

Tetelestai. It is finished.

How can Good Friday be good?

[Last year's Good Friday homily, preached on March 29, 2013.]

Good Friday. Good Friday. Good Friday.

How could anything like this be good?

He was an innocent man. Even the criminal said of him, “This man has done nothing wrong.”

An innocent man. No, more than that: the best of men.

The most human of us all. The one who was and did as we were created to be and do. The one who lived as we were supposed to live. The one who loved as we were supposed to love. The one who gave as we were supposed to give and served as we were supposed to serve. The one who showed God to the world—in all his subversive goodness, in all his inexplicable humility, in all his infinite grace and prodigal mercy.

The one who said, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near,” and he should know, because he brought it. The one who said, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,” and did just that. The one who said, “Your sins are forgiven; now go and sin no more,” and then made that possible.

The one who healed the broken and touched the untouchable, who welcomed the outcasts, lifted up the oppressed, associated with unsavory characters, who was called “a friend of sinners” and wore it as a badge of honor because he came to seek and to save the lost.

This man is rejected.

But more than that, not even just a simple, “No, thanks.” No, his disciples run away in his time of need; his closest friend denies him—not once, but three times; and so this man, who entered Jerusalem only days earlier to adoring crowds, is now hanging on a cross, triumphant cheering turned to derisive jeering.

This man cries out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Jesus took on the sin of the world. “The sin of the world.” Such a small phrase for such a large burden.

Every time we sin, we choose a reality opposed to that for which we were made. We choose by our actions to be separated from God, the creator and designer and source of life. When we lie or when we walk past someone in need or when we hurt those who care about us or when we choose to gratify ourselves at the expense of others, sexually, emotionally, relationally, financially—when we choose anything other than life with God, which is what we were made for, we choose death.

It’s as if we are keys, made to fit the door of life with God, and we’re grating and grinding and scraping and pieces are being broken off because we’re trying to open all these other doors, and it’s not getting us anywhere. Or at least, not anywhere good.

Now think about those decisions, drawn out over the course of your life, however many years you’ve been around. And now think about those lives, drawn out across the planet—six billion people. And now think about the course of human history, drawn out across time—thousands and thousands and thousands of years, billions and billions of lives, a multitude of decisions choosing death. Is it any wonder our world is hurting?

And now bring it back to you.

And to Jesus, the one who lived as we should have lived and died the death we should have died. To paraphrase John Stott:

The essence of sin is that we substitute ourselves for God; we put ourselves where only God deserves to be … that’s the essence of sin. But the essence of salvation is that God substitutes himself for us; God puts himself where we deserve to be … that’s the essence of salvation.[1]

You might remember the story in Genesis, when Adam and Eve reject God’s command and sin against him, and one of the results is that the ground is cursed—Genesis 3:18 says, “It will produce thorns and thistles.” On Good Friday, we see the king of all creation, crowned with thorns, quite literally wearing the effects of human sin, little bits of cursed ground.

Jesus is the only one who could have saved us. Imagine the climber who’s made it to the top where no one has managed it before, where no one has even come close, and he throws down a rope and says, “I’ve got you; I’ll pull you up.” And though you’re tired from straining and struggling, and you’ve got cuts and bruises, and actually, despite your best efforts, you’re still a lot closer to the ground than you are to the top, he says, “I’ve got you; I’ll pull you up.”

Only this climber is actually hanging on a cross, and his method of pulling you up is by laying down his life for you. One writer put it this way:

As far back as recorded time and doubtless before, kings, princes, tribal chiefs, presidents, and dictators have sent their subjects into battle to die for them. Only once in human history has a king not sent his subjects to die for him, but instead, died for his subjects.[2]

Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ, came to redeem, to rescue, and to restore all of creation—including us. This is God’s great plan: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”

Because even till the end, even in suffering, even in death, he fulfills his mission: to show God’s reign, to be a sign of God’s kingdom—this is what it looks like when God is here.

  • He says to the criminal who seeks him, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” Because of what I am doing right now, there is grace—amazing grace.
  • He says to his mother and he says to his dear friend John, “Look after one another.” I came that you might have real and eternal life, more and better life than you ever dreamed of—but it isn’t just some pie-in-the-sky, out-there-in-the-great-unknown kind of life; it is real, and it is tangible, and it is practical. This command I give to you: love one another.

“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” It cannot overcome it.

This is Good Friday.

[1] John Stott: “The essence of sin is we human beings substituting ourselves for God, while the essence of salvation is God substituting himself for us. We … put ourselves where only God deserves to be; God … puts himself where we deserve to be.” Quoted in Timothy Keller, The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism (New York: Riverhead Books, 2008), 202.

[2] Charles Colson and Harold Fickett, The Faith: What Christians Believe, Why They Believe It, and Why It Matters (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2008), 90.

[Painting by Audrey Anastasi. Check out the rest of her amazing Stations of the Cross.]