Over Your Head
Ezekiel was an enigmatic prophet who saw and proclaimed strange and beautiful things. In chapter 47 of his book, he records part of a powerful, hopeful vision given to him by God. In this vision he saw a river flowing from the restored temple. At first, the water of the river was only ankle-deep. But as he was led out a little bit farther, it became knee-deep. A little farther still and it was waist-deep. Beyond that, however, it grew deep enough to swim in – so deep, in fact, that no one could cross it.

Everywhere the river flowed, even in the wasteland, life sprang forth. Fruit trees grew up on either side, yielding all kinds of fruit for food and leaves for healing. The river flowed down to the Dead Sea, where it turned the salt water fresh, and fish from all over the world lived in it. Where the river flows, the prophet testified, everything will live.


Where the river flows everything will live.
Wednesday night at General Council (the biennial national conference of our denomination, the Christian & Missionary Alliance), David Hearn, president of the Alliance in Canada, preached a powerful message on this passage. His main point was this: The Spirit is the river, and it’s time to get in over your head. Too many Christians are settling for an ankle-deep experience of the Holy Spirit. We ask the Lord for a favor, but not for power. We ask Jesus to save us from our sins, but not to send us on mission. We’re not interested in discovering or using the gifts the Spirit has given us, and even when we are it’s usually for the purpose of self-fulfillment. We’re ankle-deep in a bottomless river because we’re afraid of losing control. We’re afraid of what might happen when we get in over our heads.

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Executive Order Refugees Perfect Love Drives Out Fear

I don’t know much about the refugee crisis, or why President Trump has issued an executive order to close our borders to people from Syria, Iraq, Iran, Sudan, Yemen, Lebanon, and Libya. I’ve read the executive order, but I couldn’t parse the political or social implications of it for my children. The global political situation is beyond my comprehension. I don’t understand the causes of the war in Syria. I can’t tell the difference between the good guys and the bad guys, and I’m not sure there is a difference anymore. My Twitter timeline and Facebook feed are filled with posts of varying degrees of outrage at Trump’s executive order. I don’t know whether I should be outraged, and if so how much, because, in our post-truth culture, I don’t know who to trust to explain this to me.

When the chaos and confusion of our culture swirl around me, my instinct is to lash myself to the only fixed point I know – Jesus Christ. He is my Rock, and the one on whom I can rely in distressing times. When I don’t know how to move forward, I try my best to find Jesus and just follow him. While I cannot speak to the complexities of holding political office (particularly the office of President), I believe I have something to say to my fellow Christians, particularly my evangelical brothers and sisters.

The world is a dangerous place. It has always been this way, though some of us in America have not had to experience the kind of imminent threats that people in Syria deal with today. But the reality is that death, disease, and suffering are never far away. Whether the threat is from a microscopic virus or a bloodthirsty warlord, there is much in our world to make us afraid. Fear is, more often than not, the rational choice.


Fear is not an option for those who follow Jesus.
But it is not a choice that Christians are permitted to make. Fear is not an option for those who follow Jesus. All of life is an act of discipleship, therefore all of life must be a demonstration of the agape love Jesus exemplified in his life, and most completely at the cross. The Scriptures are clear: “Perfect love drives out fear.” (1 John 4:18) Our own love may be imperfect, but if the Holy Spirit dwells within and among us, then so does the perfect love of God. The Church is the place where fear does not get to have a voice because the melodies of God’s love are too loud, too strong, too catchy.

As the people of God, we do not have a choice between fear and love. We are compelled to love and commanded to reject fear. Fear must never be our rationale for any decision, large or small. We cannot support public policy that rejects refugees because one of them may (by the tiniest of chances) be connected to a terrorist organization. It is impossible to faithfully follow Jesus by carrying your cross while at the same time deny hospitality and refuge to those in need because you are afraid that they might mean you harm. Jesus knew what the Romans were going to do to him, and he overcame the fear he expressed in the Garden by steeling himself toward the cross. Why did he do this? Because he loved the world – even the Roman soldiers who crucified him!

Perhaps there really are terrorist agents trying to sneak into this country through the refugee process. Jesus didn’t command us to be unwise or naive. But in the absence of clear information, we must not assume the worst of others. We must love without fear. We must welcome the stranger; after all, how do we know we aren’t secretly entertaining angels? We must provide for the needy, because as Jesus himself said, when we do this we are doing it for him. We must love others and entrust ourselves to God.

I admit, that’s not a very good public policy. But I’m a pastor, not a politician. My primary citizenship is in the kingdom of God, not the United States of America. I’m not calling on the state to enact a more Christian policy. I’m calling on the Church to act more Christianly. Don’t be afraid, Church. Jesus has conquered our greatest enemy, death itself. There is no one, then, that we should fear; but there is everyone that we can love.

Zekey
Zekey would be seven today. It’s hard for me to imagine what a healthy Zekey would look like as a seven year old. The last time he was healthy he was two and a half. How do you project that young stage onto a seven year old? Kids change so much in those years. The essence of him would be the same, of course. He would be tall. His eyes would still light up a room. He would be mischievous and curious. But would he love the Buckeyes? The Tigers? Legos? Would he be interested in the same things as his older brother Cyrus, or would he be forging his own path? It’s fun to imagine what your child will grow up to be like; it’s dreadful to know that you’ll never see those days.

What am I missing out on? This question is what stings the most these days, nearly two and a half years after Zekey met Jesus. I watch my other kids grow up, follow Jesus, go to school, make friends, have concerts, develop interests. This is all supposed to be the glory of parenthood, but each of these experiences are tinged with sorrow. A part of me is always turned toward Zekey, gazing into the emptiness left by his death. I am haunted by the boy he should have become.

I worry that this is unfair to the three kids who are still with us. Am I cheating them out of the fullness of my attention? Does my sorrow diminish their joy? Is it wrong to wish that Zekey was with us at every concert, game, race, or party? Don’t get me wrong. I’m not despondent. I don’t wallow in despair. On the contrary, I love my life. I love my family, my church, and my vocation. God has brought me out of the shadow of death and into green pastures and along quiet streams. But there is a voice I will never hear again in this life, a face I will never see except in pictures.

This is the tension of learning contentment: experiencing both the goodness of God and the heartbreak of loss. It’s impossible for loss to be the goodness of God, but as I have come to discover, you can find God’s goodness in the depths of your heartache. You must hold this truth in both hands in order to find contentment, which is what it means to truly love your life. Life is hard. God is good. You can find him in your pain and suffering.

Even after losing my son, I can love my life because I know that God has conquered death through the resurrection of Jesus Christ. This gives me hope that I can’t find anywhere else. Because of the Jesus’ resurrection, one day all who believe in him will also rise from the dead. Until that day, our souls are kept with Christ in heaven. This is what Zekey is currently experiencing – comfort and wholeness with Jesus. On that great and glorious day when God gathers all of his people together – those who have died, and those who are still alive – I will see my son again, and together we will enjoy the power of the resurrection and the glory of the new creation. This isn’t wishful thinking. This is the reality of the coming triumph of God.

I want everyone to have this hope. I wish everyone could know the power of Christ’s resurrection. I hope everyone gets to meet Zekey someday. But that’s only possible through Jesus, and nothing else. The only way to experience a resurrection is to follow the one who has already risen. The only way to have hope for eternity is to surrender yourself to the one who has conquered death.

This is what I’m thinking about on Zekey’s seventh birthday. I’m sad. A part of me is empty. But a much larger part of me is full and hopeful. And if that fullness, contentment, and hope can spread to someone else…well, I can’t think of a better way to honor my little boy’s life.

What makes a nation great? This is the core question we are faced with every presidential election. The party out of power claims that we are not great, and only they know how to make us great. The party in power claims that we are mostly great, and only they know how to make us even greater. After enough of these cycles, we may begin to believe that neither party has a full and rich understanding of greatness, much less a clear path to achieve greatness.

The greatest misunderstanding we Americans make about greatness is its object. True greatness is not a measure of accomplishment, but of virtue. A people may achieve many things, but absent justice, prudence, temperance, fortitude, faith, hope, and love, those achievements are hollow. It is virtue that enables achievement, giving a people the inner communal strength to persevere through tremendous difficulty and opposition. But where virtue is forsaken, the end is near.

In his book, The City of God, Augustine refutes the belief that mass conversion to Christianity led to the destruction of Rome. In the aftermath of the sack of the Eternal City, the critics of Christianity laid the blame at the feet of the Church and its extermination of the worship of the Roman gods. Augustine moves at a leisurely pace as he confronts, and demolishes, these assertions.

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Ideal Church

There is no such thing as an ideal church. Well, there used to be one. It was the last perfect church left in the whole world. Everyone treated each other with kindness and respect. No one argued. They all agreed on the music style, the mode of baptism, and the color of the carpet. But then I started attending, and now it has all kinds of problems. Sorry.

Okay, so none of that is true. But what is true is that I love the Church. Not just my church, which I love very much, but the Church – the worldwide body of Christ. I haven’t always loved the Church, and I haven’t always wanted to be a part of it, but I can no longer deny that, despite it’s many flaws, there is nothing greater on the face of the earth than Jesus Christ’s Church. We don’t always get it right. We don’t always follow Jesus well. But we are God’s plan, the way he has chosen to work in the world. For or better or worse, God loves the Church, and is committed to her. And for that reason, the Church is the hope of the world.

As I read about the life of the early church, I’m struck by how widespread the propaganda against her had become. The Romans accused Christians of atheism, cannibalism, and incest. Many able Christian writers and thinkers pled the case of the Church, refuting the false accusations, and demonstrating that Christians were the kind of people Rome should want in its empire. One of these writers was the anonymous person who wrote the Letter to Diognetus.

I’ve already written about some of the treasure I’ve found in this ancient writing, but I wanted to share what this author has to say about life in the early church. He gives us a vision for how an ideal church can live in, and relate to, an antagonistic society. This wisdom is a part of our faith heritage, and can be very instructive for us today.

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