A Different Kind of Gospel

A few months ago, I got to thinking about the way we present the Gospel and started wondering if we were going about it the wrong way. Like, maybe we shouldn’t be telling people to accept Jesus “or else they’re going to hell.” Because maybe hell isn’t the issue. Because when I think about the way we promise people the opportunity of eternal life in heaven, I can’t help but wonder… Is that our only reason for following Jesus?

Because if it is, I’m no better than the people who are blowing themselves up in the name of faith, hoping for a shot at paradise. In fact, I’m worse because I’m not really living what I believe. I’m not risking anything for the God I claim to love.

Needless to say I was pretty excited when I stumbled across a book where the author basically poses the same question and starts launching into the sermon Jesus really came to preach.

From that time on Jesus began to preach, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.” (Matthew 4:17)

If you flip through the rest of the book of Matthew and really pay attention, you’ll get the feeling that all Jesus ever talked about was the kingdom of heaven. And He told us how to grasp it. Right now. In this moment. Not just when we get to the other side of death.

Yet here we are—standing on the street corners with our big, flashy signs yelling, “Free tickets to heaven! Come on, folks, get your little bit of Jesus right here!”

And we wonder why we don’t see fruit in the lives of these new convert. Maybe it’s because all we ever told them was that Jesus wanted to spend eternity with them, but we neglected to mention that He wants to share life with them, too.

I like to think that I follow Jesus for more reasons than the promise of a cushy mansion after I die. I like to think that maybe I follow Him because the kingdom of heaven is near, and I want to experience it now. Today. In this moment.

And yes, the promise of eternal life is a beautiful thing, but sometimes eternity still feels like a long way off, and today… Today I need to walk hand in hand with Jesus, marveling at the wonders of this kingdom life and knowing that these simple moments of my existence are significant to someone other than me.

I think from now on I’ll be preaching a different kind of Gospel.

Beautiful Ending

You would think that Mary, of all people, would get it. After all, she was the one to whom the angel appeared. She knew from the start that the child she carried would be the Messiah.

With a birth announcement like that, you’d think it would be hard to forget who Jesus really was.

But apparently it wasn’t. If you read the first few chapters of Luke, you’ll find that Mary “treasured” and “pondered” the events of Jesus’ childhood, “marveled” at the prophecies spoken at His birth, and was “astonished” to find Him imparting wisdom to the teachers in the temple courts.

And I have to wonder how she could so easily forget who He was. Did staring into the eyes of a helpless babe somehow lessen her view of the Messiah? Did she not understand what she had signed up for? Did she ever get it at all? Because when I look at Mary’s life after that moment she said yes to God, I don’t see signs of that inspiring faith we’ve all learned to admire.

Sure, there was the day she urged Jesus into starting off His ministry by transforming a bit of water into wine, but then there was the day she and her other sons went to “take charge of Him,” convinced He was out of His mind (Mark 3:21).

What happened to her dream? What happened to her faith? And perhaps most importantly… how many times have I asked myself the same questions?

How many times have I abandoned a dream because I forget how clearly God breathed it into being? How many times have I “treasured” and “pondered” and “marveled” at things God had promised me all along? How many times have I found myself astonished that God is actually true to His word and that He is finishing the work He began in me?

I think that once upon a time, I prayed for a faith like Mary’s and it seems like I got it–though it’s not all I dreamed it would be. Because I missed a vital part of the story: the ending.

The last time we see Mary in scripture, she’s weeping at the foot of the cross. There’s no resurrection for her. I mean, there was, obviously, but it’s never recorded through her eyes. Our final picture of Mary is a broken, doubting woman living out the worst day of her life.

And if that’s where Mary’s faith will leave me, I’m reneging on my prayer. Because I don’t want to be guilty of forgetting God’s promise. I don’t want to stand weeping at the death of my dreams without ever getting to see the resurrection.

I want the kind of beautiful ending that finds me in the arms of God in the final scene.

Do I Lack Faith?

I’ve been reading this devotional book that was written by someone who is really big on faith promise stuff. Now, before I delve into this any deeper, let me just say that I do believe faith is important and there are tons of scriptures about having faith and living in faith and speaking in faith. And I believe in every single one of them. I believe in claiming God’s promises and speaking life over my loved ones.

So my problem with the faith promise stuff isn’t a lack of belief, but more of a disappointment in the way that it is presented. Because when you tell a story about standing outside your house reciting Psalm 91 when a twister is headed directly your way then tell me that God can vanquish my storms just like He did yours… It’s not that I don’t believe it; it’s just that I question the sanity of staring down a tornado. And I don’t doubt that this family was clearly instructed by God to pray over their house. I don’t doubt that God worked this miracle for them. But you can bet I wasn’t standing in the rain this week, telling Hurricane Sandy to bypass my house in Jesus’ name.

There’s a difference between acting in obedience and asking God for a miracle. If you strongly feel that God is telling you to do something that doesn’t make sense in the natural, by all means, step out in faith. But don’t tell me that if I have faith, God will do X, Y, Z. Because He doesn’t always answer our prayers the way we want Him to.

How do I know this? Because I’ve been there. I’ve been the ten-year-old girl, standing in her grandparent’s bedroom and watching the last shred of life slip from her grandmother’s lungs.

Looking back, I know that there wasn’t an ounce of my ten-year-old body that didn’t believe God could heal her. I was young and innocent and didn’t have reason to doubt that God would do anything BUT take that cancer away from her. Instead, that cancer took her away from me. And in the months that followed her death I started to wonder if maybe I had done something wrong. Maybe I didn’t pray hard enough. Maybe I didn’t believe deep enough. And maybe God would have healed her if only I had gotten those things right.

That’s a terrible thing for a ten-year-old to believe. For anyone to believe.

So I said to God, “I need answers.” Then I picked up The Cross Examination of Jesus Christ and started to read that instead. I came to this part that tells the story of the paralyzed man who was lowered through the roof to meet Jesus (Luke 5). In the book, the story cuts off at the part that said the man’s sins were forgiven. Then the author grudgingly fills in the rest of the story before posing the question: “If the story had ended without Jesus providing physical healing, how would you feel about it?”

And I found that God provided my answer in the midst of Randy Singer’s musings:

“But at the end of the day, we must get comfortable with an unyielding truth: Jesus will always answer our prayers for forgiveness, but he doesn’t always answer our prayers for healing. At least not the way we want them answered.”

I think this passage of Scripture makes it pretty clear what God’s priorities are. When God doesn’t answer our prayers the way we want Him to, it’s not that He’s punishing us for a lack of faith; it’s because He is busy healing a much deeper hurt. And maybe that’s the greater miracle.

Maybe that’s what our hearts were really asking for all along.

I Will Follow You

I spent the weekend at Youth Convention with my church’s youth ministry. There are a lot of things that could be said about this weekend, but the one thing that resonated in my heart – the one that was given enough consideration to be hastily scribbled onto the back of a business card in the middle of a worship service – was when 2,000 voices banded together to sing, “We will follow You to the cross.”

That’s the only line I remember from that song because it’s the line that forced me to stop singing and challenged me to think instead.

Would I? Would I follow Him all the way to the cross? Would I have been one of the women who stayed at his side until the brutal end? Or would I have been like the other disciples? The ones who ran and hid until the storm blew over – until the resurrection shattered the fear that clouded their hearts? Or worse yet, would I have been like Peter – who swore He never knew the crucified Messiah?

There I stood amongst 2,000  young people who boldly declared that they would stand firm to the end, when I stopped to wonder if they really knew what they were saying. Because the disciples had proclaimed such words too. At one point in time, Thomas even said, “Let us also go, that we may die with him” (see John 11), but when the time came for dying, he fled with all the others. Because he didn’t really want to die for Jesus. He wasn’t ready to follow Him all the way to the cross.

And I think of the many times I’ve sang lyrics similar to the ones I heard this weekend. I think of the many times I’ve said I’ll follow Him to the cross. Did I really mean those words? Do I really have what it takes to be a martyr? I’d like to say so, but I’m finding that I can’t declare it with such a fervent conviction. I’d much rather stick with safe promises like:

I’ll follow You… up to a certain point.

I’ll follow You… as long as You’re going my way.

I’ll follow You… until I find something I’d rather follow.

Because when life is all sunshine and roses, it’s easy to say that you would die for Jesus, but when you’re staring down the barrel of a gun, the words tend to lodge in your throat.

The scary thing is, Jesus never promised that following Him would be easy. In fact, He only ever told people how hard it is to be His disciple. And He isn’t looking for halfhearted followers; He’s looking for the ones who will follow Him all the way to the cross.

I wonder what percentage of those 2,000 teenagers actually have the guts to follow Him that far. I wonder which percentage I’m in.

You Are.

Confrontational Savior,

When I read John 8, I find that it’s no wonder the Jews wanted You dead. Children of the devil? Liars? Snakes? Hypocrites?

You called them out. Publically. You slandered their holier-than-thou reputations. Don’t You know that these aren’t the kind of people You want to anger?

You used every way possible to tell them that You were the Messiah. God incarnate. Immanuel.

They didn’t believe You.

It’s hard to believe You. Even for those of us who know how the story ends.

They hated You. Wanted You dead. But the words that incited them to pick up their stones are the same words that move me to awe:

“Before Abraham was born, I Am.”

Such a bold statement from such a dangerous God. Those two, simple words are all it takes to describe You. You Are. You just Are.

And because You Are, my life has purpose. Because You Are, there is meaning in every moment of my existence. Because You Are, I am free to simply be.

What You Became

Today is a day that we celebrate sacrifice – the ultimate sacrifice where the Son of God entered the world and surrendered His life to restore us to Himself. In honor of this hauntingly beautiful day, I’ve composed the following letter to the God who saves:

How did You do it? How did You endure the pain of crucifixion? How did You suffer through the taunting and torture and love them anyway? How did You find it in Your heart to forgive those who meant only harm? What did You see deep in their souls that would cause You to love them? To love me?

How Your heart must have grieved when Your people screamed the words, “We have no king but Caesar!” Peter was not the only one who denied You that day. The very people You fashioned with Your hands cried out for Your destruction on that day… and You knew that they would. When You elected to come to earth, You foresaw that day. How did You feel, knowing that the creation You delight in found no delight in You?

Even as You were dying, You whispered words that would free us. “Father, forgive them. They know not what they do.” And by the time we realized what it was that we did, it was too late. Tho soldier only fell to his knees when the earth and sky trembled – when the Father roared in pain. The earth shuddered with sobs, but the human heart remained unmoved on the day Your words came true. The rocks did cry out when no one else dared to speak Your Name.

And for three days, the world was a dark and lonely place.

Then You came again.

To a people most undeserving, You lavished extravagant love.

I stand in awe of who You are and what You became for me.

Hand Prints on My Heart

A man in the Middle East had a dream. In that dream, Jesus appeared to him and slapped him in the face. He awoke to find a hand print on his cheek. The mark lingered for three days. The doctors couldn’t explain it. Then Jesus appeared in the man’s dreams once more. Again, He slapped the man, this time telling him to seek Him. Three more days, the man’s face bore the mark of this supernatural occurrence. Then Jesus came again and asked, “Why did you not seek Me?”

“I don’t know who You are!”

So Jesus told Him who He is. And He explained how He could be found. And this time, when the man awoke, the hand print of God was not on his face; but on his heart.

A lot of people are surprised by that testimony. Some people have a hard time accepting that Jesus would do such a thing. Some people don’t seem to understand how desperately God desires our attention.

A pastor friend of mine once shared, “I’ve been told that the Holy Spirit is a gentleman. I beg to differ; He slapped Paul right off a horse. That’s not very gentlemanly.”

I related with that statement because I’ve heard similar words. Words about how sweet and gentle Jesus is in dealing with His children. I guess there are people who don’t find it difficult to submit to God’s will. And maybe Jesus is gentle with them.

Then there are people like me.

I laughed when my friend told the story about the man and the hand print. I laughed because I’m familiar with the God who throws men from horses and spits in the eyes of the blind. I laughed because I was delighted to find that I’m not the only person who needs a holy slap in the face now and then.

Some people look at God and see His judgment and righteous anger. Other people look at God and are consumed by the depths of His mercy and grace. I like to look somewhere in between. When I look at God,  I see how He inflicts pain in order to bring healing.

So many times He has slapped me in the face, trying to get my attention. So many times I walk away from the encounter with a reminder I refuse to take to heart.

But unlike the man in my friend’s story, I am without excuse. I know who appears before me. I know what it is He wants from me. And that is why I flee. Sometimes I don’t want what God wants. Sometimes I don’t want to face the hurt that leads to the healing. But today…

Today is the day I choose to surrender and let the hand print move from my face to my heart.