Ecclesiastes and Pretzels

Grisham, Hemingway, Melville, U2, The Byrds, Dave Matthews, and debatably, Pink Floyd.  What do they all have in common?  They’ve all borrowed (stolen?) from Ecclesiastes.  Who can blame them?  What is not to love?  This is the book for our times:  from drinking to free love to despondent fatalism, it’s like the lyric sheet of our postmodern age.  And yet…

My husband Michael says every time he embarks on preaching a new sermon series through a book of the Bible, that book becomes his new favorite.  So when I gush about Ecclesiastes lately, he sorta smiles with that knowing kind of smile you reserve for the little kid who’s going on about Spiderman.  “It’s good, right?  And next month when you’re reading Ephesians, it’ll be good too.”  But oh my goodness.  I love this book.

7f741f5c86250ef4af7c7d5222865eccI have always had a soft spot for Ecclesiastes, ever since writing a paper on The Sun Also Rises in college.  Hemingway was such a peacock, strutting around with his pithy declarations about the vanity of life—how could a 20-year-old English major not have a literary crush on the man?  He spoke for a jaded generation, much like my own.  How can there be meaning in a world of war and suffering?  How can our sadness and loss be redeemed?  Hemingway would probably say, it can’t.  And yet…

You gotta love a book that grapples (in the place of justice, even there was wickedness—3:16), a book that doesn’t pull punches (all things are full of weariness, a man cannot utter it—1:8), a book that dives deep (In the day of prosperity be joyful and in the day of adversity consider:  God has made the one as well as the other—7:14).  When non-Christians sneer at my Pollyanna faith, let them take a crack at Ecclesiastes.  It’s more bracing than a bottle of whisky, more honest than their “find your own truth.”

Philip Ryken says, “Ecclesiastes is not the kind of book that we keep reading until we reach the end and get the answer, like a mystery.  Instead, it is a book in which we keep struggling with the problems of life and, as we struggle, we learn to trust God with the answers even when we do not have all the answers.”  Like the difference between art and propaganda, Ecclesiastes has no problem leaving you with your mouth ajar.  It presents a puzzle to be solved, a question to be considered.  It is not easy.  And yet…

I love Ecclesiastes, because it is a book of joy.  It is a book which lets you fall down the rabbit hole of our culture’s hollow promises and see them for what they are—empty.  Then, just when you’re starting to feel serious vertigo, it lands you on solid ground—real truth and beauty.  Like Bunyan’s Christian crying out to Hopeful as they cross the river into Heaven, Ecclesiastes says, “Be of good cheer, my brother; I feel the bottom, and it is good.”

You won’t find any answers in pleasure, treasure, philosophy, or toil.  Just ask Tom Brady.  Ask Jack from 30 Rock, or John D. Rockefeller, or anyone who’s ever won the lottery.  Hang out in a nursing home, and ask the residents what mattered most.  And then ask Ecclesiastes.  Bring your doubts, your fears, your losses, your dreams.  As Derek Kidner put it, “in the final chapters he has good news for us, once we can stop pretending that what is mortal is enough for us, who have been given a capacity for the eternal.”

What is mortal is never enough for a person with the capacity for everlasting joy.

Ecclesiastes is like the pretzels freely given at a bar to make its patrons thirsty.  If you aren’t thirsty yet, a few verses in?  You will be.

Do you remember that scene from The Hobbit—when Bilbo and pals were lost and woozy from the suffocating air of a cursed forest?  Bilbo groggily climbed a tree—up and up until he broke out above the canopy and sucked in fresh air with a gasp.  His head cleared; he spotted in the distance their destination; and suddenly he understood what to do.  Sometimes you have to get a better vantage point to see the big picture.  As I said in Thirty Thousand Days, “In all the days of our earth-bound lives, there is only one thing essential to the journey, one thing which is the solution to all our woes, one thing capable of bringing light, clarity, joy, purpose or meaning into our existence. God alone is not bound to the sour sadness of the fall. He is above, beyond, and outside this sin-sick planet, not stuck ‘under the sun’ with us.”

I am so thirsty.  You?

Adventures of Some Crazy People

I suppose it probably surprised some people when we loaded up our entire family and brought them along for Michael’s D-Min cohort that first time.  Shoot, it surprised me.  I mean, really?  Bring three elementary school kids to Georgia for 10 days for a grad school intensive?  Who does that?  I suppose it surprised still more people when we brought them on our sabbatical, dragging them, their Legos, and approximately 10,000 pounds of school books from Colorado cabin to Massachusetts cottage — and that’s right, back to Gordon Conwell for more grad school.  In the past few years, our children have listened in on more doctoral history lectures than most of their friends’ parents combined.  We joked that they were Gordon Conwell’s new mascots.  Dr. Rosell has bought them ice cream half a dozen times; they think he’s the dairy fairy.

We went on to bring them to a third cohort, back for Michael’s graduation, and to teach at a Colorado Bible school twice.  They’ve romped the Atlantic coast from Maine to St. Simon’s Island as their dad studied his way through 400 years of church history, and snapped selfies with elk in the background while he taught it.  This week we’re taking them to a conference outside of Chicago.  It’ll be scholars, pastors, college students, and our kids.  They’re used to it.

One great thing about our gypsy existence is that our kiddos have seen the country — almost all points east of us we’ve thoroughly explored.  (We haven’t turned our attention west yet, but I’m sure one day we will.)  They have adventurous spirits, don’t mind traveling for long hours, and have sampled everything from alligator to elk to grits along the way.  Hopefully they will remember how to check for bed bugs in cheap hotels.  When we couldn’t afford to fly, we drove.  Sometimes we camped our way cross-country.  I love that we can incorporate our studies into real-life places, real world geography.  Our kids have seen the first slave-built church in Savannah, Georgia and the Underground Railroad quarters hidden beneath.  They’ve stood in front of the house where George Whitefield died and explored the landing place of the Wesley brothers in Georgia.  They’ve strolled the campuses of Baylor and Vanderbilt.  I love it.  This next week we’ll get to show them around one of the premier Christian colleges in the world and hopefully pass on a vision for all that college can be.

But another perk is the kids’ assumption that intellectual engagement with our faith is expected, and is not reserved for boring grown-ups.  I love that they have heard great speakers and sung along with all ages.  I love that they continue to meet and develop respect for people from all different denominations and backgrounds.  We may attend a Baptist church, but our friends are Presbyterian, Charismatic, Congregational.  The world is much bigger than our bubble, and I love that our kids have seen that.

What if “take your daughter to work day” was more like “take your children everywhere year”?  What if those designated grown-up activities were expanded just a bit to include the small fry?  What if discipling our kids meant letting them see us dive into our vocations,  letting them see our faith hit the road?  For our own family, it’s been a trip.  Like, literally.

The conference next week is held at College Church of Wheaton, and features Ajith Fernando, Bryan Loritts, Phil Ryken, Josh Moody, and the Gettys.  Even on that one panel is a wide swath of the human experience.  Love it.  If you’re in the area…  new-sola

Sola Gratia

It is a beautiful phrase, rolls over the tongue like a dessert at Macaroni Grill:  sola gratia.  By grace alone we are saved, undeserving sinners though we are.  By the kindness of God, by the compassion of Jesus.  Grace is our highest doctrine, our most precious inheritance.  For 500 years we have repeated, sola gratia.  And still, we stray.

It’s a very human problem to struggle with grace.  Consider Jesus’ favorite critics, the Pharisees.  More than any other group, those guys got an earful from Jesus.

“They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger,” Jesus lamented in Matthew 23.

“They do all their deeds to be seen by others.”

“They love the place of honor at feasts and the best seats in the synagogues.”

“You blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel!”

camel-05The Pharisees’ main problem was a problem of grace — receiving it or extending it.  Surely by their diligent effort and hard work they had earned the glowing “well done!” of God, and as His representatives on earth, could advise, discipline, and judge others.  They were the doctrine police, and qualified for the job.  Down to the tiniest speck in someone’s eye they could sniff out sin — or, in Jesus’ case, well, they couldn’t call it sin, exactly.  Rule breaking?  Unorthodoxy?  “But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you shut the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. For you neither enter yourselves nor allow those who would enter to go in.”

The evangelical landscape right now is brewing a perfect storm for Pharisees.  On one hand we have a collection of incredible minds, learned scholars, a resurgence in theological conviction even among lay people, and a beautiful commitment to our best roots — “sola gratia” among them.  On the other hand, our culture has all but abandoned truth, goodness, beauty, even decency.  We are nervous.  In the distance we see brooding clouds.  The waves rise higher; we are taking on water.  Batten down the hatches, folks, we are in for rough weather.

Conditions are perfect for us to turn on each other.  One of us defects to culture’s immoral whims?  We do not weep, we hiss.  There is a rampant tone of snarky haughtiness in the blogosphere.  Well, we think, don’t read the comments.  They aren’t representative of our spokespeople.  But aren’t they?  Where else have the commenters imbibed such un-grace?

Where are the weepers?

Tighter and tighter we draw the circle of who’s in — whose theology is tight enough?  Whose lifestyle is above reproach?  Who reads the right books and makes disparaging comments about the wrong ones?  images

Sola gratia is no dry theological exercise (is there any such thing?) We have not understood the gospel grace we’ve been given if we then deny it to others.  At bottom, grace is grace because I do not deserve it, have not earned it, could not merit it now that I’ve got it.  There is no room for smugness.

Jesus Himself modeled for us both lavish grace and impeccable truth.  He did not sacrifice one for the other, but upheld the unwavering, holy Word of God and spoke it boldly, with grace.  He didn’t gossip or mock or belittle people, even when they miserably failed or publicly mis-spoke.  He never gave up on Peter or the Sons of Thunder, even when He must have sighed.

Truth isn’t a stick to beat someone with.  Truth is a person who laid down His life for His ordinary, imperfect friends.

When our friends return from the latest “Christian movie” spouting questionable theology, it is possible to examine those ideas gently.  We can imitate the Bereans, who “were more noble than those in Thessalonica; they received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so.”  (Acts 17:11)  When our neighbor enthusiastically endorses a gay evangelical blogger, we can speak the truth in love.  When we come across an article that makes us see red, we can close the laptop and pray instead of firing off an angry, graceless monologue.

We have been saved once and for all by grace alone.  What if we lived by grace alone every day?  It has happened before.  “And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.”  (Acts 2:46-47)

Checking One Off the Colorado Bucket List

Last weekend we decided to drive east instead of west.  About two and a half hours’ drive are the Pawnee Buttes, rising up out of the flat plains like giant, misplaced sand castles.  To get there, you have to hold your nose through dairy towns and take care to stop at one last outpost of civilization before about a 45-minute stretch of boondocks.  You’ll be pretty sure you are heading the wrong way; the wooden painted signs are so weatherbeaten that they are hard to read, the asphalt trucks apparently abandoned their paving task shortly off the highway.  There is even what can only be called a ghost town there in the sticks — a cluster of abandoned houses that once optimistically catered to tourists of the Buttes.  But then,  you’re there. 20170218_15574220170218_170652

What is so arresting about this little pocket of Colorado?  For one thing, you can’t see it coming — it just sort of shimmers into being at the last minute like an apparition from the Wild West.  Empty field, empty field –boom.  Humongous towers.  It reminds me in that way of Black Canyon, only in that case the last-minute jaw-dropper falls down, a yawning cavern hewn out of the earth like the battle scar from some great axe.  In both cases, we tourists begin to mutter “nothing to see here” before rounding that final corner. Black_Canyon_and_Gunnison_River.jpg

And that makes me wonder — what else is hiding in plain sight?  What gobsmacking wonders of the world lie forgotten on the back 40 of some dairy farmer’s fields? Or, for that matter, in our back yard?  On the palm of my hand?

It reminds me of last year’s viral video, the little orange guy who makes us happy.  Who knew he was hiding in the back of your brain?

So much depends on having the eyes to see, the perseverance to track down marvels, the determination to squash the muttering.  Pinch your nose and take a drive — it’s worth the trip!

64 Questions for Making Disciples

Our church has been focusing on the importance of building joyful, passionate disciples of Jesus.  The ladies were challenged at the If:Gathering to step up our discipleship relationships.  The whole congregation has walked through a “core commitments” sermon series focusing on… yep, discipleship.  And at our recent kick-off with the Calvary Family of Churches, we zoomed in on I Thessalonians 2:8, “So, being affectionately desirous of you, we were ready to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you had become very dear to us.”  You guessed it, discipleship.

Anyone who’s been around church for very long knows that term.  A “disciple” is a student, a scholar, the follower of some great teacher—in our case, Jesus.  We attach to ourselves His very name—CHRISTian.  We are “little Christs,” imitators of the most perfect God/man who ever lived.  We want to understand Him, to worship Him, to obey Him, to smell like Him.  And because we want to multiply, to see the Body of Christ explode around the world, we want to “disciple” others.  We want to replicate what we have learned, and teach others to likewise go out and make Him known.

Well, that’s all fine and dandy.  But what does it mean, to disciple someone?  What does it look like?  Is there a difference between discipling someone and mentoring them?  Between teaching and sharing “our own selves”?

A bunch of us spent a leisurely evening discussing discipleship last week over enchiladas, but as we wrapped up, I couldn’t help thinking that practically, we’re a little lacking.  We have enthusiasm, dedication, even, but we need a plan.

Having been on staff for a number of years with Cru, Michael and I received a wealth of discipleship training, so much that I take it for granted that others have been equipped the same way.  In fact, a lot of campus ministries do this exceedingly well—the Navigators are brilliant at it—but if you weren’t part of such a ministry, you may not have been systematically supplied with strategies for discipleship.  You could certainly fill a library with books designed to explain discipleship methods, but I want to put in your hands a simple, brief starting place for your next adventure in discipleship.

I’m not calling it a plan, a procedure, or a how-to manual.  It’s just a jumping-off point.  But it’s easy enough for anybody to take that first, tentative step.  And before you know it, you’re off to the races.

Aim:  To Be Like Christ  

Our whole goal in discipleship is to become more Christlike ourselves (that’s a lifetime pursuit, obviously), and to help the next guy do the same.  Since Jesus gave us a nifty rubric for loving God (the most important task of a disciple), we’re going to borrow it for our discipleship strategy.  Mark 12:29-31 says, “Jesus answered, ‘The most important is… you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’”  So I’m going to give you a three-prong approach modeled on Jesus’ words.

Method:  Heart (and Soul), Head, and Hands  

The challenge of discipleship is to help a person grow, step by step, closer to Christ:  knowing Him, leaning on Him, and acting like Him.  Step one is figuring out where a person is spiritually.  Sit down for a cuppa and begin by asking a ton of questions.  Listen.  Make sure, for starters, that the person has in fact responded in faith to Christ and can confidently say they have put their trust in Him.  If not, begin there.  If so, and if they are ready to dive in, you can come alongside, thoughtfully help them evaluate their walk with God, help them to shore up their weaknesses and “excel still more” in their strengths.  We want to help people move along the spectrum from nonbeliever to Christ-follower to joyful, passionate, multiplying disciple.

You’re going to need to meet regularly.  How often and for how long I can’t say.  But it’s kind of like coaching a sport:  without intentionality and effort, progress is going to be spotty at best.  Every time you get together, you’re going to ask questions.  A lot of questions.   Sometimes you’ll focus on their head—their knowledge of Jesus, since you cannot grow to be like someone whom you don’t know.  Those days you might spend time studying God’s word, leaning in with them to learn together.  Sometimes you will focus on heart—questions of intimacy, priority, and prayer.  Those days you might spend a chunk of time praying with your disciple, modeling by your own conversation with God what prayer can be.  And some days you will focus on hands—serving God side by side; if possible, bringing them along to join you in ways you’re already putting love in motion.

Did you notice?  While we might mentor someone through questions and conversation, when we get serious about discipleship, those conversations turn into action.

Here are three sets of questions to get you started.  It’s going to look like a lot, but think of it like a big box of Crayolas.  The more colors you have to choose from, the prettier picture you can draw.

Anytime you discover that there’s room to grow, pause there, and make suggestions.  (You’ve never read the Old Testament?  Here are some of my favorite parts.  Here’s a reading plan you could try.  How about if we both commit to reading Genesis this month?  Or, You’re struggling with bitterness?  What would forgiveness look like?  What’s a step you can take towards reconciliation?  How can I pray for you this week?) 

Don’t rush past a sticky spot without taking time to get un-stuck.  Try to always leave with an action step:  How will you work on X this week?

Ready?  Here we go.

1.  Heart and Soul:  Pray like crazy!  Discipler, pray for your disciple.  Ask for wisdom — where do they need to grow?  For that matter, where do you need to grow?  Does your disciple P.R.A.Y. (love a corny acronym!) in the following areas:

Praise: Do you have a thankful heart?  Are you active in corporate worship?  Do you stay alert for God-sightings?  Where have you seen God working today?  Would you say you are lukewarm, red hot, or stone cold?  What makes you fall in love with Jesus?  How can you give thanks in difficult circumstances?  Are you joyful?IMG_2029

Repent: Do you keep short accounts with God?  Are you aware of your pet sins?  Do you confess areas where you have stubbornly disobeyed?  What about the areas where you’ve simply had a bad attitude?  Do you often ask God to help you recognize temptation and flee from it?  How does it affect your relationship with God when you try to brush past sin?

Ask:  How do you press into Jesus in times of trouble?  Do you remember to stay alert and ask for protection?  Especially when you are discouraged, do you ask for perspective?  Do you bring your anxieties to God and ask Him to replace your fear with faith?  Do you pray for evangelism opportunities?  Do you keep a running list of nonbelievers in your life to pray for?  What about your enemies?  Have you prayed through the Psalms?

Yield:  Are you in the habit of listening to the Holy Spirit?  Do you frequently ask for strength, power, and guidance from Him?  Have you committed a willing heart to obey and surrender to His will?  Are there areas you are reluctant to surrender?  Do you make vows to God that you don’t fulfill?

2.  Head:  Get to know Jesus!20170221_115152

Have you studied what He said?

Do you know why He bled?

Do you read what He read?

Have you thoroughly digested Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John?  Have you committed His words to heart?

Do you understand the implications of the gospel —not only for your salvation, but for your sanctification, for your vocation?  Are you in the practice of studying the New Testament?

Jesus’ Bible was just the Old Testament.  Have you neglected this part of God’s word?

How often do you read the Bible?  Do you read both quickly for the big picture and slowly for understanding?  Do you memorize it?  Do you pray for insight before you study?  For strength to apply it?  Do you know how to study it well?  Do you use good tools to help you?  Do you rely more on other teachers or are you a self-feeder?  Do you check your conclusions against reliable sources?  Are you listening to any ear-ticklers?

3. Hands:  Follow where He led.  Obviously there are hundreds of ways to imitate Christ, since He was literally perfect in every way.  Here are five major hallmarks of His life that we can copy:

Holy lifestyle:  What are your pet sins?  Have you made an effort to root out unforgiveness, pride, laziness, and selfishness?  Whom do you allow to see you struggle?  Do you welcome accountability?  Discipler, be transparent and gracious.  You sin, too!  Pray for wisdom—when to be gentle, when to be firm.  Don’t try to fix them, and don’t confront everything at once.  Guide them to identify their own problem areas and agree to tackle them.

Love:  Do justice and love mercy.  To be Christlike, we need to be involved in compassionate action, as He was.  Where is there need in your community?  How can you be involved?  Get active—do the work of love side by side.

Take up your cross:  What might God be asking you to give up for the sake of His name?  How can you love sacrificially?  Where have you deemed the cost of discipleship too high?

Give grace:  Where do you resist forgiving others?  Has your understanding of the gospel penetrated your heart to the extent that grace comes naturally?  What prevents you from being gracious?  Do people perceive you to be kind and generous or stingy with praise?  If you will be forgiven to the measure you have forgiven others, is that good news?

Preach the gospel:  In season and out, using words when necessary, with love always, freely and naturally, as an overflow of adoration and compassion, with intentionality and forethought, with prayer and urgency, with skill and a continual pursuit of increasing excellence.  When was the last time you shared your faith?  How do you seek opportunities to do so?  What weaknesses need shoring up?  How often do you practice this skill?  How have you equipped yourself?

Patience and grace, commitment and follow-through.  That’s it.  Heart and Soul, Head and Hands.  One life pouring into another, simple enough for a bunch of fishermen.

Let me finally point you to some fantastic resources that others have put together if you want to take this further.

Here’s a resource from the folks at Lifeway.  Has a great video clip at the beginning.

This one comes from David Platt, and echoes my thoughts above.  I like his action-step questions.

Cru does a great job with discipleship, and is reliably straightforward.  They emphasize “transferable,” or easily-repeatable resources.

I haven’t read this book, but Francis Chan is such a neat guy.  He’s put together not only a book (Multiply) but an accompanying video series to equip disiple-makers.  And hey, there’s David Platt again!  (That guy is everywhere!)

And a classic, The Master Plan of Evangelism, by Robert Coleman.

What if a book…

What if a book had the power to change the temperature of your life, stir warmth into a cold heart, light a fire in a stale room?  What if a book had the power to speak so directly to your soul that it seemed the author had been peering into your windows day after day?  What if a book awakened something deep inside you that you didn’t even know was there—a vision, a dream, a purpose lying dormant?

What if there was a book that spelled out directions to hidden treasure?  Would you cherish it, like Indiana Jones’ father?  Mark it up?  Follow its improbable guidance to the ends of the earth?  (Wait, it says to go where?  To take a leap now?)

We are a people of the book, whose ancestors painstakingly copied line by line, counting each letter, lining things up.  So highly our book was revered, so many times our book was copied, that they’ve found 5,686 ancient Greek manuscripts of the New Testament, compared to 7 of Plato.  And those copies, widespread as they were, are exceedingly accurate, down to the last “jot and tittle.”  On islands off the coast of Scotalnd the words were embellished with gold foil, made into works of art.  In prisons and underground churches they are memorized in chunks, etched on walls, torn carefully apart and reverently passed around.  Why?

Here is a book that illuminates the wonders of everyday (Do you give the horse his might?  Do you clothe his neck with a mane?  Do you make him leap like the locust?…)

the comical (Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye?)

and the cosmic (When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him?)

It is a book that articulates our own great doubts (Meaningless, meaningless, everything is meaningless!)

our passions (Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth!)

our insecurities (You have kept count of my tossings; put my tears in your bottle. Are they not in your book?)

and our fervent hopes (Your sins are forgiven.)

It takes in the sweep of a grand, epic history, from the very dawn of time, through battles and triumphs and tragedies, right down to the most intimate, personal desires of your heart.

It has the power to rescue you from a tumbleweed existence and plant you like a mighty oak tree.



In Charleston, SC there is a tree reckoned to be over 400 years old, called by locals the Angel Oak.  Through countless hurricanes it has endured, well anchored by roots that must rival what we see above the surface:  28 feet in circumference, 17,200 square feet of shade under its branches, which stretch, tip to tip, 187 feet across.  That tree has withstood all that the Atlantic Ocean can hurl its way, has survived invading colonists and centuries of human need and greed.  That tree, serene, vibrates with life, like a soul planted heart-deep in one old book.

What if there was a book that offered you the fortitude to face your addictions, traded your anxiety for peace, made you flexible instead of fragile, taught you to cope with life’s hurricanes?  What if there was a book that vibrated with life, startled you witless when you opened it up, spoke again and again to the conditions of your world?

What if, in a simple book, you discovered the great friendship of your life?

Why on earth wouldn’t you dive in, day after day, and drink deep?

Ms. Anne Lamott on Books

“For some of us, books are as important as almost anything else on earth. What a miracle it is that out of these small, flat, rigid squares of paper unfolds world after world after world, worlds that sing to you, comfort and quiet or excite you. Books help us understand who we are and how we are to behave. They show us what community and friendship mean; they show us how to live and die.”

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