The American Church Must Repent

“Beware the yeast…” What does that mean for the American Church?

Many sections of scripture seem abrupt, out of place. They don’t seem to fit in neatly with their surrounding stories, prophecies, or laws. They’re jarring, as though the narrator is clapping hands in front of your sleepy face while screaming, “Pay attention! This is important!”

We find one in Mark 8, wedged awkwardly between miracle narratives; right after Jesus fed 4,000 and right before he healed a blind man. After Jesus rejects Pharisees’ request that He perform more miracles, His disciples realize they neglected to pack bread. All of a sudden Jesus issues a warning to “be careful. Watch out for the yeast of the Pharisees and that of Herod.”

This line is interpreted in various ways:

  • “Beware the lure of power!
  • “Beware hypocrisy!”
  • “Beware the unbelief that obstructs acceptance of my Kingdom!”

Regardless, these interpretations point to the same root: “Religion” and power can blind us to the reality of, and participation in, the Kingdom of Heaven. Christ spoke not only to the founders of our Church but also the future Church — He thinks big like that.

Wait, but who were the Pharisees?

(For the sake of length, I’ll focus on Pharisees and sideline Herod.)

Pharisees weren’t all bad. A progressive social movement, they expanded [contemporary Israel’s corrupted form of] Judaism to better include people of various classes, they challenged the idea that worship shouldn’t be restricted to the Temple, they loved prayer, and we owe them for much of scripture’s preservation. We read about cool ones in the New Testament, like Nicodemus and Gamaliel, and even Paul.

However, Jesus didn’t always meet the most open-minded Pharisees, and it’s these particular ones’ yeast he spoke of. The ones he debated thought they were tight with YHWH, and their lips honored Him but their hearts were far from him — their worship was based on human rules. They obsessed with rules so much that they forgot that true worship is to love YHWH and His people, not get bogged down by legalities that miss the heart of the Law. They loved studying scripture, but they tended to twist it to fit into their own beloved traditions and philosophical molds.

As a popular people wielding political sway, these Pharisees balked at the Kingdom’s tide rising from the dusty irreligious and (formerly) powerless, like traitorous tax collectors, prostitutes, and Samaritans.

It’s tragic. These people so genuinely wanted to love YHWH, but stubbornness callused their hearts. These zealots feared “getting it wrong”; feared Jesus was a fraud or demonic; feared that if He was right, then their lives up to that point had been insulting to the One to whom they’d devoted their lives.

We can empathize with much of that, right?

Are we Pharisees?

“Beware the thinking of this powerful, political, hyper-religious force,” Jesus basically said. He implied that adopting their thinking could endanger the Church.

When we read scripture, do we shallowly read ourselves as the Daniels, Josephs, and Johns? Or do we stop to consider if we are oppressive Egyptians, traitor Judases … religious-political Pharisees?

Do we have the wisdom to read from new perspectives and consider that we are the in-denial/denier Simons? The Simon who held back from giving everything to Christ? Only once we move out of that denial can we become the Peters who feed His sheep by sacrificing comfort and security.

American yeast

It’s true that that the Church outside of America is no stranger to miracles. I’ve visited oppressed churches across the oceans that exude a special vibrancy in their worship. In those places, I’ve experienced and heard of things I thought undoable and unhearable.

Those believers scratch their heads at the common Western belief that the Spirit simply doesn’t move like it did in the era of the Twelve. These brothers and sisters make impossible sacrifices simply to worship, and yet possess a technicolor joy while Westerners’ hearts are weighed down by worry, shame, cynicism. 

We’re missing something. “Why them and not us?” In America, I’ve attended beautiful, humbly powerful, Gospel-driven churches and I remain tied to them today, but still yet we seem to hold back from experiencing the Spirit’s radical, transformative might.

We must repent

(Before I continue: This post isn’t meant to discount the wonderful believers and churches in our nation, but instead is based on those wonderfuls being a relative rarity.)

Much of the American Church has been oppressive, shame-driven, lazy, double-minded, cowardly, doubtful. As have I.

This is a reality, not a theory: If even a fraction of the 240 million Americans who claim to be Christians lived as Jesus instructed us to …

  • would the American Church rest beside revolting poverty and extreme injustice?
  • would the American Church be complacent while the voices of the oppressed cry out, while blood cries from the ground?
  • would the American Church expend more energy in arguments and defense of personal comfort than in love and justice?
  • would the American Church focus so much on voting and profiteering rather than sacrificing for others?
  • would the American Church be more obsessed with policing nonbelievers than liberating them from shame through compassion?
  • would the American Church attempt to suppress the prophetic peoples’ responsibility to speak out against abuse of power and stand with the crushed?
  • would the American Church ignore the Biblical emphasis on generational and communal responsibilities to take ownership for systemic sin?

Christ didn’t preach the need to release earthly power only so his Church could later claw desperately for it. I so often hear mainstream American Christians claim we are persecuted: ironically, that claim seems birthed from the insecurity of losing power. A poor reputation is not the same as persecution. And what’s our reputation? That much of the American Church is a powerful, hyper-religious, legalistic political party that flails a hammer of shame.

It’s quite yeasty, really.

We must realize that the American Church is not living in the Promised Land, but is breaking in Babylon. Through brutal slavery and genocide, we constructed a nation of materialism, violence, and soul distraction — yet much of the Church upholds this disaster and refuses to repent. What I say is not rewriting history; I’m merely removing its filters.

Sometimes I wonder if we need to send fewer missionaries, and receive more.

An American faith revival won’t look like people realizing the current Church is for them. The revival will come when we realize our Church must first unite to repent.

When Will the Church Stand United Against Injustice?

The church can’t turn a deaf ear to the blood crying out from the ground.

Can you hear the ever-growing cry? It pierces desensitization, spitting at the monotony that tomorrow will repeat today. We are breaking open to that which is beyond us — to strength, power, and spirit beyond us. We need healing, saving, redeeming. We need an end.

Can you hear it?

Or do you live in the empire of indifference? The lips of so many honor Him, yet their hearts are far from Him — their worship is detestable.

Beware the yeast.

We aren’t called to live in mock peace. We aren’t called to turn away from the wounded. We aren’t called to enable systemic corruption.

We are called to cry out, to weaponize prayer, to mourn with those who mourn. We are called to stand with our brothers, our sisters.

Another brother murdered. His blood cries out from the earth. Do we echo?

How much more will we pollute this ground? How much longer will we claw for power? When will we realize that we are not inhabitants of the Promised Land, but exiles in Babylon?

Open scripture to the books of prophecy, allow the words to cleave soul and spirit. Open scripture to the lamentations, praying that your heart breaks for what breaks His. Open scripture to the condemnations of societal corruption and injustice, and do something.

Slow to anger. Slow, yes. It’s been centuries. Centuries. Do not deny our and their history, do not shove it into dusty archives. The murders of today are the offspring of generational curses for which we hold responsibility. We must shatter the cycle.

The first Christians persecuted on American soil were slaves. Their faith was outlawed; their flesh was ripped for praying, for worshipping, for crying out to El Shama — God Who Hears. But their Spirit grew and continues to grow.

Another enslaved people cried out, millennia ago. The great I AM answered them, and grew them — the Word reached good ground meek enough to accept it. He stood with them until they grew fat with power and forgot they were slaves. Persecuted, loathed prophets arose to proclaim justice, to cry out against power.

Divine became flesh — an anointed prophet — and judged those whose politics were more beloved than neighbors. Christ blessed the meek and mourning with the Advocate to stand against kingdoms of man and comfort the oppressed.

Listen to the marginalized, listen to those in whom the Spirit surges.

That same Advocate stands again on the side of the oppressed. He is for them; we should not dare to stand against them and Him. If you are offended, then you are prideful. If you are prideful, you will not receive the Word.

“Remember you were slaves,” Adonai said to His people. Today, we must remember that we live on ground wet by the blood of brothers and sisters. Today we must remember that many of us exploited and continue to exploit. Do not turn away.

No more. “His word is in my heart like a fire, a fire shut up in my bones. I am weary of holding it in. I can’t do it!” We shouldn’t do it. We were called to be better than this, so let’s call on each other to be better than this.

The Gospel of Releasing Power

The apple of humanity’s eye is power. In an eternal kingdom, we’re challenged to release it.

YHWH planted a garden, then planted two humans in it. Before them stood two trees: one of life and one of knowledge seemingly necessary to becoming “like gods.” A route to submission, a route to new power. We know the fruit of their decision. Their eyes opened to nakedness and its accompanying shame. God covered their nakedness, but the damage was done.

What better illustrates the loss of childlike innocence than realization of sexuality?

Humanity was cursed.

Years later, Noah planted an orchard with his three sons. He drank a bit too much fermented fruit. His son, power-lusting Ham, raped Noah’s wife in an attempt to usurp his father’s authority. Naked Noah awakened to great shame. His other sons had covered his nakedness, but the damage was done.

Ham’s offspring were cursed.

Even today, we call generational cycles, like alcoholism and abuse, “curses.”

Ham is ancestor to the archetypes for the Kingdom of Man — “My will be done.” Canaanites, Assyrians, Babylonians, Egyptians descend from his power grab.

Shem, another son of Noah, is the ancestor of a shepherding people — Semites. Scripture hones in on a descendent named Joseph, of Israel’s tribe. He’s arrogant, and a threat to his many older brothers’ familial power. This tribe is no stranger to younger brothers stealing power — their father, Israel, betrayed their uncle for it.

Joseph’s jealous brothers sell him into slavery. Pride broken and giving all glory to YHWH, he miraculously rises into the ranks of Egyptian power. During a great famine, he sells grain to the starving — humbly, he declares that YHWH has used him to bless others. Eventually, he is reunited with his brothers and father, all reconciling through mutual humility.

That’s a rare happy ending in the Bible.

Years later, the tribe of Israel become slaves to Egypt. The family is exploited to build store cities that hoard grain for sell during famines at unfair prices. Joseph blessed nations with surplus, while the later Egyptians used Joseph’s family for systemic injustice.

God delivers the Israelites and reminds them constantly: Remember where you came from, remember your roots.

You were slaves. Never forget.

Prophets chosen for their humility guided Israel into a new land. Kings corrupted by power polluted the land in a dark period of idolatry and greed. Prophets — no longer the leaders — decry societal injustices, warning that mistreatment of the weak will mean destruction of the strong.

Descendants of Ham — Egyptians, Assyrians, Babylonians — pulverize the Israelites. The Northern Kingdom is scatters and the powerful of the Southern Kingdom are exiled, to be broken and relearn their roots as a captive people in need of salvation.

Deuteronomy laments (or warns against) the Israelites forgetting who they were — once-freed slaves.

Prophets spoke of a new Messiah, a new king who would come to save his people. Jews whispered beneath the oppression of empires that this Messiah would be a new David who would trample their oppressors.

Centuries later, this Messiah arrives. This anointed one’s short yet eternal era is ushered in not by kings, but by a man clothed in camel hair.

To kickstart his reign, this man dwells in a desert to conquer temptations of power. He proclaims that the Kingdom of Heaven — “Thy will be done.” — has arrived. This upside-down kingdom shames the wise and strong: power is made perfect in weakness, the meek are royal inheritors, the poor are rich, servants are leaders, the last are first, becoming less makes one great.

Startlingly, the King of kings is a suffering servant, crucified by the empire He was “supposed” to destroy. He emptied Himself of power so He could gain power.

He lives today, and invites us to join this Kingdom of Heaven. It’s for anyone who wishes to join. There’s a catch, though.

Can you release your power?

What Leviticus Teaches Modern Priests

Leviticus-approved food for thought on our role as modern priests.

In Genesis, humans share the Author of Life’s garden … for a while. God later misses humans so much that He dwelled with liberated slaves in dusty tents — the tabernacle. Later, Solomon constructed a “permanent” tabernacle that was later razed. A second temple then rose, then fell.

Meanwhile, a smaller (yet greater) Temple fell … and rose again within three days.

Wild.

First-century Jewish followers of Christ were startled by the implication that the Temple now lived in them. Perhaps some adios’ed upon hearing that, similar to those who gave the “weird eye and goodbye” upon hearing they should eat Christ’s flesh.

Maybe more left after learning that Gentiles now shared their inheritance.

“Not just anyone can be a priest,” they might have said.

Gentiles: “Wait. What? Priest?”

Perhaps Peter sighed before informing Gentile converts: “You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for His own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.”

Confused? We have a guide to priesthood.

Many believe that the strange rules of Leviticus applied only to the priestly tribe of Levi. The book’s original name is Wayyiqra’, which means “and he called.” What did God call the Israelites to be? A kingdom of priests. The tabernacle- and temple-specific duties were given to the tribe of Levi, but all Israelites were to behave like priests.

I know. Leviticus is among the most avoided books of the Bible. It seems boring and restrictive, and it’s been twisted to support evil agendas. It’s misunderstood.

Imperfect summary: Leviticus instructs priests how to treat everything as sacred so humans can live in the presence of The Holy.

[Jesus acts as the High(est) Priest. Leviticus taught us, “Don’t touch that.” Jesus taught us, Here’s how to touch that.”]

Followers of Christ are mini-tabernacles; the Holiest of Holies dwells within us. But I think many of us in the modern church have forgotten our roles as royal priests. Sure, the specifics like sacrifice and festivals aren’t required for Christians — and we can dwell with God much more directly thanks to Jesus — but there’s still much to learn from the priests of old to help us be the priests of today.

Leviticus emphasizes ritual. By performing all things with intention and attention to detail, priests blurred the lines between spiritual and secular. Rituals heightened this attention (and also emphasized the mystery of God). Levite priests viewed all things through a sacred lens. Today, we move too quickly and with distraction to appreciate that all things have meaning worthy of attention. Sometimes I wonder if the Protestant church has moved too far from ritual.

Leviticus emphasizes gratitude. The first three sacrifices in Leviticus describe ways of showing gratitude to and even fellowship with God. Also, the repetition of Leviticus drives some crazy, but we must remember that it was designed to be memorized, and it stresses an important line: “I am Adonai, who makes you holy, who brought you out of the land of Egypt to be your God; I am Adonai.” I once heard that “To be Jewish is to remember.” The priests are to remember why they serve God. Do we worship Him because of what He might do for us, or because of what He has already done?

Leviticus emphasizes the sanctity of life. Life-affirming elements were treated with gravity. Women were given space after birth, semen and menstrual blood and all other blood were recognized as life forces, sex was revered as an intensely powerful force. It’s tempting to think of these matters as pure science, biology. But it is through Christ’s blood that we have been forgiven, and through sex that we become creators of life.

Leviticus emphasizes stewardship. Humans were not to ravage animal populations to satisfy desire — not even fruit trees. Death demanded respect. Leviticus even commands a Sabbath year to give the land rest from exploitation, and warns the land could vomit out defiling inhabitants! Today, we abuse the land and its creatures through mega-industrial farming and unethical slaughter, and climate change is destroying us. Shouldn’t the church take a stance? We’ve strayed far from the original charge to co-rule over creation.

Leviticus emphasizes rest. Not only for the land, but for people, too. The kingdom of priests was to rest often, reminding themselves they are humans and not only “doers,” reminding themselves that God provides, reminding themselves that this world was made to be enjoyed. Creation is not complete until it’s enjoyed.

Leviticus emphasizes peace. The sex codes helped harmonize the household and the sacrifice system defended against anxiety. In a time when other religions always felt the need to sacrifice more to appease gods — including killing their own children — Leviticus says there is no need. Sacrifices are detailed in purpose and limitations, and sacrifices don’t “sway” God or forgive sins. Today, we live in the joy of the ultimate sacrifice, but often forget how radical that concept is.

Leviticus emphasizes love for one’s neighbor, stranger, and enemy. The poor, disabled, widowed and orphaned (major deal in ancient culture), and foreigner were to be cared for. Justice was to be fair and food left out for the needy. There were specific, resource-sacrificing rituals for apologizing for an offense. Love was radical. Today, we’ve dropped our guard against the “yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” We also seek our own safety — personally and nationally — over the safety of others, including enemies.

Leviticus emphasizes humility. The Levite priests themselves were set apart, but their job was not fun. It was grueling and even scary, and the laws prevented them from using their positions for selfish power, plus ensured they lived with dignity. Today, we uphold many leaders as above us rather than holding them to a tighter standard. Also, we disrespect our status as priests and temples through a variety of things, including diet, lack of exercise, loose lips, etc.

Leviticus emphasizes social responsibility. Communal sacrifices and ways of mourning as a community are described in Leviticus. The kingdom of priests was shown how to demonstrate remorse for communal wrongs. How different would our world be today if we engaged in corporate responsibility for wrongs? How different would today be if we all united in beating back the pandemic?

Leviticus emphasizes time and space. Certain months and days have special meaning, and particular spaces were treated with reverence. That included entering spaces with the right headspace, as one might enter a yoga room with only “positive vibes.” This also includes the separation of some (“unclean,” “impure”) items from sacred spaces, which is not as strange as it sounds. (You don’t put a steak in an operating room. The steak isn’t “evil,” but it just doesn’t belong there.) The tabernacle was a “micro cosmos” (microcosm) of Eden, and so one entered its tents with awe and a pursuit of perfection. Do we commit ourselves to getting in a respectful mindset before entering spaces of worship?

Leviticus emphasizes mercy. At the heart of the tabernacle was the Mercy Seat; at the heart of the Levite priests’ world was mercy. Annually, on the Day of Atonement, the entire kingdom of priests’ inability to achieve perfection was forgiven. Another day — 2,000 years ago  — the ultimate atonement covered all of our sins. Amen, my dudes. Practice the same mercy for all others, as image bearers of Him.

In their ordination, Levite priests had blood dabbed on their right earlobe, right thumb, and right big toe: hear Him, act for Him, move toward Him.

Let’s.

What Do We Do In Our Exile?

Maybe the “pandemic exile” is divine, maybe not. Regardless, we can do sacred things with the time.

The Babylonian exile was the traumatic event for ancient Israelites. The Promised Land — the land the Patriarchs’ offspring bled for, starved for — was scraped clean of its wealthy, educated, and priestly elite. Left behind were the impoverished in a de-Templed land of famine, not milk and honey. The tribes were struck and scattered; cries rang out across the known world for YHWH: the God of their fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Israel.

From atop Mount Nebo, Moses gazed at the Promised Land he would not set foot on.

It seemed to be a nightmare of divine abandonment, a warped perception of promises paid to Patriarchs. From this profound pain came a maturing of God’s people — a time of both national and religious deconstruction, then reconstruction.

The gola (exiles) breathed their spiritual transformations through the words of prophets including Ezekiel, Isaiah, and Jeremiah, as well as many psalmists and lamenters.

In despair, many repented for betraying the Author of Life by way of idolatry and corruption of Mosaic law. Some blamed kings, some blamed the kings’ people. The philosophically minded mused, inspiring bleak ponderings on the intertwining of human suffering and God’s mysterious will. It’s likely the bulk of the Tanakh was knitted together — oral tradition made ink — during and after the exile. (When you read the Torah in light of the exile, it all makes a lot more sense.)

Maybe the return to the ruins of Judea looked something like this. (Pic taken in Jordan)

All was desolate; a blank canvas, save for God.

Exile was horrific and resulted from the world’s brokenness, but it also paved the opportunity to paint a better society. God crafted something beautiful of what was thought to be a desolate situation. His people, severed from their land, found again the One who was with them before the land. They rededicated themselves to worship and humility, bannered under Him.

Like her namesake, Israel rose from her wrestling to be blessed with a new identity, a stronger identity. They carried also a vigor for the Ezekiel– and Isaiah-proclaimed coming of a Messiah who would shepherd His flock.

Thing Is, That Exile Wasn’t Isolated.

Over five centuries later, the Messiah did come. Rather than purge Jerusalem of the Romans, this Messiah ministered and healed. He also corrected interpretations of His character. This Messiah wept at destruction rather than created it. (To chew on: Did the Shepherd weep during exile because He caused it or because His flock fled His protection? It’s Jewish tradition to debate such things.)

To begin ministry, the Spirit led Christ into the wilderness to fast, pray, and defy temptations. He did this for 40 days, reflecting 40 days of Noah’s rescue-exile atop the waters, or the 40-year wandering of unfaithful Israelites through the wilderness.

By the time of Jesus, Romans had moved into the land — a new type of captivity for Israel.

His followers would leave their homes, possessions, and families to find that His new (yet ancient) promise satisfied in ways beyond what the Promised Land could. Many were later exiled from their communities for following Him. Others left the Promised Land by will, to spread His Gospel to empires even mightier than Babylon’s had been.

Exiles and wilderness wanderings persist thematically and literally throughout the Bible. It’s in these objectively terrible times that the characters become more in tune with God, more matured. And the characters are not simply characters — they’re us.

My First Exile? Years Ago.

In college, I read that Job is widely regarded as one of the finest works of literature. I didn’t understand why. It seemed rather archaic and unrelatable. And I regarded the Psalms to be overly militaristic and Lamentations much too dreary.

But as readers of this blog know, I lost my hearing and my lungs, and was “exiled” from Hawaii. Lamentations became cathartic reading, and when life felt like war, Psalms rallied me. And Job, he became my identity.

My so-called exile was traumatizing, yet through it I also was made me. Deaf and immunocompromised, I was largely alone, yet felt the companionship of Someone far mightier than this world. The only One who had the right to define my identity for me: I Am.

There’s something comforting in the abyss once you realize what, or Who, fills it.

I have theories on why I was broken and exiled. They don’t matter much, really. What matters is that in my exile I matured as a man after God’s heart. I got and get a lot wrong, but I am getting warmer on who He is and who I am. Like Israel, I’ve needed an identity revolution. No longer am I Brad the deceitful and bitter, but instead I am a son of God.

I’ve heard God’s beating heart in the silence of deafness, have felt His breath in my new lungs. I’ve learned to either move slowly or be still, to love swiftly and meditate daily. I’ve plunged into a graceful love that plucks me back up each time I’ve swayed into sin. In my “exile,” God gave me a heart for missions and youth. He has brought order to my disorders and helped me to live a life of gratitude. In His fold, I’ve found promises that satisfy me in ways Hawaii hadn’t, weakening that beautiful land’s grasp on my heart.

You know, Jeremiah told the gola to build homes in Babylon. And yes, California has become a home. I am grateful. I’ve seemingly completed Job’s journey into living a blessed life now that most suffering has ceased.

Things Can’t Stay Smooth, Can They?

God stirred in me something I thought improbable: a calling from an exile I no longer considered exile. Specifically, to ministry in Hawaii. (I’ll detail how that happened later.)

This January and February, in prayer with others and alone, I heard time and time again, “This is a season of preparation.” A time for “personal mentorship from God.” Then, COVID-19 hit. Now I’m in an empty guesthouse (provided by my lovely church family) with plenty of theological readings and my Bible. A wilderness, to prepare for ministry.

Take time in nature. Be still, be silent. Listen.

Wilderness or Exile, Make Something of It.

I do not know the reason for today’s “pandemic exile,” though I can spot the rhyme. Maybe now executes judgment against the gods of the modern world: materialism, oppressive policies, resource greed, our kings. Maybe this isn’t judgment but is instead birth pains. Regardless, Jesus — the Healer — weeps over the pandemic caused by the world’s corruption, as He had for Jerusalem — He plots to redeem this horror for His and our good. I hope that, somewhere, God has spoken with a humble Moses to lead us from exile, or maybe someone from outside the Church, a Cyrus.

One can play Biblical conspiracy theorist all day, like Job’s squabbling friends, but never receive an answer besides “You wouldn’t understand.” I’m simple and prefer to think not “Why?” but instead, “What now?” The pandemic is already here. Let’s ask what we do now. Whether this is some judgment or not, we should seize the opportunity to cast away our idols and go all-in for God.

So no, I do not know the reason for my “exile” four years ago nor the pandemic of today. But I am determined to learn the rhymes of the Babylonian captives, the wandering Israelites, and the Son who fasted to prepare for ministry. I am determined to answer the beckoning to a “season of preparation” by making this isolation into a wilderness of prayer and Scripture. This is a time of Sabbath, a time to dig deeper into who God is and what He wants of me — of us.

In my calm, I intercede for this world. I know God works for our good.

I lament to feel this all, then quiet my soul of its chaos; laments formed 70% of Psalms. This is not a blog to dismiss the suffering taking place across the world. Instead, in the “wilderness” of pandemic isolation, I intercede today while preparing my spirit to minster in the fallout.

I pray for comfort, for hope:

O Lord, my heart is not lifted up;
    my eyes are not raised too high;
I do not occupy myself with things
    too great and too marvelous for me.
 But I have calmed and quieted my soul,
    like a weaned child with its mother;
    like a weaned child is my soul within me.
 O Israel, hope in the Lord
    from this time forth and forevermore.

Psalm 131

If there is a time for faith revival, it is now.

Now, and Then.

When the Israelites returned from exile, it was strictly to build a nation of worship. They returned to a land that had “enjoyed its sabbath rests; all the time of its desolation it rested, until the seventy years were completed in fulfillment of the word of the Lord spoken by Jeremiah.”

All was desolate; a blank canvas, save for God.

It’s been a long time since the Promised Land, pictured, has had its Sabbath. Maybe now is the time?

Mortality Meditations

Death was a terror. At night, he mocked a little boy who, unable to sleep, weeped at the thought of being stolen away before becoming a jet pilot. He tried to swallow a drowning teen into the darkness of the Deep, through the boil of crashing waves. He declared himself in the rapid beeping of heart monitor alarms. He lended extra weight to human hands that pressed a rabid man hard into a hospital bed, strapping his arms down as one does to a madman. He ripped into that man’s mind: hallucinations of falling backwards into rainbow tide pools over and over and over and over while a monstrous crab shrieked, “YOU’RE DYING, YOU’RE DYING. IT’S ALL YOUR FAULT.”

Someone yanked me from those hallucinations. My world was changed. I’d passed between physical and metaphysical dimensions, then got spit back out again. Deaf, I heard only the hallucination’s echoes, while all around me family and doctors strategized for a second life through lung transplantation.

One night, Jehovah Rapha — The God Who Heals — shattered the reverberations to assure me death was not what I thought. He invited me into His peace and I entered it; peace was not relief of death, but defiance of its sting.

Death As a Source of Life

Confronting death leads to joyful living. Death is still very much an enemy resulting from the world’s brokenness, but Christ destroyed its power on the cross to give us hope that we can live beyond our mortal bodies. To honor that, I choose to live defiantly, fervently, and beautifully, knowing this earthly life is short. I share the peace I found through God, in reflection of Job 33:19-30:

“Someone may be chastened on a bed of pain
    with constant distress in their bones,
so that their body finds food repulsive
    and their soul loathes the choicest meal.
Their flesh wastes away to nothing,
    and their bones, once hidden, now stick out.
They draw near to the pit,
    and their life to the messengers of death.
Yet if there is an angel at their side,
    a messenger, one out of a thousand,
    sent to tell them how to be upright,
and he is gracious to that person and says to God,
    ‘Spare them from going down to the pit;
    I have found a ransom for them—
let their flesh be renewed like a child’s;
    let them be restored as in the days of their youth’—
then that person can pray to God and find favor with him,
    they will see God’s face and shout for joy;
    he will restore them to full well-being.
And they will go to others and say,
    ‘I have sinned, I have perverted what is right,
    but I did not get what I deserved.
God has delivered me from going down to the pit,
    and I shall live to enjoy the light of life.’

“God does all these things to a person—
    twice, even three times—
to turn them back from the pit,
    that the light of life may shine on them.”

God delivered me from the pit, so I enjoy the light of life. Through my faith, I have overcome the limitations and restrictions of death, and have embraced the liberty and empowerment of living in spite of death.

Practicing Death

Daily, I meditate on my mortality to make myself unafraid. Many people avoid thinking about death because it makes them uncomfortable; maybe that avoidance is why they are uncomfortable. Early Christian Romans carved in art, trees, and statues memento mori — “Remember that you must die.” Remembering we will die at any moment humbles, creates urgency, prioritizes, builds gratitude.

Recently, I sat on a cliff edge, deaf, to watch black, immense waves roll beneath night fog. As the weight of the ocean rose and toppled in silence, I reflected on both the colossal power of God and the dark nights of my past. I heard myself sob again, “Mama, mama!” from the soiled hospital bed. I heard again the war drum pounding ribs as surgeons prepared me for surgery. I heard the tearing of flesh and cracking of those ribs while I slept, so close to death.

I remember the God who tore me out from the chaos, making me stronger each time. To be grateful, I must remember what He saved me from. I try to live like tomorrow won’t happen, sharing God’s peace with others and choosing refreshed attitudes each morning.

One day, though, I will pass from this Earth. I think I will know when it’s time, and go down in acceptance rather than with fight.

It will likely be sooner than most peers. Then again, the average butterfly lives only two weeks and we don’t call their lives ugly.

The Ultimate Hope

Stations were set up round the sanctuary for Ash Wednesday: areas to record Lent vows, to stare into a mirror while reflecting on origins and promises, to take communion, to receive the marks of ash on the forehead.

At the section for meditating on mortality, I lit a candle and gazed at the flicker licking air. I felt the Spirit of Truth tickle my spine, then a whisper in my mind: “Remember, from dust you came and to dust you shall return.”

But there will be a day, loved one, when I rise again from dust to see a new Earth, a new Heaven. The Author of Life — the Alpha and Omega — wipes away my tears. “There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”

And in that day, I will know that, truly, my old enemy is slain.

Let All the [Money Woes] Fade Away

Sometimes, God’s voice hurts really badly.

Recently, I’d begun to really like money, which was a bit startling for me.

I’m the type who loves to create lists — I crave a good list. I even have a list of my redeemable qualities so I’m not always calling myself trash. One of those traits is that I’m not greedy. I’ll share my fries, my coat, my car. Aside from a recent season, I shared my money, too. I’d give, give, give, keeping in mind Luke 16:9: “Use your worldly resources to benefit others and make friends. Then, when your possessions are gone, they will welcome you to an eternal home.”

I’m not a rich guy by American standards, but I’ve made enough to get by. In times that I needed some extra cash, like for car repairs or a mission trip, nearly the exact amount would be handed to me by other church members with the words, “God told me to give this to you.” (They hadn’t known of my needs.) This gave me confidence that God would look out for my material needs while I obeyed His callings. By keeping very little money, I found joy that is not easily explained to a financial advisor.

The real trouble arrived when I got a sizable pay bump. Something triggered in me: The need to have more. Not more resources or luxury or fun. No, I simply wanted money itself — that digital, pixelated number on my bank app. How big could my bank account get? What are my financial goals? What should I cut from my life to make room for more moolah? These thoughts were unfamiliar to me.

Before my pay bump in January, I’d lost my debit and credit cards in Malaysia. I went from “financially conservative” to just plain cruel: When those cards were replaced, I refused to reactivate my monthly giving accounts. For a couple of years, I’ve tithed to various missionary partners and ministry programs — stuff I’ve felt conviction from God to support financially. I justified cutting off support by thinking things like, “Well, they are a really popular couple. I’m sure they make loads!” or, “It’s only $20. They can afford to skip one fancy dinner per month.”

How did I justify cutting off support for a little girl in Uganda? By simply not thinking about her. By removing from my Bible the bookmark that features a photo of her. I didn’t want to stare at those hurting eyes while reading in Isaiah about how we should take care of the needy and how God detests the worship of those who don’t.

I lived in a guilty, crooked world in which I felt I couldn’t even mentor youth without the hypocrisy searing my back — and yes, I insisted we not meet over a meal (“My treat!”) like we usually do. Modern Christians like to focus so much on grace that we neglect the fact that living in active, repeated, conscious sin without remorse is still very much a bad, bad thing. I didn’t bother asking for God’s help in overcoming the greed because I knew He would demand I make the money flow again.

This past Tuesday, I attended prayer group. Normally, I jive pretty easily with the Spirit when in this group — it’s packed with wondrously gifted intercessors and worship leaders. But this Tuesday, the worries of money continuously snatched me from being present.

Panic rose to my throat as I considered how steep my medical costs have been this month. I began wondering how I’d be able to eat out as much as I usually do, how I’d be able to afford a house when I start a family, how I’d even start a family.

Money money money moneymoneymoneyMONEYMONEYMONEY.

Finally, I cried out to God for help: Abba!

WHOOSH.

The worship leader next to me repeated the lyrics, “Let all other names fade away.” She sang as salty tears stung my eyes. I felt like my ribs were vibrating, I trembled and realized with horror that I’d made an idol of greed; that “money” was the name that needed fading. Where panic had risen in my throat, there was now vomit — a repulsion at my greed. I saw the sin unfiltered, for what it really was rather than behind the masks of my justifications.

The voice of God is a tough one to explain to those who haven’t yet experienced it. At times, it’s a feeling of peace and assurance or of strong conviction. Other times, it’s a vision or a dream, maybe even a physiological experience. It can be words from an angel or an actual voice.

Sometimes, it is a tearing of the soul; a realization of horror. Check out these verses:

“For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.”

–Hebrews 4:12

“Is not my word like fire,” declares the Lord, “and like a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces?”

–Jeremiah 23:29

“When the members of the Sanhedrin heard [the Holy Spirit’s words], they were furious and gnashed their teeth at [Stephen]. … At this they covered their ears and, yelling at the top of their voices, they all rushed at him, dragged him out of the city and began to stone him.”

–Acts 7:54, 57-58

I felt all that. I wanted to plug my ears and yell to drown out the cleaving of my soul, the scorch of knowing the degree of my sin. The money is mine, I thought. I earned it, it’s mine.

There’s no blocking out His voice if you’ve called upon His name.

I proceeded to confess my sin to those around me as my hands visibly shook and I struggled to keep tears from falling. There’s power in confessing. I was met with grace and knew that is the same grace God gives me. I remembered the money is not mine and that if not for God, I wouldn’t even be alive to spend any of it.

So, yes, I went home and reactivated my giving accounts. I bought meals for some brothers and continued my confession. I stuck my sponsor child’s bookmark back into my Bible. The idol has been toppled from its pedestal.

And you know what? I feel like a million dollars now.

Raising My Ebenezer: Gratitude in Anniversaries

Remembering the sucky parts of life is necessary to fully appreciate the best parts.

January is painful, beautiful.

My favorite part of Facebook is its “On This Day” memory feature, which chronicles the past 11 years of my life. The January 2017 memory posts remind me of both the fear and peace leading up to transplant, the victory and beauty of receiving it, and the torture and panic in the long recovery.

I see pictures of my smiles and videos of my first steps, but then I also remember the “between moments” when I wept and cried out in pain, the moments when I craved fentanyl and contemplated if my life was worth saving.

At times, I’m tempted to delete all those victory memories because reliving those between moments hurts something fierce.

On Jan. 15, 2020 — my third transplant anniversary — I posted messages of victory and achievement across my social media and went out to celebrate with friends. The between moments? I cried and prayed to God that He would help me enjoy the day.

Often, I’ve referred to my life as a medical odyssey. Most people, when hearing the word odyssey, think of Homer and Cyclops and Odysseus. I think of the Israelite’s deliverance from Egyptian slavery … into a 40-year, aimless trek through a desert filled with moronic idol worship, battles, and hunger. Fun. But it’s also filled with stories of God’s promises, provision, and rules that protect the wanderers.

Forget not what your eyes have seen.

Despite all the trials both in Egypt and the desert, Moses is deeply grateful to God in the latter stages of life. In the fourth chapter of Deuteronomy, Moses speaks on the importance of remembrance:

“Only take care, and keep your soul diligently, lest you forget the things that your eyes have seen, and lest they depart from your heart all the days of your life. Make them known to your children and your children’s children …”

(Deuteronomy 4:9-10)

In Deuteronomy 8, he recants the tale of how the Lord delivered the Israelites from the slave masters’ claws. Yes, the escape from Egypt was frightening — plagues, lifted seas, a pursuing army — but now they were free. I imagine the dusty Israelites groaned as they heard that and squinted at the surrounding desert.

My deliverance into the desert.

I think of the first 23 years of my life in Egypt — held captive by cystic fibrosis, my anger, my selfishness. In dramatic fashion, God delivered me not by parted seas, but parted ribs. It was painful and scary, but he brought me through. He knit my body together again and off I went into the desert. I wandered in search of purpose, God providing money and smooth health along the way to sustain me. It was a period packed with fun and joy, but post-transplant, I had trouble finding where to go in life.

Carved idols.

Deuteronomy is translated as “the second law.” Moses gave great speeches to pull the Israelites back on track after they’d surrendered to false, gold idols, and ingratitude. Again and again, they’d turned against their Deliverer. Said Moses:

“Take care, lest you forget the covenant of the LORD your God, which he made with you, and make a carved image, the form of anything that the LORD your God has forbidden you.” 

(Deuteronomy 4:23)

My “me idols.”

As I wandered through my (fun, awesome) desert, I found my own idols. They weren’t carved. No, I worshipped ambition and “goodness.” I thought these idols served God.

I volunteered for any opportunity presented, I chased career positions that would help me help others, I would only turn down a chance to help others if I’d already committed to helping another person. I rarely bothered to ask God what I should do. I thought he merely wanted me to do good and used my own judgment to interpret “good.” In the process, I neglected my own spirituality. I only prayed and read my Bible with others because I was so busy.

At some point, I transitioned from trying to please God, to trying to please others (and myself as a result).

In time, I began thinking of myself as an objectively swell guy despite my low self-esteem (it’s complicated). I was charged by the compliments of others and by the smiles on others’ faces and by the endorphins I swam in. Pride pumped through my veins and swelled my heart where the Spirit once thrived. I left little room for God. Even when I told the story of my transplant, it became less “Praise God for saving me from impossible odds” and more “Yeah, it was tough, but I’d trained all my life to survive.” Muscle flex emoji.

Photo by Kathleen Sheffer.

I didn’t realize my idolatry until a mentor asked me to share my testimony through the lens of God rather than my own perspective. Notice the Biblical narratives are third-person rather than first? I’d told my story hundreds of times and at that moment I was stumped at the realization that I’d never considered God’s perspective through it all.

You know, I always thought it was stupid that the Israelites made their own idols and then worshipped them. Wouldn’t those idols be so obviously fake?

Yet there I was; making an idol of myself, adultery of myself. I wrestled God for credit and forgot all He’d done for me, neglecting Deuteronomy 4:23.

I chased satisfaction, moving from opportunity to opportunity, friendship to friendship, passion to passion. I ran in short sprints, trying to reclaim the peace I had in the early days post-transplant and not realizing my missing ingredient was/is gratitude for God. If Israelites can forget the parting of the Red Sea … what have I forgotten?

Remembering why I needed victory.

Technically, my transplant anniversary is both the 15th and 16th since I entered eight-hour surgery late at night. On the 16th of this year, I remembered all I had gone through and I prayed, prayed, prayed. Remembrance encapsulated by prayer becomes humility. Humility becomes gratitude.

Since then, I’ve been reclaiming my gratitude and the richness of life it sparks. Slowly, my life is transitioning from black and white to technicolor, like in that underrated film “Pleasantville.”

It ain’t just remembering the pretty things.

I’ve realized that I am not called to remember only the victories but also the losses that led to that victory. God didn’t say, “Remember the manna I gave you, but forget the Egyptian whips and leaving home and the hunger and confusion.”

I remember that I was once unable to walk. I am grateful that I now run. I remember that every day was pierced by panic attacks. I am grateful I have had only one in two years. I remember that I used to suffocate daily. I am grateful my doctor declared my lung CT scan “perfect” yesterday.

When I try to focus only on victory and not why I needed victory, I find myself less grateful.

The edge of peace … sort of.

At the end of Deuteronomy, Moses handed the reins to Joshua and hiked up Mt. Nebo to die. Joshua and the wanderers stood at the edge of the Promised Land and recalled the words of Moses: Remember God, stay grateful.

What followed? Battles, sacrifice, more ingratitude.

The yet-unwritten chapters of my odyssey.

I stand on the cusp of God’s calling. There’s all kinds of wild stuff going on in my life right now: a call from God to sacrifice much of my comfort, relayed through spooky means (prayers, coincidences, sermons, etc.). Like Joshua, I face sacrifices and battles, but also fulfilled promises and protection.

I pray I don’t dip into ingratitude once again. You know a practice I dropped maybe two years after transplant? Daily praying: “Please, Lord, help me to never grow ungrateful.”

I move forward, rededicating myself to remembrance through sharing my story verbally and through this blog, and by reflective prayer and journaling. At times, I fear I share God’s story for me much too often. I don’t want to annoy people. But as Moses said …

“Only take care, and keep your soul diligently, lest you forget the things that your eyes have seen, and lest they depart from your heart all the days of your life. Make them known to your children and your children’s children …”

(Deuteronomy 4:9-10)

I will continue raising a metaphorical ebenezer — stone memorials like those raised by Samuel to celebrate victories — while also sharing the struggles involved in stacking those stones. It’s going to be a continuation of my odyssey and I don’t want to forget a single bit of it.

(Shoutout to Pawa‘a Pastor Arjay Gruspe, whose sermon inspired this post.)

Surrendering to Sabbath

Is Sabbath still relevant in the New Covenant? What even is Sabbath? I dive in.

It’s when I’m sitting on Monterey’s sea cliffs — doing nothing but feeling the breeze, smelling the salt, and watching the waves — that I feel shalom. At peace, whole, one with God. It is my Sabbath.

In these days, I move slowly:

  • taking my time to wash my hands and treating it like a massage.
  • reading each line of the Word with savor.
  • sipping coffee and holding it in my mouth, appreciating the warmth and flavors.
  • walking with little steps to observe all the curious people around me — God’s children.
  • driving extra miles to bask in the wonders of abandoned coastal routes.

Incorporating Sabbath into my life has increased my confidence in The Plan, boosted my productivity for the rest of the week, countered my idolatry of ambition, and deepened my love for my Father.

It’s debated by scholars whether Christians are held to the Sabbath under the New Covenant. For me, it really doesn’t matter (though I lean toward nah). This is a day I choose to have.

Regardless, there are Biblical points to consider when thinking of Sabbath in our modern context.

Let’s start with what it was.

Despite being one of the ten famous commandments of Mt. Sinai, Sabbath was created before sin even existed in this world: Genesis 2:3 tells us that God designed the world in six days, then rested on the seventh. He “blessed it” and “made it holy.” (Due to the Sabbath’s roots in creation, I choose to spend the day in nature to dwell on His art.)

Later commandments affirm that holiness:

“Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant, nor your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns. For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.

Exodus 20:8-11

Many interpret the Sabbath as a day for simple pleasures and fun, but the day was clearly dedicated “to the Lord” and intended as “holy.” It is a day of God-centered rest and preparation for the pursuit of His callings. In honor of that, my Sabbath includes loads of prayer, Bible reading, and worship music. I often take off my cochlear implants so I can sit in silence and solitude with Him — two of my favorite yet most difficult spiritual disciplines.

It’s a gift, not a burden.

OK, silence and solitude are two of my most difficult-to-perform disciplines, but so is Sabbath itself. I skip it many weeks. Despite all the joy it gives me, my flesh still rebels before the day has begun or when I design my weekly schedule. I idolize ambition and career. I pride myself on being available at all times for work messages (and for youth group mentorship). To release a day to Him — to put aside my phone and computer — is frightening.

1 John 5:3 confuses me when in this mindset: “For this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments. And His commandments are not burdensome.”

The following verse helps to counter my fears because it rings with promise:

“If you turn away your foot from the Sabbath, from doing your own pleasure on My holy Day, and call the Sabbath a delight, the holy day of the Lord honorable, and shall honor Him, not doing your own ways, nor finding your own pleasure, nor speaking your own words, then you shall delight yourself in the LORD; and I will cause you to ride on the high hills of the earth, and feed you with the heritage of Jacob your father. The mouth of the LORD has spoken.”

Isaiah 58:13-14

According to some fancy scholar, the Hebrew word used for “your own pleasure” means “one’s own daily business or personal affairs.”

Like … a job or volunteering commitments. Interesting.

Isaiah writes that honoring the Lord by focusing Sabbath on Him results in joy. Clearly, this is not a burden, but a blessing. When I treat the Sabbath as a commandment, it is a burden. When I recognize it is a gift with promised blessings, I love it. (I guess I’m just selfish that way.)

The Sabbath reminds us that God blesses us through His grace, not our labor. God, through Isaiah, describes a life of Sabbath as one with magnificent blessings of delight.

What’s Jesus gotta say?

In Matthew 12:1-8, the Pharisees are up to their usual shenanigans. They’re trying to catch Jesus red-handed in breaking the Laws. They accuse Him and His disciples of unlawful acts during the Sabbath — eating heads of wheat from a farmer’s field.

Jesus answers simply, recalling that David and his companions ate bread meant only for priests, because it was necessary. He then follows up with a radical statement.

“Haven’t you read what David did when he and his companions were hungry? He entered the house of God, and he and his companions ate the consecrated bread—which was not lawful for them to do, but only for the priests. Or haven’t you read in the Law that the priests on Sabbath duty in the temple desecrate the Sabbath and yet are innocent? I tell you that something greater than the temple is here. If you had known what these words mean, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the innocent. For the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.”

Matthew 12:1-8

Jesus, the Lord of the Sabbath, cites Hosea 6:6 to clarify the law was made for mercy, not for oppression via legalism. Keep in mind He declared the law is summed by, “You shall love God, and love your neighbor as yourself.” Love.

The Pharisees missed the Sabbath’s point — it is a time for good, not for misery or burden. (This theme is later revisited when Jesus heals a man on the Sabbath, in Mark 3:1-6.)

The Sabbath was made for us.

 “… the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.”

Mark 2:27

We must be still and know God will handle all matters of the day if we center ourselves on Him. With Sabbath, our lives grow easier, not harder, because his yoke lightens our load. I know that’s an absurd idea in a world where we’re barely keeping afloat despite our hard, constant work. But having experimented with Sabbath despite my way-too-overburdened lifestyle, I can confirm the truth. God has shifted and plucked the lines of my life to ensure Sabbath does not throw my life astray.

Are all Sabbaths the same?

I don’t think so. It should contain essentials, like being God-centered and restful, but I believe it’s also dependent upon your heart.

God didn’t hand down a huge list of do’s and don’t’s for Sabbath, other than a few examples (like those in the aforementioned Exodus passage). He seems less concerned with the surface rules and more with the status of the heart (I glean this partly from Matthew 12:1-8).

Something unusual about my Sabbath is I try to avoid going out of my way to help people, unless someone in my immediate vicinity needs it. Sounds very un-loving, huh? But, see, my heart has a special problem: I help too much. (Any other Enneagram 2s here?) I’m addicted to helping people, and that’s where I source most of my value. I don’t feel loved unless I’m helping. And I don’t pursue God’s calling for me, but simply what seems “good” and “right.” It’s all unhealthy.

It leads me to neglecting my most important identity as a beloved son of God, burning myself out to the point of being unable to help effectively, and disrespecting the body God crafted and rescued from death many times.

Sabbath helps me to dwell on God’s love for me and refocus/reenergize myself for the rest of the week’s ministry. Remember what I said earlier? “The Sabbath reminds us that God blesses us through His grace, not our labor.” When I put God’s Sabbath above my obsession with helping others and working hard, I fight those idols.

On Sabbath, I trust God will take care of my friends and youth mentees for me. I trust He will take care of me. He does. The world doesn’t stop spinning when I sit on those Monterey cliffs and watch the seagulls. It’s on those cliffs that the world continues spinning, and I meditate on God as the creator and controller. I am but a servant who has been commanded to rest. So, I do.