Grace and Alexa

Jim Miller

There were two twin girls, identical in every respect, Grace and Alexa. They grew up together, played together, wore the same clothes and put their hair in the same ponytails. They made up their own language that they shared between them.

One day a terrible thing happened. There was a tumultuous storm at night and the roof of their house caved in. Remarkably, both girls were saved, but both were changed. Grace saw her salvation entirely as the work of a gracious God who protected her. Alexa, who managed to throw herself under a table when it happened, believed she had saved herself. Neither was ever the same, nor were they alike anymore.

They looked the same, they dressed the same, they wore their hair the same. Grace lived with trust and confidence that she was watched over by God. Alexa did a lot of reading about architecture and how the house was supposed to be designed or retrofitted.

They were both accepted to the local university and excelled, graduated with honors, both of them. Grace majored in literature. Alexa majored in, well, architecture, actually. Both applied for jobs at the university and were hired. They taught together, a cute novelty of the school, the twin genius professor sisters.

They looked the same, they dressed the same, they wore their hair the same way. But they were not the same, and the students knew it.

Grace loved her students, laughed with them, encouraged them, and was known for being an easy grader, and for staying up late tutoring study groups who had fallen behind. Alexa was stern. Her gaze was piercing. Her classes were hard. Few students got A’s from her. They learned a lot, but at a high cost. Only the strong survived, and the weak were weeded out through the natural selection of her red pen.

The funny thing was, when one of them turned a corner, the students weren’t sure which one they were about to encounter. They bristled and sat up straight, for fear that it was the architecture professor, but they looked with hope that they were going to get to see their beloved literature professor.

They looked the same, they dressed the same, they wore their hair the same. But when they got close to you, you could tell who you was who. Because the architecture professor never looked at you with anything more than a cold, evaluative glare. The literature professor always looked at you with a gleam in her eye, and you knew, for some underserved reason, you were loved.

Of Mountains and Microbes

Jesus said, “If you only have faith the size of a mustard seed, you can tell this mountain to go throw itself in the sea and it will.”

Mountains are bigger than microbes.

If Jesus intended us to have no fear of the mountains we have to climb, he certainly intends us to have no fear of the microbes we have to kill. In this season of exhausting inactivity, the kind of boredom that William Blake called “rage spread thin,” Jesus is working out a kind of exercise of faith in we who believe. Just like floor exercises in which the muscles are strained by maintaining a position and standing still, there is a kind of intense workout that Jesus is doing in our hearts right now. Stretch and hold it until your core quivers, and when you’re done, you will have muscles that weren’t there before.

In the patience of this moment, God is building:

Hearts that fear him alone

Minds that don’t worry

Lives lived on mission rather than in self-satisfaction, and

Prayers that are powerful

We are not victims in this moment any more than an athlete is a victim of the gym. Have faith. Don’t be afraid.

 

If you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you can tell that microbe, _Go jump in the ocean,_ and it will..png

The Viral Blessings Challenge

We’re going to change the world this week with a little challenge.

chris-de-tempe-6Tl5Kl7JEQg-unsplash.jpgUp and Down.

When I ride roller coasters with my kids, I grab hold of the handle bars, make a face like someone who is having dental surgery, and hold my breath until it’s over. My kids throw their hands up in the air, laugh, and scream about how they think my seatbelt is coming loose. We don’t ride the same way.

As our society does somersaults this season, there are two different ways to handle it.

Some are holding on tight. They’ve raided Costco and stocked up unnecessary tissue. They have dozens of water bottles, though their sinks work fine. They’ve dumped stocks and they’ve stopped spending, clinging to every dollar.

Personally, this week, if I have to go to a grocery store for essentials, I’ll try a new spiritual discipline. I won’t shop for myself. I’m going to buy the gift cards that they often sell near the registers, and fill them with small amounts of money. Then, after the employees at the registers hand them to me, I’m going to give them back to the employees as a gift and thank them for what they do. I’m going to tell them that Jesus is watching over them. These are people who are serving as modern day caregivers tending to the people who are afraid of the roller coasters. You can do the same.

It’s the “Viral Blessings Challenge.” Pay attention to public health announcements and don’t go out into public spaces when you don’t have to. It’s best to wait this thing out, but when we do encounter one another, let’s fill those encounters with grace. If you have a blessing-filled encounter with someone, send me the story at jim @ reallife.la

An Open-Handed Life

Jesus changes everything about the way you approach the season of sickness and anxiety.

With Jesus, I approach life with open hands. He will provide me whatever I need, and I don’t have to cling to anything. I can throw my hands up as we roll over these hills. It may not be filled with the same fun-filled laughter you’d hear at an amusement park, but it’s filled with freedom. I don’t have to worry about life, or what I will eat, or what I will wear, because my Father in heaven knows what I need. I’m not hoarding anything.

With Jesus, I approach death with open hands. I assure you, I’m going to die some day – there’s nothing to wonder about there. But whereas some people have to approach that reality like it’s a cliff they are jumping off blind, I approach it knowing that there is a huge party waiting for me on the other side of that door. I don’t have to cling to life, because what’s in store for me will be even better.

A Prayer

If your recent days have been filled with anxiety, here’s a simple little prayer you can pray. Say it by yourself or with your family. Say it out loud if you want.

Jesus, I’ve done life on my terms instead of yours. I’ve clung to things out of fear, and I’ve lived for myself.

I don’t want to be filled with anxiety anymore. Protect me from temptation and keep me away from evil.

I give my life to you with open hands, and I trust you to take care of me. Forgive me and start me on a new path.

Now teach me how you want me to live.

If you’d like me to pray with you and for you, or if you want to talk about Jesus, send me an email at jim @ reallife.la.

The coming days may still be a roller coaster. That’s not something you can control. But you do have complete control over how you ride.

Food

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Some of us, as of this week, now face a moral dilemma.

 

Temptation and Fall

Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?”

The temptation that caused the fall of humanity in the Jewish narrative came in the form of unnecessary food. They already had all they needed. But this food promised to allow them to sort out right and wrong for themselves, to create their own system of weights and measures, so they no longer had to depend on God to provide for them.

Daily Bread

As the Israelites marched through the desert, away from Egyptian slave-drivers and towards a homeland, the tension between God and his people was again food.

“If only we had died by the Lord’s hand in Egypt! There we sat around pots of meat and ate all the food we wanted, but you have brought us out into this desert to starve this entire assembly to death.”

Then the Lord said to Moses, “I will rain down bread from heaven for you.”

God proved again that he could provide for them exactly what they needed, supernaturally. Bread fell from the sky. They called in “Manna,” which meant, “What is this stuff?” They were told to collect each morning only enough for the day. If the Israelites took more than what they needed for a day, it would rot. They didn’t have to store up. In this way, God called them back into dependence and rewarded them with providence.

The Bread of Life

Jesus draws on the lessons of his heritage. He says things like:

Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink.

Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.

He teaches his disciples to pray:

Give us this day our daily bread.

And he says of himself:

I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me will never go hungry.

It is perhaps more than coincidence that his birthplace, Bethlehem, is a Hebrew word that means “House of Bread.”

The most natural, healthy relationship between God and humanity is when we are dependent every day for our basic needs, and we live without fear that a good Father will provide for us when we ask him.

Hoarding and Sharing

Instead, in crisis, we stockpile food that we don’t need, escalating anxiety and tension in our communities. That leads us to the moral dilemma.

If you have taken more resources than you need this last week, in fear not only of a virus which is not particularly remarkable, but also in anticipation of the fear of your neighbors, you now have a moral imperative. This is from the Lord, not me.

If you over-bought this week, take food to your neighbors. Give it to them and say, “I’m trying an experiment here. I’m giving this to you to see if Jesus will take care of me.” What will happen is that you will experience the relief of knowing that a good and powerful God watches over you. You will be set free from a spirit of fear. You’ll experience the joy of providing for others. You’ll make new friends. You’ll live a story that will be worth telling.

The other choice is to continue running with the herd, and exposing sins of which we will have to repent in the next generation.

The choices here are between faith and fear, panic and peace.

Try Jesus. He’ll give you what you need.

Talking about Transgenderism

Talking about Transgenderism

I had a first-in-a-lifetime experience this week. I got together with a circle of other pastors and we talked about transgenderism and the church’s approach to people who experience gender dysphoria, the experience of being uncomfortable with one’s own gender. I have things to share on the topic, but not in this post. In this post, I want to talk about talking about it.

I sat in a circle of other pastors who don’t necessarily agree on the issue, what it means, what the Bible says about it, and how churches should address it. We questioned each other, debated a bit, talked about what Jesus said and would say. We prayed together. We weren’t trying to come to a final agreement between ourselves; we were trying to understand each other. We agreed that the church historically has been horrible to minority groups, outsiders, people whose lives were held questionable by society at large – basically everyone Jesus associated with. We agreed that we don’t want to contribute to that horror. There was no risk that any of us were going to stop talking to each other when it was over. We weren’t going to rule anyone a heretic or begin an excommunication trial. I’m so deeply thankful for these committed leaders who were willing to think, pray, and be gracious together. I cherish them. I hope that the tone we set together grows increasingly normative for conversations of its kind.

One thing I noted when we were done, after more that 90 minutes of talk, was that if a small group of theologically-trained friends took a lot of work to simply begin a conversation on such a weighty topic, it’s hardly imaginable what that conversation is going to look like spread over a congregation, much less a society, much less a globe.

While Christians continue to stumble along trying to talk about ethics in the abstract, minority groups continue to live lives of isolation and silence, abuse and suicide. Before we even get to sorting out the hard subjects, should it not be quickly obvious that the only way for Christians to talk to each other, and anyone else, is from a deep reservoir of love for all of God’s children? Shouldn’t that come first? When you follow the one who taught that we should not only love our neighbors, but love our enemies, not only our own kin, but prostitutes, adulterers, traitors, diverse ethnicities, and people who hurt us, how can you approach people with anything but love? There should be no question from the public that the last place you would find someone eager to throw rocks at you would be church. And yet, that’s exactly what people have come to expect from churches. And aren’t they often right?

For all of the panicked declarations echoing out of the stained glass windows about what a flaming dumpster society has become, it might be time for Christians to realize that a significant contribution to the public’s disinterest in the church’s prescription for a better world is the demeaning tone in which it has been preached. The world would be better off with more of Jesus, and a primary obstacle to that is his followers’ callous misrepresentation of him.

I remember talking to a self-declared atheist who nonetheless attended church events. I asked her why. She replied, “They’re Christians. They like you anyway.” The day could come when everyone thinks the same.

Christian Persecution in 2019

The bombings in Sri Lankan churches that killed over 300 people, claimed by ISIS and said to intentionally target Christians in response to mosque attacks in Christchurch, New Zealand, bring a moment’s attention to a horrifying underlying trend.  The persecution of Christians around the world is at an all-time high.  According to Open Doors USA, a watchdog group:

  • 1 in 9 Christians worldwide experience high levels of persecution today
  • 345 Christians are killed each month for faith-related reasons
  • Christian women generally face the worst of it
  • China and India, the two most populous nations in the world, have bad records for human rights violations against Christians
  • Reported incidents of the persecution of Christians in the first half of 2019 are already higher than they were in 2018

The Wall Street Journal reports an exodus of Christians out of Egypt, as Muslim persecution of this minority grows, and the Christian population of Egypt in the last hundred years has shrunk from 15% to 9%.

Why the increase is a fair question.  Surely it doesn’t have to rise.  One would hope that as the world becomes increasingly interconnected, all forms of persecution would wane.  An increases worldwide speaks of a trend, and trends have causes.

I have a suggestion.

The world of philosophy and its ideas are hotly contested in the University.  Some people think of it as nothing more than intellectual banter, but history says otherwise.  Ideas propagate themselves from the University and through a culture, and ideas lead to actions, belief spawns behavior.  Marx’s ideas about the oppression of workers in the wake of the Industrial Revolution led to the birth of new political regimes and the deaths of hundreds of thousands in the hands of tyrants.  What started as philosophy made its way to warfare.  Likewise, Darwin’s concept of the survival of the fittest profoundly influenced Frederick Nietzsche, who chided Christianity for protecting the weak.  The weak should be put aside, he said.  Only power and genius should be allowed to thrive.  Nietzsche’s sister, Elizabeth, took over his estate as he fell to mental illness, and she promoted his works.  As Nietzsche’s praise of power was taught in the German universities, the Nazis would take it on wholesale as an ideology.  Nietzsche’s work was so influential on the Nazi regime that Hitler attended Elizabeth’s funeral.  They agreed, the weak should be put aside.  There are dozens of other examples of how ivory tower ideas later carry worldwide influence.

Now, what have philosophers and academicians been saying about Christianity recently?

After the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, a group of boisterous and condescending intellectuals began propagating atheist literature in the public sphere.  They had absolutely no new ideas to promote – most of their work was panned by their peers.  What was new was the absolute ire with which they approached their subject.  There has rarely been such a concerted mockery of religious people as this circle put together.

Richard Dawkins, an Oxford professor, has been perhaps the most sardonic.  He refers to dawkinsthe God of the Bible as “the most malevolent bully in all of fiction” and he calls religion “a kind of mental illness.” He says God is “about as likely as the tooth fairy.” Anyone who has been to a secular American university knows that these types of taunt are taken up wholesale by the average sophomore, and Christian students are often mocked into a defensive silence.

It’s been over 12 years since Dawkins began his public attack on religion.  It’s been reported that his book has sold over 3 million copies, relatively small for the planet’s population.  However, the unofficial Arabic pdf of the book has been downloaded 13 million times.  (Arabic is the language of the Quran.)

Now, one could suggest that the book’s popularity in Arabic comes from a number of different impulses – curious, defensive, etc. – none of which have to do with the persecution of Christians.  But I want to suggest that there is a growing side effect of the treatment of Christianity in the American University.  As the American culture becomes visibly less supportive of its religious bodies, those who see Christianity as a rival become all the more empowered to act out against it.  If Christianity is ridiculed in America, it’s unlikely that the financial strength of America’s institutions is likely to be leveraged to make a difference in its defense overseas.  Furthermore, according to the Associated Press, church membership in America had dropped over the last two decades from 70% to around 50%.  There are simply fewer Christians pleading and speaking out for their brothers and sisters who are minority groups elsewhere in the world.  Here, Christianity remains an open target of public ridicule in a way that other religions are exempt from.

If the public voices of the University consider Christianity a fair and easy target for mockery (and no, they don’t give equal time to insulting Islam and Judaism), it’s easy to see that those will be propagated through the culture and ultimately be expressed in the form of action, specifically, action against Christians.  A dozen years of vicious attacks on Christianity may be paying off in the form of growing persecution.

Given its general uselessness as a contribution to intellectual exploration and inquiry, it might be fair to ask whether the open mockery of Christianity coming from public intellectuals ought not to be considered hate speech.  That seems the most apt description.

A Mess of Metaphors

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First published in Sunday U Magazine.

Most church conflict is not about worship styles, theological affiliations, or carpet color.  Most church fights are about metaphors.

Everyone has an operating metaphor for what the church is supposed to be.  Some think it should be a cruise ship, where the staff offer stellar customer service and glittering performances.  Some expect it to be a classroom, whose primary purpose is to instill a hearty theology in the minds of the students.  More than a few want a circle of wagons that keep them safe from the evils of post-Christian culture.  Some just want a punch clock that they use at Christmas and Easter to check in.  Whatever the preferred analogy, most people have one, and that frames all of their expectations for the church.  Nothing is more disorienting than a new pastor who comes to town with a fresh, vision-inspiring metaphor that isn’t the one the last pastor preached.

One of the biggest conflicts in churches in the 20th century came when….

Read the rest here.

 

A Christmas Miracle

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Well, this one is beyond explanation.

A family from the Real Life Church family contacted our Children’s Minister, Staci, to tell her that their house had been robbed.  The thieves got away with some cash that the family had set aside to send their kids to Winter Camp with the church.

Of course the church was ready to jump in and cover the costs for these two kids anyway, but the family told Staci to save the money.  The church might have to buy a new building this year – save the money for that.

This sweet family was about to sacrifice their kids’ opportunity to go to camp so that the church could continue in its mission.

What they didn’t know was that earlier the same day I had received a call from another member of the congregation who told me, “God is telling me to pay for a couple of kids to go to camp, in case anyone can’t afford it.”  The same day the house was robbed, even before it was robbed.

So of course, the kids are going to camp.

Now a skeptic might suggest that if God was behind this, he could have just stopped the robbery, right?  But think about that.  The family isn’t losing out on anything – they’re still going to camp, and not only that, they also know that God is watching out for them.  The donors aren’t out anything – they already wanted to give the gift.  Now on top of that, they know how special their gift is.  Even the thieves are not at a loss – they walked away with the cash, and, God willing, they are a step closer to finding out that money and theft will not lead to happiness.  If God had stopped all this from happening, we wouldn’t have this story to tell, and we wouldn’t have a deep sense of God’s hand in our lives.

So this is our Christmas miracle this year, and it’s my Christmas miracle, because what pastors want to see, more than beautiful services and shining smiles, is the powerful hand of God intervening in the world.  That is, after all, the story of Christmas.

#RLLA

The Honduran Exodus

honduras-flag.gifThere is a migrant train of over 7000 people walking north towards the southern border of the US right now, Honduran refugees fleeing a context of poverty and violence.  It’s an exodus.

What’s walking towards America is more than that.  An awakening and an ethical decision is approaching. 

Americans have long thought of ourselves as the world’s good guys, using force to back up democracy and justice.  We are the ones who landed on the beach at Normandy.  Our first President couldn’t lie about chopping down a cherry tree.  We stand for Jesus and family.  Now that we’re the richest country in the world, it’s assumed that God has materially rewarded our spiritual and moral goodness like a parent reinforcing a well-behaved child with treats.

A 2007 report showed Honduras to be over 80% Christian.  They’re praying as they come.

American Christians have for a long time voted for candidates who claimed to be Christian, or, at least, promised to support Christian values.  Voters have rarely paused to consider the fact that that set of values has never been defined for them.  “Christian values,” in public discourse, seems to include freedom of religion (especially its expression in schools), a general opposition to abortion, and opposition to gay marriage.  They may include some nebulous affirmations like “Love thy neighbor,” but there is a sizable omission when it comes to Jesus’ very clear teachings about money and the poor.  In the American suburbs, these are generally add-ons for the specially motivated.

“Christian values” in America don’t especially exclude values which seem to be at odds with the teachings of Jesus and the early church, like xenophobia and nationalism.  Someone who is in an adulterous relationship would generally be seen as out of keeping in American churches, but someone who spends their money frivolously, doesn’t donate to charity, and doesn’t care what happens to the poor in other nations does not stand out.

What’s walking towards American Christians is a reality check.  Jesus isn’t as obsessed with sex as we are; he is far more obsessed with the poor and the outcast.  The package of values American Christians have accepted needs to be unpacked, separated, cleaned up and lightened up.  Some of it needs to be thrown away.  Self-identified evangelicals are overdue to face their baptized love of money and apathy for the oppressed. 

What’s going to be ironic about the American Christian response to the Honduran exodus is that we have an Exodus in our own Scripture, and consequently in the DNA of our faith.  God was on the side of the wanderers fleeing oppression for the sake of a land of freedom in that Exodus.  “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery” (Ex. 20:2). What do you think Honduran Christians hear when they read that?  Probably the same thing the first European immigrants to the US were hearing when they read the same scriptures – that is, the ancestors of a lot of Americans.

So, before the story takes over the headlines and the blogosphere, a word to Christian America: remember Jericho.

Eye-to-eye

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Jesus sat with a Samaritan woman (John 4) talking about life and eternity.  For all the interesting aspects of the conversation, my favorite detail is this one:

“Just then his disciples returned and were surprised to find him talking with a woman. But no one asked, ‘What do you want?’ or ‘Why are you talking with her?’”

In a highly conservative culture, Jewish men would not be seen alone with a woman who was not their wife.  People would talk; assumptions would be made.

Jesus sat eye-to-eye with a woman, on a flat, 180˙ plane, which was not the normal angle.  Men looked 45˙ down to women.  This was the Creator of the universe parenting all the boys of the world.  If you want to be a good man, this is what it looks like.  Eye-to-eye.

I love not only that he did it, but that the disciples had already given up trying to change him.  They were surprised but surrendered.  He’s just going to do it this way.  We’ll probably just have to do it this way too.  Eventually maybe all men will sit eye-to-eye with women.

Maybe.