Sweet tea, college football, and Christianity

I like most things about living in the South. We play better college football than pretty much anyone else, and they typically don’t have sweet tea up north or out west—an inexplicable travesty. Then there’s gravy, grits, and biscuits, good barbecue, four distinct seasons, and most people are friendly. And the college football, definitely the football.

But as much as my southern heart would like to say it is, it’s no utopia, and there’s one particular struggle that we face down here that might be a little different than other parts of the world.

Everybody’s a Christian. That doesn’t mean everybody’s actually a real, true-to-heart, Jesus-follower, of course, but most people check the “Christian” box on the questionnaire. Not doing so would be almost as bad as not liking college football or talking bad about your momma. Christianity is the religion of the South—that’s just the way it is.

And that’s sometimes good and sometimes bad. There’s a kind of Christian ethic that pervades people’s thinking, even those who sleep in on Sunday mornings. You often see signs of the Judeo-Christian influence, so that’s good.

But it’s also bad. When everybody’s a Christian, nobody is, as the saying goes. And by that I mean that there’s a tendency to be a cultural Christian, which is to say lots of folks embrace Christianity because it’s a part of our upbringing. We say yes-ma’am and no-ma’am, support the NRA, and refer to ourselves as Christians.

It gives us the freedom to point fingers at those mean ole atheists, those liberal politicians, and those trouble-causing [insert whatever non-Christian religion you want to here] for most of the problems in the world.

Cultural Christians want Jesus in their lives, but they don’t want too much Jesus. A little Jesus makes you feel better about yourself, but too much Jesus involves sacrifices. A little Jesus lets you look down on other people, but too much Jesus makes you realize that you’re no better than they are.

Cultural Christians ignore lots of things Jesus said, like his call to take up your cross and follow him. Or to deny yourself and stop worshiping money, sex, and power. Or to turn the other cheek and love others as you love yourself.

In fact, Jesus spent a lot of his time teaching against the skin-deep faith of many of his contemporaries. You focus on the outside, he said, but I’m more concerned about the inside. You check boxes, but I care more about checking your heart.

All that to ask this—what kind of faith do you have?

We must admit that it’s easy to go through the motions, to go to church (doesn’t everybody?), get your name on a church roll (why not?), and be nice to people you like (but maybe not the others).

But Jesus calls us to something much deeper and so much better. He calls us to radical, earth-shattering, culture-provoking faith.

Is that what I’ve got? You?

A faith that sets my priorities and shapes my attitude, a faith that transforms the way I treat people, the way I love, the way I talk.

I am crucified with Christ, Paul wrote, but he lives in me.

When everyone’s a Christian, we need to think about what it means to be one. It’s not blending in or attending a certain church.

It’s about selling out to Christ, giving him everything you’ve got. It’s about filtering every decision through the Jesus lens.

Here’s my concern: I’m afraid that lots of folks—here and elsewhere—think they’re Christians when they’re not. I’m afraid this makes them complacent and uninterested in learning about real faith.

But I also want us to look inward, to reflect, to ask: Am I a box-checking, go-with-the-crowd Christian, or am I a true follower of the Lord Jesus Christ?

Sweet tea, college football, and conservative politics—all good, maybe, but they don’t put you in the kingdom.

Only Jesus does that. And when you get in his kingdom and he gets in your heart, he becomes your everything.

Why hasn’t God answered me?

Probably one of the things I struggle the most with God about is his timing, particularly why he doesn’t line his timetable up with mine.

Have you ever prayed like this? Lord, I’ve asked you to do something, and I’m pretty sure it’s consistent with your will, so I don’t understand why you don’t just go ahead and do it. Why make me wait?

Up till now he hasn’t given me the clear explanation I’ve asked for, and I’ve never been certain that I actually sped him up at all, but it never hurts to ask.

Maybe you can relate. Maybe you asked him to fix your marriage—after all, he wants you to have a happy marriage, right?—but you and the spouse are barely hanging on.

Maybe you asked him to soften your child’s rebellious heart—he doesn’t like obstinance, right?—but the kid you love so much is still loving life in that far country of disobedience.

Maybe you asked him to kill those cancer cells, fix that heart muscle, or do whatever needs to be done to that miserable autoimmune disorder—he doesn’t like sickness, right?—but the last checkup showed that God either isn’t listening or he’s waiting or he said no . . . again.

By the way, if any of this sounds like faithless whining, read a couple of Psalms—God’s okay with our pouring out our frustrations. He’s big enough to take it.

So how do we respond?

One tact is to put some pious-sounding phrase on it and pretend like that deals with the problem. God’s time is not our time, just trust in the Lord, all things work together for good, and so on.

I know all those are true, but sometimes I’d like something a little more concrete, a little more real, something that actually makes sense of what’s going on right now.

Here’s one possible answer, but be forewarned—it doesn’t make the problem go away, and believing it doesn’t necessarily mean God’s going to fix your deal by this time next Saturday.

Sometimes God puts us in difficult situations and then makes us wait to teach us something he wants us to learn.

That can be a difficult pill to swallow.

But think about it. He told Abraham he would be the father of thousands, then he closed Sarah’s womb while decades passed.

He let Joseph’s brothers betray and sell him, then let Potiphar’s wife falsely accuse him, then let him languish in prison for years.

He kept Hannah from having any children and blessed her husband’s other wife with multiple children, leaving Hannah drowning in despair.

And why?

It wasn’t because God intended to ignore Abraham’s prayers in the desert, Joseph’s cries from prison, or Hannah’s tearful requests in the small hours of the night.

That wasn’t it, because God eventually gave Abraham a son, got Joseph out of jail, and gave Hannah a little boy named Samuel.

But he waited and waited and waited . . . then answered. Why?

Maybe this isn’t earth-shattering, but I think this is it: God wants to teach us to trust him—a lesson we learn best in the schoolhouse called struggle.

When stuff’s going our way, we’re slow learners. We get complacent, self-centered, lazy. We look down, not up. We focus on us, not him. We live in the kingdom of me and mine.

When the sun is shining, we don’t learn the lesson we most need to learn.

But then the clouds gather, the wind blows, the rains fall.

And we look up. And learn to trust the One who controls the storm.

This is probably one of the hardest lessons God teaches us, but it’s also one of his most important.

When you’re crying and praying and begging, don’t think God’s turned his back. He’s right where he’s always been, and he cares. In fact, his love might be the reason he hasn’t answered yet.

But what he most wants for us is what’s best for us—which is to learn to look up and not down. And to trust that he’s loving and sovereign and will get it right. Just maybe not as quickly as we’d like.

He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? (Romans 8:32)

What’s not at stake in this year’s presidential election

We’re here again. It seems like only yesterday when we were anxiously awaiting the 2012 election, and now we’re already debating, caucusing, accusing, and posturing for the next one. It’s going to be a long nine months. If you don’t like politics, it might be a good time to sign out of Facebook and log back on in about a year.

I want to say this is the most interesting presidential race I’ve ever witnessed—after all, The Donald is running!—but I say that every four years. It is fascinating, though, as it always is. Look at my record, one guy says. I’ll fix this country. But the other candidate shudders at the thought of her opponent sitting in the Oval Office. If you vote him in, we might as well move to Bangladesh.

Here’s a caveat: I’m not in the crowd that argues for Christians to disengage from the political process, though I’m sympathetic to their view. I still believe that we can be salt and light at the ballot box. I also don’t think we should just retreat to our little communes and sing Kum ba ya as the world spirals downward. God put us here to live, love, laugh, and light. Especially light.

Having said that, we Christians ought to state emphatically that the future of God’s kingdom doesn’t depend on who’s elected on November 8. I know you already know that, but I’d like to ask you to think about it again, and also make a commitment to let it show through in what you say and how you say it between now and the election, as well as how you act when your candidate wins or loses.

God rules in earthly kingdoms. He promotes and deposes, he blesses and thwarts, he gives power and takes it away.

He uses the good and the bad, and sometimes the wicked. He even uses cruel leaders to teach his people the lessons they wouldn’t otherwise learn.

God’s ways are inscrutable, and we sometimes find his choices to be inexplicable. The prophets wrestled with this, often voicing their doubts about the way God worked. How can you use wicked Babylon to punish your chosen people, Lord? Sometimes God answered with silence, and sometimes he answered with “trust me.” I’ve wrestled with God a few times over the people he chose to give power to, but I know he knows better than I do. It’s a good thing God doesn’t always do what I ask him to, you know? Our God is bigger than that, and we wouldn’t want it any other way.

He also uses good rulers. He blessed Israel when David reigned, and good rulers like Josiah and Hezekiah helped the nation to walk more closely with God.

But America isn’t a theocracy, of course, as Israel was. There’s a big distinction between the kingdoms of earth and the Kingdom of God. America has never been and will never be a holy nation or a people for God’s own possession.

That’s the church, God’s elect people whom he’s called to be a light-reflecting community of believers to a dark world. When we get too comfortable down here with the kingdoms of earth, we tend to forget about God’s rule. When we’re pessimistic or optimistic based on who’s living at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, we’re focused on the wrong throne.

Sometime late Tuesday evening on November 8, we’ll know who our next President will be. We’ll be happy or sad, excited or discouraged, but we shouldn’t get too ecstatic or too dejected.

That same night two speeches will be given: a concession speech and a victory speech. It might be that the candidate you voted for gives the gracious, we-fought-hard-but-came-up-short speech. He’ll try to hide his disappointment, and he’ll speak optimistically about future political prospects.

But everyone knows what he’s saying—his speaking and campaigning and hand-shaking and baby-kissing didn’t capture enough hearts, so he lost. He concedes.

But don’t let there be a concession speech in your heart or on your lips, because we know something that lots of folks don’t. Our King wasn’t on the ballot, and he doesn’t rule by popular vote.

And to make it even sweeter, he already gave his victory speech, and we’re just waiting for the procession to begin. In the big scheme of things, this election just isn’t a huge deal, so we shouldn’t act like it is.

Jesus took his seat at God’s right hand about 2,000 years ago, and the world will never have an election that changes that.

My fake Yeti

For the last year or two I’ve wanted a Yeti bottle—supposedly the best in the business at keeping hot stuff hot or cold stuff cold—so I put it on my Christmas wish list. On Christmas morning I was excited to open an insulated bottle from my family, but then I noticed that it was a brand I’d never heard of. As it turns out, the Christmas rush had caused local dealers to sell out of the Yeti models, but they had another brand in stock. To tease my family, I started calling it my “fake Yeti”—the kind of bottle you get when you can’t get the real thing. [By the way, I love my “fake Yeti”—it keeps coffee scalding hot for hours—and I think it might be as good or even better than the Yeti I asked for . . .]

Most of the time it doesn’t work like that, though, because offshoots are almost always inferior. The salesman says it’s just as good as the real thing, only cheaper. He’s right about the cheaper but not about the just-as-good. The Gibson guitar knockoff won’t set you back as much, but it won’t play as well either. The lawn mower you bought on the cheap was priced right for a good reason—something you figure out three weeks into mowing season. The same is true for pretty much everything, from the tires you put on your car to the shoes you put on your feet. The real thing is almost always better than the fake thing, which is why the cliché became a cliché: you get what you pay for.

But it’s one thing when we’re talking about coolers or guitars and quite another when we’re thinking about faith. The former might be frustrating, but the latter can be devastating.

Paul gave his understudy Timothy the best compliment ever when he said he knew that the young preacher’s faith was “sincere” (2 Timothy 1:5). The underlying root word literally means unhypocritical. It’s genuine, true, and real. Not a lookalike, not a façade, not an offbrand.

In a sense, there’s no such thing as a knockoff Christian, because an empty faith isn’t faith at all.

When asked what turned them away from Christianity, non-Christians most frequently say it’s the hypocrisy. I think we can respond to that in two ways: we might say that even if it’s true it’s no reason to let them keep you out of the church, and we’d be right but not too helpful.

Or we can look at ourselves and admit that it’s true, or at least truer than we’d like to believe. When Christianity is embedded in a culture—which it is in parts of the world—then churches’ rolls are peppered with cultural Christians. They join a church because that’s what people here do, and joining has all sorts of benefits: a place to find friends, business contacts, or maybe even an attractive girl or guy if you’re in the market.

Christianity becomes something that people do because it’s popular or convenient or helpful, but when it loses those traits then they lose it. It’s superficial and expendable, something you can take off and replace like last year’s clothing styles.

So here’s a thought to consider: this is one of the worst problems we face in Christianity today. Sure, there’s the New Atheism movement, the rise of secularism, and lots of other dangerous isms.

But none is as detrimental as the allure of convenient Christianity. It promises a lot and asks little. Give Jesus a little of your time, a little of your effort, a little of your heart. But not too much, because that might be uncomfortable.

What makes it even more devastating is that when people buy into Christianity-lite, they’ve got enough religion to make them feel religious, but not enough Jesus to make them feel convicted.

What about you and me? Is our faith real? Is it all-encompassing? Does it shape what we think, how we talk, what we hope for?

Or is it just another thing on our list?

It’s fine to go ahead and buy the knock-off shoes and the wanna-be top-of-the-line guitar. You might not be able to tell the difference.

But don’t play around with faith—Jesus called us to something bigger than blending in.

What I learned in a hospital room

As a minister I’ve visited hospitals a lot over the years, usually for a surgery or sickness that kept the patient in the hospital for a day or two, maybe longer. Occasionally, though, it’s different. Sometimes people are facing the day that in some sense they’ve always feared.

Last week I went to see a Christian friend whose doctors had said those words that no wife or husband, no son or daughter, no parent or friend ever wants to hear: There’s nothing more we can do. Call the family in. We’ll keep him comfortable.

Even when someone has lived his life as a servant of Jesus—as this friend has—it’s sad. Not for the person who’s going to be with the Lord, but for the ones left behind. The sorrow is tempered by hope, but it’s still sorrow. It still hurts those who love him.

A couple of months back a chaplain at a nearby hospital called and said he had a patient from another state who had just been told by her doctors that she had inoperable cancer. She had no family close by, and her church family was hours away, but she wanted a minister from the Church of Christ to come pray with her. I was torn—I was thankful that praying with her might bring her some comfort, but it was hard to walk into that room.

A few years ago I got a call from someone I didn’t know in another state, and she asked if I would visit a relative of hers who was in a local hospital. I agreed, of course, but when I got to the hospital I realized the situation was more serious than I thought. He was alone in ICU and was in critical condition. I prayed with him, and he seemed to understand what was happening, then he stopped breathing. I summoned the nurses, and they walked in and took over. I didn’t know what to do next—what do you do when in an instant someone steps from this world into eternity?

When you’re in the presence of death your first concern is for the people who are most intimately affected—the person himself, and then his family and close friends. You want to do what you can to comfort them, to bring them peace, to help them feel God’s presence.

But then, inevitably, comes self-reflection. This introspection is natural, I think, and probably part of what the Teacher meant when he wrote, “It is better to go to the house of mourning than to go to the house of feasting, for this is the end of all mankind, and the living will lay it to heart” (Eccl. 7:2). He’s talking about funerals, but ICUs and ERs probably work almost as well.

That day is coming for me, we think. One day my spouse or parent or best friend will be lying in a bed like that one. What will I wish I had done? What will I wish I had said?

And then even closer to home, one day I’ll be lying on that bed. What will matter then? My hobby, my job? My house, my car, my things?

On that day, I won’t think a lot about much of what occupies my thinking now. I won’t fret over the outcome of the football game, the worrisome noise in the SUV, the minor annoyances of life.

But I’ll want to know that I’ve walked with Jesus. Like my friend in ICU, I’ll want to know that I helped the people around me to know the Lord.

I’ll have regrets, but I’ll find peace in knowing that God won’t hold them against me. Jesus put them on his shoulders and carried them up Golgotha’s hill—every thoughtless word, every unkind act, every impure thought. He became my sin so that I might become his sinlessness. He took on my guilt so that I could be clothed in his innocence.

When that day comes for you and me, that’s all that’ll matter—our life with Jesus, and the corollary effects it had on our relationships with others. Then, when we take that first tentative step into the unseen realm, we’ll fall headlong into the arms of the one who showed his love by becoming one of us. The one who tasted an earthly death so we could avoid an eternal one.

Maybe I can paraphrase the Teacher’s words like this: “It’s better to go to an ICU room than to a dining room, because the hospital teaches us what’s most important.”


p.s. By the way, the doctors were wrong about my friend last week, and he continues to fight for his life. Pray that God will grant him more years of service in the kingdom. Being with him and his family last week spurred many of these thoughts, but I’m not the only one who has learned from his life—and also from how he and his family have faced this difficult time.

Will Christianity survive?

So yes, some of the stuff going on in our country frightens me, and from looking at social media and some of my favorite blogs, I don’t think I’m alone.

The number of Christians in America is decreasing. There’s racial unrest in Baltimore (and everywhere, it seems). Nine justices in our nation’s capital are contemplating a verdict that may redefine marriage. Laws are being passed that make it illegal to act on your religious faith.

Scary times, indeed.

But since we believe in a God who’s in control, we can’t become doomsdayers every time something bad happens. We know the sky won’t fall unless God gives it permission.

But neither do we want to stick our heads in the sand and refuse to acknowledge troubling trends. Doing that would likely keep us from speaking as clearly to pressing issues as we should.

So, if we avoid both naivete as well as faithless hand-wringing and take a cautious look around us, what do we see? And having seen what we see, what do we do?

It probably shouldn’t surprise us that we see a world that’s worldly. Maybe our view has been skewed, equating America with Christianity and forgetting that God’s kingdom is not of this world. It’s good to live in a country that’s been shaped in many ways by a Christian worldview, but it’s not all good.

We tend to relax and get complacent. Worse, we start to think that Christianity doesn’t really involve life-changing and cross-carrying decisions. We start to think that it’s easy.

You probably know that America’s opinion of Christianity has plummeted in recent years, but you may not have noticed that this souring attitude has been inversely proportional to the rise of the Religious Right. In other words, the more our country sees the merging of Christianity and politics, the less they think of us.

We haven’t used our influence to win the hearts of our fellow Americans.

That influence—for good or bad—is waning. When they sit down to discuss values, ethics, and public policy, they’re kicking our seat away from the table. They’re muzzling the Christian voice.

So what do we do?

Give up?

Pack up our toys and move to a more Christian-friendly part of the world?

I think a better move is to draw courage from the majority of history’s Christians. It may sound weird to us, but many of God’s people in history have lived in cultures that hated them. In fact, millions who claim the name of Christ live in hostile regions right now.

Best I can tell, God never encouraged his people to run away from opposition. He didn’t push them toward Christian communes. He didn’t tell them to go to the easiest places. And he certainly didn’t tell them to make their convictions more palatable.

The apostle John said, “Do not be surprised, brothers, that the world hates you” (1 John 5:13).

Jesus said the world hates those who are not of the world (John 17:14).

Things are changing, and I’m almost certain the future will involve challenges for Christians that previous generations here haven’t known.

But instead of being paralyzed by fear, perhaps we should look to the future with optimism. Whatever happens, it won’t surprise God, and he’s grown his church in some of the most incredible ways in some of the most hostile places.

Whatever the Supreme Court decides, there’s a Higher Court that claims our allegiance. Whatever hate, opposition, and intolerance we stir up because of our unwillingness to walk away from Jesus, we serve a God who accepts us based on what he’s done for us.

We’re confident, not because the future will make it easier to be a Christian, but because perhaps it’ll be easier for us to see the choices that our faith calls us to make.

Jesus reigns today, and he’ll reign tomorrow.

That little hypocrite

If there’s anyone who’s universally despised, it’s a hypocrite.

The story’s all too common. The preacher walks slowly to the front and faces the church with his head bowed. His voice is quivering and his hands are shaking and his heart is racing as he tells the story that by now has already made the church-gossip rounds. He dodges the most scandalous words, but everybody knows what he’s saying. He made some mistakes. He let everyone down. He broke his vows. He begs for forgiveness.

He shuffles to the back of the church, the elders make a short statement, there’s a lot of hugging and crying, and then the talking really starts.

How could he? He was my preacher. He baptized my kids. I shared some of my struggles with him.

After people calm down and the shock wears off, they ask good questions. The most important, I think, are these: How? How did our preacher, a minister of the gospel, a man of God, a lover of Jesus, let this happen?

Those are questions that I’ve asked many times, especially after it happens to a friend, someone I ate lunch with, laughed with, prayed with, talked about ministry with.

But this devotional isn’t about preachers, really. It’s about all of us. It’s about the temptation we face to put more emphasis on the outer us than the inner us.

I’m more interested in how it happens to us, us Christians, us “normal,” just-trying-to-get-by Jesus-followers.

And by “it” I don’t mean an affair, but rather the duplicity, the two-facedness, the difference between the me who goes to church and the me who goes home, to school, and to work.

We all do it, don’t we? Is there anyone out there who hasn’t had a family fuss on the way to church and then greeted everyone in the building with the I-love-Jesus-so-much smile? Truth is, there’s a little hypocrite in all of us.

But the call to follow Jesus is a call to think a whole lot less about what people think of us and a whole lot more about what God’s doing in us, to us, and for us. Even when Jesus told us to let our lights shine and our saltiness taste, he wasn’t encouraging us to think mostly about creating good will in the people around us. He was reminding us that when we give him our hearts it’ll show through.

He was concerned more about the heart than he was the hands, because he knows if he gets the heart he’ll get the hands. Remember his scathing rebuke of the Pharisees?

You’re all spit, polish, and shine on the outside, but you’re filthy inside.

You’re like a marble tombstone whose beauty and elegance keep us from thinking about what’s in the ground below.

Those words ought to hit pretty close to home because it’s easy to think that the person everyone thinks we are is the person we really are . . . and that’s simply not true.

At some point the vow-breaking preacher forgot to protect his heart, and he did something he’d promised himself he’d never do. Somehow, once he started down that path, he was able to compartmentalize his life—preach the life-giving gospel on Sunday and deny its truth on Monday.

But as easy as it is to demonize him—and we shouldn’t excuse him—pointing out hypocrisy in others might be an easy way to avoid the tendencies in ourselves.

None of us—no matter who we are—can neglect our hearts without the inevitable consequences.

Spit-shining our boots does little good anyway, but letting God clean our hearts changes everything.

So that’s where we must focus. Ask God to change us on the inside and the outside will take care of itself.

When religion is bad

Religion can be bad, very bad, so bad it keeps you from seeing Jesus.

You might be offended at that, so please read on.

Like many of you I’ve been steeped in religion all my life. I was religious before I even knew what it was. I was half-grown before I realized there were actually real people who didn’t go to church every Sunday and Wednesday, and some of these people even lived in my neighborhood. Hard to believe there were non-church-goers on my own street.

I was the kid at school who taught people not to use euphemisms, and not even to use euphemisms of euphemisms. (And yes, I knew what a “euphemism” was before I knew how to read)

What I’m saying is that I was pretty good at religion, because it was something you could see, something you could measure or quantify. You either had it or you didn’t, you either were or you weren’t, and I knew how to measure it.

Church on Sundays and Wednesdays?

Leather-bound Bible with name etched on the front?

Ask the Lord to guide, guard, and direct us, give the preacher a ready recollection, and bring us back at the next appointed time?

Check, check, and check.

Religious through and through, born and bred.

So it ought to shock you to hear me say something bad about religion, because these are my people.

The issue is this: people can do religion without ever having a relationship with Jesus. They can follow the external rites but never know God.

In fact, religion can even get in the way of a relationship with Jesus.

It gets dangerous when it starts to make us feel better about ourselves without addressing the real problem. When we think that going to church, reading our Bibles, and avoiding euphemisms clears our path to heaven, we’re wrong.

We’ve missed Jesus.

We’ve lost sight of why he came, who he was, and what he did.

As I’ve reread the gospels over the past few years, I’ve come to realize that most of the people who couldn’t stand Jesus were religious. They hated him, attacked him, killed him.

And the irreligious couldn’t get enough of him.

Sounds paradoxical, doesn’t it? The more imbedded someone was in the religious traditions of his day, the greater the chances he wanted nothing to do with Jesus. On the other hand, the more someone lived life on the fringes of polite, respectable society, the more he wanted to be within hugging distance of the young Rabbi from some backwater village.

Think about it. Who tried every trick they had to get Jesus to fall into their trap?

Who struck the deal with Judas, giving him a bag of money for a discreet location to arrest God’s Son?

Who slapped him, spit on him, and made fun of him throughout that long Thursday night?

Who was at the front of the mob yelling “Crucify him! Crucify him!”?

Hint: it wasn’t the streetwalkers, vagabonds, and lowlifes who had seen compassion in the Lord’s eyes and felt welcomed by his touch.

No, it was the tie-wearing, Bible-toting, Scripture-quoting preachers whose faces were green with envy and whose hands were red with blood. They had to put down their Bibles so they could slap him. They had to stop quoting Scripture long enough to spit in his face.

Yes, the religious people hated him so much they couldn’t see straight, while the ones whose lives were crooked followed and worshiped him.

I think the key is in this pithy statement from Jesus: “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners” (Mark 2:17).

The reason the religious folks couldn’t stand Jesus is that they didn’t think they needed him. They had religion, and it gave them what they wanted. Who needs a doctor when you’re not sick?

The ne’er-do-wells, on the other hand, saw in Jesus the embodiment of forgiveness and acceptance, scarce commodities in the religious tradition of the day.

And so they loved him, followed him, worshiped him. And he forgave them.

Religion isn’t all bad, of course, and I’m thankful for a home environment that taught me that there was more to Jesus than keeping some rules and not breaking other ones.

But the question’s begging to be asked: in your life, do you have a relationship with Jesus that transcends the rites?

He—not they—saves, and sometimes they can keep you from seeing him.

The girl with pink hair

I went to a fast-food joint earlier this week, and the young lady in front of me was, well, different. Her hair was a shade of cotton candy pink that I’m pretty sure wasn’t her natural hair color. She had her body pierced in places that aren’t yet considered mainstream, and her clothes weren’t what you see in Sunday School every week—but they completed her image.

As it turned out, she and her friend sat at a table near mine, and I could hear their conversation—they weren’t being discreet. I’m not sure what I expected them to talk about, but I suppose I thought it might have something to do with the next punk rock concert or where the best party was this weekend. Most of my friends don’t have pink hair or piercings in random body parts, so I wasn’t sure what to expect—maybe I’d get the latest scoop on Birmingham’s devil worship hot spots? I couldn’t wait.

You’d probably never guess, so I’ll go ahead and spill it: They talked about their jobs, their friends, a couple of problems they were having, and something about her Dad.

In other words, it was pretty boring stuff, not nearly as exciting as I’d hoped.

It was just like what I talk about with friends when we go to lunch. Probably the same with you and your friends.

Not long after I figured out she might not be a devil-worshiper I got bored with my eavesdropping.

It’s pretty sad. The tempting thing to do is to make snap judgments about people, to put them in neat little boxes that are well-defined and clearly labeled. You look like this, so you must do that. You’re different from me, so I keep you at a distance. Stereotypes come easily.

Pink hair and body piercings? Parties, drugs, alcohol, and who knows what else.

Clean-cut, tailored suit, polished shoes? Respectable, law-abiding, church-going. Good guy.

Except it’s not so simple.

Truth is, we’re not so different from one another. I’ve done short-term mission work on the continents of Asia, South America, Australia, and Africa, and some of the cultural differences are significant—we look different, eat different food, wear different clothes.

But if you look beneath the culture, what you find is that they’re a lot like us, or maybe, we’re a lot like them. They want their kids to be healthy and to get a good education, and they worry about them. They want their marriages to be stronger. They’re concerned about their aging parents. They fret over their economic situation and disapprove of the government. They laugh and cry and eat and sleep.

But going a little deeper, the girl with pink hair and loud clothes and the guy with the clean-cut hair and suit and tie, as well as the Asian, the African, and the American all have the same problem.

We’re badly flawed, and deep down we know it. Because of what we’ve done, our relationship with God isn’t what it ought to be, and that’s caused us to struggle in other areas as well—our jobs, our marriages, our friendships, everything.

And we all have the same hope, no matter our past, no matter how bad. That hope is Jesus Christ, the one who came to bring us back to the Father. To restore us to wholeness. To give us life.

Instead of judging people by their clothing choices or body art, we ought to see them for what they are and what we are: people created in God’s image who have marred that image by the choices we’ve made.

And people for whom God gave everything to get us back. That, in essence, is the story of the Bible. That is the good news.

I doubt God even noticed that her hair was pink.

My way doesn’t work so well

Submitting to someone is tough to do, and it starts early. Ask the two-year-old who looks you in the eye and defiantly grabs the forbidden cookie. Or the seventh-grader who lives by the adage that rules were meant to be broken. You’ve seen it in the boundary-testing behavior of the sixteen-year-old who constantly has to rediscover that mom means what she says.

And, of course, we’ve seen it in us, and not just back when we were kids.

It all started in the beautiful nature park of Eden. Adam and Eve sought and found autonomy, but the fruit didn’t taste as good as they’d hoped. The lie they fell for was the one that suggested they could make their own rules, that God’s prohibition was rooted in his wanting to keep them from experiencing some kind of secret joy.

What they found was that deciding for themselves what was best wasn’t all the snake promised. It led to shame (within themselves), conflict (with each other), and alienation (from God). Not to mention what it did for childbirth and tilling the ground.

We’ve struggled to submit ever since, choosing to go our own way and make our own rules. The same spirit that motivates the cookie-grabbing two-year-old animates us as well: we want to do what we want to do.

Except it doesn’t work. At all.

It didn’t work when Adam and Eve tried it, it didn’t work with Cain, it didn’t work at Babel, it won’t work with us. In fact, that’s one of the purposes of the Bible—to give us a thorough account of what happens when sinful people live according to their self-centered wants outside of God.

It leads to conflict, hopelessness, anxiety, rebellion, sickness, and death.

Our way isn’t the best way, and even though we know that intellectually it’s a hard lesson to live.

Will you meditate on a passage with me today, and then let it form the basis of your prayers?

“Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you” (Jam 4:7-8).

Father, I know that I so often choose my way instead of Yours, even when I know better. I let Satan convince me that living according to my rules is better than submitting to You. I know that Your commandments are holy and righteous and true, but I still struggle so hard to submit to them. Please help me. Help me see that disobedience brings disappointment and that You want only what is best for me. Enable me by Your Spirit to submit to You, and please mold my will so that over time it becomes Yours.

In the name of Your Son, Amen.