Category Archives: Love

A Prayer for Wednesday, September 7

Forgiveness and love for enemies

God we repent for being so quick to respond with violence in our hearts and our actions. Teach us your ways, O Lord. We pray that we will be more fully conformed to the image of Christ; that we will love our enemies and forgive those who have wronged us. We confess that we often have no idea how to pursue justice in the Way of Jesus. You have showed us a better way – rid us of our propensity for violence, vengeance and retribution and teach us how to pursue justice for the oppressed in ways which honor your kingdom.

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Confident Humility

Kids playing in the living room, contemporary Christian song playing in the background. Safe and fun for the whole family, right? Well, its certainly better than 7 year-olds taking in Lil Wayne lyrics uncritically, but…
I wasn’t really listening consciously but suddenly realized that I was frowning. It dawned on me that the theological conundrum I was wrestling with was stemming from the music wafting through our house. The basic idea of the lyrics was: God doesn’t ever let us down. God loves us. We don’t deserve this, we don’t deserve God, we’re pathetic.
I looked at my wife and asked her, “What would you do if you overheard one of our boys telling their friends that we love them even though in our eyes they are pathetic?” To this Rachel replied, “It would break my heart.”
Last night I had a nearly 3 hour conversation (over the course of a 6 hour work shift) about God, salvation, evil, hell and whether or not Love Wins with a young man who is working on a political science degree. I was somewhat surprised by the position this guy raised in a conservative Baptist church had settled on.
Then I spent the next 6 hour shift in short bursts of conversation with another young man who is quite pleased that none of the felonies he committed as a minor ever stuck on his record. He seemed most pleased that he’d been able to have lots of fun and get away with it!
At the heart of our discussions of heaven vs hell and salvation vs damnation lies an often unspoken question, “What kind of god is God?”
I am a part of a worshipping community that focuses on the good news that God has come to redeem that which was lost, heal that which was broken and reconcile that which was painfully separated. Though it comes up occasionally (thanks in part to Rob Bell), hell isn’t a common topic of conversation in the midst of our worship gatherings or shared meals. However, it comes up with great frequency in my conversations with those who’ve been hurt by Christians in the past or have never even had much connection to a gathering of Christians.
Some of these folks question from a place of rebellion, others from a place of pain, rejection, frustration and disgust. It has, in effect, been said to me, “If God is going to send me to hell after this life because I couldn’t put up with the hell in his church during this life, then to hell with God.”
Meanwhile, another friend of mine, very much a committed Christian, often makes comments about how sinful and evil we are; how without the blood of Christ, God cannot stand the sight of us. I’ve said this before on this blog, but it sickens me to think that God could only love me if, like Jacob with his father, I’m tricking him into thinking I’m actually his favorite son.
The egotistical (and insecure) college student, the rebellious miscreant with a heart of gold, the twenty-something Calvinist, the seven year-old wonder boy, the thirty-one year-old minister/salesman/security guard/grad student/husband and father…all of these people are loved by God, flaws and all.
That isn’t to say that God doesn’t want better things for us, that God doesn’t call us to a higher standard, that there aren’t consequences for the choices we make, or that God doesn’t have plans to prosper us and not to harm us (a message originally delivered to people living in captive exile).
There are plenty of conversations floating around right now about hell, I’m not interested in getting into that one too much right now. What I do want to be on record for, however, is stating my deeply held belief that God’s love and mercy is vastly more expansive than our own. At the heart of any discussion about theology or church or Jesus or whatever, the question rings out, “What kind of god is God?” While I wrestle with how to answer many of the more surface-level questions, I cling to a belief that the answer to this one is simple. God is love and Love is good.
On this issue I cannot waiver, because if I do, I don’t think I’ll be able to find much reason to keep pressing forward. As I move outward from this central conviction, I believe it is necessary to hold everything else with a confident humility…or a humble confidence…or something like that.
What’s the point of convictions if we don’t believe them? If we believe them, we should hold on to them. But the reality is, there are plenty areas in which I’ve grown and had to let go of certain previously held convictions. So I hold my convictions with confidence but also with humility, knowing that I could be wrong. This should lead (and I confess that it doesn’t always) to treating those with whom I disagree with gentleness. Admittedly, and to my discredit, I am noticeably better at this with non-believers than with fellow Christians.
May God strengthen us to hold to our convictions in such a way that honors Love. And may we continue to hope for the reconciliation of all things by the power of the Love That Will Not Let Us Go.

The Community

I preached this sermon originally in 2009. In its initial form it began with a shorter version of the poetic retelling of the story of creation, fall and redemption. This rewrite was an assignment for the class I took in January, 2011. The intent of this message is to remind the hearers/readers that Scripture is telling a story we’re all struggling to hear naturally and to call us to share that meaningful story of belonging with others.

Before the beginning there was Community. God, the Community of Love, which we refer to as the Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit had a perfect relationship of mutual love and respect. This isn’t to say that there were three gods – there is One God and this God is the essence of Love. Love neither exists in, nor is expressed in isolation; it is expressed in community. This God, this Community of Love is not incomplete; the Trinity is the definition of completion. Community needs nothing, Love lacks nothing. Love is eternally expressed within the Community of the One God in Three Persons.

While the Community of Love is not incomplete, neither is God static. The nature of True Community is expansive. It is dynamic. It is always growing and bringing into itself everything around it. The relationship of the Community, being rooted and established in a deep, indescribable love, is creative. For that is what love is and what love does, it continually creates opportunity for love to be expressed and to give itself away. Trinitarian love is essentially self-emptying.

So God, the Community of Love, created. God brushed away the darkness, stepped into the midst of chaos and brought forth solid foundations. God molded and formed an indescribable, advancing universe, and in an inconspicuous section of all that began to paint, with beautiful strokes, a landscape that was begging to be enjoyed.

God walked in the garden. The Lord knelt down and from the same material that formed mountains, deserts and jungles; the same material that made up the fish and birds and lions and bugs, began to mold something new; something that would see and know and laugh and love. God began to form something that would walk with The Community, that God could teach and love. With The Community’s image as a mold and model, a new thing was brought into being.

This new thing would be the pinnacle of everything God had created. The Lord would be able to point out the sunrise and this new thing’s breath would catch. When a thunderstorm would pass through, it was God to whom this new thing would come running for protection. The Community of Love would hold this small creature and explain that everything would be okay.

God formed this living being. The Community breathed its own life into this thing. The Community of Father, Son and Holy Spirit – the relationship that was full, complete and needed nothing – invited these new small frail children to share this powerful community. And it was so very good.

God could have formed these creatures without the ability to choose their course. That decision had been made with the stars and planets and mountains and streams. None of these had been given the freedom to choose – planets and moons are in their orbit and have no ability to choose to do otherwise. Mountains are tall and strong, but they will never think, “I want to be a valley now.” Gravity does not choose whether it will influence objects or not.

This decision allowed the universe to be orderly, but it also ensured that no planet would ever write a song about the Creator. True, God created great beauty in the planet, a beauty which is itself a kind of song, but it isn’t a song that the planet created. In humanity, God has created something which is able to create as God creates – not on the same level; neither as equal nor rival, but as something which understands, as God does, that when love is present beautiful things result. The children could not be like the stars or the trees, they had to be able to choose.

But with the ability to choose, came the ability to choose isolation over Community. Some say that God was disobeyed and so God’s wrath was stirred. I think it’s much more sad and tragic than that. The Lord had created these children to live in the trusting, loving relationship that The Community enjoyed; God had created room for the Community of Love to be experienced. In the moment of choice, the creation rejected both Community and Love. The course of the Story was altered from its intended trajectory.

This crisis was devastating and cataclysmic, but it would not have the last word. It WILL not have the last word. Even in the midst of great crisis, when Creation rejected the relationship of love and community and instead launched into selfishness and isolation…The Creator continued going to creation.

God called a man named Abram and made a covenant with him. The Lord God blessed Abram, changing his name to Abraham (meaning “father of a multitude”) and promised that through him all people groups on earth would be blessed.

As the children of Israel continued year after year to cycle through seasons of confusion and clarity, The Lord kept returning to them, seeking to restore and reconcile community with creation. God patiently taught and corrected and reminded and invited and urged and groaned and pleaded. Community could not stand to see humanity languishing in isolation.

The Lord raised up judges and priests, kings and prophets to speak to the people. Some of these leaders saw relative success in their ministry of calling the hearts and minds of the people back to God. But the success was always short-lived at best.

The prophet Jeremiah spoke of a coming day when there would no longer be any need to teach one another about God, for the covenant would be written on our hearts. When the time came, The Community of Love yet again stepped into the midst of creation to walk in the garden with creation. Once more the missionary God self-sent, and Jesus the Christ lived among us. Jesus modeled a view of full humanity in full view of humanity.

Jesus gathered a community around himself and continually invited the broken, overlooked, forgotten and oppressed to rejoice because the Community of God was at hand; it was here and they were invited in. Jesus came to reclaim the lost things, restore the broken things and to set into motion the putting to rights of ALL things. Jesus proclaimed the good news that once again God would dwell with creation. And Jesus invited humanity to experience the power of thunderstorms, the beauty of mountains and the joy of life in the arms the Community of Love.

Those who heard this joyous pronouncement were not ushered off into isolation. They were sent to invite others to join the work of reclaiming, restoring and remaking. Jesus didn’t merely come to invite us to the feast, the Word of God called us to join in the mission of preparing the table!

Some say that Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection provide the substitutionary atonement for our sins. It is much more beautiful and powerful than just that. To be sure, whatever atonement is required is fulfilled by Christ, but that is only part of the story.

Jesus stepped right into the midst of a continual, systemic, generational and seemingly unstoppable cycle of violence, retribution, greed, power, sin…

And stopped it dead in its tracks.

Never before had anyone had such a singular claim on the right for retribution and justice. Rather than lay claim to these rights, Jesus laid them aside in order to stop the cycle of revenge. Sin and death would no longer have a strangle-hold on the status quo. The deception which had been plaguing creation since the first garden was finally brought to full light. There is hope. There is light. There is Life.

When the time came for Jesus to return to the Father, the Spirit was promised…and then sent. The Spirit wasn’t sent to wander aimlessly, but rather came to form and cultivate community in anticipation of experiencing Community on earth as it is in heaven. The Spirit called for the community of believers to be sent to the ends of the earth; continuing the ministry to which Jesus had dedicated himself, continuing the ministry to which God had called Abraham, continuing the ministry which God initiated in the first garden, continuing the Act that began in the beginning, continuing the character of the One who was Community before the beginning. The missionary God who comes near as Love has sent us as well.

We see it everyday in a thousand ways. Walking down the fluorescent lit halls of our high school, they’re there…whispering, judging, huddled together like the impenetrable phalanx of Spartan warriors. Enter any public space: a bar, the mall, a dark alley…even most church buildings and there they are again. Notice your friends, yourself even, and perhaps you will recognize with astonishment that they are still present…even in the mirror.

Sometimes they give themselves a name and go to battle against other theys – sometimes with tanks, sometimes with machetes and assault rifles, sometimes with stolen firearms and knives, sometimes with words.

They are us. Humanity. Struggling to find meaning and belonging in the midst of a deeply scarred and broken world. Whether we’re talking about nations, religions, factions, gangs, fraternities or cliques the dynamic is the same. We long for connection and as I once heard someone say, “when we’re dying of thirst we’ll gladly drink water we know is poisonous.”

The story of Scripture – our story – reveals that this longing is natural, it was placed within us in the very act of creation by a God who exists in community. We are the people of this Story. We are the rememberers of the Story of God, the Community of Love. Not only this, we are the story of the Community of Love in action. This understanding of God teaches us how to receive one another, to speak of salvation, to engage in the mission of God and even to praise the God who has come near in order to make community possible.

My Theological Center


In my class at SMU I’ve been asked to write about my “Theological Center for Ministry.” Part of the challenge of this assignment has been limiting it to the four pages we were allowed. To those who don’t like to write much, that may seem like a lot, but boiling the essence of your theological convictions down to 1200 words is not easy.

Through this process I have continually thought about the concepts of Story, Community, Love and Mission. And I couldn’t help but think back to several sermons I preached during the Foundations season where these aspects informed much of what we discussed.
Since most of what I’m writing for class is inappropriate for the blogosphere for one reason or another, there hasn’t been much opportunity to share what I’ve been working on. So I didn’t want to miss this chance.
I made a few revisions to first draft I posted last night…

The Story of the Community of Missional Love

Before the beginning there was Community. This Community of what we refer to as Father, Son and Holy Spirit had a perfect relationship of mutual love and respect. This Community was not incomplete, it was the definition of completion. It needed nothing, it lacked nothing.

However, the relationship of the Community, being rooted and established in a deep indescribable love, felt compelled to create. For that is what love is and what love does, it continually creates expansive opportunity for love to be expressed. 

So the Community created. God brushed away the darkness, stepped into the midst of chaos and brought forth solid foundations. God molded and formed an unbelievably expansive and expanding universe and in an inconspicuous section of all that he began to paint with beautiful strokes a landscape that was begging to be enjoyed. 

God walked in the garden he had created. He knelt down and from the same material that formed mountains, deserts and jungles; the same material that made up the fish and birds and lions and bugs, he began to mold something new; something that would see and know and laugh and love. He began to form something that would walk with him, that he could teach and love. He formed out of himself – using his own image as a mold and model. This new thing he was making would be the pinnacle of everything he’d created. He would be able to point out the sunrise and this new thing’s breath would catch; when a thunderstorm would pass through this new thing would come running to God for protection; God would hold this small creature and explain that everything would be okay.

God formed this living being. He breathed his own life into this thing. The Community of Father, Son and Holy Spirit – the relationship that was full, complete and needed nothing – invited these new small frail children to share this powerful community. And it was so very good.

God could have formed these creatures without the ability to choose their course. That was a decision that God made with the stars and planets and mountains and streams. None of these had been given the freedom to choose – planets and moons are in their orbit and have no ability to choose to do otherwise. Mountains are tall and strong and they will never think, “I want to be a valley now.” Gravity does not choose whether it will influence objects or not.

This decision allowed the universe to be orderly, but it also ensured that no planet would ever decide to write a song about the Father. True, God created great beauty in the planet, a beauty which is itself a kind of song, but it isn’t a song that the planet created. In humanity, God has created something which is able to create as God creates – not on the same level; neither as equal nor rival, but as something which understands, as God does, that when love is present beautiful things result.

The children could not be like the stars or the trees, they had to be able to choose. 

Some say that God was disobeyed and so his wrath was stirred. I think its much more sad and tragic than that. The Lord had created these children to live in the trusting, loving relationship that he enjoyed as himself; God had created room for the Community of Missional Love to be experienced. In the moment of choice, the creation rejected both Community and Love. The course of the Story was altered from its intended trajectory.

This crisis was devastating and cataclysmic, but it would not have the last word. It WILL not have the last word. Even in the midst of great crisis, when the creation rejected the relationship of love and community and instead launched into selfishness and isolation…The Creator continued going to his creation. He called a man named Abraham and made a covenant with this man. The Lord God blessed Abraham and promised that through him all peoples on earth would be blessed…in fact all of creation would be blessed.

As the children of Israel continued year after year to cycle through seasons of confusion and clarity, The Lord kept going back to them seeking to restore and reconcile community with His creation. He patiently taught and corrected and reminded and invited and urged and groaned and pleaded. Community could not stand to see Creation languishing in isolation.

The sending relationship with great leaders and the inspiration of great prophets continued until the Community of Missional Love decided that ambassadors would no longer suffice. Once again, God would walk in the garden with his creation. Once again the missionary God sent himself – which is the nature of true love and true community. And Jesus the Christ walked among us.

He gathered a community and continually invited the broken, overlooked, forgotten and oppressed to rejoice because the Community of God was at hand; it was here and they were invited in.

When the time came for Jesus to return to the Father, the Spirit was sent. The Spirit wasn’t sent to wander aimlessly. It came to form and cultivate community in the Church in anticipation of experiencing Community on earth as it is in heaven. The Spirit called for the community of believers to be sent to the ends of the earth; continuing the ministry to which Jesus had dedicated himself, continuing the ministry to which God had called Abraham, continuing the ministry which God initiated in the first garden, continuing the Act that began in the beginning, continuing the character of the One who was Community before the beginning.

The Community of Missional Love cannot be understood as something that exists somewhere off by itself. The nature of True Community is expansive. It is dynamic. It is always growing and bringing into itself everything around it. The Community is not located somewhere behind closed doors, it sends itself to the Other.

Speaking of theology through narrative is more than just a device for communication, the medium is part of the message. God as a Community of Missional Love is understood best by participation in the Story. Story is relational; it is communal. This language of community is essential to begin grasping the centrality and reality of Love in the character of God. 

God’s revelation to humanity as Love, as the One full of loving kindness, the gracious and compassionate, begins losing its grip on our hearts and minds unless we understand it as an orientation toward the Other. This is, I believe, why it is so important for Jesus to teach his disciples about the eternal community of mutual engagement and submission he experiences with the Father. This is Love. There is no love without it. We cannot love unless there is an Other.

As the Image Bearers, we make a lamentable mistake if we see mission as something we are called to “do.” Mission is active, but it is more than doing; it is an essential part of our being, because it is part of the revealed nature of God. The missionary God who sends himself as Love has sent us.

God’s mission is to restore relationship and expand Community. As we lift up prayers for the poor, oppressed and forgotten; for those who care for them and those who have failed to do so, we do not say something new to God. Rather we join him in his mission of reconciling relationships, restoring community and healing the broken creation. This is love.

We are the people of this Story. We are the rememberers of the Story of the Community of Missional Love. Not only this, we are the story of the Community of Missional Love in action. 


Telling Better Stories

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Some of those who have responded to my previous post on the wrath of God(primarily in person or by phone) seem to have understood me to say that God is not concerned with sin or that there is no response of wrath.

I understand how they could come to that since my first post on this subject was intended primarily to pull our focus away from the satisfaction of God’s wrath as the primary purpose of the cross. I made a case against this perspective not because I don’t believe it has a part in this story, but because for so many of us it has been the ONLY part of the story that seemed to matter.

I do believe that sin and injustice matter to God. I believe that violence and oppression certainly bring about the wrath of God; my friend Luke pointed out the story of Sodom and Gomorra…another good example would be the plagues on Egypt. I have said before, and still believe, that mercy taken to an extreme is injustice to those offended.

I believe that our obstinate desire to continue in sin when faced with the Truth of God, is something which does bring guilt and potentially wrath.

I’d like to talk more about what that means. When we read about the wrath of God being poured out or threatened to be poured out there are two basic categories: 1) evil and violent cultures/people groups and 2) God’s chosen people who continue generation after generation to refuse to worship God alone; who fail to be the people they’re called to be.

Notice that if the evil communities – such as Sodom and Gomora or Egypt – would have repented, then God would have withheld his wrath. Look at Ninevah – Jonah preaches the worst sermon in history and boom, the whole city repents and then, double boom God relents. No sacrifice needed to appease his wrath other than the sacrifice of a broken and contrite heart.

Regarding the wrath poured out on God’s people – a story which is repeated throughout Israel’s history – let’s not forget how often they were given the chance to repent and turn back to God. The message of Jeremiah was that God’s wrath would come in the form of exile and control by a foreign power unless the people turned back to God. God’s wrath was NOT inescapable, it only came about after repeated refusals by His people to listen.

I’m not arguing that Jesus’ crucifixion didn’t serve as the final sacrifice for sin – I think that is absolutely part of what happened. However, I believe that it is false to assert that God is bound by his justice to require a sacrifice and therefore that must have been the primary reason for the cross. If God is bound to satisfy justice, then God is subservient to justice…we should worship justice because it is more powerful than God. But God is love. Love certainly involves seeking justice for others, but love also forgives offenses against itself.

I believe that there are some serious holes in the position that God is bound by his justice and so the pouring out of his wrath on someone (be it on us or Jesus) is central to his nature. While God is certainly just, God is not subject to anything – if so then, again, we should worship that. It is not okay to say that God IS justice and thus he is bound by himself. First of all, while Scripture says that God is just (an adjective) it does not say that God IS Justice (noun) – we’re told that God is Love…not Justice.

One response I’ve heard to this is that love must be just. Love certainly contains a component of justice yet it is also filled with mercy, long-suffering, forgiveness and grace.

Substitutionary atonement fails to acknowledge God’s longstanding history of offering forgiveness to those who have offended him without requiring the taking of life. Hosea 6 reminds us that God“desires mercy, not sacrifice.” In that passage God, through through the prophet, is urging his people to turn back and acknowledge him – they had ALREADY broken their covenant with God and thus justice demanded that they be put out. The entire point of Hosea’s life and ministry was that God is not bound by this expectation of justice. God is willing to set all that aside if his people will remember and return.

Isn’t that precisely what we are called to as well? Paul confronts the church in Corinth for their insistence on getting justice when they’ve been wronged: “The very fact that you have lawsuits among you means you have been completely defeated already. Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be cheated?(1 Corinthians 6:7)”

Demanding justice for yourself does not seem to carry the same weight as demanding justice for the weak and the oppressed (assuming you aren’t the weak and oppressed). God is the One who speaks up for justice on behalf of those who cannot speak for themselves and yet where God is concerned he extends mercy and forgiveness.

When God is finally forced to pour out his wrath, he tells the people he will not remain angry forever – God’s wrath is redemptive rather than merely retributive (thanks Nate); God’s wrath is a means rather than an end.

How does Jesus describe God in relation to our “lostness”? Well, most of us are familiar with the three parables of lost things. The lost coin, lost sheep and prodigal son are important parables where Jesus stresses heavily the nature of God – hence three similar stories in quick succession. In these stories we find not a vengeful God of righteous wrath, but a compassionate caretaker, shepherd and father. The shepherd does not require the sheep to be sacrificed and the father does not require the son to become a slave – apparently being lost was punishment enough.

HOWEVER (Galatians 6:7) “Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows. The one who sows to please his sinful nature, from that nature will reap destruction; the one who sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life.” God does take sin very seriously because sin is a component of the larger brokenness that plagues all of creation – a creation that is beloved by God and which God is even now working to restore and heal. Sin, brokenness and evil are true enemies of life, if that is what we sow then that is what we will reap.

What if that is what the wrath of God really is? Eventually God allows us to remain in the lostness we brought on ourselves. It isn’t that God brings about some vicious torture because his sense of honor has been accosted. He invites us to return but if we continue to refuse; if we continue to willingly sow evil, then how can we not reap destruction?

This shift in understanding does is not devalue the damage of sin or the need for a Savior. However, it does demand that we recognize how we’ve made sin the point for too long. Sin is only the point if our genesis (beginning) was in Genesis 3. But the fall of humanity is not the foundation of this story, the point is the power of a good creator God speaking all things into existence and being very pleased with his good creation (Genesis 1). The point is that this God desires to be in close communion with that which he has made and he will cross any chasm to rescue us from death.

Sin is a character in this story, but it is not the main character. The wrath of God is a potential subplot, but not the climax or the resolution. The wrath of God is no more central to this story than not failing a class is the central reason to study in school or gaining nutrients for physical survival is the primary reason to share a meal with friends.

God is a just God; he demands justice for those who are oppressed and he will not allow those who continue to defy him to remain unpunished. But God IS love. God is the One who is at work in healing broken lives and restoring damaged relationships. This is the central message of the cross – a new power and a new kingdom are available. No longer will the oppressive regimes of this world define power. The Kingdom of God is at hand, it is for everyone and it has a whole new definition of life.

The barriers have been torn down; the enemy has been vanquished and the invitation to enter into life has been given. This is not primarily about a loan shark collecting a debt, this is about a father running to meet his child on the road. Falling on his knees, kissing and embracing his beloved, putting rings on fingers and coats on shoulders and throwing a feast to celebrate the restoration of the father’s broken heart.

That is a much better story.

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