Let Me Tell You a Story About God's Faithfulness

Saturday, December 22, 2018

Let me tell you a story about God's faithfulness.

This past year has been one of the toughest I've ever had, but God has repeatedly shown up.

He showed up when I left a church earlier this year because I disagreed with the staff values. He showed up when I was bullied. He showed up by giving me the space and time to heal. He showed up through the life-giving relationships he's given me these last few months.

He showed up a few weeks ago during a job interview at a church in Ohio.

The lead pastor was caring for a grieving family and was absent during the first portion of the interview. It was during this first part that I shared the reason why I had left my job at the last church: there were four staff values with which I strongly disagreed.

The lead pastor joined us, and the rest of the interview went well. Right before I left the room, the lead pastor turned to me and said, "Christina, you should know that there are four values that we as a staff have here at this church."

Four. Values.

They were the EXACT opposite of the four values from the previous church, item for item.

I started sobbing right there in the interview. The poor pastor had no idea what was going on because, once again, he wasn't there when I detailed the tension in my previous job. I still can't tell this story without crying because I am so in awe of God's grace and provision.

Next month I'll be starting a pastoral job where I'll be empowered to live faithfully in my calling. Back in August I wrote about how I believed that God delivered me for a purpose, and he's now revealed what that purpose is. God is redeeming my painful experience and writing a better story for me.

God is so, so faithful, friends.

Things That Keep Me Up at Night

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

There are a few things that keep me up at night.

One of those things is chronic insomnia.

The other thing is my overactive brain that only seems to gain momentum while the rest of the world sleeps. My doubts and worries grow louder in the quiet shroud of night.

I worry about the issues where I still live in the tension of “not knowing.” I worry that I need to have my mind made up, that I’m not representing God or my faith well if I concede to ambiguity. What things need to be “black and white”? What things can operate in the gray middle without damaging my Christian witness? And where do I draw these lines?

I worry about our current theological understanding of “heaven.” My years as a children’s pastor make me especially concerned about the Church’s failure to talk about eschatology (the “last things”) faithfully. We talk so much about “dying and going to heaven,” but what about our Christian hope in the bodily resurrection? What dangers have arisen because of our neglect to present all of the good news? How do we communicate this life after life after death to children in responsible and appropriate ways so that they don’t have to unlearn their concept of “heaven” when they grow up?

I worry that the Old Testament is rapidly becoming unread and subsequently obsolete. Why haven’t we as a Church been able to present this large portion of God’s Story in ways that inspire and move people to fall in love with Yahweh’s goodness and mercy? What are the implications for our identity as God’s people if we view ourselves solely within the parameters of a “New Testament Church”? And how can I gently remind the Church that the Old Testament is worthy of being read and understood, not just for historical value but because it is God’s inspired Word?

Finally, I worry about how we present the relationship (or don’t present it at all, for that matter) between God’s love and God’s holiness. Our Christian culture views love as God’s primary characteristic, but does this cheapen God’s love for me if God is only doing what is innate to God’s self? God is certainly a loving God, but he is also righteous. How are these characteristics related? And what are the dangers to the present Church’s tendency to proclaim that “love wins” over and against God’s holiness/righteousness?

As all these thoughts swirl and spiral in the stillness of night, I can’t help but to be reminded that I am not alone. God is so present in these moments, reassuring me of his faithfulness to me as a wrestle and wonder.

Over the next few weeks, I’ll be exploring each of these ideas and I hope you’ll join the conversation with me. You see, I’m a recovering know-it-all; I am still learning to grow in God’s truth and grace. Please weigh in and teach me a few things, too. And let’s pray together that God’s faithful presence is made known to us in this process.

So grab your pillow and sleeping bag – it’s time for a slumber party.

What keeps YOU up at night?

Singing in Minor Key

Friday, November 30, 2018

My husband sometimes plays a silly frustratingly annoying game whereby he takes a song and sings it in minor key. He leaves the last line of the song in the discordant tones, and let me tell you, it feels like they echo throughout the entire room. It's haunting. It's unsettling. And, much to Aaron's glee, there's a rush to fill the uncomfortable, ensuing silence with the song re-sung in major key.

Minor key is uncomfortable. There's a reason why it's associated with funeral dirges. And The Rolling Stones (sorry, Stones fans). And it's because of this discomfort that we tend to shy away from them.

We are a culture of comfort; we ironically go to get lengths so as to avoid feeling even remotely uneasy. Call someone up on the phone to ask a question? Pass. Break from routine and sit in a new spot in a class or meeting? Pass. Go to the store across the street to purchase something instead of ordering through Amazon Prime? Pass.
Being honest and vulnerable with God, ourselves, and others about where we are spiritually? Pass, pass, pass.

It's no wonder, then, that the songs we sing in church are mostly praise and thanksgiving. We like the feel-good songs that proclaim wonder and awe for the wonderful things that God has done. We like the choruses that remember God's love and faithfulness. And while these are important and necessary components of worship, they should not be the sum of our entire liturgical practice. This is actually contrary to what we see in the whole witness of Scripture. As OT scholar Brueggemann says, "A church that goes on singing 'happy songs' in the face of raw reality is doing something very different from what the Bible itself does."*

The wisdom literature is full of poems and songs that are set in minor key. In fact, laments are the most common form of song in the book of Psalms, comprising over 40% of the psalms. In contrast, our worship tends to be reflective of the following [slightly dated, but nevertheless relevant] chart:
Psalm 44 is a prime example of singing in minor key. It accuses God of deserting his people even though they were faithful in keeping God's covenant. "Awake, Lord," it says. "Why do you sleep? Rouse yourself! Do not reject us forever. Why do you hide your face and forget our misery and oppression?"

Can you imagine going to church and singing worship song like this that expressed doubt, pain, and despair? Yet, this psalm was a prescribed text of prayer for the Jewish people. They rightly understood that worship needs to recognize hurt, no matter how vulnerable or uncomfortable it may make us feel.

Our worship has lost touch with reality if we cannot express our pain and suffering.

Our full worship of God cannot be succinctly summarized by songs in major key; we also need to sit in our feelings of loss, doubt, hopelessness, and complaint and express these to God. 

And it is only when we express the sum of our entire human experience that we can move from lament to praise, from despair to trust.

When we do this, worship becomes uncomfortable because it is a paradox. Yet, by merging both the major and the minor key chords together, our worship can reach a whole new level of meaning and intimacy with God.

Sometimes we follow God with absolute devotion and we feel betrayed when we are not rewarded accordingly. We need to sing about our hurt AND our resolve to stay committed. 

Sometimes the situations in our lives are not immediately (or ever) resolved. We need to sing about our confusion AND our trust.

Sometimes we wonder whether God really hears us. We need to sing about our doubt AND our gratitude.

In our worship, let's get uncomfortable. Let's be honest and vulnerable. Let's start singing in minor key.

* Breuggemann, Walter. The Message of the Psalms. Augsburg Old Testament Studies. Minneapolis, Augsburg, 1984. 52.

White Christian Nationalism: A Case Study on Revelation

Monday, November 5, 2018

An illustration from my series that re-imagines constellations as scenes from Revelation. This one is Auriga as the throne room scene from Rev. 4-5.
Just when I thought I had finished my series on Revelation, I'm reminded again this week about why it's so important that we read and study what God has to say to his people through this powerful work of resistance literature.

John's words, while written to and for the early Christians living in the shadow of the Roman regime, continue to speak us today about how to pledge our allegiance to the kingdom of heaven instead of to the kingdoms of this world.

Last week, I stumbled across this study According to recent data, by somewhere around 2045 it's predicted that the white race will no longer be the majority race. When polled about whether they saw this as a positive or negative thing, 54% of white evangelicals claimed that more diversity was a threat to our American culture and values.

With the strong emphasis on immigration this political season and all the anti-migrant language that's thrown around in Christian circles, I suppose that I shouldn't be too terribly surprised by these statistics. Yet, I'm heart-broken and sick to my stomach. My mind keeps returning over and over again to the picture of heaven that John paints in Revelation 7:9:

You see, God's kingdom is not predominantly white. It's not even predominantly American.

 In other words, if we as Christians don't want to live with and among those who look different than we do, then we are really going to hate heaven.

When we pray, "Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven," we're in some ways praying for this diverse vision of heaven to be manifested on this broken earth. As believers, we want the realities of heaven to be the reality here on this earth. But, if the statistics in that study are any indication, we're not praying this prayer. We're praying a very different prayer. We have a vision of heaven, where people from every nation, tribe, people, and language live together, but then we prefer to live out the exact opposite on this earth.

In place of the diverse beauty of God's Kingdom, our anxiety about our racial identity propels us toward a white Christian nationalism. We prefer the singular color to the mosaic.

What's happening right now is what John warned the early Christians about in the book of Revelation. We've exchanged our allegiance to the Lamb for an allegiance to (white) America. Instead of declaring "Kingdom First," we're declaring "(White) America First." And as John warns his listeners, God's kingdom is often counter to the kingdoms of this world.

We as white Americans like being the ones in charge. We love to dominate as the majority culture. We equate these white American values with Christian values. But John reminds us that power doesn't come from domination. He gives the perfect image of the Lamb who was slain, the Lamb who did not conquer or come into power because he dominated. The Lamb conquered by giving himself up for us (5:5-10). And we, as followers of the Lamb, conquer by renouncing our power and laying our lives down in this same sacrificial manner (12:11).

With this image of the sacrificial Lamb, John challenges the believers to think beyond their political identities. I would argue that he even challenges them to think beyond their tribal, national, and racial roles. America, like Babylon (Rome), is doomed. She's not going to last forever. We will be judged and found wanting for the ways that we have elevated the white race above and at the expense of other races.

And in the end, the "kingdom of the world [will] become the kingdom of our Lord and Christ, and he will reign for ever and ever" (Rev. 11:15).

Hear the words of the prophet John.

Seek first God's kingdom on earth as it is in heaven.

Follow that Lamb into the New Creation.

P.S. For more thoughts on nationalism, kingdoms, and identity read this post from Ben Cremer. His post gave me the courage to write these words.

Revelation Rule #7: Revelation Speaks to Us Today

Sunday, October 28, 2018

(This post is part 8 of my 8 part series on interpreting Revelation faithfully. You can read the other posts in the series here.)

Revelation Rule #7: Revelation Speaks to Us Today.

For the past few weeks, we've been framing the book of Revelation as a form of "resistance literature" and discussing the various rules that come with interpreting such a work. In many ways, Revelation is like a political cartoon or a work of graffiti. It's a work of poetic imagery and prophetic nuance that protests Rome's rule.

Some of the most frequent questions I always receive are with regard to Revelation's relevance to today. This is understandable, as Revelation has often been misused and abused, particularly in the fundamentalist/dispensationlist camps. This extremely unfaithful reading of the text was unfortunately popularized by the Left Behind books series and movies. But as we learned from Rule #1, Revelation's meaning today is the same meaning that John intended for the original audience.

And this is where the prophetic characteristics of the book make interpretation tricky. Prophecy is often multivalent, and it can sometimes take on new meaning. Since this book is God-inspired, it's even possible that John could have written more than he realized. For example, when Isaiah wrote about "Immanuel" in Isaiah 7:14-17, he was actually referring to someone in his own context (probably Hezekiah). However, the Gospel writers saw new meaning in this prophecy after Jesus was born. While it did speak about Hezekiah, it also spoke about the Christ.

And that's the significant thing we must understand regarding prophetic words: any new meanings are only realized in retrospect; they are never (or very rarely) realized beforehand.

Here's how we tend to read Revelation, or any other prophetic works, for that matter today in the 21st Century: We turn our back on the past, facing/walking toward the future, trying to divine meaning for what we do not yet see. We don't think about the significance Revelation had for the past, nor do we think about its significance for the present.

Here's how the Jewish Christians would have read Revelation: They walked with their backs to the future, reflecting on how Revelation illuminated the past and continued to illuminate the present. Then, when they did reach a certain point in the future, they would analyze what Revelation would say about about the now-future.

This is how we need to continue reading Revelation: reflecting on its significance in the past and in the now. We have an 100% failure rate when using Revelation to divine the future, and what's worse, we miss out on what it can say to the present when we're so fixated on the future.

So let's take a look at the past and see how Revelation's words to the early Christians speak to us today as well. 

Throughout the course of Revelation, we see John use symbolic imagery to critique the following about Rome:
  • The sacralization of the state. Rome believed that she was given power and prosperity from the gods, and as such, she could do no wrong. She was chosen and exceptional. The violent wars Rome fought were mandated by the gods, and it was her responsibility to expand her influence and values to other people groups by whatever means necessary (Pax Romana).
  • The demand for unquestioned devotion. Rome urged all of her tenants to swear allegiance to her rule and often portrayed duty to the empire as a sacred responsibility.  The highest form of devotion was killing others during conquest or dying on her behalf. Devotion to Rome was a religious duty.
  • The mixture of culture with religion. Rome held to a fierce “God and country” ideology. Rome incorporated religious practices, creeds, and claims with her military, economic, and political identities. 
Do any of these sound familiar? That's because Revelation is a critique of all oppressive powers, especially powers that are deemed “sacred.”

In the book of Revelation, John never calls Rome “Rome”; he always refers to Rome as “Babylon.” This is significant. Revelation is not just a critique against the Roman Empire. Revelation is a critique against any and all idolatrous powers similar to those of Rome. In this way, Revelation continues to question and critique all expressions of “Babylon” that exist today.

This certainly includes my home country, the United States of America. In fact, I would not be too surprised if other countries, especially those who have been negatively affected by our military, political, and economic influence, read the book of Revelation and find parallels between my country and Rome. A few examples include our sacred myths of "providence" (America has been chosen by God and set apart from other nations), "messianism" (America has a special role in bringing salvation to other nations, particularly through the spread of democracy - Manifest Destiny), and nationalism (we are "one nation under God," thus equating patriotism with religious duty).

But we will never see any of these parallels if we walk forward while reading Revelation instead of walking backward.

Revelation may concern the future, but its primary concern is how to live today in light of the future. Through John's words to the early Christians, the book of Revelation teaches us how to swear absolute and complete devotion to the Lamb. It shows us how to worship the one who was, and is, and is to come. It challenges anti-God powers and rebukes believers who compromise their faithful witness. It reminds us that the state of the present world is not the end, but that God will one day intervene and redeem all of creation.

Revelation is not about a future escape from this world; it is about radical faithfulness while living in this world.

Turn around, friends, and listen as the book of Revelation speaks to us today in our own context. Walk backwards, trusting that the Lamb is the one who hold the stars.

He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.

Content But Never Satisfied

Sunday, October 21, 2018

A few weeks ago I was working in my flower garden and dug down to a pocket of water. We've had so much rain lately that the water hasn't had any place to go, so it's pooling into the hard, clay ground. The water was dirty and stagnant, yet my cat proceeded to lap it up. Judging by the gross state of the ground water and the rate at which he drank it, you would think that I had deprived this cat of his fresh water supply. But when I went inside to check, his drinking dish was filled to the brim. Clearly my cat is an opportunist. Or constantly in a state of survival.

I've been reading the book of Jeremiah lately, and this incident reminds me of a passage that I keep being drawn back to:

"My people have committed two sins: They have forsaken me, the spring of living water, and have dug their own cisterns, broken cisterns that cannot hold water" (Jeremiah 2:13).

At first glance, this passage makes it sound like the Israelites are like my cat, abruptly abandoning their water source in favor of what's readily available. It seems like the Israelites one day went to the spring, looked at the water, and thought, "Nah. I'm good." But I can't help but to wonder whether abandoning God was much more subversive than this. Usually these things happen gradually rather than instantaneously.

Maybe the Israelites became complacent about their water supply first. Maybe they drank from the spring and, instead of thirsting for more and more of God, they became satisfied. Maybe they assumed that they had their fill and then slowly cut back from the supply. Maybe they were satisfied with that one big gulp they had in the beginning and felt no urgency to return for more.

Or maybe I'm projecting, because this is a pattern that I find myself in: being satisfied with that one amazing moment I had with God and becoming complacent about vigilantly returning to him.

We deceive ourselves when we think that we only need a little bit of Jesus to be satisfied.

We take one big gulp of Jesus and then move on with our lives, seeking out water from other sources. We have that one emotional encounter with God during worship, that one breakthrough during prayer, that one period of growth through adversity, and then we move on with a shallow sense of satisfaction.

Every time we think about our relationship with God, we pull up that "one time" in our minds and leave it at that. I had that amazing time with God last month, we think, so my relationship with God should be good for at least a little while longer. We put these little intermittent experiences on reserve in a water bottle and then seek out other sources of contentment.

But Jeremiah tells us: "Now why go to Egypt to drink water from the Shiloh? And why go to Assyria to drink water from the River? [...] You will be disappointed by Egypt as you were by Assyria" (Jeremiah 2:18, 36).

We can find fulfillment, even contentment, from these brief encounters with God, but they should never leave us satisfied. We shouldn't put them in a water bottle, ready to be picked up whenever we want to feel good about where we are with God. These moments of growth should make us thirstier for God's presence; they should stir our hearts to seek God's kingdom more vehemently. We should never be satisfied drinking from a water bottle when we can go directly to the source.

We can be content with how much we've matured, but we should never be satisfied with the state of our relationship with Jesus.

My prayer as I read through the book of Jeremiah has been that God would chase away my proclivity for complacency. I want to be content with the spiritual growth that is taking place, but I never want to become satisfied with where I am. I want to grow more and more as I keep returning to the only Spring who gives new life.

Toss that water bottle. Keep showing up thirsty. He will never run dry.

Revelation Rule #6: Use Your (Disciplined) Imagination

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

The one like a "son of man" from John 1:9-20

(This post is part 7 of my 8 part series on interpreting Revelation faithfully. You can read the other posts in the series here.)

Revelation Rule #6: Use Your (Disciplined) Imagination.

All of us can name a story that completely swept us away into another world. It may have been The Fellowship of the Ring, the Harry Potter series, or The Chronicles of Narnia. All of these books have the tendency to pull us into vibrant, fantastical environments where our imaginations run rampant with new possibilities. There's a reason why we dress up as these characters for Halloween or cosplay: we aren't ready to leave these worlds just yet. Once you finish a book like this you have what's called "book hangover."

Revelation has the capacity to produce "book hangover." In fact, it's designed to suck you in to John's visions. Revelation scholar Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza says it best:
"Exegetes and theologians still have to discover what artists have long understood: the strength of the language and composition of Rev. lies not in its theological argumentation or historical information but in its evocative power inviting imaginative participation. The language and narrative flow of Rev. elicit emotions, reactions, and convictions that cannot and should not be fully conceptualized and phrased in propositional-logical language."*

Don’t be afraid to immerse yourself in the narrative. Stare at the vivid colors, listen to the peals of thunder, smell the burning incense, feel the vibration of beating wings, join the faithful voices raised in adoration. Revelation is designed to be a sensory text, so go ahead and get swept away in it.

At the same time, however, resist the urge to stoke an overactive imagination. Anchor your imagination in the interpretive rules, particularly rule #1 (Revelation cannot mean what it was never meant to mean). If we let our imaginations run too wild, the Beast becomes the Pope and 666 becomes a micro-chip inserted into our skin. The first century Christians did not have the context to understand these modern things, nor did John intend for them to be interpreted as such. In the words of G.K. Chesteron, “Though St. John the Evangelist saw many strange monsters in his vision, he saw no creature so wild as one of his own commentators.”** Let's not add to the wild (and unfaithful) commentary already too readily available.

What kind of books have the tendency to sweep you away? Does thinking about Revelation as this kind of imaginative literature make it seem more appealing to read?

* The Book of Revelation: Justice and Judgment (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1985), 22.
** Orthodoxy, 13.

Revelation Rule #5: Colors and Numbers

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

(This post is part 6 of my 8 part series on interpreting Revelation faithfully. You can read the other posts in the series here.)

Revelation Rule #5: The colors and numbers are symbolic.

A few weeks ago we discussed the nature of apocalyptic literature and how this literary type uses symbolic images to convey special meaning. In many ways, Revelation is art, or even poetry, and functions as a form of "resistance literature."

But what do the symbols mean?

And, as one well-meaning student of mine once asked, can they mean different things to different people the way that art often does?

First, it's important to note that the numbers and symbols used in Revelation are frequently used throughout the rest of Scripture. We see colors and numbers used symbolically in both apocalyptic literature (such as Zechariah or Daniel) and even in the book of Exodus. In other words, John isn't really doing anything new. He is using his own Jewish tradition, and because of this, his Jewish Christian audience would have a solid understanding of John's allusions.

Second, because of this rich tradition, we can have a fairly good idea about the symbols in Revelation, too. A good lens through which to think about symbolism is the world of film. Even though each movie we watch is written, directed, and produced by different people in different eras, they often utilize the same symbolic imagery. Light and dark symbolize good and evil. A character who wears gloves is probably hiding something. Even the direction a new character laterally walks into a scene reveals their character (right to left often indicates an antagonist).

Let's take a look at what some of the colors and numbers mean.


Royalty, extravagance
The "great harlot's" (Rome's) clothing (17:3-4) 
Purity, resurrection, victory
Clothing of the faithful (3:4-5) 
Death, evil
The dragon (12:3) 
Blood, violence, power obtained through violence
One of the four horses (6:4) 
Wealth, divinity (real or false)
The Son of Man's sash (1:13) 


In the ancient world, numbers were often qualitative, not just quantitative. This is a bit difficult for us in the modern world to understand, because for us, 3=3. The end. But in John’s world, the number 3 communicated something beyond mathematics. There was a symbolic quality about 3.

For instance, because the ancients thought that the world was flat, they described the world as having 4 corners. Thus, by using the number 4, John was communicating something that was universal or present within all of creation. It is something that carries to all 4 corners of the earth.

Here are some other common number meanings in Revelation (and in the whole Bible):

A group of things, divinity (Trinity)
The one who was, is, is to come (1:4)
Universal in all of creation
The heavenly creatures (4:6-8)
Imperfection, incomplete
The Beast’s number (13:18)
Complete, perfect
The stars in the Son of Man’s hand (1:16)
12 (and its multiples)
The fullness of God’s people (12 tribes of Israel or 12 disciples)
The woman’s crown (12:1)
1,000 (and its multiples)
A very large number (equivalent to us saying a million – their numbers didn’t go up as high as ours!)
Heavenly angels (5:11)

What other forms of symbolism have you seen in the Bible?

5 Practices to Help You Listen to God's Voice

Thursday, October 4, 2018

Last week, I wrote a little bit about my faith journey this past year and how I realized that listening to God's voice was an enormously transformative part of my spiritual maturity.

But let's be honest: This listening thing is hard.

Especially if you're an introvert like me who has a constant inner-thought life. Or if you're an extrovert who balks at the idea of a silent room.

So, everyone, really.

For the past few months, I've been taking some notes from the mystic and monastic writers to help me relearn how to pray.

Here's some of the practices I utilize to help me eliminate distractions and listen to God's voice. Once again, I am by no means am an expert and am learning how to listen little-by-little. Maybe by the time I'm 90 I'll be a professional listener, but for now, I hope that these ideas can help you in your pursuit of intimacy with God.

1. Find a place.
I've found that the best way to come before God's presence is to start with a specific space to meet with him. For me, this is my back porch each morning. It could be a specific chair in your living room or at your kitchen table. Wherever it is, there is something about having designated space that helps put you in an expectant state of mind. It's amazing how the position of our bodies can direct the attitude of our minds.

As you regularly meet with God in this space and become accustomed to hearing his voice, you'll gradually be able to meet with him on your walk, in the checkout line, or in a busy airport terminal. But don't start with these highly distracting spaces! As a kid who grew up in "children's church," I was constantly told that I could pray anywhere. While this may be true, "anywhere" may not be the best place to start, especially when it involves listening. There are too many voices vying for attention in the "anywhere," and until you know God's voice well, it will easily be drowned out. Learning to hear God's voice in the quiet helps you recognize his voice in the noise.

2. Spend time in silence.
This is probably the hardest part about listening. The good news is that you get it over with first! Let your brain wander and when thoughts, particularly concerns or anxieties, emerge, briefly reflect on them and surrender them over to God. Listen to what God has to say about them. Then let God direct your thoughts to his presence. Don't ignore your joys and pains, but set them aside for a little while so that you can enjoy uninterrupted union with God.

3. Reflect on Scripture.
Choose a short passage of Scripture to read with God. There's a time to study Scripture, but this is the time to simply meditate on God's Word. Keep the passage brief. Slower is better. Less is more. This isn't a race to read the entire Bible in a year - it's an opportunity for God to speak to you right now. As you read, notice what words or phrases stick out to you. Re-read the passage, maybe even several times.

4. Listen.
Quiet your heart and listen to what God has to say through the Scripture passage you just read. Present the key parts that stood out to you and allow God to guide your thoughts. Think about how God can use his Word to align you with his will.

5. Give yourself lots of grace.
The bad news: You will not be perfect at listening. Your mind might wander. You might get restless. You might even hate it at first. But the good news is that God will give you lots of grace.

Since God gives you grace, you can definitely give yourself grace, too.

The fact that you're even showing up and trying is "winning." So don't give up. Be persistent. Keep showing up, no matter how hard it might seem. In the words of the monastic father Brother Lawrence, “For many years I was bothered by the thought that I was a failure at prayer. Then one day I realized I would always be a failure at prayer; and I've gotten along much better ever since.”

What struggles do you have with praying? What practices have you found help you cultivate an intimate relationship with God?

Revelation Rule #4: It's All About Worship

Monday, October 1, 2018

(This post is part 5 of my 8 part series on interpreting Revelation faithfully. You can read the other posts in the series here.)

Revelation Rule #4: Worship is a major theme.
"Holy, holy, holy
is the Lord God Almighty
who was, and is, and is to come."
(Rev. 4:8)
If you had a traditional upbringing in the church like I did, you may have sung some hymns based upon Revelation and not even realized it: "How Great is Our God," "Holy, Holy, Holy," "O, For a Thousand Tongues to Sing," "Worthy is the Lamb," "Agnus Dei," "Victory in Jesus," "Crown Him With Many Crowns"... these are just a few.

You might even recognize a few modern worship songs as well: "You are Worthy," "Lion and the Lamb," "The Earth is Yours," "We Fall Down," "Break Every Chain."

This is because worship is a major theme in the book of Revelation.

Last week we discussed Rule #3, where understanding the circumstances under which John was writing greatly helps us understand Revelation. Briefly put, the Roman Empire in John's day was caught up in a dangerous, blasphemous ideology that asserted Rome's status as a sovereign, divinely-appointed nation and her emperors' status as gods. In John's world, Rome demanded ultimate allegiance and even worship. Worship was political. Given this cultural background (Rule #3), it only makes sense that Revelation would be filled with songs of praise and liturgical readings.

It is precisely because worship is a political act that Revelation calls God's people to declare her allegiance to the only One who is worthy.

Revelation is counter-worship. Through its hymns and doxological (praise) responses, Revelation counters all the false claims the Roman deities made about their sovereignty and power. John shows God's people how to publicly worship by returning honor and praise to the one true God.

Much of Revelation centers around the Throne, where Jesus, the slaughtered Lamb, is glorified for overcoming death. The reign of God begins now, not somewhere in the distant future. For John's listeners, this would have been incredibly good news. Caesar may have his little throne, but God is ultimately the one who has divine power.

And because of this, Jesus, and Jesus alone, is worthy of our worship.

When we worship, we don't just give God honor; we strip strip honor from everything that is not God. By declaring Jesus "worthy," we are declaring that everything else is "not worthy."

Worship is a declaration of where our ultimate allegiance lies. It reminds us to resist yielding to powers that are intrinsically anti-God. And it invites us to into the story and mission of Jesus.

 What worship songs inspired by Revelation have you sung? How do you think that understanding Revelation as "counter-worship" helps our interpretation of it?

Praying is Listening

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

This past year I realized that I'm really, really good at fooling myself into believing that I have intimacy with God. 

I've worked in ministry for the past 12 years and did "kingdom work" every single day. I spent hours pouring over God's Word and writing about my studies. I was involved with a really awesome small group that met weekly and to date hasn't even taken a single week off because we love living life with each other so much.

But as far as spiritual growth is concerned, all of these were fake indicators on my barometer. I was deceiving myself.

A little over a year ago, God humbled me. He taught me how to listen to his voice. I'm far from an "expert," mind you, and I'm still learning how to cultivate this every single day. But here's what I do know: actively listening to God has been the biggest factor for me for spiritual growth. Not studying God's Word, not working at a church, not living in community with other believers. Listening.

I used to think that prayer consisted of just me talking to God about my life and going through my list of concerns and anxieties. It might from time to time also include words of praise and thankfulness. And this is a very good start. Communicating like this is an important part of prayer, but it's missing something. It's only when we listen to God's voice that we can really cultivate intimacy with God.

The philosopher Søren Kierkegaard says it best:
As my prayer become more attentive and inward
I had less and less to say.
I finally became completely silent.
I started to listen
– which is even further removed from speaking.
I first thought that praying entailed speaking.
I then learnt that praying is hearing,
not merely being silent.
This is how it is.
To pray does not mean to listen to oneself speaking,
Prayer involves becoming silent,
And being silent,
And waiting until God is heard.
This listening thing sounds great, but here's the dilemma I face: I want to be close to God... but I also often resist it.

That's because prayer, especially when we spend time during prayer listening, is hard. It takes time, it's often discouraging and frustrating when we don't feel some sort of connection, it can illicit feelings of shame (particularly if we haven't prayed in a while), and let's be honest, it's just downright awkward.

It reveals just how much we might be fooling ourselves into believing that we have intimacy with God.

But the good news is that prayer is a learned practice. No one is automatically good at praying right when they become a believer; it takes discipline, perseverance, and humbleness.

Spending time listening to God requires that we deliberately create time and designate space to hear from him. This means keeping Sabbath, not just as one full day a week, but as a way of life every day. It means being okay with being uncomfortable. It means waiting in silence until God speaks.

And it's so, so worth it.

Next week I'll be sharing some basic practices I do when I pray. Go ahead and subscribe to the blog so you can be notified when it's published!

Revelation Rule #3: Know the Time Period

Thursday, September 20, 2018

(This post is part 4 of my 8 part series on interpreting Revelation faithfully. You can read the other posts in the series here.)

Rule #3: Revelation was written in the shadow of Rome’s imperial cult.

When we understand the time period, we can understand the circumstances under which John was writing the book of Revelation.

This idea isn't revolutionary. When someone you follow on Instagram makes a vague but political statement, you can probably discern what she is alluding to based upon what appeared in the newspaper that day. When your husband texts you with a quirky quote, you know its context because of the series you've been binging together on Netflix.

Similarly, John did not write from a vacuum. He wrote in a specific place during a specific time period. Piecing together what was happening, and specifically what John and his Christian audience perceived was happening, is where the challenge lies.

Here's what we do know: during the first century, the Roman emperors started declaring themselves divine, often assigning themselves the title “Son of God.” The early Christians were considered unpatriotic atheists because they refused to worship the Roman gods, instead declaring that the Jesus was the true Son of God. Refusing to honor the emperor was viewed as treason against the empire.

John was concerned that persecution would soon break out against the church. John himself was exiled on Patmos, a Roman penal colony, most likely for speaking out against the evils of Rome. It also appears that Antipas of Pergamum was killed for his faith (Rev. 2:13). It's unclear how much persecution occurred in the first century, but it does appear that it was sporadic and localized. One major moment in history was when Nero accused the Christians as being responsible for a fire in A.D. 64. Nevertheless, it's clear that John was anticipating a difficult time in the life of the Church. He was also concerned that the church would become complacent and bow to Rome’s imperial religion.

In Rule #2, we discussed how helpful it is to understand Revelation as a form of "resistance literature." Now that we have a feel for John's situation, we can better understand what John was persuading the early Christians to resist: Rome's imperial cult.

The book of Revelation is a critique, and sometimes a parody, of the Roman imperial cult. 

In Revelation, John calls out Rome's oppressive power and its very blasphemous claims. Rome claimed that she was chosen by the gods, her emperors were conduits of the gods' rule, and that all of her blessings were a result of the gods' favor. Temples, rituals, and images portraying these values were constructed all across the Roman Empire. Because Rome had successfully become the power she was through violence and enslavement (pax Romana), these means of power were sanctified as divine intervention. Moreover, the emperor was worthy of praise and allegiance. Simply put, Rome's imperial cult was an inflation of "God and country."

 Revelation is an emphatic "no" to this ideology. In Revelation, John counters all of Rome's symbols with prophetic symbols. Ultimate allegiance belongs not to a false demi-god, but to the one true living God. Success comes not from military prowess, but from faithful, non-violent resistance and dependence upon the Lamb who was slain.

Do some of Rome's religious claims sound familiar? That's because we in the 21st Century live in kingdoms and nations, even democratic republican nations, that hold to similar, false, theopolitical claims. But I'm getting ahead of myself. More on that later in another rule!

The Gospel is Good News (Or Why Social Justice is Integral to the Gospel)

Monday, September 17, 2018

John MacArthur has had a lot to say about social justice this past month.

So have I.

John MacArthur is a big name in evangelical Christianity, known for his numerous books, Calvinist/Cessationist theology, and pastoral position at Grace Community Church. A few weeks ago, John MacArthur made some statements that undermined the church's involvement in issues of "social justice." Simply put, MacArthur contended that social justice is actually a threat to the church's mission of proclaiming the Gospel.

Since then, he's released a statement against social justice and has urged pastors and leaders to sign it. At the time that I write this, there have been over 8,000 people who have signed this statement.

There are so many things wrong with this statement: from matters of the inerrancy of Scripture, to the denial of social sin, to the separation of justice from the gospel, to the rejection of the term "gay Christian," to the role of women in leadership, to racism as a systemic evil (!) ... I have a hard time knowing even where to start.

Actually, I know where I want to start: "What they heck? Have they read any of the prophets AT ALL?"

But let's start with the core of the statement, through which many of MacArthur's other points come: the Gospel. Here's what he says:

The word "gospel" means "good news," but this doesn't sound like very much good news to me. This is an extremely narrow view of what the Gospel is and doesn't take into account all of Scripture's (both the OT and the NT) understanding of "salvation." Clearly McArthur and friends think that the only "good news" to be found is the forgiveness of our sins.

This puts God in a straight-jacket, because God's ultimate mission was never to just save our sins; God has the full redemption of the cosmos in his sight.

And this mission is not secondary to rescuing individuals from their individualized sin. The shalom of the entire world is not just "legitimate and important in [its] own right." It is the mission.

Very rarely do the prophets talk about the personal sins of God's people. Instead, they spend the vast majority of their critiques calling out social sin and demanding that God's people act justly and mercifully. This is because the prophets understood that collective sins were indicative of an entire community's individual sins. According to the prophets, the biggest enemy God's people faced was not Assyria or Egypt; it was their own social sin.

But perhaps we should make our case with evidence from the New Testament, because clearly MacArthur and friends do not think that the Gospel is in the Old Testament.

In Luke 4, Jesus stood before and entire synagogue and made the following claim from Isaiah 61:1-2:
“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
This passage makes up Luke's entire "thesis statement" for the rest of his gospel. Notice that nowhere does Jesus mention that he was sent to save people from their sin. Luke's gospel is a Gospel of social justice.

Yes, Jesus came to save you from your sins, but that's only the first step in his plan. God wants you to be part of his mission to redeem the entire world back to God's self.

The entire Biblical narrative points to this truth: God's plan was to "save" Abraham's family (then Israel, then the Church) so that they could be transformed through Yahweh's love and point the rest of the world to Yahweh.

John McArthur's definition of "gospel" is a very incomplete plan. It's never been about saving people so that they can all escape this world and go to "heaven."

When Scripture commands God's people to strive for justice, wholeness, and reconciliation, God's not giving suggestions. God's Gospel, the shalom of the entire world, demands that we as God's people actively advocate for racial reconciliation, justice for the poor, and the protection of the vulnerable. 

Social justice is not an option for the Church.

And that's good news.

Revelation Rule #2: Know the Genres

Thursday, September 13, 2018

(This post is part 3 of my 8 part series on interpreting Revelation faithfully. You can read the other posts in the series here.)

Rule #2: Revelation has three different genres, and each of these genres has its own set of rules.

When we know the rules, we know how to play. This is true for any game, whether it be Monopoly, Simon Says, or Call of Duty. It's also true for the book of Revelation.

Half of the battle in interpreting Revelation is understanding its genres and the subsequent rules that come with these genres. Just about every form of modern entertainment has a genre, including movies and books. A genre is a literary type that completely dictates the ways in which we should interpret the subject. We would interpret a fantasy novel very differently from how we would interpret a newspaper article. Each genre has its own set of rules, and in order to be immersed in a book or movie, we must let go of reality (to an extent) and accept the rules of the genre (even if they sometimes break logic).

For example, an action movie is not complete without a car chase. Car chases typically take place during the busiest part of rush hour and challenge the very laws of physics. We believe that James Bond’s vehicle can rush through a busy intersection without accumulating so much as a scratch, but we would not dare try the same feat as we travel to the grocery store to pick up some milk. This is because physically impossible feats are one of the "rules" of an action movie.

In the same way, in order to understand the book of Revelation, we must recognize the unique genre “rules” that govern its interpretation. Now here's where it gets tricky. Revelation actually has three different genres (letter, prophecy, and apocalyptic lit). We could spend an entire series talking about each one, but for now we'll tackle the most misunderstood one: apocalyptic literature.

Apocalyptic writings are usually thought of as containing truth that is hidden, but really the opposite is true. By definition, "apocalypse" means an "unveiling" or "uncovering" of truth. It's not about keeping something a secret; it's about revealing truth.

Apocalyptic writing is actually a really old Jewish literary form that only appear in times of crisis. We consistently see this literary genre pop up every time God's people are oppressed or terrorized. This genre critiques those people and systems that are expressly anti-God and envisions a time when God will intervene to defeat evil.

Contrary to popular belief, apocalypses don't foresee the end of the world; they foresee the end of evil.

Often this end of evil entails the renewal of the world, whereby God will right all the wrongs and restore everything to the way he intended it to be. This end of evil is foreseen in the present age, the future age, or sometimes both.

This message of critique and hope is packaged in art and poetry. Apocalyptic literature does not follow the rules of logic and science. Its rules are artistic expression, thoughtful symbolism, and experiential immersion. Oppression of any kind causes art to flourish as an expression of resistance, and the book of Revelation is no exception. 

Take, for instance, the Bethlehem walls that surround Palestine. They are filled to the brim with artistic words and images that both critique and give hope to occupants and those passing by. 

Think of the book of Revelation as this form of passionate art. Think of Revelation as poetry that protests the anti-God powers and systems of John's day.

Think of the book of Revelation as a form of "resistance literature."

But what, exactly, was John resisting? We'll tackle that next in our third rule.

For now, tell me about your favorite genre. What are its rules? How does understanding those rules help you interpret a movie/book/song?

Revelation Rule #1: Revelation Cannot Mean What it Never Meant to Mean

Wednesday, September 5, 2018

(This post is part 2 of my 8 part series on interpreting Revelation faithfully. You can read the first post in the series here.)

Rule #1: Revelation cannot mean what it was never meant to mean.

First, let me apologize to all of you who are part of the grammar police brigade about the double negative in this rule. I couldn't figure out how to word this any other way. I accept my citation and fine. Feel free to suggest other wording options so as to save me from grammatical embarrassment in the future.

Now that that's out of the way, I'm going to let you in on a secret: This first rule is actually the bedrock of all responsible Biblical interpretation.

In other words, this rule doesn't just apply to Revelation; it applies to every single book of the Bible. Once you've mastered this rule, you're well on your way to becoming a Bible expert. Feasts will be held in your honor. Someone might even compose a sonnet to commemorate your brilliancy. 


In order to faithfully interpret Revelation’s message, we must first understand that the book was written by someone in the first century for people in the first century. John’s message meant something to the early church and their immediate context.

During the time that Revelation was written, the Roman emperors started to declare themselves as gods. This was extremely problematic for a people group whose most basic tenet of faith was "Jesus is Lord." This statement was political, because by declaring that Jesus was Lord, they were insinuating that Caesar was not. Research indicates that this divergence from the Roman imperial cult may have caused some localized persecution, although the extent of this persecution is unclear and contested among scholars. Nevertheless, the early Christians were fearful of Rome’s imperial rule. Whether persecution was already a reality, they feared that it was at least imminent. 

John wouldn’t write to these first century Christians and say, “Sorry you’re terrified, but here is a strange message given to me from God that won’t have any significance until someone from the 21st century decodes it.” 

This would not have been a message of hope, comfort, or challenge to the early believers. In fact, if you were a Christian who was worried about reaping repercussions from disassociating yourself from the Roman system, you would probably want to punch John in the kidney. Assuming that Revelation only has meaning to those who live centuries later is a gross injustice to the text.

When we read Revelation, we should not impose our own time period upon it. Yes, as part of God's inspired Word it does speak to our present situations; however, Revelation cannot mean what the original author and audience could not have understood. In other words, Revelation cannot mean that the anti-Christ (a term which actually doesn't even appear in Revelation) is a recent president of the United States or that the Beast is the European Union. The first century Christians would have understand neither of these, nor would they have been relevant to their situation.

Interpreted responsibly, Revelation warns us against the evils of civic idolatry and the unjust systems that exist today. It encourages us to persevere in our worship of the one true God, even unto death. Revelation emphasizes God's sovereignty over human history and the Christian belief that God will intervene and make this world right again.

These are all in line with John's original message. And when we interpret this book carefully and faithfully, Revelation is a wealth of theological insight for the church past, present, and future.

The One Who Holds the Stars

Thursday, August 30, 2018

Are you afraid of the dark?

Or are you not so much afraid of the dark as you are afraid of what could potentially be in the dark? The mystery. The unknown. The uncertain.

The what could be.

In some ways, being afraid of the dark is really being afraid of the future. When we hear a strange noise from the comfort of our bed in the middle of the night, we're afraid of what could happen next. Was it an intruder? Are the kids safe? Is the cat plotting our demise?

For many of us, these are the same fears that prevent us from opening up the book of Revelation. We're afraid of what we'll find in it. Dramatic imagery, startling violence, strange rituals... We stumble through it as though we're in the dark. If these are the things of the future, we want nothing to do with the last book in the Bible.

Revelation may as well not even exist in our Bibles, for all the attention we give it.

Already, before we even crack open our Bibles, we’re approaching Revelation in the wrong way. Darkness can evoke terror, but it can also soothe and comfort. Darkness can be frightening, but it can also evoke feelings of quiet, peace, awe, and wonder.

This is the darkness of Revelation: not to frighten, but to challenge and soothe.

During the time Revelation was written, the early Christians lived in fear of what their future could hold. The signs of the times were pointing toward persecution. They felt threatened by the tyranny of the Roman Empire. The future felt bleak. It was dark.

But in the opening portion of Revelation, John refers to Jesus as the one who holds the "seven stars" (Rev. 1:16; 2:1; 3:1). In John's world, the "seven stars" were the sun and the moon, along with the five planets humans can see with the naked eye (Jupiter, Venus, Saturn, Mercury, and Mars). These stars were thought to be divine entities that controlled the events occurring on the earth. People in ancient times charted the stars and used them as maps to predict the future. A new star could mean the birth of a king (as exemplified by the magi's interpretation in Matt. 2). A short lunar cycle was a bad omen and could signify death and destruction.

Many scholars believe that Revelation was written during the time of the Roman emperor Domitian's rule. If this is the case, there was a coin in circulation during Domitian's reign that depicted Domitian's son surrounded by seven stars. This was representative of the Roman Empire's belief that their emperors were gods, capable of controlling the present and the future.

But in this passage it is Jesus who holds the stars, not Rome, not Domitian, not Domitian's son. It is Jesus who holds the future.

Revelation, then, is not meant to frighten; it is meant to comfort. For the early Christians, Revelation was not a horror story - it was a lullaby, soothing the believers worries about the future.

Revelation tells us that yes, the bough may break, and yes, the cradle may fall, but Jesus is there to catch us in his loving arms. Revelation challenges us to live faithfully in spite of the terrors of the night, trusting the One who holds the stars in his hand.

We don't need to be afraid of the dark.

P.S. Over the next few weeks I'll be posting a series about how to interpret Revelation in a way that is faithful to its first century context. Check back and join me! In the meantime, what have been your experiences with the book of Revelation - the good, the bad, or the ugly? Tell me about them!

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