From the Bottom of the Ocean Floor

We could probably write a what-I’m-grateful-list for each other.

It seems we all start out with that same basic list of thanksgiving: we are thankful for our family, our friends, good food, and our warm home. And our job and our car. Maybe a couple of other things, but most lists of gratitude include these—and they should. These are things we should be grateful for.

But what if we don’t have them? Is our gratitude at the Thanksgiving table this year dependent on the people around us, the food we eat, and the roof over our table?

The People of Puny Hope?

Christians are different from other people. Like the ancient Jewish leaders who sized up Peter’s bravado and his unlikely eloquence and remembered he had “been with Jesus” (Acts 4:13), people around us should be able to tell that we are different because of Christ’s work in and on us. They should ask us, Peter later wrote, about the hope that is in us—sensing that there is an anchor in our lives beyond what other religions or messages have to offer.

Paul wrote to early believers about the unquestionable truth that Jesus did rise from the dead, and will one day raise us, too. Jesus’ death and resurrection are central to our faith; without them, Paul asked, what hope do we have? “If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied” (1 Corinthians 15:19). If all we can hope for is a good life here and now, we have a puny, pitiful hope.

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For the Fools We Are

Jesus once said that anyone who hears His words but doesn’t apply them in life is a fool; someone like that might as well be building their house on the beach with only shifting sand to hold it up (Matthew 7:26). In another parable, He told the story of a rich man who made plans as if he could guarantee his own future—but died that night (Luke 12:20). Another fool.

In the first eleven verses of Proverbs 26, there are ten unflattering references to fools and the choices they make. But before we rest in our self-righteousness, we read there’s more hope for a fool than for some of us.

Surely not us, right? We remind ourselves that we know what we are doing and we know how to make wise decisions and avoid foolish choices. We convince ourselves we’re really not that far off from the goal—not realizing how close our steps come to the edge of the precipice.

“Do you see a man who is wise in his own eyes? There is more hope for a fool than for him” (Proverbs 26:12).

Wisdom Never Comes From Us

Ask most Sunday School teachers about wisdom and they’ll point you to the book of Proverbs. Israel’s King Solomon, possessing “wisdom and understanding beyond measure” (1 Kings 4:29-30), wrote out common-sense sayings full of wisdom for whoever would listen to take to heart.

At first it all seems easy enough: Read the book, follow the rules, make common-sense decisions, and you will succeed beyond any fool who doesn’t listen. This is where we usually think we have it figured out.

“‘Who has made man’s mouth?’” God thundered after Moses’ list of excuses (Exodus 4:11), and we know He gave us even more than that. Who gave us any ability to think and reason and learn? Where did we get common sense, or even the guiding principles in the Bible itself? “What do you have that you did not receive?” Paul asked the Corinthians. “If then you received it, why do you boast as if you did not receive it?” (1 Corinthians 4:7)

While all this is true, we forget something even deeper than the source of our common sense. Perhaps we’ve reached the highest point of foolishness when we weigh all our “wisdom” and think it can get us home.

What is Wisdom? Really?

“The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom,” Solomon wrote (Proverbs 9:10). Too bad he forgot that.

Solomon’s wisdom was so great that it drew attention from far countries, yet he foolishly threw away his own kingdom by letting his heart stray from honoring God. He followed other gods and left the only God who gave him his kingdom and his wisdom.

Solomon’s problem wasn’t just that he acted without wisdom—he left the Source of the wisdom he had.

In the beginning of his letter to the Corinthian church, Paul points out that all the wisdom in the world never led anyone to God.

“Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men” (1 Corinthians 1:20-25).

Like Solomon who—despite his unsurpassed wisdom—left God for lesser things, all of our human reasoning and ideas don’t get us any closer to God. All the arguments and reasonings and writings and speeches of experts and philosophers and any other human beings never get us anywhere we need to go. All our collective wisdom is pointless.

“The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom.” Solomon was right, even if he didn’t always live what he wrote. It is only through accepting our complete inability to find wisdom on our own and then trusting in the truth He has revealed that we will ever have any true wisdom.

When we do that, it won’t look like “wisdom” to most people.

Become a Fool

“Let no one deceive himself,” Paul wrote to the Corinthians. “If anyone among you thinks that he is wise in this age, let him become a fool that he may become wise…” (1 Corinthians 3:18-23).

There are only two paths, just two choices. Wide and the narrow. Building on sand or building on solid rock. Following the world and its dead ways or following the living God. If we choose the narrow path, with its rocky terrain and walls on each side, we will probably look like fools to most people. Are we ready for that? Are we prepared to be called a fool (or some other name) in order to follow the narrow path and truly become wise?

When the world’s idea of common sense diverts from what we know is God’s leading, the only wise thing to do is silence the call of the crowd and build on rock instead of sand. When we walk away from our own “wisdom” and embrace the words of God, as foolish as we may look to others (and sometimes feel ourselves), we are wiser than we ever were on our own.

Hope

Jesus told a story of two men praying at the temple. One, a self-righteous teacher of Jews, prayed with pomp and pride and puffiness, reminding God that he was actually a pretty good person if you look at it right. A tax collector stood next to him, despised by his fellow citizens and essentially excommunicated by religious leaders, offering a simple prayer:

“‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’” (Luke 18:13b)

The tax collector wasn’t pretending to humbly refuse what he secretly felt he had earned, but was bluntly acknowledging truths he admitted he saw in himself. This wasn’t false humility or even common sense, but a right understanding of himself, of God, and of mercy. And wisdom.

We will never be as wise as we sometimes think we are, and that’s okay. There is hope for all of us in the encompassing and inescapable love of God and His gentle guidance. He knows our failings, loves us anyway, and leads us by still waters so as not to throw us off (see Psalm 23). As we go about each day, making foolish decisions and forgetting wiser options, His grace never changes or runs out and He never changes His mind about us. We are wiser in this path of grace than on any road of common sense.

Father, be merciful to all of us sinners. All of us fools.

“You Are Special”: A Short Review of a Short Book

We are afraid of each other. Hopefully we are walking away from that fear and into fear of God, but we know and have often felt the deep pull of worry about what other human beings think about us—perhaps even as children. Stories can be so helpful as we work through heart issues, giving us hope and encouragement for continuing on, and, in this case, showing us just how ridiculous this people-fear really is.

You Are Special, by Max Lucado, may seem like just a simple story for children. But simplicity can yield deep insights–often showing us just how uncomplicated our issues really are–and, as C.S. Lewis once wrote, “a children’s story which is enjoyed only by children is a bad children’s story.”

The short book opens with a description of life for the wooden people in Wemmicksville. Day after day, the citizens mill about their town while sizing each other up and pronouncing their own verdicts: if a Wemmick seems especially worthy they give him a gold star sticker, but if he fails or flops or is generally ugly, he is shamed with a gray dot sticker.

Punchinello always has dot stickers, never stars. After trying so very hard to somehow earn a star sticker, he finally resigns himself to his lot. But then he meets Lucia.

Lucia is different. She doesn’t give other Wemmicks any dots or stars, and curiously, they can’t seem to give her any, either. Not for lack of trying—some give her dots and some give her stars, but they all fall off. They won’t stick to her. Punchinello is intrigued, and decides to visit Eli the woodcarver, who Lucia insists is the secret to her sticker-free life.

It is Eli who gives Punchinello confidence that it doesn’t matter what stickers other Wemmicks try to give him; it only matters what Eli—his maker—thinks about him. While Punchinello doesn’t immediately turn into another sticker-free Wemmick like Lucia, he is given confidence to begin walking toward that goal. And he will be sure to visit with Eli more often.

You Are Special is a sweet and freeing look at fear of people and freedom from it. The story has its drawbacks: Eli seems to be a somewhat weak and distant representation of God, and there is no mention of the gift of Jesus’ righteousness that our worth is based on.

With those caveats in mind, Lucado’s story is a gentle introduction for children learning to fear God rather than people. And we will find much to enjoy in it as well, perhaps reentering daily life with Eli’s words echoing in our hearts: “The more you trust my love, the less you care about their stickers.”

What Are You Seeking?

Five hundred years ago today was October 31, 1517. Michelangelo had finished painting the Sistine Chapel five years earlier, and practically everyone would still believe that the earth was the center of our solar system for another twenty-six years (and most people would still think so even after that). Christopher Columbus had discovered the Americas twenty-five years earlier, and the first pilgrims wouldn’t land at Plymouth Harbor for another 103 years. It was a time of religious wars and Black Plague.

October 31, 1517, was a day the world began to change.

The Reformation

After the days of the early church, as recorded in Acts, Christianity continued to grow. By the 1500s, the European church was headquartered in Rome, Italy, under the authority of the Roman Catholic Church, but what likely began with pious intentions had spiraled out of control and even common sense.

The Church taught that its own leaders held even higher authority than the Word of God, and the pope was believed to have the power to forgive sins. Common people were denied access to biblical knowledge and even the Bible itself, with all church services performed in scholarly Latin instead of the common language and rare copies of the Bible (also in Latin) kept away from the people—sometimes even chained to tables in monasteries. Church leaders often lived in great wealth, benefitting off of the poor of the land and through tricks such as “indulgences” marketed as spiritual but really invented in order to bring in more money.

The church needed a reformation.

On October 31, 1517, an exasperated monk walked up to the church in Wittenburg, Germany, pulled out a list of 95 complaints against the church, and nailed it to the door. And Martin Luther ignited the Reformation.

Forever Changed

Through the coming years and even decades, the Church underwent a sharp and drastic change, creating a permanent split between what is still known as the Catholic Church and the newer preaching of old doctrines known as Protestantism. Luther and others began preaching from the Bible to the people, sharing with them biblical truths that had long been hidden from them. Central doctrines were rediscovered as reformers taught that only God can forgive sins, that Jesus is our only Mediator, and that money can never buy salvation.

Like the Pharisees before them, the Roman Catholic leaders of the day fought back, charging reformers with heresy and condemning those they could to death. But God was stirring up this rediscovery of His grace, and the Gospel spread.

The Reformation is often summarized by the Five Solas: Sola Scriptura, Sola Gratia, Sola Fide, Sola Christus, and Soli Deo Gloria. In other words, Scripture Alone, Grace Alone, Faith Alone, Christ Alone, and To God Alone Be Glory.

It was the “Alone” that mattered. Before 1517, the Church believed in Scripture, grace, faith, Christ, and the glory of God, but it also taught that man’s works must be added to the mix in order to ensure eternal life and acceptance by God. This lie was blown to pieces by the writing and preaching and testimonies of the reformers.

More than Doctrine

But the Reformation was about more than being right theologically. It wasn’t just about changing outward appearances of religion or exchanging one dead system of works for another.

“So when the devil throws your sins in your face and declares that you deserve death and hell,” Martin Luther wrote, “tell him this: ‘I admit that I deserve death and hell, what of it? For I know One who suffered and made satisfaction on my behalf. His name is Jesus Christ, Son of God, and where He is there I shall be also!’”

It was about seeking God Himself.

If it was only about preaching correctly the minute parts of doctrines and the Scriptures as an end in itself, the Reformation would have succeeded in truth but failed in changing hearts. As Jesus told the Pharisees fifteen centuries earlier:

“‘You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life’” (John 5:39-40).

Through the Reformation, we came to understand again that Christianity is not about obeying a set of rules and earning our own salvation. What a sad and joyless way to live. No—in Christianity, we are invited to follow the Creator God who refuses to be boxed into any system, to know the Savior who gave Himself for our debt when we could never ever have paid it, and to enjoy true life forever.

The doctrines are important. The Scriptures are vital. But they point to God, not to themselves, and call every person to seek God while he can.

Before We Seek Him, He Seeks Us

God could have hidden Himself from us. He could have stayed out of our reach, as the Pharisees and medieval church leaders and so many others have tried to tell us.

But He came.

God Himself came to us, flipping our expectations and turning all our assumptions on their heads—and seeking us. He didn’t wait for us to find some secret key or follow the hidden clues. He didn’t speak in unintelligible code through a shrouded group of prideful elites and bar the rest of humanity from attaining His presence.

He invited all of us to seek Him, and promises He will be found when we do. Not because we check everything off of someone else’s list, but because He loves us and came for us–and died for us.

Five hundred years ago today, one lowly monk in a German village nailed a list of 95 complaints against the medieval church on a church door. Through his efforts, a Reformation was ignited that has revolutionized Christianity since, and the question still stands for each of us:

What—or Who—are you seeking?

“The Hardest Peace: Expecting Grace in the Midst of Life’s Hard”

It’s a question that has shipwrecked many on their way to faith. If God is good, it always starts, why is there suffering? Why do people hurt? Why do babies die and families fall apart and senseless things happen? Why is there so much sadness?

The question begs for an answer, but needs something deeper than a logical response. It needs hope. From someone who has weathered pain and hard and suffering, but still has hope.

Unexpected

Kara Tippetts’ story in The Hardest Peace: Expecting Grace in the Midst of Life’s Hard opens with a less-than-perfect childhood, with parents who loved her but didn’t always act with love. Jesus found her in high school, and forgiving her parents was an early step in her new life. Fumbling through her young Christianity, she met and married Jason, and they had plans for the future—their future—but it never went the way they expected. In her 30s, Kara was diagnosed with cancer. Their dreams of church-planting and ministry and doing life together changed with doctor visits and chemo and pain and weakness.

Kara Tippetts died of cancer on March 22, 2015. Her words are still here, though she isn’t, and her story of suffering and seeking God in the midst of it spurs us on to find Him in our own hard things—in our own whys.

We Don’t Write Our Stories

No one ever has time for cancer. Just when things seem to finally be falling into place or life has found that elusive equilibrium, the disease announces its presence and all those other things stop in their tracks. Jason and Kara had just moved with their four children to Colorado Springs to plant a church, and they were full of big dreams and plans—good dreams and plans—to drive a stake in the ground of their corner of the world and claim it for Jesus. They were going to do good things, big things.

“Before cancer, I would have said I was on the journey of seeking grace, but in truth I was manufacturing my own faith. If I found a need, I did my best to meet it. My going, doing, loving was my faith, not my nearness to Jesus. In my mind I knew my efforts weren’t the substance of my faith, but my practice betrayed me. Stripped of my ability, I saw Jesus in a new and profound way.” – Kara Tippetts

Jason and Kara would still do good things. Even some big things. Things like write a blog that eventually had 10,000-20,000 daily visits. Write books. Care for their children. Share their story—even when it wasn’t what they had planned. And it was through never-expected, never-chosen cancer that they stood toe-to-toe with the fact that they were not writing their story. The good things God had for them were not what they had picked, but they were still good.

“I come to you in these pages as a broken woman, realizing that my brokenness may be my greatest strength—that it may be the greatest strength of us all…My season of weakness has taught me the joy of receiving, the strength of brokenness, and the importance of looking for God in each moment.” – Kara Tippetts

Life. Is. Hard.

Some may blame Disney, and others Tootsie Pop Lollipops, but the desire to seek and find satisfying conclusions and happy endings is wired deeper in our humanity than inventions of the last few generations. We want things to turn out right. We want God’s presence to mean the hard things go away, like a child who knows their nighttime fear will evaporate if they could only be with Mommy or Daddy.

That’s what so many of us look for, even though that usually isn’t what happens.

And it’s there in that disappointment that we usually slip up, choose a Christianese answer, and flippantly explain away heartwrenching tragedy. We say “God has a plan” or “everything happens for a reason,” and go back to normal life if we can. We’re not wrong. But we’re far from completely right.

Life is hard, sometimes breathtakingly so. To baptize it with one-liners without feeling the depths of that pain is not only naïve, it’s—wrong.

“What if there is never an end? What if the story never improves and the tests continue to break our hearts? Is God still good? How does our story of love change when we look head-on at my absence from this life? How do you live realistically when you feel like your moments are fading, fleeting, too momentary? How do you fight for normal in the midst of the crushing daily news of more hard? How do you seek hope without forgetting reality?” – Kara Tippetts

We don’t have to deny that life hurts in order to have hope. Our hope in Jesus is firm because even when life hurts, Jesus is still there, still in control, and still good.

As Christians, we know that even if we still face our scariest scary—God is good.

“My hope is not in the absence of suffering and comfort returned. My hope is in the presence of the One who promises never to leave or forsake, the One who declares nothing “will be able to separate us from the love of God” (Rom. 8:39). Nothing.” – Kara Tippetts

No Easy Answers

In this world we will have trouble. All of us. Just like everyone else who has ever lived. The whys are hard, and there is no easy answer. No complete understanding.

But we do know what God has faithfully shown us before: He is good—now and through eternity, in each and every story He has written. We can bank our hope on this, that Jesus who suffered horrific pain on that cross all those years ago will never give us a trite answer or leave us in the midst of our pain.

What we see as brokenness or tragedy will one day be reintroduced to us as His glorious redemption of our pain. Kara Tippets lives that reality in its fullest glory now, and one day we will, too. Until then, we remember how she shared her life and story with the world, inviting us to follow Jesus through all the whys and pain and hard questions to a marvelous eternity we can’t begin to imagine.

“Grace; it’s all grace. Jesus will be there; He will be wooing, loving, meeting my love, my babies, my community, my family, and you long past the day my words run out that beg you to look for grace—that long for you to know Jesus. Really know His love. It’s His story, not mine. It’s His grace extended, not mine. I have only been a steward of that grace, a simple namer of His unbelievably reckless love that shows up for one broken woman every single day.” – Kara Tippetts

we are not yet where we will be