I’m Not Good Enough. Neither Are You.

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For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.

Matthew 5:20 (New International Version)

I ‘ve been camping out in the Sermon on the Mount lately. It’s always been a hard piece of the Bible for me: while others dove into the water and paddled out to the big waves, I felt like all I could ever do was body surf near the shore. They got the excitement of deep truths; I got sand in my shorts. But this year at my church, we’re getting back to basics, and at church it doesn’t get much more basic than Jesus. I figured we probably ought to spend some time with the longest recorded message from the Master, so here I am, camping out on the mount.

The Beatitudes—that list of “blessed are those who…”—seemed pretty straight forward. Until I actually started studying them. And with some help from Dallas Willard (The Divine Conspiracy), I realized they may not be anywhere near as straight forward as I thought. In fact, they all seem a little upside-down. That shouldn’t have surprised me, coming from a teacher who said things like, “the first shall be last” and “whoever wants to save their life will lose it.”

So I pressed on and came to the verse above. Now, I know enough about the Pharisees and “the teachers of the law” to know that no one—and I mean no one—was going to surpass their righteousness. When it came to following the law, they not only dotted all the i’s and crossed all the t’s, they made sure that every serif was in the right place. (Note: this is written in a sans serif font, which I’m sure the Pharisees would frown on as being too liberal.) What in the world did Jesus have in mind, then, suggesting that the only way to heaven is to out-Pharisee the Pharisees?

I was a high jumper for a few years in middle school. A pretty average one, I admit, but I have fond memories. (Except the triangular poles: those really hurt when you landed on them.) In high jump, they start with the bar at a pretty easy height—one every competitor ought to be able to get over. And as soon as you clear one height, they raise it. That’s where that cliché comes from, “raising the bar.” But Jesus starts out with the bar pretty much right up top. It’s like asking a middle schooler to compete against Dick Fosbury‘s 1968 Olympics gold medal record.

Well then I kept reading Jesus’ sermon, and he wasn’t done! He keeps raising the bar even higher: it’s not enough to steer clear of murder, now I’m not even supposed to get angry at them. It’s not enough to avoid adultery; even looking wrong at a woman can get me in trouble. (The original #MeToo?) And on and on he goes, inching up that bar of righteousness, until it’s definitely out of reach.

By the end of Matthew 5, I’m feeling pretty small. And then, as if all this bar-raising weren’t enough, Jesus slaps one more bumper sticker on the car: “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (verse 48). Good grief! There’s no way! Jesus’ expectations are just too high; I can’t possibly meet them. Clearly, I can never live up to his demands.

But then I get another nudge. I turn over a few pages (and a few years of history) to one of the longest letters in the Bible, written by a guy named Paul. A guy who, by the way, was a Pharisee. And as Pharisees, he was tops. If anyone out-Phariseed the Pharisees, it was Paul. For a while, Paul made a mockery of Jesus’ teachings. Paul didn’t just get angry with people (mostly people who followed Jesus), he dragged them off to prison and worse: he made sure they got the death penalty. And then he met Jesus. In a spectacular, blinding, world-changing way. And it changed the world.

And decades after Jesus said “you have to be more righteous than the Pharisees,” Paul wrote that “no one will be declared righteous in God’s sight by the works of the law.” (He’s actually agreeing with Jesus, by the way; you just can’t read only Matthew 5 to know that.) Paul went on to write that “the righteousness of God…is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe.” (See Romans 3.)

So here’s the deal: if you want to try to earn your way into heaven, well good luck with that. In fact, you’ll need luck, because no amount of doing good will get you over the bar. (Neither will luck!) The good news is that Jesus already cleared the bar. He lived the sinless life that we can’t; he was the perfect sacrifice, dying in our place; and the faith that we need to have in order to be accepted by God? Well, he gives us that, too. And God, by his amazing, incredible, totally undeserved mercy, looks at you and me and sees one thing: the righteousness of his Son.

I’ll never be good enough for God. Neither will you. But Jesus is. All you need to do is believe.

Corrective Lenses

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Ken Teegardin from Boulder, Boulder [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)]

A friend shared with me something she’d read from Ann Voskamp: “God already sees you as perfect in him.” Based on my own ongoing and painfully slow transformation, I jokingly asked my friend if she ever wondered if God might need glasses. Then I was reminded of a conversation Moses had with God….

When God called Moses to go back to Egypt to lead the people of Israel out of slavery, Moses didn’t exactly jump at the chance. He questioned himself, God, and the people, and when God answered all those questions, Moses came back to himself: I’m never been a good speaker. I think his unspoken accusation was, God, you made me this way.

We live in an era in which imperfection—so-called birth defects, disabilities, learning differences, etc.—are often viewed as reasons to devalue life, even to end it before birth. Or we shake our fists at God in accusation: You made me this way! It’s your fault … I’m your fault.

When Moses said, “I can’t speak, and it’s because of you,” God replied, “you’re right, I gave you your mouth. And I gave the blind man his eyes and the deaf girl her ears. Yes, I made you just the way you are.”

And then he repeats his invitation to Moses to lead: Go, and I will help you speak and will teach you what to say.

What if, when we realize our limitations, instead of accusing God of creating something imperfect, we asked him, how will you help me in this weakness? How will you fill the gap in my abilities, my learning, my experience?

Know this: God made you just as you are. He has a plan and a purpose for you … but he doesn’t expect you to do it on your own. In fact, he made you so that you have to rely on him. And when you do, incredible things will happen.

Want to study this idea in the Bible? Read the story of Moses’ call in Exodus 3-4, or the blind man in John 9, or Paul’s weakness in 2 Corinthians 12.

Naked Gardeners

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Bernard Gagnon [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)]

We were created to be naked gardeners. (Dr. Rick McKinley)

When God created man and woman and placed them in the garden, they had everything they needed – which, at the time, didn’t include clothing. There were no thorns and no poison oak, and the weather, like the rest of creation, must have been “very good.” Most important of all, there was no shame. That all ended when they bit into the fruit. 

That evening when God came for his nightly walk with the pinnacle of his creation, they were hiding, afraid to be seen by the one whose hands had formed every curve of their bodies.

Shame and fear, covering and hiding: nonexistent and unnecessary before sin, but God offers answers.

Clothing is God’s good answer to our nakedness until the New Creation restores the perfect, unadorned beauty of creation.

Prayer is God’s good answer to our shame and fear. In prayer, we can again stand naked before God, without shame, without fear, completely seen, intimately known, ultimately loved by our Creator. Perfect love drives out all fear.

Truck, Tent … Soul

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Last summer I discovered a young couple (19 & 20 years old) living in their truck in the shade of a big oak tree at our church – where I’m the still-new pastor. I talked with them a bit, learned a bit of their story, and offered water and restrooms whenever they needed. I invited them to join us in worship on Sunday mornings and was thrilled when they did. He’d been part of the church’s youth group for a time—before my time—when we’d had a guy who connected with the skater crowd; but he was there for the skating and the food, not for the God-talk. She had her own views of God, some rooted in the Bible, but many from her own mind (not unlike many of us!).

They had hopes and hurts: both were looking for work; both had a lot of brokenness in their families; both had struggles with drugs and emotions and mental health. But they were looking for a place to live, and hoped to find it within a few weeks. When she had to leave town with the truck for a few days, he asked if he could set up a tent on an out-of-the-way part of the property. I agreed. But days turned into several weeks, even after she returned; and though they took good care of the area, with the dry heat of summer and the possibility of sparks from the engine, I knew we needed to send them on their way.

I knew they’d both gotten work at a local pizza place and some time later I stopped in to ask about them. They didn’t work there anymore.

It’s been months now. They’ve crossed my mind on occasion but I haven’t seen or heard about them. Until yesterday.

Sitting alone in my office in the afternoon, I looked up when I noticed a car pull into our parking lot. The back door opened and … there he was. When we saw each other through the window, a big smile crossed his face. I walked out to greet him and we both spread our arms wide and hugged each other. “I found God!” he said. Back when he’d sat through our church service, it was pretty much a courtesy; he wasn’t much interested in God. “I was trapped in my sin,” was about how he put it.

Somewhere along the way he decided he didn’t want to go on living the way he had been. And somehow, he figured he needed God. And he found Him. He discovered Teen Challenge, too, which is a Bible-based organization that helps teens—and young adults—recover from life-controlling issues through a relationship with Jesus Christ. Yes, He’s still in the business of healing. And he—my young friend (and new brother)—is about halfway through the Teen Challenge recovery program. And seems to be doing pretty well.

They’re not together anymore, he and she. Last summer, that would have been a big blow. Now he has a relationship with Someone who has given him real life. Full life. Eternal life.

As Christians who try to faithfully and simply show Jesus’ love to others, we don’t always get to see if the seeds we’ve planted (or watered) will sprout and grow. Yesterday I got a glimpse of a small green shoot popping up through the soil.

(Note: I published this first on Facebook notes on 2/2/19.)

Prior Prayers

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Another shooting. A dozen more people killed by bullets. Another argument about gun control and gun rights. Undoubtedly, the words, “our prayers are with the victims and their families,” will be spoken by people of deep faith … as well as by others who never pray yet somehow believe that the promise of prayer is a comfort to those facing deep loss.

I’ve been troubled by the rise in gun violence in our nation, yet have felt at a loss as to any semblance of a solution. I believe in gun rights – and that they ought to be limited. I believe in gun control – and that it, too, ought to be limited. And I believe in confidentiality—between doctor and patient, lawyer and client, clergy and parishioner—and that limits there are necessary.

The challenge is that those three values—gun rights, gun control, and confidentiality—cause us to argue, even when most reasonable people would agree on one goal: we need to reduce gun violence.

There’s something else I believe in: prayer. And not simply as comfort, but as real and powerful … a mountain-moving force.

Or do I? Do I really believe that prayer can not only move mountains, but can move the God who created those mountains? Because if I did believe that, wouldn’t I pray for God to do something about gun violence … before it happens? Wouldn’t I pray for God to somehow help us figure out a way to balance those three conflicting values of gun rights, gun control, and confidentiality? We certainly haven’t figured it out (not that we’ve really tried; we’ve only argued that one outweighs the others).

I was convicted today that I don’t pray enough—or rightly—about these things.

Praying for victims and their families is still good and necessary, but that prayer comes too late. There is a better prayer, a prior prayer: that God would lead our nation to the hard work of solutions, until prayers for victims are no longer needed.