The Real Trial

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When I turn on the news lately, I hear of our President being weighed on the scales of justice. I hear of the witnesses or testimony turning out to be false or badly handled. Governors scandalize. The Secretary of State covers up. Senators are exposed. Even the judges are judged for their various misdeeds. In such a world, we might wonder at the injustice of it all: where is justice where even the system has such questionable actors? Where is justice when the system favors the powerful and excuses the influential?

But today also happens to be Good Friday. It’s the day that Jesus Christ was crucified. At that time, also, we read about a scandalous trial. Of Sadducees who’d rather keep their power appointed by Rome than look for a greater Kingdom. Of a Roman Prefect who appears to acquit an innocent man, but hands him over to the the crowd for the sake of expedience. Of a crowd who cries out for blood. Even the High Priest of God, who should have exemplified righteousness on behalf of the people, thought it better to condemn an innocent man. Because, after all, “it is better for you that one man should die for the people, not that the whole nation should perish.” (John 11:50) All bad actors. At the expense of truth, at the twisting of justice, the actors seem rather more concerned with keeping the reigns on their own little shabby kingdoms.

And this is where John’s Gospel picks up the story: Jesus is put on trial by these bad actors. But for John, it’s not Jesus on trial, but the world. Early in the story, Jesus stands before his accusers and asks, “Which one of you convicts me of sin? If I tell the truth, why do you not believe me?” (John 8:46). The world is convicted and found wanting because “This is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil.” (John 3:19) Even the Helper (the Spirit) is found in the role of “advocate”: the world is on trial, and stands convicted of its crimes (John 16:8-11).

So when we think through Jesus’s trial and crucifixion, we should recognize that this isn’t a judgment against Jesus. It’s a judgment against ourselves. Caiaphas assumed the High Priestly role and was found wanting. The Sanhedrin placed their traditions of man above the righteousness of God. Pilate shows us just how small the “greatness of Rome” really is. And God has turned the world’s imitation of justice on its head: it’s the world, not Jesus, who stands condemned. And blood is on our hands, in even more tragic and wonderful ways than we could anticipate: “His blood be on us and on our children,” we might have shouted with the crowd that day. (Matthew 26:25)

In a world where corruption seems to reign, where injustice bleeds into the present, where is justice? But then, death and corruption aren’t the end of the story…

"God Loves Me?" How Dare You!

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We often hear things like “God loves you.” We know Christian Churches stand or fall on that notion. We know that the faith of any individual Christian is grounded on this one simple statement: God loves you.

But what happens when our experience tells us not that God loves me, but that God must have it out for me? Our pain and suffering, or our vision of the world where injustice and suffering exists in such terrible ways, must square with the statement—or not. In a world where millions of children are slaughtered for convenience, in a world where the suffering of entire people groups is made worse by national (dis)interest, in a world where sexual slavery, hatred, mass shootings, drug dependency, racism, sexism, corporate greed, political maneuvering—in that kind of world, how can you say “God loves you,” or me, or anyone else? Doesn’t it seem as if, if there really is a God, the world we experience tells us that this God is rather capricious, or uncaring, or perhaps worse, takes malicious joy in our various sufferings?

It’s a fair question, and I think sometimes we don’t square ourselves with fair answers to that question. The answer, as you might imagine, is “the Cross.”

A World that Has a Cross

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The world we live in is just the kind of world in which the Roman political system had a means of dealing with what it considered to be the most terrible kind. It served different purposes for Rome. Just 100 years before Rome crucified a now-famous Galilean, there was another famous crucifixion in 71 BC. A runaway gladiator-slave named Spartacus led a rebellion. His followers were finally killed or caught, and Rome hung up to 6,000 of his followers along the Appian Way. Now, whatever we think of Rome, or Spartacus, or any of these other facts, we should pause on that for a moment. Rome hung 6,000 human beings on a road. They languished on those crosses for days, and afterward remained for everyone to see the corruption, and stink, and rot. Scavenger animals feasted for days. And this was Rome’s symbol of triumph over a rebel-slave: a road of suffering stretching for miles.

More commonly, Rome used this as the most expedient means of demonstrating to its inhabitants what happens when any individual in the Empire dared to stand against the system. You want to speak against Rome? You want to stand against perceived injustice in the good-and-glorious Empire? The cross was an ever-present reminder for those who entertained such ideas.

Of course, the most famous example of Roman crucifixion happened upon a man who also voiced opposition. In a backwater of the Empire, the locals became offended by a man who claimed the locals needed to turn from their evil ways. The locals, in turn, formed a mob and brought him to the Romans in charge. When they heard this man made claims to kingdom, when they heard echoes of opposition to Caesar’s good reign, they stripped him, whipped him, mocked him, and turned him back over to the locals so the locals could have him legally murdered.

This is the world with a cross. It’s a world where systems become corrupt. It’s a world where the kings make much of themselves and little of any authority over them. It’s a world where the mob can turn against an innocent man and murder him in the name of justice. And from that day to this, not much has changed in that regard.

A World that Needs a Cross

And if we see that story and think that we’re better than they are, you haven’t been paying much attention to the news. The means have changed, but the heart is the same. Again and again, we see people suffer at the hands of the Twitter mob. Politicians condemn the innocent for the sake of political expediency. Your neighbor may very well plunder your material goods, and that’s why you lock your door at night. Murder is in the heart of every one of us who hates our brother or sister.

But if we read all of that and fail to see the corruption in our own hearts, we aren’t looking closely enough. We are the mob who rip apart the innocent; we are the locals who’d rather not hear about our culpability; we are the Caesars who dispose of the slave with violence. We are the murderers. Most of us simply haven’t had the opportunity to show just how much murder is in our heart in such public or obvious ways. So murder remains hidden in our heart while we smile and pretend it isn’t there.

And here’s just where we find the punchline: If we say “God loves you,” it must take into account a world that has a cross. All the terrible injustices visited upon us are visited because this is the broken world that has a cross. It’s a world that isn’t made right, and we feel it to our bones. But the problem is that humanity itself is the culprit: throughout history, we have murdered more people in the name of perceived injustices, sometimes even in the name of God. Blood is on our hands, dripping wet with red innocence. And we don’t even care.

This is a broken world, a world where human beings created a cross. It’s also a world that God used such a tool to demonstrate His love toward us. God’s love used the brokenness of this world and took the injustice to show His justice. Jesus wiped the feet of Judas before he received Judas’s betraying kiss. Jesus served Himself to a broken system before that broken system flayed him and nailed him to a Roman cross.

The world that has a cross is precisely the world that needs one. “God loves me”? Yes, indeed. And God shows His love to me by showing me just how broken we are before He shows me just how redeeming His love is to my own soul.

A Hope Anticipated


Who am I? I am me
Does she know? Does she see?
She wakes from her eternal dream
No one else to wonder with
She blinks her eyes. She takes a breath
I wonder, me: what’s next?

She hears a sound, but not her own
A disembodied thing: she’s not alone?
She hears the weeping, weeping, weeping
Did she hear it? Is she sleeping?
A deep voice. A word. A melody.
I wonder, me: what’s “baby”?

The weeping voice, it sometimes rings
Sometimes laughs, sometimes sings
“Mama, mama” syllables squish
 What’s a mama? A curse? A wish?
She hears the whisper, “Jellybean”
I can’t count, but that’s mama and me

Voices thunder. Organs roar.
Violence. Shaking. The world at war.
She looks down: looks at the end
A new thing? Her arm finished a hand
Sirens. And voices. A syringe. Terrible pain.
I wonder, mama, does it hurt you the same?

Comforting womb, a warmth, a home
Suddenly quakes, announcing it’s done
The song becomes screaming, the screaming now shouts
The terrible shifting. Now pressing, pushing out
A cold metal, sharp steel is pressed
I wonder, mama: what’s next?

The Diversity of the Human Rainbow: Gospel Virtue in an Evil Age

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Martin Luther King had a famous dream. “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” What’s the reality we live with 56 years later? We’re not judged by the content of our character. We’re judged by the color of our skin, the size of our wallets, even the political party we associate with. And where is character to be found in those things?

And why does character matter, really? I mean, it doesn’t gain us status or recognition with the world. It grants us no titles. It promises no money. It doesn’t even provide us with more friends. What is the reward of good character? And why does that matter in a society that seems to value, above all else, such notions as tolerance and reproductive rights on one side, and guns and free market on the other?


The answer to good character is found in what Christians call “The Image of God.” The concept of good character is an ancient one, and we even see that in words like “virtue”: among the Greeks “arete” and among the Romans “virtus.” The aspects of virtue included things like courage, justice, temperance, and prudence. Perhaps even more foreign to our modern sensibilities, “manliness” was central to this notion. Aristotle believed virtue was simply an excellence at being human: virtue was its own reward leading to the greatest human happiness. Centuries later, the most influential Christian thinkers like Augustine and Aquinas borrow from Aristotle, but they insist that true virtue is bound to our love of God. The Image of God (that’s you and me, friend!) flourishes most when we love our God and our neighbor. And yes, our neighbor happens to be the abortion-rights activist. Our neighbor is also the helpless, the poor, and in our cultural context, the unborn: “Open your mouth for the mute, for the rights of all who are destitute. Open your mouth, judge righteously, defend the rights of the poor and needy.“ (Proverbs 31:8-9)


What’s all this have to do with human diversity? Just this: our human condition as individual human beings, and even our variety of culture, is and always has been a very good thing. Martin Luther King was right: the color of our skin is secondary to our virtue, or lack of it. And our human condition, our every culture, has deeply rooted problems. It’s not that humanity as God created us is bad. But neither is culture bad as God originally created it: “Be fruitful and multiply, increase greatly on the earth and multiply in it,” God says to the Patriarchs again and again. Why? In part, it seems, because God loves diversity. God loves the rainbow of our human cultural expressions. God is most glorified in our cultures when our cultures, in their various and wonderful ways, glorify Him. It takes the form of ancient hymns and organ music. It takes the form of rap music. It takes the form of Australian digeridoos and African Djembe drums.

But there’s a very real danger in this diversity as well. Much like human individuals, cultures also turn bad in the ways they turn from God. As C.S. Lewis once said, “There is but one good; that is God. Everything else is good when it looks to Him and bad when it turns from Him.” No son or daughter of Adam is exempt. And no culture is either. We find it from the materialism in the West to the mysticism of the East. We find it in Democratic Republics and Monarchies. We find it from Capitalism to Communism. And yes, we find evil in the power-plays and politics of American Conservatism and Liberalism: each of us has turned aside from God. And while our systems can sometimes express the wonderful Image of God through right justice and proper care for the poor, those same systems can also exemplify the apathy and deep-seated hatred in each of us toward our God and our neighbor.

So, friends, let’s embrace MLK’s dream that the content of our character might become the skin that people see first. Let us recognize the sin that clings to us closely (Heb. 12:1), sometimes so closely we’re blind to its cultural manifestations among ourselves. God’s gospel speaks equally to skin color and to reproductive rights; it speaks equally to racism and infanticide. Is it possible we’ve not allowed the gospel into some of our own blind spots? While we point our own judicial finger, we must recognize God’s justice will one day roll down like a river. And God help us. So we pray for justice with a bit of fear and trepidation, knowing that God shows no favoritism to our apathy.

The Gospel speaks to all of our individual and cultural sins: the varieties of human culture, skin tone, ethnicity, and music are beautiful. And they’re made more beautiful when we see those varieties turn from their apathy and sin to the one God and Father of all.

A Long Line of Scholars

And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up. So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith.  --  Galatians 6:9,10

Although I really don’t recall what the cause may have been, I have had an appreciation for the art of Bonsai since I was in grade 5 or 6.  Even before David Winter cottages, I appreciated not only the small-scale aspect (at an even younger age, I had a rather expansive set-up for HO scale trains with houses, businesses, and landscape) but the attention to detail.  Whether the bonsai was to represent a tree on a coastline with its growth impacted by the constant winds, or a copse with a pathway or pond, possibly with carved figurines, I was enamored.

Over the summer I was afforded the opportunity to visit the U. S. National Arboretum in Washington, D.C. with my friend Ryan (for a send-off gift from SharpTop, we chose a bonsai for him as he shares an interest in the art).  The Arboretum includes the National Bonsai & Penjing Museum, which was the main focus of our visit.  Along with exhibits, and gardens through which you could stroll, there were open-air pavilions for Chinese bonsai, Japanese bonsai, and for North American bonsai.  These pavilions were home to dozens of deciduous and evergreen bonsai.

The museum had its start with 53 bonsai and a half dozen viewing stones which were gifted to the United States by Japan as we celebrated our Bicentennial in 1976.  These are housed in the Japanese pavilion. In the Chinese pavilion, there are both bonsai and penjing (miniature landscapes).  Some of the works here have the roots growing over rocks.  Many of the bonsai have been in training for over a hundred years.  The North American pavilion features bonsai from trees found primarily in the United States and Canada, many of which are California junipers.


The thing by which we were most impressed--and here, impressed means something more like dumbfounded--was a bonsai in the Japanese pavilion.  A Japanese white pine.  Compared to many of the other bonsai we had seen, a bit larger.  But what made this bonsai so significant was the placard that indicated the bonsai had been in training since 1625.  Think about that for a moment!  Remember your United States history.  The Jamestown Settlement was founded in 1607.  For nearly four hundred years, a Bonsai scholar has been tending this tree: pruning it, training it, tending it.  

What the placard doesn’t detail is the list of scholars.  I’m curious.  Who was the first scholar to begin this bonsai work?  How many years did he train the tree before entrusting another scholar to succeed him and continue his work?  If each scholar trained it for a minimum of twenty years, that’s twenty different scholars.  I wonder if at some point after the first several changing of hands a scholar began a list of the names of his predecessors.  Perhaps, each new scholar rewrote the list to preserve the history.  Or, perhaps, each scholar trained the tree for fifty years, almost as a life’s work.  That would bring the number of scholars down to eight.  Eight scholars removed from its beginning in 1625.

I wonder, too, if the first scholar thought his work would surpass his lifespan several times over?  I wonder if the scholars training this bonsai envisioned it, not only enduring for generations but as a gift from their country, crossing an ocean and a continent, to commemorate our own Bicentennial.

Reflecting on all this (it’s what INFJs do), I thought this nearly-four-hundred-year-old bonsai was quite the metaphor.  A metaphor for Grace Community Church? Think bigger.

I see this bonsai as a metaphor for the Kingdom of God.  We should, I think, consider Jesus Himself as the original “scholar” for the Kingdom.  For three years He poured Himself into a dozen disciples.  Teaching them.  Mentoring them.  Leading them.  Doing life with them.  In turn, this group of men--joined by a few others--carried out the art, not of bonsai, but of discipleship, advancing the Kingdom.  The process repeated.  The Kingdom perpetuated.  We have the list of the original “scholars”, but, as they each invested in relationships, and as those relationships replicated and multiplied, tracing it all would become rather challenging.  The discipleship and mentoring have continued until today.

Some of the early “scholars” still impact us.  Do you think Paul ever thought his letters to the churches at Philippi, Corinth, and Colossae would be read by others outside those churches?  Do you think he imagined his letters would become part of the Canon?  Have you ever wondered if he dreamed passages from his letters would be memorized by countless thousands of believers?

You can look back a generation to the person, or persons,  who invested in you through discipleship and mentoring. From their testimonies, you could trace the discipleship back a little further, perhaps.  You can look forward to the relationships you have in which you are the influencer.  These relationships will continue into the future.  We’re all in this thing of building the Kingdom together.  And we’ve “trained” our tree for several thousand years--I suppose ours is a mustard tree and not a white pine.  Our tree continues to flourish.  It is work.  It takes time and effort.  Sometimes, it is discouraging.  We fail.  But, don’t grow weary.  Our work is of far more significance than “training” a tree.  We are building a Kingdom.

Thinking about Our Christmas Traditions


It’s now upon us! It’s Christmas Eve. Most of us have heard and sung so many Christmas songs by now that the family dog might be ready to sing the chorus. We have a great tradition in America with these various songs, whose themes range from God’s incarnation to a winter ride on a sleigh.

What Jolly Fat Man?

Why are we celebrating, and how do our songs reflect, for ourselves and the world, what we’re all about? We frequently say that Christmas isn’t about gifts, but about _________ (fill in the blank, ideally with a word like “Christ” or “God’s love”). Perhaps we need to consider some of our traditions surrounding the man behind the sleigh.

We first need to distinguish fact from fiction. How did we get this picture of red suited man with a jelly belly who brings gifts to good little children throughout the entire world? This fiction is indeed based on a historical fact, but only as a shadow. What does the Christmas Spirit have to do with the Christmas Myth?


The origins of the Santa Claus myth hail back to the fourth century in what is the southwest coast of modern Turkey.

This was when and where the real Nicholas, a bishop of Myra, lived. He was known for his generosity and his love for the church and true doctrine; this was a man of conviction and piety. He was orphaned at a young age and his parents left him a fortune as his inheritance. Rather than using the inheritance on himself, he chose rather to be charitable. One story about his life tells of a poor father with three girls destined for life on the street. These girls had no dowry and the father was ready to leave them to a brothel. Upon hearing about these girls, Nicholas left a bag of gold in the window for each of these girls so they could marry.

Nicholas also lived during a time of the Diocletian persecution against the church. The local magistrates and authorities had him imprisoned and tortured for believing Christian doctrine. Nicholas was imprisoned and tortured because he would not deny Jesus as his Lord. Let that sink in…

So when Constantine became emperor of Rome and ended the Diocletian persecution, this is the background for understanding the Nicene Council and the Arian heresy. The Nicene Council met to debate and settle this important doctrinal issue. The council was meant to unify the church after the persecution of Diocletian after a time of disunity and division. Nicholas, a bishop of Myra by this time, attended the council. The church historian Eusebius records the events: Arius was dividing the Church with his heresy, and Nicholas became so angered with Arius that he crossed the room and slapped Arius in the face.

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Father Christmas

When we sing about a jolly fat man riding on a sleigh, dispensing presents to children, we’re really closer to the European legend of Father Christmas than we are to the historical figure of Saint Nicholas. Father Christmas itself probably originated with European pagan myths: ivy, mistletoe, and a green robe are the leftovers of that tradition maintained in the Santa Claus myth. The Norman invasion of the 11th century would eventually come to ensure the wedding of Father Christmas with Santa Claus. His jelly belly came in 1823 by way of Clement Moore in “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” more commonly referred to as “The Night Before Christmas.”

So What?

I’ve been happy to sing songs of sleighs and reindeer. These have been a part of the happy tradition we have with the American “Holiday Season”. These happy jingles remind me of my childhood. They serve to lift our spirits a little. They are part and parcel of the nostalgia of Christmas in our traditions.

But they might also serve to distract us from what we claim to celebrate; I mean, let’s face it: so many of the “jingles” of Christmas have their origins in something other than first century Christian history, and they frequently have no tie-in to Christianity itself. Themes of charity abound, and sometimes try to square this with God’s charitable act of sending His only Son. We hear that Christmas is “more than gifts” and at the same time observe that gifts so often remain the focus. We tell children to wait for Santa Claus with bated breath. Oh, and by the way… God became flesh…

So while we sing “Jingle Bells” as readily as we sing “O Come, All Ye Faithful!,” the words of the former have their origin in pagan mythology, while the words of the latter intertwine with the very earliest teachings of Christianity, calling us to consider that ancient Council through which Nicholas (the real one) was first known. More importantly, it causes us to reflect deeply on Jesus’ pre-incarnate Person, a King becoming a slave, to redeem a people out of slavery. It causes us to reflect deeply on the eternal God who became mortal man to defeat sin and death. It’s the God who created all things out of nothing, now, in Christ, creating a beautiful people out His enemies. It’s a time to reflect on what God has accomplished in the Incarnation:

O Come All Ye Faithful

God of God,
Light of Light,
Lo! He abhors not the Virgin’s womb;
Very God, Begotten, not created.

Yea, Lord, we greet Thee,
Born this happy morning,
Jesus, to Thee be all glory given;
Word of the Father,
Now in flesh appearing!

O come, all ye faithful,
Joyful and triumphant,
O come ye, O come ye to Bethlehem!
Come and behold Him,
Born the King of Angels!
O come let us adore Him,
O come let us adore Him,
O come let us adore Him,
Christ the Lord!

Colossians 1:19
John 8:12; John 12:35
Galatians 4:4; Luke 1:26-38
Psalm 2:7; John 1:14; Hebrews 5:5

Revelation 5:13; Ephesians 3:21; Jude 25
John 1:1; Revelation 19:13
John 1:14; Romans 1:3; Philippians 2:7-8

Psalm 86:9; Revelation 15:4
Revelation 21:8

Hebrews 1:4-6; Ephesians 1:21; Philippians 2:9

More Human than Human

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I’m a big sci-fi nerd. I love a good story, but I particularly love a good sci-fi story. What I’ve seen about any good story is that is says something fundamentally important about humanity. About being human.

We see this question frequently in good sci-fi. What would the first Star Trek series be without the question of Spock’s humanity? (Spoiler alert!) His death in The Wrath of Khan (1982) serves as the climax to this question. “I have been and always will be your friend” the uber-logical Spock says to his impulsively uber-human friend, Captain Kirk.

We have plenty of other examples of this. Commander Data’s quest to be human is central to his role in Star Trek: The Next Generation. Darth Vader serves this capacity at the end of Episode VI: his humanity is demonstrated in his final rejection of Darth Sidious and his embrace of fatherhood. For Vader, “The power of the Dark Side” is overcome when he embraces something more powerful, and Vader sacrifices himself to save his son.

What does it mean to be human? This important question is central for a vast portion of good literature. What does it mean to be human in the context of a story taking place in the English Navy of 1800? Or in the context of a fantastic future world? The characters we most identify with are those characters who show us something about ourselves.

Getting the Story Right from the Start

I sometimes take part in conversations where one of the Christian conversation partners makes an off-handed comment: “that’s human nature!” And of course, it’s understood that by “human nature” they mean the evil inclination of our heart. But it this right? Should we call human nature to account when we discuss issues like sin and sinfulness?

The Bible itself has something important to say about “being human”. We learn from the Bible that our basic nature is actually “very good”. God creates everything with a word. Then God steps down and molds human beings with His very hands. And from the very start, God calls it all “very good” (Gen. 1:31). So whatever we have to say about the most basic nature of humanity, God calls it, along with everything else He made, “very good”. Whatever else it means to be human? It does not mean “evil inclination” or “sinfulness”. Those are intruders in the story.

And doesn’t this touch on the Christmas story itself? When we talk about Christmas, we’re talking about the second Member of the Trinity becoming flesh and dwelling among us. When we talk about the Christmas story, we’re talking about God being “with us” in the very real sense that God has become one among us. Whatever else Jesus was, Jesus was a very human being.

Jesus Christ: More Human than Human

It’s been my observation that, in our circles at least, when we discuss the person of Jesus Christ we tend toward understanding Him as the Divine One, the fullness of God. He is the one whom we worship on Sundays. He is the one in whose name we pray. It’s rather easy for us to see Him as “fully God”. It’s also rather easy for us to forget that He is “fully human”.

It’s easy in our circles to remember Jesus, the second Member of the Trinity. And we have a hard time seeing him as the second Adam. We have a hard time identifying with Him because, well, Jesus was and is God-in-flesh. God, yes. But weak? Frail? “With us” in the sense that this Person is, really and truly, a human being with human emotions and human desires? Did Jesus laugh with his friends? Did He think hummus tasted better than lamb? Did he think girls were pretty? Did He ever hit his thumb with a hammer? And did he jump up and down in pain, if he ever made such a human gaffe? We have a hard time entertaining such questions because we dare not touch his humanity for the sake of His Divinity.

But here is precisely where the story informs us about ourselves. We can and should identify with Jesus in His humanity because He is what humanity was meant to be. Jesus exemplifies for us what Adam should have been. What does it mean to be human? We need look no further than a general contract worker living on the edges of Empire and the fringes of Ethnic Identity. Whatever we ought to be is provided for us in the the story of a very real human being, in a man who calls us to that same humanity.

In looking for our true humanity, we have become the “Spocks,” looking in on the real human. We have become the “Commander Datas",” wanting to touch, taste, and smell humanity as Jesus tasted it for us. We have become the Darth Vaders, seeing that the power of our dark hearts, enslaved as we once were to our darkness, is weak and lifeless compared with the life we find in the true King, whose slave we have gladly become.

Sin is an intruder on this human story. But sinfulness is not what it means to be truly human. Not because Jesus is God (which is true) but because Jesus was born of a woman, born of a promise. His sinlessness doesn’t make Jesus less human. His sinlessness makes him more human. And He calls us out of our own sin toward this true humanity by the power of the Holy Spirit. Jesus frees us from our sinfulness, not from our humanity.

So Merry Christmas, everyone! The Incarnate God was born in flesh 2,000 years ago. And most amazingly, this Incarnate God—Immanuel—has taught us our humanity best.

Repentance: What’s in a Word?

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We talk a good deal about repentance. It’s in our songs and our Scriptures. It’s the very beginning of our faith: “Repent and believe in the gospel!” Jesus tells us (Mark 1:15). Still, repentance is such a terrible word.

Jesus’s first words in his ministry were likely: “Repent, for the Kingdom of heaven is at hand!” (Matthew 4:17). God through the Prophets calls His people to repent (Ezekiel 14:6). Peter calls for repentance in his first sermon in Jerusalem (Acts 2:38). There’s apparently a great deal of celebration involved in the heavenly places when even one person repents, over the righteous habits of 99 others:

“There will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.” (Luke 15:7)

The glory is in repentance; the tragedy is in the word. Roses may smell sweet by any other name, but we must get words and their meaning right when we speak of God and His Word. We think repentance means “to be sorry” or “to have regret.” And while sorrow is certainly involved, sorrow is not repentance: “for godly sorrow produces repentance that leads to salvation without regret whereas worldly sorrow produces death.” (2 Corinthians 7:10) In other words, we have a sorrow that leads to life, and another sorrow that leads to death. If you miss that point, death is in the error. The rose of true repentance smells of death to some and life to others (2 Corinthians 2:15-16).

When you’re called to repent, you’re not being called to simply grieve about your sin; grief by itself is fruitless and dead. Like Judas, we can be sorry for our sin and never repent. And like Judas, our sorrow, our regret, can lead to our death without true repentance (Matthew 27:3-5). So as Jesus commands us, let’s repent, whatever that means…

What’s in a Word?

The English word “repentance” carries its own problems. We borrow the word from Latin and French, but the English use can be heard in “doing penance.” The Douay-Rheims (1609) shows the translation: “Do penance, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Of course, doing penance is not quite what Jesus had in mind, so long as “doing penance” means performing a Catholic Sacrament. But so also do we have a problem with “being penitent,” so long as by “penitence” we mean “grief” or “sorrow.”

Okay, so we’ve seen just how NOT to understand this word. But what does the word mean? It depends on how we understand the original Greek word: meta-noia (repentance). The word sometimes means “having a change of mind” as we clearly see in places like Jeremiah 8:6 (LXX): “I have paid attention and listened, but they have not spoken rightly; no man relents (metanoeo) of his evil, saying, ‘What have I done?’…”

So in the case above, to “repent” means to “have a change of mind.” The question, “What have I done?” would suggest that one has, indeed, had a change in mind or attitude. But rather than changing their attitudes (that is to say, rather than turning from their sin) God charges that Israel is following their own course. Israel’s hasn’t changed her mind about her sin.

But in other instances, “repent” clearly means “to turn from an action or activity” such as in Hebrews 6:1: “let us leave the elementary doctrine of Christ and go on to maturity, not laying again a foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God.” Clearly, “repentance” must mean “turning from” in this case “turning from dead works” and “turning to God” in faith.

Rightly Dividing a Word

But there’s another problem with our word, namely that we don’t have any good alternative. No word in the English language suggests a change of mind resulting in a change of action. But we must get this right, friends: repentance is a complete change of position from thinking one way, to thinking another way. “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand!” means more than sorrow for your sin, but it certainly doesn’t mean less.

It means a reorientation of our minds. It changes our attitudes about our sin and about our God. And perhaps more fundamentally, repentance moves us to agree with God about our sin. And experientially, repentance moves us from enjoying our sin to enjoying our God, who desires that we find our joy in Him alone. Our hands and feet follow our heart in our repentance.

So repent, dear friend. And take great joy in your deep repentance, knowing the rose of repentance is the fragrance of God’s good pleasure.

A Bit of Poetic Theology

Shane Kraeger.jpg

I know many of us don’t like poetry, much less care to read it. And others of us think of the word “theology” and thank God we’re not called to read such large tomes as Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology or Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics. We’ll leave the former to the romantics among us, and the latter we’ll leave to the brains. The food of those tables is often foreign to our palate.

But I imagine God has called us, if not to feast, at least to taste from those plates from time to time. We’re called to think rightly. And we’re called to adore Him with all our affections.

But it’s a rare thing to see theology and poetry in one place (at least, on its own apart from our putting it to music). Have we parsed out these things too cleanly? Like separating home life and work like, or separating faith and reason, have we separated our intellect from our emotions? Can we imagine God desires reasoning romantics, who want to think clearly so our religious affections are oriented rightly? Or do we keep our compartments clean between our reasoning and our romantic selves, and never the ‘twain shall meet?

So here, friends, is an invitation, where our reason is invited to sit with our romance at the feast of worship, where the ‘twain between Biblical Theology and Poetry are invited to fellowship. It’s a brief story that moves from God’s good creation, to fall, to redemption and restoration. We’ll call it:

The King’s Return: His Story in Ours

Morning dew and evening breeze,
The sigh of wind—sweet zephyr song
As trees in harmony sway ‘long
And He has given us the keys.
Sunrise caught in water drop,
Puts dimples in the perfect pond.
Sweet summer drizzle here and gone,
And we, from dirt to honored top.
His promise rings still in our heads:
“This golden plot is yours—partake!
Save one tree, all is for your sake!”
Sly snake assays his smarts and says:
“Is His promise life, indeed?
Take and eat! Know and see!”
The spotted fruit once spotted shines,
We took to live, now know we die.

Garden to desert; figs to thorns,
Now broken, now twisted, now torn.
His promise faintly dims our eyes:
“Death is one day doomed to die.”
A bit of fruit and nothing less,
We sold our souls for a pound of flesh.

Birthright turned from crown to pence;
Cheap, our prize had cost too much!
Our brothers fierce in anger turned
To put red hands to violence.
Echoes of former Tov M’od
Was strangled by some crouching sin,
Was twisted by our own device,
Still whispered our Creator’s ode.
And He, our Sovereign, enthroned
Great Hesed gave the promised seed,
This theme had stretched the centuries:
“Deliver them who are your own!”

So Israel’s tutor, Pedagogue,
Might lead the nation to the prize.
The laud was ringing loud and long:
“Here His Christ, your Lord, your God!”
But she in blind self-righteousness
Had sold her soul for so much less.

Crown of thorns and garden tomb
Now broken corpse, deserted soul
His promise faintly dims our eyes:
“I am resurrection-life!”
The Son of Man and nothing less,
Redeemed our souls in righteousness.

The Cross: the unexpected means;
The Son of God and promised Christ
Upon the tree he sways and dies;
Once dead now risen owns the keys.
The sunrise on the tomb would bring:
The stone, the cloth, the empty bed,
Proclaims the truth of what he said,
And he, from slave to sovereign King!
His words, they ring still in our head:
“This bread, this cup is mine—partake
Save one race, all is for His sake!
Body, blood, given instead:
This is promised life, indeed
Take and eat! Know and see!”
Spotless bread and spotless wine,
We took to live, and with Him died.

And so our teacher, man-divine
Now leads His people to the prize,
Whose promise resonates our lives:
We, the branch, and He, the Vine.
The Son of God and nothing less,
Now owns our lives for righteousness.

Birthright turned from cross to crown;
Rich, this lavished grace to grace!
Now sends His Spirit, seals His prize,
And makes His name through us renowned.
Hope of future sinless days
Still wrestles with our crouching sin
But promises far better still,
And trumpets our Creator’s praise
So He, our Sovereign, enthroned
Anticipated promise known,
His theme now trumpets through the age:
“Christ our King; I am His own!”

It Takes a Village

—Les Plymale

—Les Plymale


I believe in God, the Father almighty,

creator of heaven and earth.

I believe in Jesus Christ, God's only Son, our Lord,

who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,

born of the Virgin Mary,

suffered under Pontius Pilate,

was crucified, died, and was buried;

he descended to the dead.

On the third day he rose again;

he ascended into heaven,

he is seated at the right hand of the Father,

and he will come to judge the living and the dead.

I believe in the Holy Spirit,

the holy catholic Church,

the communion of saints,

the forgiveness of sins,

the resurrection of the body,

and the life everlasting. Amen.


In our Sunday Morning Men’s Bible Study, we will spend the year looking at other belief systems, specifically to see what the problems are in light of Scripture.  Before launching into this, we spent several Sundays reviewing what we believe. We looked at this, the Nicene Creed, and other creeds, and spent some time discussing them and other published confessions. 

The Apostles’ Creed above is fairly brief and is structured for both congregational reading and recitation, and for personal memorisation.  Whatever your thoughts on including this in our Sunday morning liturgy, I think the repetition and memorisation ultimately can only be a good thing. Rather like a condensing of the catechism… or like a company mission statement and values!

Knowing what we believe is fundamental to all aspects of life.


We sing a hymn here at Grace, The Master Has Come.  It is a Welsh hymn written by Sarah Doudney sung to the Ash Grove tune.  The last verse includes these lines:

“We turn from the world
With its smiles and its scorning
To cast in our lot with the people of God.”

Knowing what we believe is fundamental.  Working out what we believe… well, that takes a village. One such village would definitely be our church family.


Last summer after a week of intensive church-wide ministry, our Wholehearted event, my mind was filled with a lot of thoughts about my church family.  I figured I should write them down. So, I did. And shared my list on my Facebook page.  I include it here:

1) Grown men run across the lawn or any gathering place inside to give each other hugs, often bear hugs preceded with jarring chest bumps.

2) Folks with gardens bring the overflow of their produce to share with anyone, leaving boxes out on the breezeway.

3) We have worship services with some regularity in which the time of testimony sharing ends up replacing the message.

4) Sometimes we laugh during communion.

5) You can see readily how the members use their gifts and abilities for the benefit of the church body.

6) How many folks can say they play Euchre often with their pastor?

7) We have our own rather skilled interior designers who do wonders with paint and accessories! The sanctuary looks great! And the hallway!

8) Folks with chickens bring their surplus eggs to share… It’s been a few months since I have bought eggs.

9) I hear, or read, “I love you” (both directed to me and from one person to another) more than I ever have in my life… as people are departing or during testimony time, at the end of phone calls, and often punctuating a text message.

10) Clearly there is a great level of comfort and support, such that all the introverts feel like they can share with the church body. The extroverts, well, we’re glad you’re a part, too!

11) What’s not to love about having breakfast together every Sunday through the summer? Thanks to all those who labour early in the kitchen to make this happen.

12) Often the process of saying good-bye after a full day takes about an hour.

13) There’s just something about singing together and reading Scripture together.

14) Discipleship and mentoring relationships are such that great friendships develop between people of all ages. I have folks who have taken me on as their son, if you will, and my closest friend is half my age. To me, that is rather a big deal.

15) Often it is quarter to 12 when Dave gets up and asks us if he should go ahead and preach, and we say yes.

16) We take the time to celebrate the significant events in our member's lives.

17) It takes a village... and I think our young folks benefit from ours!

18) People actually want to take the time to build relationships... and that could be through having lunch together, playing Scrabble, playing tennis, serving in some way, etc.

19) A two-year-old expresses to her mother that she misses "my people" and then lists members of another church family... well, that is something.

20) Couples who have been married longer develop relationships with younger married couples... marriage mentoring, I suppose you could call it.

21) We make each other cry... in a good way.

I imagine I could go on for quite some time, but these things were top of mind.  Living in community involves risk, but it is how God works redemption, sanctification in us--and, these things and many others are why being vulnerable, taking that risk, is worth it.


I share this with you here to get you thinking about why you have “cast in [your] lot with the people of God” here at Grace, or in whatever setting that may be--your church family being the obvious first such setting.

The majority of my 21 thoughts about my church family capture a relational aspect.  As you read the Apostles’ Creed, did you notice the relational aspects? If not, read it again!

You are part of other circles than our church, undoubtedly.  Maybe you are part of a sports team, choir, orchestra, reading group… I would encourage you to take some time and reflect on why you are a part.  And, really, it’s worth taking the time to write down your thoughts--in your journal, if you do that. If it is a circle, organization, group with a spiritual purpose, you really should have some strong relational reasons for being a part of it--how else will God work out redemption and sanctification in you?

Slaves of Christ?

Shane Kraeger.jpg

Servant or Slave?

I was asked the other day about the translation of the word doulos in our Greek New Testament. The word is variously translated “slave,” or “servant,” or “bondservant” in our English Bibles. I think this is an important issue to consider, as we so often find it throughout our New Testament. It’s particularly interesting how often and in what ways Paul employs the term. Consider with me how Paul uses it in his letters:

  • “Paul, a doulos of Christ Jesus, called as an apostle, and separated unto the gospel of God…” (Romans 1:1)

  • “…having been set free from sin, you have become enslaved to righteousness.” (Romans 6:18)

  • “for when you were doulos of sin, you were free from righteousness…. But now, having been set free from sin you are enslaved to God…” (Romans 6:20, 22)

  • “For the one who is called as a doulos is the Lord’s freedman. Similarly, the one who is called as a freedman is Christ’s doulos.” (1 Corinthians 7:22)

  • “If I were still trying to please men, I would not be a doulos of Christ.” (Galatians 1:10)

And in a world where we’re mildly embarrassed by the slavery in our American past, now 150 years removed, in Paul’s world it was a ready and vivid metaphor for our relationship to God and His Son. If we’d stumble over it to refer to ourselves as “slaves of Christ,” it was a mark of Paul’s self-identity in a world where two types existed: Romans (or Jews) and everyone else. We know the tragedy of slavery in our history, black-and-white pictures in a book. Paul knew the tragedy of slavery in vivid technicolor. And remarkably, to a people whom he had never even met, to a people who lived in Rome where slaves were the dirt of the world, Paul introduced himself as a “slave of Jesus Christ” before any other moniker. (Romans 1:1)

You see, in our American experience we’re ready to call ourselves “children,” and “sons and daughters,” and “beloved” of God. Perhaps we’ll say we're God’s people, heirs of God’s promises. We might even say we’re servants.

But are we ready to call ourselves slaves of Christ?

And really, what’s the difference and why does it matter? I suggest at least two important issues that our understanding of “slavery to Christ” affects. (1) What does my freedom amount to? And (2) How does this relate to “redemption”?

Freedom from or Freedom to?

In our American Christian experience, we frequently regard our freedom from sin and death. We celebrate our freedom in our songs. We think on it when we receive baptism. We remember it in our Lord’s death at the Lord’s Table. And it’s enculturated in America: if we celebrate nothing else in our country, we certainly celebrate what we call “freedom”.

But for us, we tend to think of freedom in terms of “freedom from.” We’re free from the Law, and thank God. We’re free from sin and death. We’re free from the penalty for our sin. Sometimes this makes us think we’re free from any law, free from anything that smacks of service to another, free from anything other than our heart’s desire. What we call “freedom” in America so often amounts to nothing more than license to apathy.

But that is not the way you learned Christ, assuming that you heard about him and were taught in him, as the truth is in Jesus, to put off your old self, which belongs (is enslaved?) to your former manner of life . . . and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness. (Ephesians 4:20-24)

Yes, Christ did set us free from sin. But all of us, believer and unbeliever, belong to a master. Our “freedom from” one master must mean a service to another:

Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness? (Romans 6:16)

We might be comfortable with being Christ’s servant, but are we privileged to be Christ’s slave? One amounts to keeping some rights for myself. The other amounts to giving all my rights up because someone else has a prior right to my life.

To Whom Do we Belong, Really?

We use the word “redemption” in Christian lingo. We say things like “you were bought with a price” or “Jesus paid it all.” We don’t like hearing things like “you are not your own.” (1 Corinthians 6:20)

Paul begins and ends his letter to the Ephesians with references to this slavery, references to the purchase price of a slave:

“In Him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of His grace, which he lavished upon us, in all wisdom and insight” (Ephesians 1:7) … “Slaves, obey your earthly masters . . . as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from your heart.” (Ephesians 6:6)

We’ve been purchased from slavery. And in one sense, amazingly, God has made this slave a son and heir of His promises (Galatians 4:1-4). But in another sense, we must carefully note that Paul tells us the purchase price of a slave was given for me, the high price of His blood. So this redemption has purchased me, not from slavery to being a freedman, but to give me a Master whose good purposes I can trust, whose discipline isn’t always welcome, but is always wise, and gracious.

Our Lord and Master has truly lavished His grace upon me, a purchased slave of Christ.

I'm indebted to Murray J. Harris, whose book influenced me on this subject years ago, and surely still influences me today. And while I did not consult that work today in this article, the reader certainly hears echoes of his work throughout. I highly commend reading this excellent book.