A Happy Break from Blogging

Dear readers,

I’ll be taking a break from blogging to focus on our new son, Jack Akira Kato. I’m not sure when or if I’ll be back to it; until I write or see you again, I am, as always, yours in Christ,


We May Miss Who We Are in This Story

In Luke 16, Jesus tells a story. Perhaps you’ve heard it before:

There was a rich man who was clothed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate was laid a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who desired to be fed with what fell from the rich man’s table. Moreover, even the dogs came and licked his sores. The poor man died and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried, and in Hades, being in torment, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus at his side. And he called out, “Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am in anguish in this flame.” But Abraham said, “Child, remember that you in your lifetime received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner bad things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in anguish. And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, in order that those who would pass from here to you may not be able, and none may cross from there to us.” And he said, “Then I beg you, father, to send him to my father’s house—for I have five brothers—so that he may warn them, lest they also come into this place of torment.” But Abraham said, “They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.” And he said, “No, father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.” He said to him, “If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.”

-Luke 16:19-31

Do you know who we are in this story? We are not the rich man. We are not Lazarus. We are the brothers: We’re still alive, still able to respond one way or the other. We have Moses and the prophets; we have more than enough to decide to follow God. Poor men lean against our own gates, and we must decide who we will be–like our rich brother, or somehow like the rich man should have been?


Jesus: “Not Against You = For You” or “Not With Me = Against Me”?

This has confused me for a long time. In two stories, only pages apart, Jesus seems to contradict himself. First this happens:

John answered, “Master, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he does not follow with us.” But Jesus said to him, “Do not stop him, for the one who is not against you is for you.”

-Luke 9:49-50

Yet, this happens just two chapters later:

Now he was casting out a demon that was mute. When the demon had gone out, the mute man spoke, and the people marveled. But some of them said, “He casts out demons by Beelzebul, the prince of demons,” while others, to test him, kept seeking from him a sign from heaven. But he, knowing their thoughts, said to them, “Every kingdom divided against itself is laid waste, and a divided household falls. And if Satan also is divided against himself, how will his kingdom stand? For you say that I cast out demons by Beelzebul. And if I cast out demons by Beelzebul, by whom do your sons cast them out? Therefore they will be your judges. But if it is by the finger of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you. When a strong man, fully armed, guards his own palace, his goods are safe; but when one stronger than he attacks him and overcomes him, he takes away his armor in which he trusted and divides his spoil. Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters.

-Luke 11:14-23

So, which is it Jesus? Are those who are not against you with you? Are those not with you against you? The neutral person thought he was neither for nor against Jesus, but Jesus seems to think of him as somehow both for and against. You can see why I’ve been confused.

However, as I was reading chapter 11 this morning, something new became clear: In chapter 9, Jesus is talking to disciples who need to be rebuked for excluding genuine partners, and he rebukes them for excluding genuine partners. In chapter 11, Jesus is talking to opponents who need to be warned that their rejection of him does not go unnoticed, and he warns them that their rejection of him does not go unnoticed.

Because Jesus says both things, we, as Jesus’ followers, shouldn’t choose one to the exclusion of the other as our mantra. We shouldn’t choose the “open” understanding of the Church–the one who is not against you is for you–and forget the latter. We shouldn’t choose the “closed” understanding of the Church–whoever is not with me is against me–and forget the former.

The best we can probably do is remember, on the one hand, that Jesus told the world, “whoever is not with me is against me.” This remains true, soberingly so. On the other hand, we must also remember that Jesus told his disciples (that is, us), “the one who is not against you is for you“–probably because, like John, we are faulty judges of who is for and against Jesus. Jesus himself is a perfect judge of who is for and against him, and it will matter in the end. However: In this age, as we are not, we should err toward generosity (while believing that the truth will be shown in the end), knowing it is not our right or responsibility to make the call today.


What To Do If You Feel Like People Hate You

Do you feel like people out there hate you, or that they would if they knew what you really believe? If you wouldn’t go so far as to say “hate,” do you increasingly feel like many would dislike you and would be happy to spell out a long list of the ways you’re wrong?

I think this has been a new experience for some of us (or taken to a new level) in the wake of 2016 Presidential Election, but this phenomenon of having someone clearly against you–that is, of enmity–is not new. In fact, Jesus knew enmity and had a lot to say about it. He told his disciples:

Blessed are you when people hate you and when they exclude you and revile you and spurn your name as evil, on account of the Son of Man! Rejoice in that day, and leap for joy, for behold, your reward is great in heaven; for so their fathers did to the prophets.

-Luke 6:22-23

Of course, the phrase “on account of the Son of Man” gives us pause, and it should. Sure, there is some talk about how “Evangelical Christians” are ruining this country (considering myself an Evangelical Christian, that is indeed one of the things stressing me out). However, the political animosity in our country is more complex than that: Most of the hatred is not about people who are not Christians hating Christians for being Christians. It’s not as clearly religious as it is in some countries. Many conservatives are angry with many liberals for their politically liberal attempt to follow the Son of Man (Jesus) and many liberals are angry with many conservatives for their politically conservative attempt to follow the Son of Man. It’s complex.

Luke 6 doesn’t tell us who’s right. It also doesn’t suggest that no one is right and no one is wrong. However, if you (yes, you) are convinced that you’re following Jesus rightly and reviled for the ways in which you’re following Jesus rightly, then if you’re right the reviling is not a sign that you’re wrong. In fact, people reviled God’s prophets. There may well be a reward piling up for you in heaven.

Yet, having affirmed that his hearers may well be on the right side of the thing, Jesus goes on to say this about those who are on the wrong side:

But I say to you who hear, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.

-Luke 6:25

Far from legitimating haughtiness, Jesus tells us that the measure of being right is to follow him, and that if we follow him we will love those who are wrong.

I had to think about that for a moment this morning. Before reading this passage, I had complained to God that I knew some people who seemed to simply not like me, to like me less than ever. I wasn’t sure what to do about this. Should I try to keep those relationships alive? Should I let them concern me? I believe God answered me through Luke 6.

Jesus takes this one step further in the next section of his sermon. Here’s where he gets really practical, giving us something we can do despite enmity, right now:

Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, “Brother, let me take out the speck that is in your eye,” when you yourself do not see the log that is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take out the speck that is in your brother’s eye.

-Luke 6:41-42

In our rush to pull apart the others’ arguments, have we hit the snooze button on confession? I worry we’ve forgotten that no matter how flawed our enemies may be, we ourselves have urgent flaws that are preventing us from being who God wants us to be. Whatever my enemy may have in his eye, I can’t deny, before God, that I have a log in mine.

The world’s priorities, in times of enmity, go like this:

  1. Try to get my way
  2. If I can’t get my way, at least convince people I’m right
  3. If I can’t convince people, at least convince myself that I’m right

Jesus’ priorities, in this passage, are 180 degrees different:

  1. Follow the Son of Man
  2. When that leads to enmity, love my enemies
  3. When I can’t actively love my enemies (e.g., bedtime, breakfast), search for where I’m wrong

As long as we set out to convince ourselves and others and society that we’re right, people will probably hate us for a mixture of bad and good reason. It won’t all be on account of the Son of Man, a good deal of it will be on account of our error and arrogance.

We can start to fix that if we start at the bottom: We must constantly search out where we’re wrong. We must patiently love our enemies. The more we do that, the more we will be following the Son of Man, and the more of our opposition will be on account of him. Then, even when we are counted enemies, we will be counted as Christ’s friends; then, if we receive the crucified one’s “reward” in the world, we can also hope for his reward before the Father.

A Sermon Requires Several Miracles

Have you ever considered how many miracles have to happen for a sermon to succeed?

In some schoolwork today, a homiletician I’d never heard of (John Edwards, a not-related influence on Jonathan Edwards) added to my understanding of one of my favorite verses:

What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth.

-1 Corinthians 3:5-6

Reflecting on this verse, John Edwards underscores the countless things we must pray for when preparing to preach, recognizing that neither the preacher nor the hearers can do their jobs by human ability alone:

Therefore a man should never undertake the preaching work, but he should before it offer up a prayer, that God would direct and assist his thoughts, meditations, and studies, for the instruction and salvation of men’s souls. And he should beg the heavenly assistance not only for himself, but for his hearers. It was St. Paul’s constant practice (as we read) to pray for his flock: and the same is required of every good pastor, he must put up ardent addresses to heaven, that God would vouchsafe to enlighten their minds and affect their consciences by the preaching of the word; that whatever wholesome instructions he shall be enabled to deliver to them, may be faithfully retained in their memories, and conscientiously practiced in their lives and that the whole flock may be doers of the word, and not hearers only.

-John Edwards, The Preacher (2nd ed.), p.162

How many miracles does it take to preach a sermon? The preacher needs enlightenment. The hearers need enlightenment. Everyone needs help remembering. Everyone needs help putting it into practice. Considering how many individual lives make up “everyone”… it takes quite a few.

Yet, God does give the growth. Week after week, in so many thousands of gatherings all around the world, God performs miracles by His Word, using His Spirit to even work through fallible, human preachers and hearers to build up His body, for the sake of His name. To God be the credit, the glory, the praise.

Why We Must Remember “Heaven is a World of Love”

The “church-camp-high” of the recent Awakening had faded. Pettiness was cropping up again in town. Corrosive greed and damaging indulgence were pulling people away from one another and away from God. What would the pastor, Jonathan Edwards, preach in such disappointing times? First Corinthians 13, the chapter on love. Such is the setting of his fifteenth sermon in the series, “Heaven is a World of Love.”

Edwards takes as his text 1 Corinthians 13:8-10,

Love never ends. As for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away.

-1 Corinthians 13:8-10

From this text, the big idea of his sermon is simply, “Heaven is a world of love.” What does this mean? It means that where God is, God’s nature soaks everything around, that where God most is, God’s nature most prevails. As Edwards says,

There this glorious God is manifested and shines forth in full glory, in beams of love; there the fountain overflows in streams and rivers of love and delight, enough for all to drink at, and to swim in, yea, so as to overflow the world as it were with a deluge of love (370).

Such a love is the end of pride, for consider the state of the mighty there:

…their superior humility is part of their superior holiness. Though all are perfectly free from pride, yet as some will have greater degrees of divine knowledge than others, will have larger capacities to see more of the divine perfections, so they will see more of their own comparative littleness and nothingness, and therefore will be lowest based in humility….They will love those who are below them more than other saints of less capacity. They who are in highest degrees of glory will be of largest capacity, and so of greatest knowledge, and will see most of God’s loveliness, and consequently will have love to God and love to saints most abounding in their hearts (376).

Oh, what a world that will be, with

…none envying another, but everyone resting and rejoicing in the happiness of every other (385).

Granted the greatness of that day, why dedicate time to remember it today? Edwards goes on in his “Application” section to say,

…what we have heard of the happy state of that country and the many delights which are in it [is] enough to make us thirst after it, and to cause us with the greatest earnestness and steadfastness of resolution to press towards, and to spend our whole lives in traveling in the way which leads thither (393).

This is the truth of the matter: If we have seen the glory of the God who is love and tasted the promise of His unmitigated reign, we will even now set our faces toward that country. We will today set out on the path paved with the same bricks as those blessed streets: Faith, hope, and love. Admittedly,

That glorious city of light and love is, as it were, on the top of an high hill, an elevation which is exalted above the hill, and there is no arriving there without traveling uphill. Though this be wearisome, yet it is worth your while to come and dwell in such a glorious city at last (395).

Edwards concludes,

By living a life of love, you will be in the way to heaven. As heaven is a world of love, so the way to heaven is the way of love. This will best prepare you for heaven, and make you meet for an inheritance with the saints in that land of light and love. And if ever you arrive at heaven, faith and love must be the wings which must carry you there (396-397).

Jonathan Edwards, “Heaven is a World of Love” in Ethical Writings (ed. Paul Ramsey; New Haven and London: Yale, 1989): 366-397.

We Are Not Made of Steel

Society often pressures us to “grin and bear it,” “weather the storm,” to “fake it till you make it.” In John Calvin’s words, we’re expected to me “men of steel, an anvil, so to speak, on which the hammer could make no impression.” But he also says this is a pure fantasy:

When those philosophers who valued virtue above all else sought to prove that affliction did not make men miserable, they had to invent a man of steel, an anvil, so to speak, on which the hammer could make no impression. Ultimately, of course, that was mere fantasy, pure folly on their part. Even supposing men were found who could put on a brave show in public, and pass for valiant and steadfast individuals, the fact is that inwardly they seethed because they were rebels against God. They reasoned from first principles: “I am indeed a mortal man. I must bear all things with patience. I have no choice. I must comply.” (They take necessity, you see, as their guiding rule.) “What would be the point of resisting? I must accept what I cannot avoid.” That, I say, is what they call patience: it is nothing but a form of anger, since they are in rebellion against God.

-John Calvin, “The Broken Blessed” in Sermons on the Beatitudes (Banner of Truth, 2007), pp.25-26.

Calvin believes that we are called to a different resolution in the text for this sermon, Matthew 5:3-4:

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for the kingdom of heaven is theirs.
Blessed are those who grieve, for they will be comforted.

-Matthew 5:3-4

He recognizes in this text a future promise that can make all the difference. He explains,

Our Lord Jesus Christ, by contrast, does not lead us off into speculative byways which have no practical effect. He sets us on a firm foundation, so that, as long as we rest upon it, we will not be moved. And however many storms and winds arise, and however much heaven and earth are mixed and muddled, our happiness is always secure as long as we look to the kingdom of heaven.
So this is what the passage teaches: in order to taste the blessedness of which God’s Son speaks, we must learn first that this world is a pathway to something else; it is not a place where we are to rest or where real life is to be found; we must press further on and lift up our eyes to the heavenly inheritance.

-Calvin, ibid.

My only qualm with Calvin’s conclusion is that I’m not sure we must go to heaven to receive our heavenly inheritance. Some have. However, on that great day of resurrection, they, and our heavenly inheritance, and our heavenly Lord will come here with all their transforming power.

The “man of steel” myth is false patience; in fact, it is merely despair. Those who are in Christ are invited to real patience, to hope in what we do not yet see: Real change, a time when tears will be out of place and death will be no more. We are called to more than grit; we are called to hope. Thankfully, in Jesus Christ, God says “yes!” to all the promises we need.

Pitted Against Fellow Followers of God

A couple years ago, a dear friend and I were interested in the same scholarship, a major scholarship that would send only one of us to Europe for a year. The situation unavoidably pitted us against one another. If only one of us could be a year ahead or behind, we thought, we could cheer for one another without reservation!

I recently talked with a friend who found herself in a similar situation, and it was hard to figure out what encouragement I could offer, since the zero-sum set-up begged to beget bitterness. Championship games, job applications, and family rivalries all tempt us to make enemies of those who were once friends.

This situation appears to be timeless, seeing as David and Jonathan find themselves in roughly the same circumstances in 1 Samuel 20. Jonathan is next in line to be king after his father Saul, but the prophet Samuel has anointed David for the very same role. In a Harry-Potter-esque turn of fate, it seemed that “neither could reign while the other survived.” Jonathan’s father, Saul, had no reservations about these implications; not liking David anyway, he sought to kill him so that he and Jonathan and their sons after them could stay on the throne.

Jonathan, on the other hand, despite the fact that everyone knew that David was his competition, also treasured David as his dearest friend. Not knowing what it might mean for his own life, he set up a plan to whisk David out of town, saving him from his father’s murderous anger.  Saul, suspecting something is afoot, berates Jonathan for this pity, saying,

“You son of a perverse, rebellious woman, do I not know that you have chosen the son of Jesse to your own shame, and to the shame of your mother’s nakedness? For as long as the son of Jesse lives on the earth, neither you nor your kingdom shall be established. Therefore send and bring him to me, for he shall surely die.” Then Jonathan answered Saul his father, “Why should he be put to death? What has he done?” But Saul hurled his spear at him to strike him. So Jonathan knew that his father was determined to put David to death.

-1 Samuel 20:30-33

The next morning, Jonathan sneaks away to warn David and help him escape the city. They had a subtle secret symbol arranged, but they both lose their cool at the prospect of parting, facing the kind of indefinite goodbye that dear friends despise:

And they kissed one another and wept with one another, David weeping the most. Then Jonathan said to David, “Go in peace, because we have sworn both of us in the name of the Lord, saying, ‘The Lord shall be between me and you, and between my offspring and your offspring, forever.’ ” And he rose and departed, and Jonathan went into the city

-1 Samuel 20:41-42

David and Jonathan don’t by any means solve the situation. In fact, one does die before the other reigns. Yet, they refuse to kill, even to hate, even to cease loving one another. They swear to each other, “The Lord shall be between me and you,” and they entrust the deadly circumstances to the Lord’s wise plan.

In the same way, the competitive situations forced upon us may not arrive at a miraculous win-win solution. When we end up pitted against those we love, one will very likely win and the other lose, one succeed and the other fail. Yet, as long as that’s the case, why not have the Lord between us before, during, and after whatever occurs?

As it turns out, my friend got the scholarship. However, I was prepared to be less jealous than I would typically be because someone realized, early on, that we could talk honestly, pray together, and hope the best for the other, not knowing or understanding the outcome, because the Lord was between us. Our Lord is wise enough to know the best outcome, powerful enough to bring it about, and loving enough to perfectly shepherd each of us through the implications. Thus, whatever it might have looked like to the surrounding world, we didn’t need to treat one another or think of one another as enemies. Only one would get what we had each envisioned, but both would win if both were on the same side because both had the same Lord and that Lord can never be surprised or stopped.

When circumstances pit us against one another, God’s people can nonetheless say (in a way the world cannot), “Go in peace.” We know that the Lord between us will work all things together for good for those who love Him and are called according to His purpose. No matter who “wins” in the little things, our God reigns over all, so even when it feels like “we are being killed all the day long,” we are all “more than conquerors though him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Marriage is a Miracle

I recently got to say, for the first time, “I pronounce you husband and wife. As Jesus said, ‘What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.’” That was a heart pounding privilege, responsibility, and joy.

The last sentence of the pronouncement comes from Mark 10:9, and I thought about it throughout the week leading up to the ceremony. The groom had proposed. The bride had planned the wedding. The coordinator had run the morning. The guests had arrived to celebrate. The caterers were setting out the buffet. The attendants were ready to sign the license. In fact, I was the one about to say, “I pronounce you husband and wife;” yet, Jesus said, “What God has joined together, let not man separate.”

The passage reminded me that though a lot of human actions make up a wedding, God is the one who makes a marriage. Two individuals walk down the aisle, but one couple walks back up, not solely because of their vows or the witnesses’ presence or my pronouncement but because God has made two into one.

This should humble us before we take marriage too lightly, those of us who are single, those of us who are married, those of us who have been married. However, it should also encourage us, because God joins two together. The same miraculous power that forms a marriage can keep and renew it, too.

There is a God, and He is here. He is really at work, and He really does delight to work through people’s actions that align with his will, including his commandments. For example, “let us love one another, for love is from God.” The same God who made the marriages we’re in and surrounded by can resurrect and refresh them. After all, he takes our human words in a wedding and makes a marriage. He can take our human attempts at love and make a marriage that pleases and honors Him.

Addressing The World’s Overwhelming Need

The world’s need often seems overwhelming, especially given God’s command—in the Old Testament, on Jesus’ lips, through the apostles—to “love your neighbor.” In a globalized society, it feels like we have too many neighbors to love. Consider this passage from James:

If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.

-James 2:15-17

What if they show up in our inbox or at our church? What if they we drive by 5 people saying “anything helps” on our daily commute? We could end up with more brothers and sisters in need than we have hours or dollars. Reading Augustine for class this week, I was reminded that this concern is not unique to the 21st century. He reflects,

Further, all men are to be loved equally. But since you cannot do good to all, you are to pay special regard to those who, by the accidents of time, or place, or circumstance, are brought into closer connection with you. For, suppose that you had a great deal of some commodity, and felt bound to give it away to somebody who had none, and that it could not be given to more than one person; if two persons presented themselves, neither of whom had either from need or relationship a greater claim upon you than the other, you could do nothing fairer than choose by lot to which you would give what could not be given to both. Just so among men: since you cannot consult for the good of them all, you must take the matter as decided for you by a sort of lot, according as each man happens for the time being to be more closely connected with you.

-Augustine, De Doctrina Christiana, 1.28.29

This isn’t to say that we should put hard, geographical limits on our giving or hone down our donations to a rigid set of bylaws. In fact, this suggestion from Augustine is pushing us toward, not from, compassion—it’s encouraging us to see those God puts in our path and to allow our hearts to be moved.

Perhaps the sheer scope of need has hardened your heart; it regularly hardens mine. Consider repentance, turn to God in prayer. After all, these aren’t actually “accidents of time, or place, or circumstance” in the way we use the word today, they are God’s orchestrations, and you may be God’s means of caring for the people you meet.

Whom has God put close to you? Is there a family member for whom you need to muster a new measure of patience and support? Perhaps you have an acquaintance to whom God has sent you to become a generous friend. Maybe one of those you regularly see in need can become a person you love and know. After all, living faith comes with works—none of us will solve the world’s problems on our own, but we can do the work of God where God has put us.