Thursday, February 27, 2020

The Playfulness of God

About 20 years ago I was speaking with a close friend and expressed my secret hope to see the Savior in this life. The friend I was speaking with was surprised at the desire of my heart and began to tell me why that wouldn't be possible. They told me a personal story of having seen an artists depiction of Christ that was so incredibly realistic to them that when they gazed upon His face, they became sickened at their own unworthy state and had to leave the room where the art was displayed. I remember my mind shifting that day as I contemplated what sort of being Jesus must be. I concluded that I must have got Him wrong.

Unlearning what I got wrong about Jesus has been the greatest journey of my LIFE. If you can relate to the possibility that you may know about Jesus, you may worship Jesus...but you don't actually know Jesus, journey on. 




The Playfulness of God

This adventure takes place a week or so after Jesus saunters out of the tomb he borrowed. The apostle John, one of Jesus’ closest friends, recounts it:
Afterward Jesus appeared again to his disciples, by the Sea of Tiberias. It happened this way: Simon Peter, Thomas (called Didymus), Nathanael from Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two other disciples were together. “I’m going out to fish,” Simon Peter told them, and they said, “We’ll go with you.” So they went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing. 
Early in the morning, Jesus stood on the shore, but the disciples did not realize that it was Jesus. He called out to them, “Friends, haven’t you any fish?” “No,” they answered. He said, “Throw your net on the right side of the boat and you will find some.” When they did, they were unable to haul the net in because of the large number of fish. 
Then the disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” As soon as Simon Peter heard him say, “It is the Lord,” he wrapped his outer garment around him (for he had taken it off) and jumped into the water. The other disciples followed in the boat, towing the net full of fish, for they were not far from shore, about a hundred yards. When they landed, they saw a fire of burning coals there with fish on it, and some bread. 
Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish you have just caught.” Simon Peter climbed aboard and dragged the net ashore. It was full of large fish, 153, but even with so many the net was not torn. Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” (John 21:1–12)
So many things are delicious about this story it’s hard to know where to dive in. 

First, the boys have gone fishing. Can you blame them? The events of the past two weeks have been, to say the least, overwhelming. The emotional high of the triumphal entry—palm branches waving, crowds shouting “Hosanna!”—it all crashed lower than anyone thought possible. Their beloved Jesus was tortured, executed, entombed. But then—fantastic beyond imagining—he appeared to them alive again. Twice. Though at this moment, they’re not sure where he has gone off to. Not really sure what to do next, unable to endure one more agonizing moment waiting around the house, they do what any self-respecting angler who needs to get out and clear his head does— they go fishing. Apparently, fishing naked or darn close to it—notice that Peter needed to put his clothes back on.

Notice how casually Jesus enters the scene. His best friends don’t even know its him. This is the resurrected Lord, mind you. Ruler of the heavens and the earth. Think Mount of Transfiguration. Jesus could have announced his risen presence on the beach with radiant glory. He knows there is nothing in the world that would help his mates more than to see him again. He certainly could have shouted in his commanding way, “It is I, the Lord! Come thou unto me!” He doesn’t. He does the opposite—he “hides” himself a bit longer to let this play out. He simply stands on the shore, hands in his pockets like a tourist, and asks the question curious passersby always do of fishermen: “Catch anything?”

The nonchalance of the risen Christ here is absolutely intriguing. Whatever Jesus is up to, the moment is loaded for his next move.

Now, two more things are needed to set the stage properly.

First, what would you guess Jesus’ mood is this particular morning? Surely he must be happy. The man has conquered death, ransomed mankind, been restored to his Father, his friends, and the world he made. Forever. He is in the afterglow of the greatest triumph of the greatest battle in the history of the cosmos. I’m going to venture that he is one mighty happy man. But not the fellas—up all night, nothing to show for it, bleary, half dead at the oars while the boat rocks back and forth, back and forth. They could use some cheering up.

Last, how did these—his closest brothers—first encounter Jesus? It was right here, along the shore of this lake. Possibly this very spot, knowing how fishermen tend to keep their boat near a favorite hole. That first compelling encounter also involved the fellas skunked after a night of fishing. It, too, began with a seemingly random instruction:
“Put out into deep water, and let down the nets for a catch.” . . . When they had done so, they caught such a large number of fish that their nets began to break. So they signaled their partners in the other boat to come and help them, and they came and filled both boats so full that they began to sink. . . . So they pulled their boats up on shore, left everything and followed him. (Luke 5:4, 6–7, 11)
So, this has happened before.

That first miraculous catch—nets bursting, boats swamping—it must have felt 
like ages ago, after all that has unfolded. Or unraveled, depending on your point of view. But it was their story, the way they got pulled into this whole adventure. Most Christians can tell you in detail how they met Jesus, especially if it was a dramatic encounter. That payload was a story this inner circle no doubt talked about many times after, as guys will do, as fishermen will especially do. Sitting around their nightly fire, somebody brings it up with a smirk: “Peter, the look on your face was priceless,” then, imitating Peter’s reaction, “‘Go away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man,’” and they all fall to cracking up about it again. (Luke 5:8)

My buddies and I used to make an annual fishing trip to the eastern Sierra Nevada. Though our catches might not have been miraculous, we did haul in a scandalous load of fish, and in classic man fashion—campfires, canned beans, no showers. Except one year, we brought a guy named Bill who would take an hour every morning in camp to primp and preen and even put on cologne. We’d be in the car, laying on the horn, while Bill combed gel into his hair. Years after we’d rib him for it. All anyone needed to do was start the story with “Remember how Bill . . . ,” and sombody’d laugh, snort coffee through their nose, and the whole gang would be gasping for air again.

So here the famous disciples are, three years later. They’ve pulled another all- nighter. Off that same beach. The boys are skunked again. And Jesus does it again.

“Try the other side.” Again the nets are bursting. It’s how he lets them know it’s him. This has all the wink of an inside joke, that rich treasure of friendship, the running gag between mates where over time all you need to do is start the first line and everyone cracks up all over again. “Try the other side.” Another jackpot. Just like the good old days. Nothing more needs to be said—Peter is already in the water thrashing for shore.

Do you see the playfulness of Jesus?

His timing, the tension, his hiddenness, a touristlike question, the same lame suggestion from somebody they think knows nothing about fishing, then bang!—the catch. And the boys are hooked again. This is a beautiful story, made so much richer because of the playfulness of Jesus.

And by the way, that little detail John tosses in—that the catch was 153 fish, precisely—that, too, is a beautiful touch.

The net contained not “a boatload” of fish, nor “about a hundred and a half,” nor “over a gross,” but precisely “an hundred and fifty and three.” This is, it seems to me, one of the most remarkable statistics ever computed. Consider the circumstances: this is after the crucifixion and the resurrection; Jesus is standing on the beach newly risen from the dead, and it is only the third time the disciples have seen him since the nightmare of Calvary. And yet we learn that in the net there were . . . “an hundred and fifty and three.” How was this digit discovered? Mustn’t it have happened thus: upon hauling the net to shore, the disciples squatted down by that immense, writhing fish pile and started tossing them into a second pile, painstakingly counting “one, two, three, four, five, six, seven . . .” all the way up to an hundred and fifty and three, while the newly risen Lord of Creation, the Sustainer of their beings, He who died for them and for Whom they would gladly die, stood waiting, ignored, till the heap of fish was quantified. (David Duncan, The River Why, p. 14-15)

Or, it might have gone like this: These retired fishermen, overcome with the joy of seeing Jesus, leave the writhing pile where it is, fully intending to get to it right after breakfast. Having had the cookout—which Jesus grilled, by the way—one of them says, “Well, we oughta get that catch counted up,” and a second says, “Yep,” and Jesus, reaching for a last bite of roasted tilapia, says, “There’s a hundred and fifty-three.”

The boys smile at one another, realizing, Oh yeah, right—we’ve got Jesus back.

Any way you look at it, it is a beautiful story. Playful, funny, so human, so hopeful, so unreligious. And it is that particular quality that gives the passage its true character and gives us an essential for knowing Jesus as he really is. The man is not religious. If he were, the story would have taken place in a religious setting—the temple, perhaps, or at least a synagogue—and Jesus would have gathered them for a Bible study or prayer meeting. Jesus doesn’t even show up at the temple after his resurrection. He’s at the beach, catching his boys fishing, filling their empty nets and then having them to breakfast.

Now—why does this interpretation of the passage both relieve and trouble?

The relief comes in like a sea breeze on a muggy summer day suffocating with the smell of mud and dead fish. Because it is an answer to a question we didn’t dare ask— that God himself knows how and when to be playful. With us. It’s like a breath of fresh air.

But many readers are at the same time troubled because it also sounds a little irreverent. Which brings me to my second point.

Jesus healed a man on a Sabbath. That pushed his enemies over the top. They decided to kill him. The account takes place early in the Gospel of Mark:
Another time he went into the synagogue, and a man with a shriveled hand was there. Some of them were looking for a reason to accuse Jesus, so they watched him closely to see if he would heal him on the Sabbath. Jesus said to the man with the shriveled hand, “Stand up in front of everyone.” Then Jesus asked them, “Which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?” But they remained silent. He looked around at them in anger and, deeply distressed at their stubborn hearts, said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and his hand was completely restored. Then the Pharisees went out and began to plot with the Herodians how they might kill Jesus. (3:1–6)
Really. Because he healed a man on the Sabbath? What do we have here?

After all the nonsense that is repeated about Jesus being a gentle peacemaker, 
reading the Gospels is really quite a shock. We discover a Jesus who is in fact frequently embroiled in conflict—most of which he provokes himself (like healing on the Sabbath). And every single one of these clashes is with very religious people. Not one hostile encounter involves a “pagan.” Not until the end, at least, when the Roman troopers get hold of him—but he was handed over by the religious establishment.

If you were reading the Gospels without bias or assumption, you would have no trouble whatsoever coming to believe that religion was the enemy—or in the hands of the enemy. Jesus’ opponents are all people we would consider to be highly invested in doing religion right. They certainly considered themselves to be so.

You will want to keep this in mind if you would know Jesus, really.

For to come to know Jesus intimately, as he is, as he wants to be known, is to release a redemptive landslide in your life. There will be no stopping the goodness. The first purpose of your existence will be resolved, and from there you are set to fulfill all of God’s other purposes for you. Now—do you really think that the enemy of our souls, the Enemy of Jesus Christ, is simply going to let that happen? Satan is far too subtle to rely on persecution alone. His most masterful works are of deception (ask Adam and Eve about this when you see them). So the Deceiver deceives by means of distortion, and his favorite tool is to present a distorted Christ. Not so blatant as a bad fish, but through the respectable channels of religion.

Consider this one piece of evidence: millions of people who have spent years attending church, and yet they don’t know God. Their heads are filled with stuffing about Jesus, but they do not experience him, not as the boys did on the beach. There are millions more who love Jesus Christ but experience him only occasionally, more often stumbling along short of the life he promised, like Lazarus still wrapped in his graveclothes.

Can anything be more diabolical?

If you sent someone you loved to school for a decade, yet they remained illiterate, how would you feel about the education? If you referred someone you loved to a doctor, yet despite years of treatment they not only failed to recover from their cancer but contracted AIDS, hepatitis, and gangrene, what would you have to conclude about the treatment?

I am not making accusations; I am stating facts.

Jesus healed a man on the Sabbath. His enemies decided to kill him. Do you really think that’s over?! Why would that have ended with the time of Christ? Really now—it would be just a little arrogant for us to assume we could not fall under the same religious haze.

Thus George MacDonald, that old Scottish prophet, asks, “How have we learned Christ? It ought to be a startling thought, that we may have learned him wrong.” It is a startling thought. “That must be far worse than not to have learned him at all: his place is occupied by a false Christ, hard to exorcise!” Hard to exorcise, indeed, because religion gives the impression of having Christ, while it inoculates you from experiencing the real thing. Most wicked. If you want to destroy an economy, flood the market with counterfeit bills.

So the apostle John gives a last word of warning:
Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world. This is how you can recognize the Spirit of God: Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, but every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you have heard is coming and even now is already in the world. . . . This is how we recognize the Spirit of truth and the spirit of falsehood. (1 John 4:1–3, 6)
A mighty important caution. But I’m afraid we read it with the same attention we give to the average preflight safety demonstration: “In the event of a water landing . . .” So, let’s take it piece by piece. John says there is a Spirit of truth (that would be the Holy Spirit) and a spirit of falsehood (which he calls the spirit of the antichrist). He laments that many deceivers have infiltrated our world, animated by this spirit of falsehood. A sobering picture. He urges us to pay close attention, because that spirit works by presenting distorted images of Jesus.

Now—if John didn’t think you could fall prey to it, he wouldn’t have warned you about it. Before the ink was dry on the Gospels, the young church was swimming in this stuff.

Let me make this perfectly clear—the spirit of falsehood is often a very religious spirit. How else would it sell its deceptions? Over the past two thousand years, it has flooded the church with counterfeit currency. I’m not talking about only the blatant stuff—the Inquisition, witch trials, televangelists. Such repugnance does cause the world to turn away in disgust. A very effective technique. But while those forgeries have become obvious to us, consider—they were very convincing at the time.

For the religious spirit is like the flu—it is constantly adapting to the environment. It would be hard to hold a witch trial in our day. So what might it be in our time? Last week a friend heard his pastor say, “You can’t know Jesus like you know your friends. He is altogether different from us.” Blasphemy. You can know Jesus just as intimately as his first disciples did. Maybe more so. Jesus came to be known, for heaven’s sake, came to make God known to us:
In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son. . . . The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being. (Hebrews 1:1–3)
Jesus came to reveal God to us. He is the defining word on God—on what the heart of God is truly like, on what God is up to in the world, and on what God is up to in your life. An intimate encounter with Jesus is the most transforming experience of human existence. To know him as he is, is to come home. To have his life, joy, love, and presence cannot be compared. A true knowledge of Jesus is our greatest need and our greatest happiness. To be mistaken about him is the saddest mistake of all.

Now—he didn’t go to the lengths of the incarnation to then hide from us for the next two thousand years.

There is a popular “Let’s get real and authentic” teaching that hopes to help us with our struggles by making it all right that God is distant, that we must struggle on with only a few whispers from him. And while that is comforting—sort of—does it really bring people to a regular experience of Jesus? That’s what Christianity is supposed to do. 
From the very first day, we were there, taking it all in—we heard it with our own ears, saw it with our own eyes, verified it with our own hands. The Word of Life appeared right before our eyes; we saw it happen! And now we’re telling you in most sober prose that what we witnessed was, incredibly, this: The infinite Life of God himself took shape before us. We saw it, we heard it, and now we’re telling you so you can experience it along with us, this experience of communion with the Father and his Son, Jesus Christ. (1 John 1:1–3 The Message)
The records of Christ are written so you can experience him as they did, this intimate connection with the Father and the Son. John says that you can enjoy the same friendship with Jesus that he knew. For this Jesus came.

So, if you do not know Jesus as a person, know his remarkable personality— playful, cunning, fierce, impatient with all that is religious, kind, creative, irreverent, funny—you have been cheated.

If you do not experience Jesus intimately, daily, in these very ways, if you do not know the comfort of his actual presence, do not hear his voice speaking to you personally—you have been robbed.

If you do not know the power of his indwelling life in you, shaping your personality, healing your brokenness, enabling you to live as he did—you have been plundered.

This is why we pray,

Jesus, show me who you really are. I pray for the true you. I want the real you. I ask you for you. Spirit of God, free me in every way to know Jesus as he really is. Open my eyes to see him. Deliver me from everything false about Jesus and bring me what is true.

Tuesday, February 25, 2020

The Missing Essential - His Personality

I have had multiple conversations with friends and people I adore over the last year. Each person had their own heartache that I longed to remove for them. But I know I can't, so I would ask them: "Have you given this to Jesus? Have you surrendered your life to Him in prayer?" The response to my questions have been surprisingly the same, "I don't feel like I can do that." 

As I have pondered on why...what would stop someone from giving their life totally over to the Lord? The answer became clear:

They don't know Jesus. 

They worship Him, they know about Him, but they don't know Him.

I know...because that had also been my story.

Years ago I was reading the scriptures and praying. I was trying to understand why God appeared to be so conflicting sometimes. I prayed and said to Him, "Lord, you are confusing." I heard a clear and totally unexpected response: "That is because you judge Me. You judge Me based on your perceptions of Me. Your perceptions come from listening to others construction of who they believe I am and from your life's perspective which alters your ability to see Me clearly. Ask Me to teach you about Me. Ask Me to show you who I AM."

Mosiah 5: 
13 For how knoweth a man the master whom he has not served, and who is a stranger unto him, and is far from the thoughts and intents of his heart? 
3 Nephi 14: 
21 Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heave; but he that doeth the will of my Father who is in heaven. 
22 Many will say to me in that day: Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name, and in thy name have cast out devils, and in thy name done many wonderful works? 
23 And then will I profess unto them: I never knew you; departfrom me, ye that work iniquity.
For the remainder of this post I am going to share an excerpt from a book I love by a Christian author. I'll tell you the book title later, for now, just consider this authors point of view:


Email and texting have gotten me into a lot of trouble.

The reason is simple - those who receive my electronic missives cannot hear my tone of voice or see the expression on my face as they interpret my words. A very dangerous vacuum. Disembodied words have a way of being haunted. Too many times I've sent along something intended as playful, but without that twinkle in my eye or the slight grin on my face so essential to understanding my intentions, the reader has taken the playful comment seriously and been hurt by it. Sometimes I have intended a word of correction - but it was dashed off in a hurry, and again, without the smile and reassuring tone of voice so essential to convey my heart, the message came across as harsh. 

This is the vacuum many of us bring to the four Gospels. 

Without Jesus' tone of voice, what was in his eyes, the lift of an eyebrow, a suppressed smile, a tilt of the head, an unflinching gaze, we misinterpret a great deal of what we find there. Reading the Gospels without the personality of Jesus is like watching television with the sound turned off. You get a very dry, two-dimensional person doing strange, undecipherable things. 

What comes to mind when you think of Jesus? It might be good to stop and do an inventory. Is Jesus near - or far? Is he close at hand, right here at your elbow, or distant and engaged in loftier things? Does he have a sense of humor? What words would you use to describe him? If you gathered the many books on Jesus and combed them for the words used most often to describe him, you can guess beforehand what you would get: loving and compassionate.

Beautiful qualities are certainly true of Jesus. But two-dimensional. Especially when we color these virtues with religious tones. Love turns sickly sweet and compassion soft and limp. How is it possible to genuinely and consistently love anything so two-dimensional? Loving and compassionate - it's like trying to love a get-well card.

Personality is what makes someone someone.

You simply cannot love Lincoln or Charlemagne like you love your closest and dearest friend. Though historic figures may be admirable, you cannot love them because you do not know them. They are far too removed from your personal experience to win or sustain your true love. Actual experiences of their personalities is something no one ever really gets. But when it comes to friends, family, lovers, we love them because of who they are -- because of their personality. My goodness, we love our pets because of their personalities!

Last May I had the opportunity, while in London, to visit the National Gallery. Loving art, and being with two of my sons -- one of whom is an art major -- I was excited to spend hours there. I loved the Van Gogh, the Monet, the Rembrandt paintings and more. But there was one massive disappointment. No, it was more than disappointment. Massive frustration. I did not see one portrait of Christ, in all the famous works of him, that came anywhere close to depicting Jesus as he really is. Not one. They are all of a wispy, pale Jesus, looking haunted, a ghostlike figure floating along through life making strange gestures and undecipherable statements. 

The Nativity scenes were particularly ridiculous. The classic art depicting the infant - themes now repeated on Christmas cards and in the creche scenes displayed in churches and on suburban coffee tables - portrays a rather mature baby, very white, radiantly clean as no baby is ever clean, arms outstretched to reassure the nervous adults around him, intelligent, without need, halo glowing, conscious with an adult consciousness. Superbaby. This infant clearly never pooped his diapers. He looks ready to take up the prime ministership.

Why did this make me angry?

It's a little ironic that in a sophisticated visual age like ours we still cling to a two-dimensional Jesus. Everyone talks about his "great acts of humility, faith, and compassion." What about his great acts of playfulness, or cunning? What about his brilliance, his wit, his irreverence, the scandalous freedom with which Jesus lives, his exasperation and impatience? Not to mention his humanity; we have nearly forgotten he was a man. Your hamster seems to have a more fully developed personality than most portraits of Jesus.

Furthermore, the loss of personality confounds our imitation of Christ. What happens is, all Christian churches seize upon one or two of his virtues as the essence of Christ for us to follow. Justice. Mercy. Righteousness. Whichever. You cannot live a life on one quality more than you can speak intelligently using one word. Meanwhile, we continue to sound on about the love and compassion of Jesus, like the village idiot banging one note on a piano. After a while the world turns away. Can you blame them? Alas - if only Jesus' followers shared his personality.

Sunlight on water.
Songbirds in a forest.
Desert sands under moonlight.
Vineyards just before harvest.

These all share something in common - they reflect the heart of a particular artist. They are his masterpieces, his expression and his gift to us. The artist's name is Jesus. Something else lies in common between these treasures and Jesus as well - words on a page cannot compare to a personal experience. Sailing the ocean on a bright morning with the wind in your face, wandering under a forest canopy while sunlight filters down, lying on warm dunes beneath a full moon watching shooting stars, driving in the lush beauty of vineyards on a hillside in early autumn - these experiences are far closer to what it is actually like to experience Jesus than mere talk of him could ever be. More words about Jesus are helpful only if they bring us to an experience of him.

We don't need further speculation or debate. We need Jesus himself. And you can have him. Really. You can experience Jesus intimately. You were meant to. For despite the vandalizing of Jesus Christ by the world, he is still alive and very much himself. Though nowadays it takes a bit of uncovering to know him as he is. A simple prayer, at the outset, will loose encounters like a landslide:

Jesus, I ask for you. For the real you.

For to have Jesus, really have him, is to have the greatest treasure in all worlds. 

And to love Jesus - that is to settle the first question of human existence. Of your existence. Everything else flows from there. 

Now, loving Jesus will not be a problem when you know him as he truly is. So that is the place to begin, for some of us, to return to after a long wandering. We have quite an adventure before us, and the greatest treasure in the world to recover as our own. It will help to keep close the simplest of prayers:

Jesus, I ask you for you. For the real you.

If you pray and get a 'yes' on reading this book - it's called "Beautiful Outlaw" by John Eldredge.