An Invitation You May Have Never Heard

[This post is part of a series: How Jesus Got Hold of Me: Why I Believe and Why I Follow]

Ten weeks ago, I began this series with the statement, "If we're honest about it, the invitation of Christianity is absurd." Between that statement and this final post, I have tried to convey what it is that has convinced me that accepting the invitation by organizing the entirety of my life around it the best I know how is the best option available for how I will spend the remainder of my days. This ancient Jewish crucified and risen rabbi-messiah has gotten hold of me, and to conclude this series, I will do my best to relate his invitation to you. But please stop and pause right here, before you think you know what I mean by Jesus' invitation.

I am convinced that one of the main reasons more people do not take him up on it is because they presume they know what it is when, actually, the versions they think they know are only reductions of it. Then–understandably–very few are willing to arrange their lives around the diminished versions. My hunch is that some of you reading this are already very dedicated Christians yet may have never heard this invitation. For others of us, there are a lot of names higher on the list of things we might call ourselves than "dedicated Christian"–and some of us might even want to keep it that way, but if that's you, I also doubt that you have heard the invitation this way.

And though some will surely disagree with me, I will go ahead and claim that this is not just my own spin on the invitation, but–rather–I am convinced it’s the only invitation offered to us in the pages of the Bible. I’m convinced it’s the only invitation that makes sense. It’s the only invitation that naturally leads us into a way of life that really works. It’s the only invitation that offers hope of a life lived in peace with God, peace with those around us, and peace with ourselves.

Before trying to clarify what the invitation is, I want to clarify some things that it is not.

The invitation is not about having your sins forgiven so that you can get into heaven when you die. Having our sins forgiven is certainly a good thing. But Jesus never gave a sermon that included, “If you were to die tonight, do you know where you would go?” so I’m going to try to give an invitation closer to the things he talked about.

The invitation is not about joining a movement to make the world a better place. That’s also certainly a good thing, and should always be at the center of the things Jesus’ followers are doing. But, again, it wasn’t the invitation in the gospels, and I’m not going to make it mine today.

So, here is the invitation in a way that may sound a little bit clumsy, but which I think gets the point across: The invitation of Christianity to you and to me today is to spend the rest of our lives seeking to be with Jesus, in order to learn from Jesus, how to live our lives as he would live them if he were you or me. There’s a shorter way to put that: Spend the rest of your life as Jesus’ disciple.

We make a mistake in how we often think of being a disciple as something we’re trying to be, but probably haven’t made it there yet (and really wouldn’t know how to put a plan together for really being one if it came down to it). We often tend to think of a disciple as someone who has reached a certain level of maturity, but that really isn’t it at all. The question of whether or not you and I are disciples of Jesus comes down to something pretty simple: Is he our teacher? Are we learning from him how to live our lives, just like any student would learn any other subject matter from anyone else they’ve taken on as their educator/guide/trainer?

Is Jesus your teacher? Are you his apprentice? If Jesus is not your teacher, who else do you have in mind?

One of the shortcomings of the invitation of Christianity as we normally talk about it is that we are led to believe it’s about having our sins forgiven and getting into heaven when we die, but that we can spend the remainder of our lives until our death beds learning virtually nothing from the one we claim we trust with our eternal salvation. But–honestly–how can we really think he’s trustworthy for the rest of eternity if we don’t think he’s trustworthy enough to be the one from whom we learn to live right now?

So, again, the invitation is to spend the rest of your life seeking to be with Jesus, in order to learn from Jesus, how to live your life as Jesus would live it if he were you. The invitation is to accept Jesus as your teacher, for you to live as his disciple.

Dallas Willard said that it would be a natural thing for disciples of Jesus, people who have devoted themselves to carrying out their decision to become like their Master, Teacher, and Lord–“those who, seriously intending to become like Jesus from the inside out, [to] systematically and progressively rearrange their affairs to that end, under the guidance of the Word and the Spirit. That is how the disciple lives.”(1)

That's a great sentence: “...those who, seriously intending to become like Jesus from the inside out, systematically and progressively rearrange their affairs to that end...”

The invitation is to stop living as an apprentice of anyone else–unless you’ve decided that the person or group of people from whom you’re currently learning to live is better cut out for the job than Jesus is–and spend the rest of your life learning to live your life from him.

So that we can all make educated decisions, I want to spell out a little bit of what it means for each of us.

If we choose to accept the invitation and devote the remainder of our lives to our ancient Jewish rabbi, our crucified and risen messiah, it’s going to affect our minds. Since we understand that we live at the mercy of the ideas that are there, we are going to be careful and intentional about the things we allow into them, the things we allow them to dwell on. We’ll pay attention to what has our attention, and see if it lines up with the kind of life that our Master is trying to teach us.

Accepting the invitation is going to affect our habits. Or, another way of saying the same thing is that it’s going to affect the things we choose to do with our bodies. These bodies are the only vehicles God has given us through which we can experience life as Jesus’ disciple, and Jesus lived–in fact still lives–in one of these bodies too, so he is the natural choice for the person who can best teach us how to live life in God’s kingdom in these bodies. Our bodies inevitably develop habits, and our habits are either conducive to Jesus’ kind of life expanding in us, or opposed to it. So we’ll pay attention to our habits.

And accepting the invitation will always affect our relationships. Disciples of Jesus do not exist apart from communities of disciples of Jesus. I recently read one author who said, “Disciples are like grits. There’s no such thing as just one of them.” If you are going to live your life as Jesus’ disciple, you will need the help of other disciples. Church is a natural place for this to happen. (I’m very biased toward some opportunities that I’m always involved in, and if you ever have a chance to be a part of an Apprentice group, I cannot encourage it strongly enough. They help us to look at our lives along precisely these lines–our minds, our habits, and our relationships–and how we can shape all of those to be open to God. If you are near Midland and are interested, new groups are forming soon–please contact me.)(2)

That’s all kind of big picture, which is appropriate since we’re talking about the direction of the rest of our lives, but let me see if I can end by making it more practical. Accepting the invitation means that you will find a way to shape today as Jesus, your teacher would have you, as best as you understand that: what you put into your mind today, what habits you employ today, how you engage in your relationships today. We disciples of Jesus rarely get anything like five-year strategic plans from our Master Rabbi. Instead, he likes to focus on how we will spend today. Then, when enough of those todays of learning from him add up over months, years, and decades, in the words of Jesus himself, “a disciple, when he is fully trained, will be like his teacher.”(3)

Perhaps the best thing that any of us can to is to carve out some time to consider the invitation. Maybe you’re already living it, or at least semi-living it, and some consideration can help you be a little clearer about how to shape today, and then tomorrow and the next day. Or, maybe you’ve never understood that this was the invitation of Christianity. Some of you may be thinking, “this wasn’t what I signed up for.” If that’s the case, it would certainly be worth your while to spend some time examining your options; if not Jesus as your teacher, then whom?

Or, my hope is that some of us reading this (perhaps even you) already know we want in, and we want all-in, which is entirely appropriate. So you can allot some time for asking your teacher how he would have you shape your thoughts, your habits, and your relationships today.


Scripture Readings for the Week*:

  • Jeremiah 1:4-10
  • Psalm 71:1-16
  • Hebrews 12:18-29
  • Luke 13:10-17

A Prayer for the Week*:

Grant, O merciful God, that your Church, being gathered together in unity by your Holy Spirit, may show forth your power among all peoples, to the glory of your Name; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

*Scripture readings are taken from the Revised Common Lectionary. Weekly prayers are from The Book of Common Prayer. (1) See Willard's article, "How Does the Disciple Live?" So much of what I have said in this post is heavily influenced by his teaching that I couldn't possibly footnote him every time that I gained one of these ideas from him. When it comes to these issues, I can no longer determine which thoughts are mine and which are things that I learned from Dallas. (2) Apprentice groups work through the material of the three books in the Apprentice Series by James Bryan Smith: The Good and Beautiful God, The Good and Beautiful Life, and The Good and Beautiful Community. (3) See Luke 6:40

What Happened to Me: My Habits

I grew up as the youngest of three boys. Since both of my big brothers played basketball, and since–judging by the stares on the faces of children who sometimes gawk at me in public–I am abnormally tall, I wanted to play basketball like my brothers did. One thing I remember from the drills I did as a youngster, which at the time I never thought to have any connection to my life as a Christian, is something coaches talked about as "muscle memory." The idea they were trying to get across to me was that once I could find a way to get the ball into the basket, it was a good idea to work at getting my body to do things in exactly that same way as many times as possible. Then, even though getting the ball into the basket in that way would take a lot of focus and concentrated effort in the beginning, eventually my body would develop its own "memory" of how to do that, and after time I would become able to do the same thing at the right times without thinking about it–just by habit. It was true, and I became able to put the ball in the basket without much concentrated effort, but–unfortunately for my basketball career–apparently my body also always remembered how to run slowly and jump lowly, so I didn't get as many opportunities to shoot the ball as I would have liked.

Years after I stopped playing sports very often, that idea of muscle memory came back to me as I was getting rid of a misconception. For much of my life, I had unconsciously separated everything I did into one of two categories: I mistakenly thought that there were some things I did physically (like shooting a basketball, playing a guitar, driving a car, eating a taco–or eating a plateful of tacos), other things that I did spiritually (like praying or reading the Bible). I didn't see that the two categories were very relevant to each other or had any influence on one another.

But then I began studying how God changes people's lives and what our role is in cooperating with the grace that is offered to us, and I discovered that not only had I been mistaken in thinking there was a separation between the physical part of my life and the spiritual part of it, but that making that mistake had been costly. While it is true that there are physical parts of me and non-physical parts of me, I made mistakes and became frustrated because I couldn't see what now seems obvious: when I do "spiritual" things like reading my Bible or praying, as a human being I have no choice except to do those things in my body; and vice versa–everything I do in my body, even if it was something I considered non-spiritual, affects my character/that part of me that makes choices and connects with God/my spirit.

My misunderstanding of both sides of that was inevitably harmful to me in my earlier attempts to follow Jesus, because I had no room in my conception of Christianity for understanding the importance of our habits. Each one of us has habits ingrained in our bodies which are self-centered and end up causing harm to us and those around us. Some of us have a tongue and lips that lie or spew gossip before we know what happened; some of us turn to food, drugs, or alcohol for comfort; some of us have sexual addictions; some of us are experts at quietly shunning people with our body language; the list could go on, and those of us who know ourselves pretty well might respond, "Practically guilty of all of the above."

We all have ingrained, bodily sin-habits, and the New Testament repeatedly talks about our responsibility to take those off (even put them to death) and to put on other ingrained, bodily grace-habits in their place. Last week, I wrote about the difference it made for me in my mind when I began to read authors who talked about the Christian life in ways that made sense, and coming to understand the essential role of our bodies in our efforts to follow Jesus was a big part of that for me. It gave actual, practical, plan-able meaning to passages of scripture like, "...offer your bodies as a living sacrifice...," "...put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed...and clothe yourselves in compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience...," or "to set the mind on the flesh is death but to set the mind on the spirit is life and peace."

So how do we do that? What are the grace-habits we want to become ingrained in us? Dallas Willard (the person most responsible for helping me put my body and spirit back together in my efforts to follow Jesus–or, rather, to realize that they were never separated in the first place) nails the issue on the head and should give each and every one of us tremendous hope:

We can become like Christ in character and in power and thus realize our highest ideals of well-being and well-doing. That is the heart of the New Testament message.

Do you believe this is possible?

My central claim is that we can become like Christ by doing one thing–by following him in the overall style of life he chose for himself. If we have faith in Christ, we must believe that he knew how to live. We can, through faith and grace, become like Christ by practicing the types of activities he engaged in, by arranging our whole lives around the activities he himself practiced in order to remain constantly at home in the fellowship of his Father.

What activities did Jesus practice? Such things as solitude and silence, prayer, simple and sacrificial living, intense study and meditation upon God's Word and God's ways, and service to others. Some of these will certainly be even more necessary to us than they were to him, because of our greater or different need. But in a balanced life of such activities, we will be constantly enlivened by "The Kingdom Not of This World"...(1)

As my relationships changed and I stopped attempting to live an isolated Christian life, and as my thinking changed and began to center on the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus and their implications for how I will live my life today, and as my habits changed and I began to attempt to take on Jesus' lifestyle rather than further entrenching myself in destructive habits and wonder why my spiritual life wasn't getting anywhere...began to change. My life is full and rich in the things that are the most satisfying. Things like love, joy, and peace are now states of which I have tasted the tip of the iceberg rather than things I long for but haven't authentically experienced.

After all of my explorations, my questions, and my putting the claims of Jesus to the test in my life the best I know how, I am convinced that there is a highway deeper and deeper into this kind of life whose on-ramps are open to each and every human being. That highway is called discipleship. Next week, I will conclude this series by inviting you to join me and countless other students of our ancient Jewish rabbi on it.


Scripture Readings for the Week*:

  • Isaiah 5:1-7
  • Psalm 80:1-2,8-19
  • Hebrews 11:29-12:2
  • Luke 12:49-56

A Prayer for the Week*:

Almighty God, you have given your only Son to be for us a sacrifice for sin, and also an example of godly life: Give us grace to receive thankfully the fruits of this redeeming work, and to follow daily in the blessed steps of his most holy life; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

*Scripture readings are taken from the Revised Common Lectionary. Weekly prayers are from The Book of Common Prayer. (1) See Dallas Willard, The Spirit of the Disciplines: Understanding How God Changes Lives, pp.x-xi

[This post is part of How Jesus Got Hold of Me: Why I Believe and Why I Follow]

What Happened to Me: My Mind

On a normal day, I would look forward to the task of writing about the changes that have occurred in my mind throughout these years of putting the claims of Jesus on my life to the test. Today, though, I've been grumpy. Right now I feel more like complaining to someone about any of a list of trivial things than I feel like writing about God's goodness and the gift we've been given of the freedom to choose what we allow our minds to dwell on. So, since I need to write something on the topic today, perhaps the best thing I can do is to use my current crabbiness as a negative case study.

[I was so crabby on the day I started to write this that I couldn't get any further than the paragraph above. Below is the continuation from at least 48 hours later.]

Normally, I have pretty good habits in regard to what's going on in my mind–both the things I put into it and what I choose to let it ruminate on. So, when I noticed myself being so irritable, I knew I had to take a look at what had been happening in my head. Sure enough, I could pinpoint something that mattered.

About a week ago, I finished something I had been going through for a while that kept my mind in the scriptures. Since I normally base my reading on the passages of the Bible that are given to us in the Revised Common Lectionary (as they are included each week at the bottom of these messages), I had been spending a few weeks in Colossians. It was my first time really digging into the book, and along with spending time in Colossians itself, I thoroughly enjoyed reading through N.T. Wright's commentary on it.(1) For those weeks, my mind was often occupied with the content of Colossians: how Jesus was the one in whom all things in the cosmos are held together and yet also a human who perfectly housed the fullness of God, and in him we are all brought to fullness as well. I even enjoyed soaking my mind in a passage which I have had memorized for years which begins with, "Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things."

Then my study of Colossians finished, and I proceeded to not do what Paul said in the passage I just quoted. I can now trace the beginning of my few days of grouchiness to how I replaced my time in Colossians by filling my mind with chapters from a couple of business books. I'm not saying my study of Colossians was good and reading the business books is bad–I need both of them. Part of my life as it is now is that I have a hand in running two small businesses, and I certainly need to learn to do that well. But if you've ever read a book on business, you know that while they can potentially be very useful for helping generate ideas, something they generally stink at is fostering contentment in us. So, after about a week of covering a few pages of these books each time I had a free moment and nearly leaving off the habits of letting my mind soak in the scriptures and instead focusing so much on business, I started to get testy. All of the sudden, the people around me whom I love so dearly and are normally my greatest delights became obstacles that were in the way of my ability to accomplish things.

As evidenced by my first paragraph here, it even annoyed me that I had to write this rather than continue working on those other projects. Thanks be to God that preachers and teachers often get to preach and teach the things that they themselves most need to hear, as getting started writing this helped me to correct course. Now, I'm still reading the business books, but also putting other things into my mind and being more intentional about following Paul's advice on where to set my mind.


We cannot overestimate the importance of our minds (the things we put into them and allow them to dwell on) in relation to the kind of people we are all becoming. Every one of us has innumerable choices every day of what to do with our minds, and those are the decisions–perhaps more than any others–which shape us.

One of the great difficulties in many of our efforts to live life with God is that, honestly, we don't find the Bible or other very helpful materials available that help open us to God interesting or understandable enough to give it the space in our mental attention necessary to keep our whole lives headed in a Godward direction through the months, years, and decades that add up to the kind of people we will be when all is said and done. I have had friends who spend their working lives interpreting things as exciting as legal documents or insurance policies but who then claim that the scriptures and the writings of Jesus' followers through the centuries are too heavy of reading for them.

I don't say that to pick on some of my lawyer and insurer friends (there are plenty of reasons to pick on them, but that's not what I'm doing here), because we all make similar mistakes. It isn't that we don't have the capacity to stretch our minds in the ways that allow us to live lives ever more open to God, but typically–we'd rather read a Sports Illustrated, People Magazine, or just watch some TV.


Last week, I wrote about a point of my life when I hit a wall, and how my relationships brought me past it. Another piece that fell into place around the same time for me was that I began reading some authors who described Christianity in ways that made sense, particularly C.S. Lewis and Dallas Willard.  Rather than simply writing about things to make their readers feel a certain way (guilty, happy, repentant, etc.), I was fascinated by their writings because of the way they helped me to see how the kind of life with God that I want really works in the lives of real people. Putting things about Christianity into my mind which made sense made my efforts to follow Jesus turn into something livable, something for which I could make reliably-guided plans in my entire life.

When a change like that happens in our thinking, our emotions follow suit. Rather than my ill-temperedness from earlier this week being generally characteristic of my life, when my mind is set on things above, feelings of gratitude, contentment, and joy become the norm. Then, of course, our desires begin to change, and we will form different kinds of habits and relate with everyone differently. In short, we begin to take on the lifestyle of Jesus himself. Further exploring that, and how I stumbled into trying to do so, will be our subject next week in looking at what happened with my habits.


Scripture Readings for the Week*:

  • Isaiah 1:1,10-20
  • Psalm 50:1-8,22-23
  • Hebrews 11:1-3,8-16
  • Luke 12:32-40

A Prayer for the Week*:

Grant to us, Lord, we pray, the spirit to think and do always those things that are right, that we, who cannot exist without you, may by you be enabled to live according to your will; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

*Scripture readings are taken from the Revised Common Lectionary. Weekly prayers are from The Book of Common Prayer. (1) See N.T. Wright's Paul for Everyone: The Prison Letters.

[This post is part of How Jesus Got Hold of Me: Why I Believe and Why I Follow]

What Happened to Me: My Relationships

As the title of this series indicates, my aim is to describe how Jesus got hold of me–why I believe and why I follow. To this point, I have focused on why I have been convinced that Jesus is believable, and for the remainder of the series I shift gears to focus on how Jesus is followable and what my efforts to do so have looked like (both the misguided ones and those that have been better informed). I want to do this in three areas that have made each of us the kind of people we are: my relationships, my mind, and my habits. Though it isn't really possible to focus on these areas in a chronological order (as if my relationships took a certain shape before anything changed in my mind) I did want to look at them in this particular order, since it was my relationships that opened me up to changes in the other areas.

I remember a point when I hit a wall. I was a college student, and by that time, I had already been involved for years in Christian activities and efforts. I was attending a Christian university and my studies there were preparing me for a career I thought I would have in full-time ministry. Part of that training was that I spent a summer in a ministry internship with a good church.

Though it wasn't an instantaneous crash into the wall, I can look back on it now and pinpoint that time of my life as a point when the wall and I collided. The wall was coming at me in different forms: much of what I thought Christianity was about and had been planning my future around was proving unreliable; I was stuck in selfish patterns which felt like a rut with no way out; my relationships were unfulfilling, as I was nearly obsessed with trying to find people who could bring excitement into my life, make me happy, and pull me out of my loneliness.

It is never fun to hit a wall. One of my heroes says, "reality is what you run into when you are wrong," and I was running into a lot of it during that part of my life. I was steeped in Christianity, but the way I was living it wasn't working. Though I'm not sure what the implications of giving into the wall would have been, I can remember thinking, "If this is all there is to this stuff...I'd rather give my life to something else."

I have certainly made my share of poor decisions, but it was at that point when I made one that has turned out to be one of my best choices: I wrote a letter to the person I knew (though I didn't know him well at the time–he was just an acquaintance whom I'd had the opportunity to observe in different situations) whose life with God seemed to be the most authentic I had seen. He seemed to have the kind of stuff I wanted, even though my wall was proving to me that I didn't know how to pursue it.

My letter to him wasn't long or complex. If I remember correctly, I think it was about a page long and could be summed up as, "It seems like you have the kind of life with God I want. Can I spend some time with you?" I had no idea what his schedule was like, and–being someone many people looked up to–I thought he probably had people asking things of him all the time so there wouldn't be much chance of a real relationship. But–since I was at the wall–I had to give it a shot.

He wrote me back and invited me to get together with him when I returned to campus, and then when we met, he invited me to spend an hour with him each week throughout the year. Most often we spent our hour talking in his office, but I think he knew that I also needed to be with him in other situations. We went to lunch, rode around in his car, and went to ballgames...and each circumstance gave me the opportunity to be known by someone who lived what I wanted, and to see the kind of shape his life with God took regardless of where he was. His simple way of describing what we did was "doing life together."

Because of my relationship with him, my life changed direction that year, and here is the key: even though I didn't understand it at the time, what I gave up on when I wrote that letter was my attempt to live Christianity by myself. Prior to that, I had always had friends who were Christians, but never before had I given anyone permission to be part of my entire life to that degree.

Since then, I have had periods when my life with God has leaned back toward being something I have tried to do in a companionless way, but I have also had times when my relationships with others have been the most valuable part of my life. I have had stretches of stagnation as well as times of authentic change. When I look back at all of it, the most critical factor seems obvious: the kind of life I want inevitably stalls during the go-it-alone times, while the only progress I have ever known has happened with the helpful company of others.

Maybe you have hit the wall at some point too. I wish that everyone would have a friend as helpful as mine was whenever we run into it, because without him and the direction in which our ongoing friendship sent me, I don't know what role the crucified and risen messiah would have in my lifestyle today. It's likely that someone reading this hit their wall some time ago, then either couldn't or didn't have someone like my friend to turn to, and as a result has either accepted a lifeless version of Christianity as the norm or might have even given up on it altogether.

John Wesley said, "Christianity is essentially a social religion…to turn it into a solitary one is to destroy it.”(1) Or, to put it into language we might be more likely to use in our day: disciples of Jesus do not, indeed cannot, exist apart from communities of disciples of Jesus.

So, just to help make this a bit more practical, below are some of the ways I repeatedly apply the lesson that I learned through writing that letter fourteen years ago. These are some of the relationships I enjoy and continue to nurture as part of this kind of life I want to live with God:

  • With my wife: Though there has always been as-yet-unrealized potential for how we can best be helpful to one another in following our Lord, when I look back at our years together to this point, there is no doubt that she is the one most responsible for helping me continue to move forward. We have experimented with a lot of different ways of helping one another stay open to God. Over time–as long as we keep looking for them–we stumble into some that fit us pretty well. She knows me better than anyone, and in her loving, kind, yet red-headed firm way, we're continually getting better at helping each other grow.
  • With a friend or two: I have had different friends fill this role at different points in my life, but I can see how I always need one or two friendships that are on a different level than the others. These friends are the ones whom I'm not afraid to give a glimpse of the good, bad, and ugly in my soul, and they have each known God and known me pretty thoroughly.
  • With a group: One of the most life-giving things I've done over the past several years is to continually be part of an Apprentice Group with others in our church. Being with others in one of these groups each year has become a non-negotiable for me. It is a source of good friendships in which we have common weekly practices and allow the story of Jesus to constantly sink in to us at deeper levels. (If you are near Midland, new groups will be forming this fall. If you are interested, please let me know.)

Each of these kinds of relationships is a joy to me. I look forward to the chances I have to engage in each one of them. But...none of them happen without intentionality on our part. It is very possible, and looked at as acceptable among Christians, to float through our lives without the meaningful connections with others that are indispensable if we want to keep moving forward rather than staying stuck at the wall for the rest of our lives.

Next week, I'll try to describe the change that took place in my mind and what I do with it.


Scripture Readings for the Week*:

  • Hosea 11:1-11
  • Psalm 107:1-9,43
  • Colossians 3:1-11
  • Luke 12:13-21

A Prayer for the Week*:

Let your continual mercy, O Lord, cleanse and defend your Church; and, because it cannot continue in safety without your help, protect and govern it always by your goodness; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

*Scripture readings are taken from the Revised Common Lectionary. Weekly prayers are from The Book of Common Prayer. (1) From Wesley’s sermon, “Upon Our Lord’s Sermon on the Mount, Discourse 4″

[This post is part of How Jesus Got Hold of Me: Why I Believe and Why I Follow]

Science and God

Our bumper stickers and car emblems say a lot about us. For example, some people like to use them to say in essence, "My politics are better than yours," or, "My kids and I are smarter than most people." The last time I had a bumper sticker, it said both of those things plus many others with two simple words, "Native Texan."

Of course our religion (or non-religion) also gets included in the kinds of messages we stick on our cars, and unfortunately these stickers and emblems typically aren't conducive to communicating anything very reliable about Christianity. For example, at some point you've probably seen a sticker that says, "Christians aren't perfect, just forgiven." While I understand the message that phrase is trying to send, we could follow its reasoning through and make a sequel sticker that says something like this:


Or maybe you've seen the one that says, "God said it. I believe it. That settles it." Again, while there may be an admirable intention in the heart of the person who sticks that message on their car, the implication that they believe and do everything God says (presumably, that which is in the Bible) is highly unlikely to be true. For example, how many Christians do you know who have "believed it and settled it" according to these words of Jesus?:


And then, of course, there is the never-ending battle which has been taking place for years–on vehicles everywhere–between the Christian "fish" and Charles Darwin. Apparently, this battle has been so intense that Jesus has now morphed into a predatory shark who has become so angry that, rather than being as loving toward Darwin as he was to everyone else, he wants to eat him:

This is a bumper sticker for sale at
This is a bumper sticker for sale at

I think the fish vs. Darwin battles on cars are as responsible as anything for reflecting and promoting a widespread misconception among Christians and non-religious people alike: the idea that adherence to scientific evidence and belief in Christianity's God are mutually exclusive. For part of my life, I too assumed that was so, that believers in God and evolutionary scientists were out to defeat one another, or at least that there was no common ground between them.

The more I dug into it, though, the more I became convinced that there need not be a conflict for my fellow Christians and me to simultaneously trust God and be informed by the sciences. Christians can be free of the need many of them feel to open a Bible, stick fingers in each of their ears and shout "Lalalalala–I can't hear you!" to anything that science might have to say. Instead, I am convinced we can begin to find even greater meaning in our faith because of scientific research.(1)

[Fair warning: What I am about to say will be more controversial than is usual for me. Some of you reading it won't like it, while I suspect that it may be a relief to others. Regardless of your reaction, please understand the context of the series from which these comments come: I'm explaining "how Jesus got hold of me." A big part of my story is that I came to believe that the claims of Christianity could be held intelligently, aided by the best inquiry that science and any other field can give. So, I'm telling my story of accepting these things, and doing so as someone who sincerely wants to know the truth about them, not claiming to be covering these topics as a scholar.]

Back to the topic of the fish vs. Darwin decals, Michael Green notes,

The theory of evolution...sets out to explain how varied forms of life have developed from more simple forms over millions of years. Belief in a Creator sets out to explain that there is a great mind behind all matter. There is no necessary contradiction between the two. Stephen Jay Gould...was one of the world's greatest experts on evolutionary theory. He is forthright on the subject:

"To say it for the umpteenth million [time,] ... science simply cannot adjudicate the issue of God's possible superintendence of nature. We neither affirm nor deny it. We simply can't comment on it as scientists ... Either half of my colleagues are enormously stupid, or else the science of Darwinism is fully compatible with conventional religious beliefs–and equally compatible with atheism."(2)

So, as briefly as possible, I'll attempt to address a few of the areas where science and faith are often perceived to be in conflict:(3)

If evolution is true, doesn't it mean the Bible isn't?

That depends on how you read the Bible. Yes, biological evolution and a view of the Bible which insists that God must have created the universe in six twenty-four hour periods and that our world is somewhere around 4-6,000 years old are in direct conflict with one another. However, Christians need to be careful to let the various parts of the Bible be the kinds of documents that they actually are (biographies, poetry, wisdom, personal letters, etc.) rather than what we want them to be (like a scientific history).

For me, this point reinforces the importance of the approach we have taken in this series by starting our conversation with Jesus. If Genesis 1-2 are indeed anything other than a straightforward chronology of events, it is foolish to conclude that would also rule out the historicity of everything else in the Bible, and–most importantly–it would have virtually nothing to say about whether or not Jesus lived, died and rose from the dead. As I have reiterated, in any consideration of Christianity, it is important to start with a focus on Jesus, and then to consider the wide-angle questions.

Doesn't science show us that miracles–especially the resurrection of Jesus–are impossible?

If God does not exist and sometimes intervene, then yes: miracles, including Jesus' resurrection, would be impossible. Water doesn't turn into wine, five loaves of bread cannot feed thousands of people, and dead people stay dead. However, if God exists, then things unobservable by the sciences exist, and therefore things unpredictable and inexplicable by the sciences can happen. So, that points us to the next question:

Does science point us away from believing that God exists?

As Gould's quote above indicates, God–whether he exists or not–simply isn't the kind of thing that science investigates. But, in another sense–if we push science far enough, I think it has something to say on the matter. The lines between science and philosophy become blurred for me here, but if the lines of reasoning are followed through, I am convinced that science eventually points beyond a completely materialistic worldview.

Several years ago, I read The God Delusion by one of our day's leading atheist voices, biologist Richard Dawkins. Though I found some of the things he said to be unfounded, I was pleased to find myself agreeing with much of the scientific parts of his argument (though they don't make up as large of a percentage of the book as a one might hope). In the section titled "Why There Almost Certainly Is No God" he delved into scientific evidence and evolutionary theory, all the way back to the big bang. But I was very surprised that he never attempted to answer the question of where the "stuff" for the big bang came from.

It is possible Dawkins may have addressed this in some other place, but the ultimate question is inevitable: Why is there something, rather than nothing? And since every process we know of confirms that something never comes from nothing, how could it be logical that scientifically observable matter is all that exists? Doesn't the existence of...well, anything and everything...point to something/someone that is not a material being?


To this point, I have tried to deal with some difficult questions in as brief a way as possible that could still be helpful. My hope is to have explained how, when I began to wrestle with these things, the pieces began to fall into place for me and I could whole-heartedly, whole-mindedly, "whole-everythingly" believe the claims about Jesus and follow through on his claims on my life. The rest of this series will shift gears, changing focus from why I believe to why I follow, from what I think to how I live, and from the arguments that have persuaded me to the stories and experiences that have shaped me.

But to summarize before moving on:

  • If there is good reason to believe that Jesus of Nazareth lived, and that he died under the Roman authority of Pontius PIlate, as both non-Christian historians and the Christian scriptures claim, and
  • if it is reasonable (based primarily on the course that history has taken in which Christianity moved from being a tiny group of hiding disciples of an apparently failed messiah to being the most influential movement in world history) to claim that the best explanation is the simplest: that Jesus was alive again after he had been dead, and
  • if we can then look at the wider-angle questions in the light of his life, death, and resurrection, particularly understanding that science, reason, and logic can legitimately point toward the existence of God and therefore, the possibility of Jesus' resurrection, then
  • it becomes possible–even necessary–to view everything about our lives and our world differently, looking redemptively at our pasts, with hope toward our futures, and with intentionality at the today right in front of us.

So, beginning next week, I'll begin to tell more of my own story–what happened to me–in three areas that have also made you the kind of person you are today as you read this: my relationships, my mind, and my habits.


Scripture Readings for the Week*:

  • Hosea 1:2-10
  • Psalm 85
  • Colossians 2:6-19
  • Luke 11:1-13

A Prayer for the Week*:

O God, the protector of all who trust in you, without whom nothing is strong, nothing is holy: Increase and multiply upon us your mercy; that, with you as our ruler and guide, we may so pass through things temporal, that we lose not the things eternal; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

*Scripture readings are taken from the Revised Common Lectionary. Weekly prayers are from The Book of Common Prayer. (1) For more on why Christians can be comfortable with the findings of science, see especially the writings of Francis S. Collins. His book, The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief was an important part of my personal exploration of these issues. (2) See Michael Green, Avoiding Jesus: Answers for Skeptics, Cynics, and the Curious, pp. 44-45, where he quotes from Stephen Jay Gould, Rocks of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life. (3) For much better-qualified authors that address these and other such questions, visit and/or see The Language of Science and Faith: Straight Answers to Genuine Questions by Karl W. Giberson and Francis S. Collins.

[This post is part of How Jesus Got Hold of Me: Why I Believe and Why I Follow]

The Wide-Angle Questions

Uncomfortable confession time: although I attempt to help myself and others continue to progress in Christianity–part of my track record is that people I have taught continue to turn away from it. Several years ago, one of the young people I used to work with turned from Christianity to atheism. That's not the kind of thing I mentioned in subsequent job interviews with churches. Even if I would have mentioned him, I'd still probably find a way to avoid mentioning that he wasn't the only one–as recently as this week, I had the chance to catch up with another friend, a young man I used to teach, who has turned from mainstream Christianity to something that he called "a Christian agnosticism"(1). I nodded along, even though I have no idea what that means.

Through my conversations with these young people and others, and the things I have read, watched, and listened to as a result of them, I have noticed that their changes-of-course and the thoughts of the most popular critics of Christianity often stem from legitimate questions: Hasn't science made the Christian faith obsolete? How could a good and powerful God allow so much human suffering? What about all of the appalling things that Christians have done to others (and even to each other) through the centuries?

These kinds of questions are highly important, and Christians who feel that it is in our best interest to sweep them under the rug for the sake of maintaining our faith in God have misunderstood the nature of faith. If any faith is trustworthy, it can handle the tough questions and is therefore either strengthened by exploring them or debilitated by avoidance.

Before coming to any of those questions in this devotional series, though, I thought that it was very important to start the conversation by focusing on Jesus. Did he live? Did he die? Did he rise from the dead? What best explains the rise of Christianity after his life? My friends who have changed their beliefs have focused more on the other questions than on those. But if it is plausible to believe that Jesus actually lived, died, and lived again, those questions have to be seen in a different light than they would if they were the starting point.

The approach we've been taking is like we've been using a pair of powerful binoculars to take a good look at this ancient Jewish carpenter-turned-rabbi. Once we see him up close, we can then put the binoculars down and see everything else around differently because of what there is to know about his life. If Jesus' resurrection is a historical reality, the rest of our world is a very different kind of place than it would be if the stories about his rising from the dead are nothing more than old fallacies. The two friends I mentioned have settled into the latter conclusion, largely because–rather than starting with the binocular view of Jesus–they have looked around at everything else first, then when the binoculars are picked up to take a look at Jesus (if they ever are), he only matters to them as he fits into what they have perceived everywhere else. If I am honest with myself, I have also tried looking at the world both ways, but even after doing so, I am convinced that I see everything–including myself, those around me, and the joys and sorrows of life–more clearly when I have recently been looking intently through those binoculars at this matchless rabbi.

Now, having started this series with our focus zoomed-in on Jesus, it's important for us to pan out and take a look at some of the wider-angle questions. Obviously, in the context of this single post, I'm not trying to address the questions as thoroughly as they deserve, but good resources are available by people who have done so, and I will only make a couple of points about them which have remained as the most important for me.(2)

One of the reasons I think it's valuable to view the wide-angle questions in light of Jesus is that the story about his life addresses many of the broader questions that often surface. If the story of Jesus is historically reliable, the wide-angle "How could a good and powerful God allow so much human suffering?" needs to be seen in light of "Why would a good and powerful God become human and suffer so much?" Or, the question about all of the appalling things Christians have done throughout history will be examined differently when viewed through the story of Jesus, since the story says he knew better than anyone the costly consequences of crookedly zealous religious leaders.

It's a beneficial thing that some of the most important wide-angle questions are reflected in Jesus' story, but there's still one broad category of questions left out, which keeps a multitude of well-meaning people from ever seriously considering devotion to Jesus as a viable option for their lives, and those are the questions that deal with the immense amount of knowledge given to us from the various fields of science. The huge majority of people I know make efforts to be responsible, intelligent, thinking persons, and it is difficult for many to reconcile those efforts with the claims of the ancient stories that God created the universe, interacted with people like Abraham and Moses, then would become human, perform miracles, and eventually be resurrected following his own death. There is a widespread sense among us that belief in these ancient stories will sooner or later be ended among educated people, just as science brought us out of our ancestors' belief that the world was flat and the sun rotated around it.

But again–already having had our binoculars focused in on the life of our Jewish rabbi–we cannot dismiss him and the course of history since his life. So what does science say to us about him, particularly about his resurrection? Science is very capable of explaining to us why dead people stay dead, so, really, the question comes down to:


  • God does not exist, therefore Jesus could not have risen from the dead.


  • God exists, therefore Jesus could have risen from the dead.

So, can it be a sensible, rational thing to believe that God exists–and therefore Jesus' resurrection is possible–even with all that every field of science has taught us over the past centuries? Next week, we'll dig into this consequential question.


Scripture Readings for the Week*:

  • Amos 8:1-12
  • Psalm 52
  • Colossians 1:15-28
  • Luke 10:38-42

A Prayer for the Week*:

Almighty God, the fountain of all wisdom, you know our necessities before we ask and our ignorance in asking: Have compassion on our weakness, and mercifully give us those things which for our unworthiness we dare not, and for our blindness we cannot ask; through the worthiness of your Son Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

*Scripture readings are taken from the Revised Common Lectionary. Weekly prayers are from The Book of Common Prayer. (1) From my perspective, there could be no stronger contradiction in terms, since agnosticism claims that if God exists, we really can't know much about him, while Christianity is based on the claim that a historical person revealed what God is like to the rest of humanity. This could certainly be explored further, but needn't be in this post. (2) Three recommendations, in order from heaviest to least heavy: Knowing Christ Today by Dallas Willard, The Reason for God by Timothy Keller, Avoiding Jesus by Michael Green

[This post is part of How Jesus Got Hold of Me: Why I Believe and Why I Follow]

How We Got Where We are Today

My wife and I lived in Guatemala for a couple of years. It was a fantastic experience for us, and one of the most memorable trademarks of life in Central America is the "chicken bus," which the online Urban Dictionary aptly defines as,

A schoolbus that has been retired from its academic duties in the U.S. to go face a long, slow death in Latin America. Often painted garish colors and includes numerous religious icons, including the Virgin Mary, displayed prominently within the bus in an effort to reassure passengers. The emissions from one chicken bus equal that of four tractor trailers. Chicken buses often carry chickens in addition to other small livestock.(1)

By Greg Willis from Denver, CO, usa (Santiago - Chicken Bus  Uploaded by russavia) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
By Greg Willis from Denver, CO, usa (Santiago - Chicken Bus Uploaded by russavia) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Though I rarely rode on one of these buses in our time there, I had plenty of opportunity to study them while being stuck in traffic. Whoever wrote that entry in the Urban Dictionary noticed one of the same things I did, though I saw the the vast amount of Christian artwork that was displayed on these vehicles from a different perspective. To use the dictionary's example, if a bus was painted with an image of the Virgin Mary: what are the chances that an image of my mom will be painted on any means of transportation two millennia after my lifetime? Or, if the likeness was of Jesus himself: what kind of genius PR plan would someone have to follow to have their face be the most common thing painted on chicken buses in Guatemala two thousand years later? None of the Roman emperors from closer to Jesus' time accomplished this, nor is it likely for any of today's world leaders to be painted on the future's equivalent of the chicken bus somewhere around the year 4000. So, how did we get here? What are the possible courses history could have taken to get Jesus' face on the chicken buses that surrounded me in Guatemala?

I have never heard anyone try to make the case that the depiction of Jesus on those buses proves his resurrection, because that would be foolish. (Jesus' face wasn't the only thing that got painted on the buses, but he was in a different category since none of the other things that appeared frequently, like cartoon characters or silhouettes of nude women, were ever asserted to have any the claim on my life's complete allegiance such as Christianity gives to Jesus.) Even so, in light of questions we have looked at previously about Jesus, I think it's also a mistake to think the chicken buses do nothing to inform us about the intelligibility of thinking of Jesus' resurrection as a historical reality. As I've tried to point out, it is perfectly logical to think that Jesus lived and died, so his likeness on the buses is quickly of a different type from those of Mickey Mouse. And, if he really did live and die, some chain of events has happened between his lifetime and now which makes people think of painting his face on buses and a myriad of other things. That chain of events–including its good, bad, and ugly parts–has to have some kind of explanation. What could it be?

If we were to leave the explanation of that chain of events to those with a strong bias against Christianity, some entertaining theories would undoubtedly surface. But–again–if Jesus was a real historical person, and real historical events have happened relating to him in all of the years since his death, what is most reasonable to believe could have occurred to give history the shape it has taken? Or, as Dallas Willard puts it, "The basic issue here is whether events subsequent to what is claimed as the resurrection of Christ could have been what they are if it hadn't actually happened."(2)

In the context of this question, the most fascinating and most crucial segment of the course that history has taken is within those first few generations following Jesus' death and supposed resurrection. Michael Green notes the following points among those that need to be considered(3):

  1. Jesus, the prisoner of Pilate, really was dead. Though some people have tried to propose that Jesus must not have actually died, but only been beaten into unconsciousness, that explanation fails to take into account one really important thing: Roman soldiers were really, really good at killing people. It takes an immense degree of unsubstantiated "faith" to believe that they failed to kill Jesus.
  2. The tomb was empty. It doesn't make sense to dismiss the stories of Jesus' resurrection by believing the accounts of his life up until the point of his burial, but then concluding that his body must have stayed in a tomb. The claims about his resurrection caused enough of a stir that if his body had never left the tomb where it was buried (either alive or still dead), Jewish and Roman authorities easily could have provided the evidence to stop the stories circulating about him.
  3. The church was born. This point doesn't get enough attention in the way we often talk about whether or not the resurrection could have happened, but is as important as anything else. Willard notes: "The evidence in favor of [Jesus' resurrection] is mainly the transformation of his followers from a small group of highly unqualified and socially marginalized individuals, disgraced and hunted by the authorities, into a force for moral and social regeneration that, within a few generations, was present throughout the Roman Empire and, within a few centuries, had become the dominant form of religion within it. All of this came about without any special advantage other than the words they spoke and the life they lived, without any use of force and even against strong and often deadly opposition."(4)

It is possible to look back and suggest any number of possibilities about how someone/some group of people might have deceived others into believing that Jesus was physically alive again after he had been physically dead. But can any of those theories explain, in an intelligent and honest way, why Christianity began and took the shape it did? I am open to any other explanation, but aware of none, that fits as well as this one: it actually happened.

I am well aware that what I am saying here proves nothing. But the lack of proof doesn't negate the legitimacy of these points: It is perfectly intelligent to believe that he lived, he died, and his rag-tag group of followers started a movement that has resulted in him being the most influential person in world history. If there is any explanation for how that happened superior to the belief that he rose from the dead, every responsible person should pay attention to it. If there is not, every responsible person should re-evaluate the entirety of their lives in light of the likelihood that this crucified messiah actually walked out of his own grave.


Scripture Readings for the Week*:

  • Amos 7:7-17
  • Psalm 82
  • Colossians 1:1-14
  • Luke 10:25-37

A Prayer for the Week*:

O Lord, mercifully receive the prayers of your people who call upon you, and grant that they may know and understand what things they ought to do, and also may have grace and power faithfully to accomplish them; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

*Scripture readings are taken from the Revised Common Lectionary. Weekly prayers are from The Book of Common Prayer. (1) Dallas Willard, Knowing Christ Today, 133(3) See Michael Green, Avoiding Jesus: Answers for Skeptics, Cynics, and the Curious (4) Willard, Knowing Christ Today, 134NT Wright, The Challenge of Jesus, 126

[This post is part of How Jesus Got Hold of Me: Why I Believe and Why I Follow]