Tips from Timothy: A True Son, A True Daughter

To Timothy my true son in the faith . . . (1 Timothy 1:2) (NIV)

Today’s is the first in a series of short, weekly devotionals that will be based on the Apostle Paul’s two letters to a young man named Timothy. Paul led Timothy to Jesus, when he brought the Gospel to the town of Lystra in Asia Minor (present-day Turkey). Timothy, the son of a Gentile father and Jewish mother, later accompanied Paul on some of his missionary journeys. (Cf. Acts 14:8-20; Acts 16:1-5) (NIV).

Paul opened his first letter to Timothy by calling him a “true son in the faith.” (1 Timothy 1:2) (NIV). What an incredible affirmation and encouragement! When I read those words, they arrested my attention because I heard in them not only Paul’s voice but also the voice of the Father. Timothy was not only a “true son” to Paul, he also was a “true son” to God.

As I reflected on that description of Timothy, my own heart longed for God to see me as He saw Timothy, and to speak to me those very same words: “Niki, you are My true son in the faith.” Then, in the midst of that longing and deep yearning of my soul, the Lord spoke to me. He affirmed to me that I am “a true son in the faith,” a son with whom He is “well pleased.” (Cf. Matthew 3:17) (NIV). I do not need to hope for a future day in which I will be ‘good enough’ for God to finally see me as a “true son” in whom He delights. That day has already come; it is already here!  And it is not because of anything I have done or accomplished; it is simply because I have put my faith in what His firstborn Son – my Savior, Lord, and older brother – accomplished on my behalf two thousand years ago.

Through my faith in Jesus, I have received the Spirit of adoption that has made me a son of the Living God – a son who, like Jesus, can call Him “Abba, Father.” (Romans 8:15; Mark 14:36) (NIV). It is a life-changing, hope-giving, mind-blowing truth with eternal implications: I am a “true son” of the King of Kings, the Creator of all things, the Ancient of Days.

And the same is true of you: If you have placed your faith in Jesus Christ, you are a “true” son or daughter of God Most High. You have been clothed in His righteousness; you have been imbued with His power; you have been enthroned beside Him in heavenly places; and you have been made a co-heir with Jesus to an eternal inheritance of incalculable value and indescribable glory. (Cf. 2 Corinthians 5:21; Acts 1:8; Ephesians 2:6; Romans 8:17-18) (NIV). No matter how many times you stumble, no matter how many times you fail, no matter how many times you fall short, no matter how poor or negative your image of (or thoughts about) yourself, your Heavenly Father sees you as and speaks of you as His “true son,” His “true daughter.”

See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are! (1 John 3:1) (NIV).


God’s Word Never Fails

The stories of Zechariah and Mary teach us the importance of faith.  Zechariah doubted God’s word when Gabriel promised him that he and his wife, Elizabeth, would conceive and give birth to a son. They had prayed for years that God would give them a child. Yet, in that glorious moment when God told Zechariah that his prayers would be answered, Zechariah succumbed to doubt and asked Gabriel how he could be “sure” of God’s promise. (Luke 1:18) One would think that if God’s word were not evidence enough, certainly the means by which it was delivered should have sufficed. How could Zechariah doubt a promise of God that was declared to him by an angelic messenger who stood “in the presence of God”? (Luke 1:19).
We often think that if we had a supernatural encounter with the Lord, it would be easier for us to believe in Him or to believe a promise He has made to us.  Zechariah’s story, however, proves otherwise!  Scripture says that he was “righteous in the sight of God.” (Luke 1:9).  But even an angelic encounter was not enough to overcome Zechariah’s doubt — a doubt that likely had grown like a weed in his soul each day his prayers had gone unanswered, and slowly had begun to strangle his faith.
In response to Zechariah’s doubt, God silenced him, rendering him mute until John’s birth.  At first blush, this might seem like a pretty harsh form of discipline.  But God was doing more than disciplining Zechariah, He was protecting him.  Silencing Zechariah for the next nine months shielded him from further dishonoring God with his lips by continuing to question the reliability and veracity of His promise.  Even after Elizabeth conceived, it is possible that Zechariah continued to struggle with doubt, wondering if his aged wife could carry the child full-term.
In short, Zechariah’s discipline was a reflection of God’s love and mercy! It also teaches us, however, that when God makes a promise to us, He wants us to speak and respond in faith as Mary did.  When Gabriel visited Mary, she did not question if God would do what He had promised; she simply asked how He would do it. It was a question born of a reverent curiosity and a holy wonder (“How will this be[?]”), Luke 1:34). In many ways, God’s promise to Mary was harder to believe than His promise to Zechariah.  At least God’s promise to Zechariah had precedent in Scripture (e.g., Abraham and Sarah).  Never before, however, had a virgin conceived, much less given birth to the Son of God!
Mary’s response to God’s promise was three-fold. First, she believed it. Second, she received and embraced it — she submitted her will to the Lord’s, aligning her heart to desire for herself what God desired for her.  And, finally, she worshipped the Lord and gave thanks to Him for His promise, an outward sign and overflow of her inward work of believing:
 “I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May your word to me be fulfilled.”      . . . And Mary said: “My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant.” (Luke 1:38, 46-48. See also John 6:29).
When Zechariah’s son was born, he followed Mary’s example. He believed and embraced God’s promise, and worshipped Him for it: “Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel . . . .” (Luke 1:64, 68).  The difference, however, is that Zechariah believed God after the fact, while Mary believed Him before the promise was fulfilled. Her faith expressed itself in a “confidence” of what she hoped for, and in an “assurance” of what she did not see. (Hebrews 11:1).
God fulfilled the seemingly impossible promises He made to Zechariah and Mary, and He will do the same for you and me. “For no word from God will ever fail.” (Luke 1:37). Between the declaration of the promise and its fulfillment, however, we must together do the hard work of believing and declaring that which is not as though it were!
Heavenly Father, I pray that you would encourage us, reminding us of the promises You have made to us and that not a single word You have spoken to us will ever fail.  May Your promises no longer overwhelm us with a bitter disappointment and cynicism that is fueled by doubt.  Instead, may Your promises fill us with a joyous anticipation, an unshakeable hope, and an unwavering assurance that is sustained by our faith in You and in Your goodness. Amen.

On the Way!

Jesus told His disciples: “There is more than enough room in my Father’s home. If this were not so, would I have told you that I am going to prepare a place for you?  When everything is ready, I will come and get you, so that you will always be with me where I am. And you know the way to where I am going.” (John 14:2-4) (NLT).

There is room for each and every one of us in our Father’s house.  He offers each of us a place, a purpose, and a position of eternal significance in His Kingdom! “Come one, come all,” He calls.

The only thing required of us is to do what all of us naturally and instinctively do when we travel somewhere: Follow the prepared way — the predesigned route — to our destination.  Today, most of us use MapQuest, a Garmin, or some other GPS device to guide us to our destination.  Jesus is the divine equivalent of the predesigned road systems that enable us to reach our travel destinations.  And He also is the spiritual analog of the GPS devices that guide us to those destinations!

In John 14:6 (NLT), Jesus says, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one can come to the Father except through me.”  In other words, Jesus is The Way to our final terminus.  He is the Divine Road that leads to Heaven — there is no other path, there is no other way!  Pretty straightforward!  And His travel directions are equally elementary: “Follow Me,” He says. “Follow The Way!” (Cf. Matthew 9:9; John 14:6).

The roadway to heaven is a person, Jesus Christ; it’s not a constellation of rules, regulations, and rituals.  Our directions simply are to place our faith in the Way, Jesus, and follow Him all the way to our final destination, our heavenly abode.  That God has designed such a simple path (and such simple directions) to His heavenly Kingdom is yet another testament to His unfathomable love for us. The road may be narrow, but the Way is clear.

I am on The Way! I am headed Home.  I know my Heavenly Father will have a radiant residence for me and for anyone else on the same journey.  Right now, I’m looking for some more travel companions. Anyone interested in joining me on this glorious journey?    . . . Anyone?

To Be or Not to Be?

Then Jesus said to Simon, “Don’t be afraid; from now on you will fish for people.” (Luke 5:10).
Jesus had vision for His disciples.  As a pastor, I get really excited when the Lord gives me insight into how He is working in someone’s life, and who He is shaping that person to become. It is exhilarating to catch a glimpse of the wonderful things my Heavenly Father has in store for someone I love.  This passage of Scripture is a sobering reminder of the profound responsibility that comes with this tremendous privilege.
After His Heavenly Father gave Jesus this insight into what Simon would do, Jesus dedicated the rest of His earthly ministry to transitioning Simon from being a fisherman to becoming a Fisher of Men. He spent three years teaching and modeling for Simon what it meant to be a Fisher of Men, and releasing him to apply what he was learning. (Cf. Mark 6:7). If that is where Jesus had stopped, I think I (and most other pastors) would find discipling and shepherding challenging but manageable.  Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, however, record that Jesus also gave His life so that Simon could become a Fisher of Men, so that he could become Peter — the rock upon which Jesus would build His church. (See Matthew 16:18).  Jesus gave all that He had, even pouring out His own life, so that Simon could become Peter, a Fisher of Men.
The implications for my own life and ministry are clear.  When the Lord grants me the privilege of receiving spiritual insight into who He has made (and is shaping) someone to be, that privilege is granted with an attendant responsibility: personal sacrifice. Like Jesus, more is required of me than teaching or modeling the things of the Kingdom.  I also must be willing to sacrifice all that I am in Christ so that someone else can become all that God has purposed for him or her to be in Christ! I must be willing not to be (to die) so that another might become!
To be or not to be? That is indeed the fundamental question for anyone who serves as a shepherd for the Most High!

The Gospel in Laughter

“You became imitators of us and of the Lord, for you welcomed the message in the midst of severe suffering with the joy given by the Holy Spirit.” — 1 Thessalonians 1:6.

One of the things I love most about my wife is her stentorian laugh. I cannot count the number of times that crowds in churches, movie theaters, or comedy shows have gotten to know me and my wife because of her inimitable laugh. She has one of those turn-your-head-and-strain-your-eyes-to-find-out-where-that-thunderous-sound-is-coming-from kind of laughs — one of those laughs that cannot be ignored, even if you try (and, believe me, I have). When she finds something funny, she throws her head back, braces her diaphragm with her hands, and lets loose a raucous torrent of booming guffaws, which she ultimately concludes with a dainty and tasteful tee-hee.

For many years, she tried to control her intractable laugh, or at least make it more melodious and musical. But she never succeeded! So, today, she embraces her laugh and allows herself to communicate those spontaneous and raucous moments of joy without restraint. And I have come to embrace her laugh, as well. I love it! Yes, it often embarrasses me. But I love how that cacophonous tsunami of joy bursts forth from deep within her soul and floods the ears and hearts of everyone around her. Her laughter is so emphatic, and the joy it expresses is so pure and primal, that it compels people to turn their heads, looking for the answer to an unspoken question they all share — namely, What’s so funny?

I am struck by the realization that my wife’s laugh, and how people respond to it, is a beautiful illustration of how the Gospel is communicated most effectively in laughter and joy. As a follower of Jesus, I am a herald of the best and happiest news in the world. I have every reason to be filled with joy and hope because I know that Jesus Christ, the Son of the Living God, has secured salvation and the forgiveness of sins for all mankind. Never will there be better news than that! Never will there be more reason to rejoice than to know that we all can be saved by God’s grace, if we place our faith in Jesus!

I have the best and happiest news in the world; it follows that my life and demeanor should reflect that truth. My presence should carry with it the same kind of joy my wife communicates through her laughter. My countenance should be so loud and raucous with unrestrained joy that people are compelled to stop, turn their heads and ask, “What’s so funny?” This is the Gospel in laughter.

The Church & The Politics of Identity

The politics of identity has been with us ever since the Fall of mankind.  The Book of Genesis tells us that man and woman were created in the image of God. (Genesis 1:26-27).  In the beginning, their identity was rooted completely in their intimate relationship with God as His image-bearers.  But when Adam and Eve rebelled against their Maker, their identity as image-bearers of God was shattered, driving them to a crisis of identity and to the genesis of identity politics in human society.  This new politics of identity would find its primordial expression in sexism and the struggle for power between the two genders: “Then [God] said to the woman, . . . “[Y]ou will desire to control your husband, but he will rule over you.’” (Genesis 3:16b) (NLT).

In the generations that ensued, the politics of identity would expand from sexism to encompass, inter alia, clanism, tribalism, ethnicism, racism, classism, nationalism, and religionism.  Man became obsessed with finding a way to unify his now fractured and fragmented identity.  He desperately sought a unifying reality that would: (i) restore an integrated understanding of self; (ii) recreate a meaningful (even eternal) sense of purpose; (iii) and reestablish a functional paradigm that (re)conceptualized and (re)defined his horizontal relationship with the temporal and his vertical relationship with the transcendent (assuming there even were such a thing).

Unfortunately, Man’s efforts to repair his fractured identity could not restore what had been broken.  The politics of identity did not lead him closer to the peace and unity, much less the comprehensive sense of self and the clarity of meaning and purpose, that he enjoyed before the Fall.  Instead, identity politics drove Man even farther from Eden — it led to increases in conflicts, wars, misunderstandings, and confusion.  Jesus Christ, however, came to restore what had been lost.  He came to re-integrate Man’s identity as an image-bearer of his Maker, and to restore Man’s relationship with God through His sacrifice on the Cross.

In so doing, Jesus established a New Order whereby Man’s identity could be fully re-integrated with his Creator through Jesus Himself.  Specifically, by placing our faith in Jesus to reconcile us with God, and to fully reestablish us as His image-bearers, we become one with Jesus, and His identity becomes our own.  His Spirit comes to live within us, and we begin to share in His purpose, destiny, and divine inheritance. (Cf. Matthew 28:18-20; John 14:12, 17:20-22; Romans 8:17; 1 Corinthians 12:27; Galatians 3:28).

Under Jesus’ New Order, all who place their faith in Him experience a rebirth and renewal of their identities as perfect image-bearers of their Creator.  In this New Order, Man (re)discovers a holistic sense of self; (re)gains an understanding of his transcendent purpose; recovers his inheritance as a child (and image-bearer) of God; and, through God’s written Word, receives divine revelation for understanding and processing his relationships with the horizontal and vertical elements of his existence.  As a result, Man now has the potential to live at peace with his Creator, with himself, and with others.

Jesus established the Church to be both the herald and the embodiment of His redemptive and restorative work in a fallen world.  Unfortunately, however, the politics of identity have threatened the Church’s witness since its inception.  Since the moment it was conceived by the Spirit of Jesus, the Church has found itself struggling to live according to its new identity in Him, as opposed to the fractured and divisive politics of identity in this world.

The Apostle Paul recognized the danger of identity politics in the early Church, and spoke forcefully against it.  He reminded the Galatian Christians that, in Christ, “[t]here is no longer Jew or Gentile [i.e., neither racism or ethnicism], slave or free [i.e., no classism], male and female [i.e., no sexism]”; rather, they all were “one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28)(NLT).  Paul also warned against a form of religionism that threatened to compromise the Corinthian Church — denominationalism.  In 1 Corinthians 1 and 3, Paul lovingly corrected the Corinthian Christians with these words:

One of you says, “I follow Paul”; another, “I follow Apollos”; another, “I follow Cephas”; still another, “I follow Christ.” Is Christ divided? . . .

[S]ince there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not worldly? Are you not acting like mere humans? For when one says, “I follow Paul,” and another, “I follow Apollos,” are you not mere human beings?

What, after all, is Apollos? And what is Paul?

. . . So then, no more boasting about human leaders! All things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future—all are yours, and you are of Christ, and Christ is of God.  (1 Corinthians 1:12-13a; 3:3b-5a, 21-23)(NIV).

For centuries, however, the Church has continued to be seduced by the politics of identity.  Indeed, it was the politics of religionism and denominationalism in England that catalyzed the colonization and, ultimately, the founding of the United States of America.  As America’s founding fathers began to develop new communities in a new world, they theorized that perhaps the solution to the divisive and destructive politics of identity was to ground Man’s identity in a principle, rather than in a polity or political institution (which the Church in Europe had become).

And so, our founders proposed a novel philosophical solution to the politics of identity — they invited their fellow American colonists not to unity behind a particular party, polity, or prelacy, but rather to unity behind a singular, comprehensive, and transcendent principle that was articulated by Thomas Jefferson, a leading apostle of the nascent American Experiment: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”  This American Experiment was creative, inspiring, alluring, and provocative.  But it, too, has failed to resolve the seemingly intractable problem of the politics of identity, because the answer to the problem cannot be found in a principle, it can only be found in a person — Jesus.  This is a truth that the Church often has neglected and/or forgotten over the centuries and, as a result, it: (i) has left Man vulnerable to continue seeking ways of mending, comprehending, and defining his fractured self through the politics of identity; and (ii) has become increasingly vulnerable itself to the divisive and destructive nature of identity politics.

Today, the politics of identity is threatening to tear both our nation and the Church asunder.   Politicians, pundits, propagandists, professors, and, yes, even pastors act as proponents of identity politics, increasing and expanding the destruction it engenders.  Indeed, rather than bringing unity and clarity to human relationships, our identity politics is increasing division, misunderstanding, confusion, and even hatred.  The racial escalations that followed the Ferguson and Baltimore tragedies; the media’s recent irresponsible and inflammatory hype and insinuations surrounding the church arsons in recent days; the elevation of sexual orientation to a position of primacy in defining identity; the argument that a person who is genetically male may legitimately self-identify as female, or that a person who is genetically female may legitimately self-identify as male (cf. Genesis 1:27) — all of these reflect the division, confusion, and destructiveness attendant to an obsession with identity politics.

It saddens me that rather than offering the clarity, unity, freedom and peace that grounding our identity in Jesus brings, the Church in America instead has largely adopted our culture’s destructive and divisive mindset — it continues to divide itself along denominational/theological lines, along ethnic and racial lines, and even along gender and political lines:

  • Baptists and Reformed Christians continue to deride Pentecostals as theologically shallow-minded, and Pentecostals continue to dismiss Baptists and Reformed Christians as unspiritual.
  • White Americans, Hispanics, Asians, and African-Americans often cloister themselves in congregations with members of the same race or ethnicity.  And denominations (including my own) often institutionalize these divisions by organizing themselves into districts (groups of churches) that are divided according to race and/or ethnicity.
  • Socially conservative churches disparage socially liberal churches as heretical, and socially liberal churches vilify socially conservative churches as intolerant and bigoted.

By succumbing to the politics of identity, the Church in America is compromising its witness and its ability to serve as a transformational agent of redemption and reconciliation in our culture.  We possess the answer to mankind’s millennia-long quest to rediscover its true identity and to re-experience the horizontal and vertical peace, unity, and clarity of purpose Adam and Eve enjoyed in Eden.  Our answer is found not in a political ideology, nor in a psychological assessment, nor in a philosophical principle, but rather in a person — Jesus Christ.  If the Church (re)embraces that truth, and if it chooses to live in a manner that is more consistent with that truth, then the politics of identity will lose its grip on the Church and on our society, and it will be replaced with the only identity that truly matters — the identity available to every human being through Jesus Christ.

In the Book of Revelation, the Apostle John describes the eschatological fulfillment of Jesus’ redemptive work. It is a new era in which gender, race, nationality, class, party affiliation, and denomination no longer matter, a time when an innumerable multitude of people from every nation, tribe, and tongue will worship Jesus together, and in unity, before His throne. (Revelation 7:9-10).  John’s prophetic vision is a hope-filled reminder to the Church that it already embodies and represents the potential of this future eschatological reality.  It is a reality God intends not only for tomorrow, but for today!  And He has created His Church to be the bridge between the now and the not yet, to be the means by which He invades our present circumstance with this future hope.

Shall we begin?

Quid est veritas?

During his interrogation of Jesus, Pontius Pilate asked this Jewish itinerant rabbi if He was a King. (John 18:33) (NIV). Jesus answered that He was the King of a Kingdom that is not of this world, and that anyone who was “of the Truth”, who was “a friend of the Truth”, or who “belong[ed] to the Truth” would hear and heed His voice. (John 18:37) (AMP). In response, Pilate famously asked: Quid est veritas? (What is truth?). (John 18:38) (NIV).

Quid est veritas?  This is the question to end all questions.  For the purpose, meaning, and significance of our existence hinges on its answer.  Until Jesus revealed His identity to the world, generation after generation had wrestled with this mystery, offering answers that were at times prosaic and at times prolific, but never irrefutable and never complete.

The poet found truth in poesy, the politician found truth in propaganda, the philosopher found truth in propositions, the painter found truth in passion, and the potentate found truth in power. But Jesus proclaimed to all Creation that Truth is in fact a Person: “I am the Way and the Truth and the Life[.]” (John 14:6) (AMP).  The implications of this revelation are awe-inspiring: Truth transcends language, logic, passions, and force; it is a Person — Jesus, the Christ. In Him (the Life) and through Him (the Way), we discover our purpose, our meaning, our significance . . . everything!

St. Augustine once said, “The truth is like a lion; you don’t have to defend it. Let it loose; it will defend itself.”  The Truth is indeed a lion — Scripture calls Jesus the Lion of Judah. (Revelation 5:5) (NIV).  As a mighty lion, He requires no defense.  And as a Person, He ultimately cannot be found or grasped through logic, passion, power, aphorism or rune.  He is found through introduction, and He is understood through relationship.

Quid est veritas?  Jesus is veritatem.

The Beltway Pastor: An Introduction

Washington, D.C. (“D.C.”) has been called many things by many people. Charles Dickens once called it a “City of Magnificent Intentions” because in his time it had yet to fulfill the august aspirations of its founders. During the era in which the Truman Doctrine was formulated, the Marshall Plan was created, and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) was established, Clark Clifford, an influential political advisor to several Democratic Presidents, described D.C. as the “capital of the world.”  My personal favorite, however, is one of the city’s earliest nicknames — the “American Rome.”  The nickname reflected the hopes George Washington had for the city that bore his name. His vision was that D.C. would become not only a polestar of politics but also a cynosure of commerce.

Today, D.C. still could be described as a “City of Magnificent Intentions” — it continues to embody America’s noblest ambitions, many of which are yet to be achieved. It also arguably remains the “capital of the world” — its global influence and footprint have  expanded exponentially since the days of President Truman. But I believe the “American Rome” most accurately captures what D.C. has become — a confluence of cultures, a center of national and international political power, a concourse of commerce, a stronghold of matchless military might, and a fulcrum of economic prosperity.

Like ancient Rome, D.C. also is a city of contrasts and contradictions — its streets are populated by princes and paupers; its corridors of power house our highest virtues and entertain our basest corruptions; it is a temple of atheism and religion, of skeptics and saints; its monuments are stoic historians and silent heralds, stone memorials celebrating America’s past glories and majestic oracles anticipating its future promise.

I hope you will join me as I journal my journey through life, ministry, and history in the American Rome.