The Heart of the Matter

It’s so easy to look at people being knuckleheads in the Bible and think, “those ignorant people! How could they not get it? I would never do that!”

My Bible reading plan has me read passages from different sections of the Bible, which is really helpful especially when you hit Numbers. Assuming you make it past the laws in Leviticus. And then you hit the genealogies in the Chronicles, and you’re tempted to just give up. Reading from different sections has been helpful because it reminds me that the Bible is one grand story of redemption, and that God uses different genres, literary styles, and authors to accomplish this.

This morning, among other sections, I read from Jeremiah 9 and Matthew 23. In Jeremiah, the prophet mourns over his people because “they are all adulterers” (v 2), deceitful, oppressive, and evil, and it’s because of this: they have “stubbornly followed their own hearts and have gone after the Baals.” (v 14) They’re in open, outward, outright rebellion against God by worshiping false gods! And the Lord calls them to repentance.

In Matthew 23, Jesus famously has a rebuke-fest with the scribes and Pharisees, the super religious. They do everything right. These guys even tithed of their mint and dill and cumin! When is the last time you tithed out of your spices? And yet Jesus calls them hypocrites and “white-washed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead peoples’ bones and all uncleanness.” (v 27) They appeared holy and pious, but remained wicked, greedy, and self-indulgent inside.

Israel had turned to other gods to try to find pleasure and salvation. The scribes and Pharisees had turned to law-keeping to find pleasure and salvation. So here we have God calling two groups to repentance: those who do evil, and those who do good. Those who break all the rules and those who are pretty good at keeping all the rules. And interestingly, both passages show that the reason they are both far from God is because what’s on the inside hasn’t been dealt with. They have uncircumcised hearts. (Jer 9:26)

David recognized this need when he pleads to God in Psalm 51, “Create in me a clean heart, o God!” This “man after God’s own heart” knew of the wicked bent of his own heart; he was repenting of sleeping with Bathsheba and having her husband murdered.

The antidote to being bad is not just being good. The Pharisees knew that God was displeased with their ancestors for following other gods, so they thought they could win his favor by being really really good and keeping all of God’s laws. But they, like their ancestors, didn’t really want God. Idolatrous Israel and the hypocritical pharisees were not that different. They both have unchanged hearts.

The gospel confronts the notions that you can find fulfillment by following your own passions and that you can find fulfillment by trying really hard to mold your behavior and outer appearance. By reminding myself, my heart of the gospel every day, I remember that all the pleasures of the world are to be found in God and his love in Christ, so I don’t have to seek it elsewhere. By reminding myself, my heart of the gospel every day, I remember that Christ didn’t die for me because I was beautiful, but to make me beautiful, and so all the good works and behavioral modifications I could ever muster up don’t change that fact.

This frees me to be honest about who we really are, and to be honest about who Christ is. This truth changes our heart, when we’re faced with the overwhelming love and grace of God in Christ.

sheepish faith

Social media has become a place to forge your identity and have your own soapbox to shout from. Opinions on sports, culture, religion, society, Beyonce, dogs, technology, music, and belly button lint, they all litter my Facebook and Twitter timelines. I’ve learned to develop a filter for most of the content I see. But being a person deeply interested in religion, and especially Christianity, my eyes readily focus on those statuses and tweets pertaining to religious thoughts. For many of my friends (myself included), posting Christian quotes, thoughts, and Bible verses is part of the daily social media output. Twitter makes everyone a theologian in 140 characters or less.

And then there are the ones that aren’t so friendly or supportive of religion (or faith, if you prefer that term). Some people like to quote statistics or history or philosophy, and make the claim that belief in the supernatural is just plain silly and archaic.

Recently, I was perusing through the profiles of some old college friends (stalking is such a harsh word) and stumbled upon a guy I hadn’t talked to since my freshman year at UT. Every one of his statuses bashed Christianity and the implausibility of God. And then I saw his “Religious Views” section on his profile: “People are sheep.”

At first read, I was offended and judging him in all sorts of ways (in a Christ-like manner, of course). I mean, the guy was calling those who hold onto faith as mindless, dumb animals! Blindly following the crowd, mindlessly believing anything. As someone deeply rooted in faith and Jesus, this didn’t rub me the right way.

But the more I thought about it, the more it dawned on me the truth of this statement; we are sheep! Even the Bible testifies to this fact in that “all we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned — every one– to his own way.” (Isaiah 53:6)

So my old friend is right, we are sheep! But it isn’t just those of us who are “religious” because even the irreligious and the atheists have been proven to be such. We’re self-absorbed and silly and prone to wander. We blindly set off on our own, breaking from the fold, and search for our own patches of green grass, our own streams of cool water, and whatever paths suit our fancy. We are willing to follow and be led astray by any wind of thought and any person of influence. I’m not an expert on sheep or daily pasture life, but it seems that when sheep wander too far, they usually encounter some kind of trouble, be it wolf, pit, or thief.

The tremendous irony of it all is that in the search of freedom and independence and greener pastures, the sheep is met with loneliness and death.

But all is not bleak, because we’re told there is a Shepherd to guide the sheep: “The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters. He restores my soul; He leads me in the paths of righteousness for His name’s sake.” (Psalm 23:1-3) How fitting that David the shepherd would write this psalm, understanding his own sheep-ways and need for guidance and leading and comfort. But not only does this Shepherd keep watch over His sheep, He also loves His sheep so much as to go after them when they stray away or are lost (Matthew 18:12-14). In the dry wilderness and in the lush pastures, the Shepherd protects and saves His sheep.

When we get to the Gospels, Jesus identifies Himself as this Shepherd when He says,  “I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me,  just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep… My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me.  I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand.” (John 10:14-15, 27-28) The Shepherd knows His sheep, and they (we) know Him as well because He is their (our) Shepherd. Our guide, the One we run to, who protects us, who lays His life down for us. And because we are His, despite our wanderings or our sheep-ish ways, we who are His will always be in His hand, in the protection of His rod, under His love. And if we are His sheep, He is the one we follow, giving up our need for independence and trusting in His goodness and provision.

But even more striking, this same Shepherd is also identified as a Lamb throughout Scripture. An innocent, perfect, spotless lamb that was sacrificed in the stead of guilty, spotted, imperfect sheep. The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29). The Lamb that was slain, but is risen and reigns!

I am indeed a sheep. But I’m a sheep who follows his Shepherd. A Shepherd that is Himself the Lamb of God.

Who are you following?

“My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me.  I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand.” –  Jesus (John 10:27-28)

“For he is our God, and we are the people of his pasture, and the sheep of his hand. Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts, as at Meribah, as on the day at Massah in the wilderness.”  (Psalm 95:7-8)

what’s in a name

What does your name mean?

I got into a conversation with a woman the other day because her son and I shared the same name, except he was Brice with a “y”. I’m the more rare kind. We were talking about how the name Brice/Bryce isn’t that common of a name. In fact, she had wanted to name her son “Ethan” but this didn’t sit too well with the boy’s father, and they couldn’t agree on a name. So one day, while she was still pregnant, the woman and her husband were driving along and stopped at a hole-in-the-wall dive in a small town. As he was using the restroom, the father looked up to see the usual scrawled graffiti on the stalls of public restrooms, but the name of one of these artists caught his eye: “Bryce”. And he loved the name. He told his wife, she liked it, and they decided to give their son that name. Now the whole time she was sharing this story, the little boy just sat behind her, playing with a small toy, listening to the story he undoubtedly had heard dozens of times before. As the mother finished the history of the boy’s name, little Bryce looked up at me with big eyes and asked me the sincerest question I have every been asked:

“Did you get your name from a bathroom too?”

Kids say the darndest things.

My mom actually got my name from “Mr. Belvedere”, a television show from the late 80s/early 90s. It was the name of the little boy on the show, and my mom decided she liked the name. It was either that or Chris…. or Charlie. Thankfully God providentially ruled out Charlie.

My name throws people off sometimes. When people hear “Brice Johnson”, I’m not necessarily the first person they expect to see. Or the second through sixteenth for that matter. You know, that whole being Indian thing. “Sorry, I’m looking for Brice Johnson.” I had people in my classes growing up that asked me what my “real” (Indian) name was.

My freshman year at the University of Texas, I was sitting in class as the professor was calling roll the first day of my Freshman Seminar course. After he finished his list, the elderly professor asked if there was anyone in the class whose name was not called, and another student and I both raised our hands. He peered at us, looked down at his roll sheet, looked up at me and asked, “You must be Vikram.”

Of course I would be Vikram.

Names are powerful things! They carry identity, history, and to an extent, worth. You can be in a large crowded room, but your ears will always catch even the faintest use of your name. You perk up, look around, and immediately tune in to where your name was used. It’s the reason why parents agonize over what to name their children. Unless of course you find a catchy one on a restroom stall.

I looked up the meaning of my name and found out that “Brice” means “speckled”. How appropriate. Indeed, that is how I often view myself, as someone speckled, freckled with huge spots of brokenness. I try and attempt to give off the impression that I’ve got it together, that I’m good, that I’m worthy of some unknowable merit. But I am plagued with depravity, sin and broken relationships. I feel the deep crevices of my brokenness. Like Adam and Eve in the Garden, I try to clothe myself with the scant coverings of shame, of promises to be better. But speckles don’t disappear too quickly. I am Brice, the speckled one.

But I found that “Brice” also has another meaning: “son of a nobleman.” How fitting! Its a gladdening reminder that I’m not just some spotted stranger struggling to enter into grace, but that grace has adopted me into a Royal Family, making me a son of the true Nobleman: the King of kings. My acceptance in this family has ensured me eternal life in the Kingdom with no end. I am loved and cherished and have value, not because I’ve managed to cover my sin speckled self, but because I am in a new family, because the Father has called me His own. It’s a bit of redemption. I am Brice, son of a Nobleman.

Lord, now indeed I find
Thy power, and Thine alone,
Can change the leopard spots
And melt the heart of stone.

Jesus paid it all, all to Him I owe;
Sin had left a crimson stain, He washed it white as snow!

Of course there isn’t mystical power in your name. Your name isn’t a fortune cookie for the outcome of your life. But maybe it can be a reminder that you have worth, that you are more than just the problems and issues piling on you. That you are more than your broken past.

Characters in the Bible recognized the significance of names. For them, it really did carry identity. The Angel of the Lord changed Jacob’s name to “Israel” after the memorable wrestle in the night. Saul of Damascus began going by the name “Paul.” And when the angel announced the magnificent news to the virgin Mary, she was commanded to name her son with a name that means “Yahweh saves.”

And if you’re a Christian, this is the Name you live under, the Name above all names. The Name by which we find our true identity. The Name that takes our botched, ruined selves, and calls us heirs in the Kingdom of God. The Name that redeems our brokenness.

The Name of Jesus.

— The Speckled Son of the Nobleman

Defining Us

What defines America?

Is it our culture? Our religion? Our politics? Our landscape? Our race?

And therein lies the tricky part. You can’t compartmentalize America into any of those categories, because we are more than just that. There is more than one culture in America. More than one religion represented. More than one way of thinking, of looking at things, of living. We are the steamy stew of the West, a cauldron of every culture, religion, and idea on earth.

I was recently asked to write a very brief article on how Christianity has enriched America. I did so, and you can find it alongside other articles about the impact of other religions and faith ideas.

Now, let me lay some things out. I very much believe that Jesus Christ is the only way to eternal life. He is not just “a way”. Jesus takes our brokenness and redeems it, restores us to how things should be. And if you are a follower of Christ, your role is to be His image, to restore the world through Christ.

This article is not meant to be an evangelistic piece, but was solely to show Christianity’s role in our country, and to encourage others to learn more about the faith. Several other faiths and ideas are presented on this website, and they all talk about how America has been enriched by their ideas. I think it’s a very good idea to engage in dialogue with other people who don’t think, talk, or act like us. How do we know how to reach those who don’t know Christ if we ourselves don’t know who they are or what they really believe?

I also encourage you to check out the website. The movement is called DefineUS and it’s purpose is to highlight the diversity in our nation and for greater dialogue between people who think differently.

You can find the link here. To read my article, simply click on my picture.

And if you don’t know yet… I’m the Indian guy with the beard… and a cross on my palm.

So what defines America? Well, that’s a tricky question. But what defines a Christian?

Simple. Jesus.

Angel of Mercy, how did you find me?

We all have those stories. Stories about how things seemed to be going sour, we were helpless, and then… something happened. Coincidental, supernatural, luck, planned… the explanations abound.

Recently, my dad was driving through a part of North Dallas that he wasn’t familiar with. It was the middle of the day, when suddenly one of his tires blew out. His phone was dead and so he couldn’t call AAA or one of us to come help him. He slowly exited the highway and creeped the minivan into a large parking lot, and in the process, nearly stripped everything off the rim of the tire. Looking around, he realized there wasn’t anything around, and the lot was largely deserted. There wasn’t a building to walk to or a gas station to help out. No phone, no people around, and the sun beating down on him.

He decided to try to change the tire, even though he had never done so himself on the minivan. Pulled out the jack, hoisted the vehicle up… and then realized he didn’t know how to take the darn tire off! It wasn’t like taking the tire off a normal car. So he struggled and strained for over 20 minutes, trying to take off the rim of the tire. In the meantime, he was starting to feel faint. See, my dad is diabetic, and he hadn’t eaten in hours. Still no phone, no people around, and the sun beating down on him.

While he was struggling against the stubborn tire, he heard a voice behind him.

“Excuse me sir. Do you need some help?”

My dad whipped around and saw a ragged man in tattered clothing, peering curiously at him from several feet away. Immediately, dad was on his guard. After all, he was in an area he didn’t know, stranded, and without contact with people he knew. And there was a stranger who seemed to come out of an unkempt nowhere. He hesitantly admitted to the stranger his bewilderment and predicament. The man sauntered on over, and by his appearance and the smell radiating off him, dad figured this man had been on the street for quite a while. The stranger proceeded to announce  that he had once been a mechanic, and he could help my dad out, and my dad gladly, yet still cautiously, readily agreed. As he worked on the tire, he revealed that alcohol and bad luck had caused him to lose his job and force him to lose his home and family. He finished up swapping the bad tire with the spare and pointed my dad to an auto shop that was about a mile down the road. My dad gave the stranger some money, thanked him, and thanked God for the stroke of luck. My pops isn’t quite the guy to invite homeless men over for a few nights. Dad got to the auto shop, bought some  new tires, and got some food in his system.

As my dad was telling me this story, he said he was struck by the fact that out of all the people (homeless or not) who could have walked by him at that time of day, it had been someone with knowledge of vehicles and changing tires off a van. It had been someone willing to help. It had been someone who appeared out of nowhere. I offered up that maybe it was a God thing. Dad looked at me and said, “It was definitely a God thing.”

Great story, huh? It oozes of providence. It’s one of those stories that you hear and you say, “Man, God is good! He’s really got your back!”

But I think it’s more than that. It’s not just a sign of our “guardian angel”. It’s more than just a reminder that God is watching over us. I think instances like this one point us to something. I think it points us to the cross.

What? Dude, you’re reading too much into this. Stop making everything so Christian and spiritual.

But really, isn’t this our story? If you’re a Christian, you were like my dad. Spiritually, we were stranded and in need. Except we were stranded in a hot desert with temperatures rocketing above the 100s. And our car was stuck in a deep hole with walls 50 feet high. And there wasn’t a drop of water in sight. And there was quicksand drawing our car and our feet into the belly of the earth. And unknown insects brushed past us as we looked around for help. And as we struggled to get out of the hole on our own, the quicksand sucked us in quicker. We were going nowhere… except down. And this was life for us.

But God.

Such beautiful words, when you see them in the New Testament. They indicate a shift in the course of events, in the course of history.

But God saw us in that predicament, and sent His Son, Jesus, to rescue us. God Himself came down and did what we, on our own, were completely incapable of doing. He pulled us out of the pit and quicksand Himself, washed us, gave us a new car, set us on asphalted roads and adopted us into His family. He sated our thirst with water of everlasting life.

He had no obligations to us. He could have left us stranded. But He sent His Angel of Mercy… His Son.. Himself… to save us. To find us in our life of futility.

Stories like the one my dad experienced aren’t just feel good stories. They serve to remind us about the greatest rescue story of all time. It’s God nudging us and saying, “Hey, does this sound familiar? I did something like this for you. Except I did more.”

Am I reading too much into the story? Am I over-allegorizing it? I don’t think so. It’s like the Old Testament, where Jesus says everything points back to Him.

Remember, we’re not the center of God’s story…

He is.

“For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die— but God shows his love for us in thatwhile we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” -Romans 5:6-8