The Deep Tragedy of Gollum

21 January 2021

This post owes a little something to Peter Leithart’s book Deep Comedy, which you should buy and read.

A friend of mine–reading through Lord of the Rings again–asked if Gollum is dumb and just doesn’t connect the dots, or he’s really smart and speaks brokenly to make people think he’s dumb. I think neither.

Gollum is highly intelligent. He is also driven by a singular desire to possess something that isn’t his to possess. It’s not quite true that nothing else matters to him; he still loves the simple pleasure of eating a fish, for example. But the desire for the Ring warps him in on himself until there’s very little else left. We catch glimpses of who he was, who he could have been. There are moments when you feel like Frodo almost reaches him. But in the end, he’d rather die with the Ring than live without it.

In the pre-Christian days, tragic figures were written to inspire pity and terror at their inexorable fate; Oedipus is doomed from the moment his parents fling him into the sea. Gollum is a deeper kind of tragedy, precisely because there is a way out, but he won’t take it. No malevolent fates are required; he manufactures his own destruction. It’s a state anyone can fall into.

If Gollum doesn’t scare you, you’re not paying attention.


Isaiah in Context

19 January 2021

I had the opportunity to speak at Faith Community Church in Littleton a couple weeks back.

Here’s the sermon.


40,000 Reasons to Reconsider Seminary

12 January 2021

So let’s talk about seminary. You ship yourself off for two to four years of preparation, and come out the end ready to go, a newly-minted ministry professional. What’s not to love, right?

Well…

You’re attending an Institution of Higher Learning. There are Impressive Buildings, Distinguished Faculty Members, and Excellent Administrators (more layers of them every year!). There’s a library measured in acres (which will be named the Big Donor Resource Center; “library” is entirely too prosaic). It’s a wonderful place to read and study, it really is. (I get it; I love the smell of books too!) But you know who pays for all that academic and architectural bling? You do. Sure, generous donors cover some of it–note the bronze nameplates everywhere–but you cover a significant portion.

So what does that look like? As I write this, I’m looking at a fairly typical degree plan from Major Seminary (I won’t mention which one). It’s a three-year M.Div. requiring 78 credit hours, at about $580/hour, for a total of $45,240. (Another one I’m looking at totals just under $60K, so you’re getting off cheap with that first one. Count your blessings.) Unless you’re pretty rich, you can’t afford that, so you’re going the student loan route. If you borrow the whole amount, you’ll come out saddled with about $500 a month in loan payments, for 10 years–which would be absolutely crippling. But that’s silly. Of course you’re going to work while you’re in school; let’s say that you can afford to pay a little under half the school bill as you go, so you only need to borrow $25,000. (By the way, that means you’re paying over $550/month during your 3 years of school; good luck!) After you get out, your monthly loan payment will be roughly $275. A little more doable.

You graduate and take an entry-level job in a ministry field, paying, what? $30,000, if you’re lucky? That’s $2500 a month. More than a tenth of your meager income is going to your student loan. And then the kids come….

But it gets worse, because that’s assuming you land a full-time job. Let’s be honest, those jobs aren’t exactly growing on trees. More and more of us are bivocational, because our ministries just can’t afford to fund full-time workers. At the last church I worked for, every person on the pastoral staff was bivocational; we all had one or more side gigs that we needed, just to make ends meet. The few full-time jobs that are available usually require 3-5 years of experience. So probably you don’t land one of those right away.

How are you planning to gain experience? Well, you’ll take a youth or associate pastor gig that pays $600 or maybe $1000 a month for what they’ll say is 10-15 hours a week (actually 20+), and then you’ll do something else on the side. Barista, bus driver, parking valet, waiter–the kind of jobs that have flexible hours so you can do the ministry work. You’ll be bouncing back and forth between your “side gig” — which actually pays most of your expenses–and your ministry job, struggling to get by, and paying an extra $275 a month for your student loans…for 10 years.

Sounds fun, yeah?

I thought not. There is another way, an older way. A way closer to what Jesus did, a way that the Church used for centuries, until very recently. It’s better than grad school–and coincidentally, it doesn’t leave you in crippling debt. What if we tried that?


Epiphany: Academics Take the Long Road

6 January 2021

The shepherds came to see Jesus the same night He was born; Simeon and Ana recognized Him when He was eight days old. It took the Magi two years to get there, and the priests? Well…many came to know Him eventually (Acts 6:7), but many more never got there at all.

The academics always take longer. They have questions, objections, arguments. The Magi had to search their books and star charts. The priests had their theological difficulties with Jesus, and besides, by what authority was He doing these things? He wasn’t even an ordained rabbi. He was a construction worker, for crying out loud! But the things Jesus did became the credential: “The works I do in My Father’s name bear witness of Me.” And again: “Go and tell John what you see: the blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have the gospel preached to them.” 

Tough to argue with that. That’s the life the incarnate Jesus invites us into. The divine nature, as it is, can flow through humans, just as we are, and we know this, because it’s already happened. You may not have the best explanations about Jesus and maybe people can argue rings around you. That’s okay. Just live your life as Jesus did—guided by the Father and empowered by the Holy Spirit—and let that be your credential.

Who can argue with life?


The Twelfth Day of Christmas: Legacy

5 January 2021

“These are My mother and brothers,” Jesus said. As rich as that can be, we were also made to pair off and reproduce. But the world is broken. Some never find that person; some who do turn out to be infertile. For those of us in one of those categories, our lives can become tragically empty as we get older. In the new family that Jesus is building, that never need be the case.

In Jesus’ family, He acknowledges the wound, and promises to transcend it: “Sing, you barren…for more are the children of the desolate than of the married woman” and again, “Nor let the eunuch say, ‘Here I am, a dry tree,’…to them I will give in My house and within My walls a place and a name better than that of sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that will not be cut off.” 

Let us not forget, Jesus Himself died childless at 33. We don’t imagine that He has no family; why do we think that we don’t? If He can stand and say, “Here am I, and the children God has given me” — a phrase from Isaiah that the author of Hebrews puts (metaphorically) in His mouth at the height of a dizzying display of synthetic Old Testament Messianic theology — then what’s stopping us from claiming the same family? 

What’s His is ours; that was the whole point.


The Eleventh Day of Christmas: Mother and Brothers

4 January 2021

While Jesus was sitting in a house teaching one day, they told Him His mother and brothers were waiting outside to see Him. He gestured around the room and said “These are My mother and brothers. Whoever does the will of God is My mother and brother and sister.” How can He do that?

Modern people know better than anybody that you can’t just declare a new family willy-nilly. We’ve tried over and over with fandoms and music and various brand loyalties. Just because we both like Mustangs or My Chemical Romance or Glocks doesn’t mean we have to see each other at Thanksgiving. Declaring a new family takes serious spiritual horsepower. It takes a superior blood tie to supplant the blood of the clan—and in Jesus, we have that. But do we use it?

It’s a bit like we’ve been given a mansion—title, keys, the whole bit—but we’re reluctant to go inside and see what the rooms look like. Being united to Jesus, we are united to each other. But we can only reap the benefits of that union if we’re willing to explore it. I’ve been exploring seriously for the past 16 years, and y’all…it’s amazing. These are the people who rebuke me when I’m wrong, support me when I’m weak, heal me when I’m broken. They’ve seen me at my neurotic worst and helped me be my best. It’s real.

We just gotta go do it.


The Tenth Day of Christmas: Multicolored Wisdom

3 January 2021

God’s insane risk tolerance allows Him to use particular people—sinful ones at that—to represent Him. It seems the craziest thing in the world. Men and women, adults and children, every tribe and socioeconomic station, all gathered together in one group—how can that possibly work? What do they have in common that’s stronger than what divides them?

It’s not what, it’s who. The Epistle to the Ephesians, Paul’s meditation on unity, lays it out: in the Church, people from all races and walks of life are united to Christ, and therefore to each other. Before the very principalities and powers that kept us divided in the old world, the Church displays the “multicolored wisdom of God.” The fact that we can unite without being perfect makes it an even greater miracle.

If we are going to become fit for the Kingdom to come, if we are going to try to cram as much heaven into the present as possible, then we have to work together. In Jesus, we can. We come to one Table together, hear one another, discern God’s voice together without regard for station. Seem like a pipe dream? I see it happen every week. Perfectly? Of course not. But truly—and if it’s real, then the kingdom of God has come upon you; heaven is touching earth.

Come and see.


The Ninth Day of Christmas: A Humble God

2 January 2021

If the particularity and ordinariness of Jesus is offensive, the ordinariness of His people is even worse. It’s one thing for God to work through Jesus, the man without sin. But what are we to make of Christians? Vanity, greed, lust, envy…you can find all the seven deadlies hard at work in the church nearest you. I promise.

The humility of God knows no bounds. It would have been enough for infinite God to squeeze through a birth canal and manifest in the perfect man Jesus, but He doesn’t stop there. He would rather be imperfectly present to your neighbor through your flesh and blood than be perfectly absent in the sky somewhere, safely removed from any danger that you might tarnish His reputation.

Raises the stakes, doesn’t it? You, as a human, are the image of God. You can’t opt out. Your character and conduct either reflect God’s as a good image, or they lie about Him. What’s it gonna be? The good news is, if you’re even margially willing, He won’t leave you as you are; He will pay any cost to make you fit for the job. He doesn’t care where you started; St. Paul was a terrorist and murderer, and look what God did with him.

Gives me hope.


The Eighth Day of Christmas: Fit to Rule

1 January 2021

The anonymous author of the book of Hebrews meditates extensively on who Jesus was and what He did. Because all God’s children partake of flesh and blood, so did Jesus our brother. Because we die, so did Jesus. He was tempted in every way like us, but without sin.

After a wind-up like that, you expect to hear a blistering challenge: “No excuses! Quit whining! Work harder, you lazy bums!” Instead, it says He sympathizes. “Let us come boldly…so that we might find mercy and obtain grace to help when we need it.” Precisely because Jesus knows how hard it is, He never wants us to be afraid to come to Him. Jesus wants us to ask for help.

Help with what? What are we striving for? ““What is man?…You have put all things under his feet.” The old world was under the care of angels, but God “has not put the world to come in subjection to angels.” As we move toward the future, this man Jesus, our elder brother, has ascended to rule the world to come—and He is bringing us with Him. This life is where we forge character fit to rule the world.

We need all the help we can get.


The Seventh Day of Christmas: From One Blood

31 December 2020

When Paul was invited to address the philosophers of Athens, he knew he was talking to a culture that divided the world into just two categories: Greeks and barbarians. Against that, Paul proclaimed that God “made from one blood every nation of men under heaven.” Every nation’s circumstances were orchestrated by God “so that they might grope after Him and find Him,” Paul said, and then added, “though He is not far from each one of us.” No special advantage for being Greek.

That was offensive enough, but Paul wasn’t done. God calls everyone to repent, he said, because He “has appointed a day on which He will judge the world…by the man whom He has chosen.” He is talking, of course, of Jesus—not a Greek, not even a scholar, but a Galilean construction worker!

It is one thing to judge the world from on high. God could do that, but in Jesus, He did something very different. He subjected Himself to the limitations of flesh, was tired, hungry, and cold, was tempted as we are, unjustly slandered and judicially murdered—and faced it all without sin. He is not only a model for us all, He is the end to our precious pretensions. Before the true divine man, we are no better than anyone else, and we have no special excuses for our failures. We are simply human.

So was He, and that is the point.