Our Own Elsas

17 September 2019

So I’m sitting in Johnny’s Pizza on my lunch break, and the radio’s playing. “Red Letters” by Crowder. “Play that Funky Music” by Wild Cherry. “Let it Go” by Idina Menzel.

Let It Go?

How many songs from a Disney kids’ movie are getting radio play 6 years later?

The movie came out in 2013. In pop culture, that’s ancient history. To put it in perspective, that’s the same year Planes, World War Z, and Iron Man 3 came out. You don’t see anything off those sound tracks getting airtime.

But here is Idina Menzel on the radio, singing the one thing from that movie that turned out to be an enduring addition to our cultural legacy (enduring in pop culture terms, anyway).

The plot of the film follows princess Elsa through her journey:

  • hiding her ability (and loathing herself because she has it),
  • exposure to the whole kingdom
  • her community fears and rejects her
  • she isolates herself from the community, freezing the whole kingdom and nearly committing murder as a result
  • she eventually comes to terms with her ability, the community receives her, and she’s able to use her gifts for the benefit of the community.

Now, taking a look at that story arc, ask yourself: which one of those story beats is immmortalized in the song that has outlasted every other part of the movie?

It’s not the ending, where Elsa integrates with her community. No, it’s when she’s maximally alienated, inadvertently freezing the whole kingdom, and about to nearly kill a few people. (On that last: if this were an action movie instead of an animated kids’ flick, Elsa would definitely have killed the two assassins, with the audience cheering her on.)

When she doesn’t care about anyone. When she is ignoring everyone else so hard that she’s destroying her entire country–that’s what resonated with the culture so well that we’re still playing it on the radio 6 years later. For that matter, that’s what resonated with the makers of the film so much that they built the musical centerpiece of the film around it (no such iconic anthem adorns the narrative climax of the film, or the resolution). Why is that?

Because as a culture, this is where we are. We identify with mid-film Elsa — alienated, isolated, unwittingly destructive, possibly murderous. And you know what? There are some things to repent of there, but there’s also something to celebrate. Elsa’s story didn’t stop there; ours doesn’t have to either.

We live in a cultural moment when the supernatural is making a comeback. We went through a phase of profound materialism; we didn’t believe in miracles; we believed in electricity, vacuum cleaners, penicillin, and 401(k) plans. But we’re waking up. And waking up, many people—who were told their own version of “conceal, don’t feel” in early life—are now going through Elsa’s teenage rebellion.

They absorbed the culture’s fear and rejection until they couldn’t take it anymore, couldn’t hide it anymore, and now they’re done. And they don’t care about a culture that didn’t care about them. My hope and prayer for them is that they recognize this as a stage that will pass, and they grow up and reintegrate, as Elsa did.

We like to think that in the church, none of this has much to do with us. Baloney.

We accommodated the culture, hugely. We suppressed the supernatural in our midst — we were (sometimes) happy to believe in miracles and supernatural doings in the past, so long as we could remain safely insulated by the padding of many centuries. Many of us refuse to believe such things even in church history, still less in the present day. When it comes to supernatural doings in the church, if it’s not in Acts, it didn’t happen, and if it is in Acts, it’s “transitional,” not to be expected today. They get you going and coming — and this is why many people with genuine supernatural gifting find no home in the churches.

But we cannot afford such comforting lies. We have our own Elsas out there on the mountainside. It’s time to go get them.

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Leaving Well

10 September 2019

Having left more than a few places, and on a variety of terms, I have a few thoughts to share about what it looks like to leave well.

  • Fighting
    • Most of us find it easier to be angry than sad. When we’re hurt, we default to anger.
    • It’s easier to go out fighting than to just go out wounded. Therefore, you will be tempted to find things to fight about.
    • I have seen massive division and destruction come from succumbing to this temptation.
    • Part of what’s wrong with it is that when you’re finding things to fight about, you will rarely pick the real issues. You will pick the fight you think you can win — or at least the one where you can do the most damage to the other side. And there is no surer road to irreconcilable differences than fighting about things that are beside the point and ignoring the real issues.
  • Learning the wrong lessons
    • We often learn the wrong lessons. Be willing to reconsider the lessons later. It might feel right now, and there may be some truth to it — but the lesson may need to be modified later.
  • Throwing Spears
    • Read Tale of Three Kings. Don’t be a Saul or an Absalom.
    • Understand that your organization may actually value and reward Saul/Absalom behavior. Sometimes it’s accidental, but you’d be surprised how often they know exactly what they’re doing.
    • Determine ahead of time that you will not accept that from yourself, regardless. Membership in an organization is not worth your soul.
  • Severing Ties
    • You need not be hesitant about cutting ties to the parts of the thing that are no longer your business or aren’t productive. “Not my circus, not my monkeys” can be your mantra…internally.
    • Externally, there’s no need to be snarky about it. You can just say, “I’m not sure who’s responsible for that now – why don’t you ask around and find out?”
    • You aren’t required to sever all ties, even if they want you to. Personal relationships don’t just evaporate because the organizational relationship has changed or ended. Keep your friends.
    • You will be surprised at which friendships stay, and which ones evaporate.
    • When a friendship you were counting on evaporates unexpectedly, it’s okay to be hurt — that’s completely natural. But don’t force it, and don’t go to war with the person that hurt you. It’s a waste of effort, and it won’t get you what you want anyway.
  • Loose Ends
    • The more professional the organization, the less this is a factor — the contents of your desk are boxed up by security while HR is giving you the bad news, you’re escorted from the building, and that’s that.
    • In less formal situations, there will often be phone calls later — “Hey, where are the _____?” Or “How did you do _______?” When you get that phone call, don’t be a jerk.
    • That said, those calls can be painful. Try to set it up so you don’t have to deal with that later. Tie up the loose ends. Transfer responsibilities. Tell someone where to find the key to the paper towel dispenser. Then when people call you, refer them to that person: “You’ll need to check with ______. I don’t know what he’s done with it since I’ve been gone.”
  • Tell the Truth
    • You and the other actors involved did what you did. Own your part of it, and let the others own theirs. If they canned you, say so. If they had good reason, admit it. If you think their reasons are nonsense, say that. If they never gave a reason, you can say that too.
    • Hide nothing. Gossip thrives on secrecy and the appearance of secrecy. Defuse it with total openness.
    • Don’t hide your feelings either. If it’s painful, say so. If you’re kinda relieved, admit it. Don’t lie.
    • Care for the People…including the ones responsible for the separation. You don’t get to ignore the golden rule, even if they did.
    • Organizations are totally dispensable; they are vehicles that travel a certain distance in time and space, and then fall apart. Don’t feel at all bad about dropping or walking away from an organization.
    • People are another matter. People are eternal, and are of incalculable value. Don’t make the mistake of treating the people as gears in the organizational machine. Treat them as people, no matter how you were treated.
  • Changing Relationships
    • Some of the relationships you had were built entirely on you representing the organization. Those relationships will go away or transfer to someone else in the organization. If you were a barista, your customers won’t come to your house to get coffee from you instead of the shop. They won’t even follow you to your new shop — they had a relationship with the shop, and your personal identity was largely irrelevant.
    • Some of the relationships were more personal, and they will endure. You may be surprised which are which.
    • The relationships that endure will change, because the rhythms of the relationship have changed. The transition changes when you see each other, in what context, how often, and so on. That will change the relationship, often in unpredictable ways.
  • Unintended Consequences
    • Take a long look at what you’re being spared here. In what ways has the separation liberated you?
    • Don’t assume you know what the separation means for the future. Many things change.

I’m hoping to turn all this into a booklet one day. Let me know what you think — if I fleshed it out, is this something you would buy, read, give away?


Weak Pneumatology

3 September 2019

I had occasion recently to reflect on the pneumatology of my (Bible church movement) tradition. It’s mostly correct, on paper. But it’s also really weak.

On this, three points (the first mostly a prolegomenon, but necessary for this discussion.) First: Theology can be correct but weak, because theology is not simply something one teaches; it is something one attains. Having your theological paperwork in order doesn’t matter if you don’t actually do it. It is no defense for a serially philandering pastor to hide behind his correct teaching on the sanctity of marriage. If he doesn’t live up to his talk, then he has attained only a weak theology of marriage.

Second: Much of what the Scofield-Chafer-DTS tradition has developed on the Holy Spirit is true, but the community does not allow it to be applied. As a practical example, that tradition very carefully articulates a doctrine of illumination (per Ryrie, “The ministry of the Holy Spirit helping the believer to understand and apply the truth of the Bible,”) and everyone is required to agree in general that such a thing happens. However, nobody is permitted to claim that it has happened in a specific case. You can test this in your own church, although I make no promise that it is safe to try: tell them that last night God showed you what a passage of Scripture means, and see what happens.
Of course nobody should swallow such a claim whole; when someone says that to me, I want to hear what the person thinks God showed them, and I want to weight the exegetical evidence, pro and con. But healthy skepticism is not the reaction a claim of illumination gets in this community. Far more often than not, what happens is incredulous scoffing — because we don’t actually believe in illumination, no matter what we say.

Third: Although we tout “personal relationship with God” and we claim to believe that the Spirit makes that possible, we shy away from anything “subjective” or “mystical.” But while good relationships have an objective basis, an enormous amount of what happens in the day-to-day conduct of any real relationship is subjective. This goes double when the relationship is with an incorporeal Spirit. As a result of our fear of “subjectivism” or “mysticism,” we are unable to actually live in relationship with the Spirit. The realities described by John 17:3, Galatians 2:20 or 5:16, or Romans 8:11 are not meant to be “objectively” certified, but subjectively lived. If we are afraid of the subjective, we are afraid of relationship, and if we are afraid of relationship, we will neither have relationship with God nor talk about it well.

In sum: Our pneumatology is weak because it espouses realities in theory that it will not permit anyone to actually apply, and because it stops short of dealing with realities that are the very core of the biblical picture of the Christian life.

We really need to fix that.


What is the Kingdom of God?

27 August 2019

We looked last week at the difficulties inherent in saying that the Kingdom of God is future (which it is) and still trying to maintain that it is somehow a present reality (which Jesus said it was.) That causes headaches, and one of the major questions that arises is “What do we mean by ‘Kingdom of God’?”

So let’s tackle that. I need to begin by observing that we get in a lot of trouble when we over-theologize biblical words in the effort to manufacture theological terms. People who talk/teach for a living love doing that sort of thing–it makes job security for them–but the truth is often much simpler. This is one of those cases.

The kingdom of God is where God rules.

There you go.

All the rest of this post is in anticipation of the acute whataboutitis that afflicts theological discussions. They want it to be more complicated than it really is. 

Does God rule in heaven now? Yes. So that’s part of God’s Kingdom. Will He rule on Earth on the last day? Absolutely. So that’s what the consummated Kingdom looks like. Was God’s rule extended when Jesus cast out that guy’s demon in Luke 11? Yup, sure was. So the Kingdom of God came right there. (See Luke 11:20 and its parallel in Matthew 12:28, and note the verb tenses.)

In between the Fall and the Consummation, Jesus brought the Kingdom of God, and said so. His followers preached the word of the Kingdom, and did the works of the Kingdom, as Jesus did. We still do so today (saving where we have accepted the excuses of institutionalized unbelief and allowed ourselves to be discouraged from actually following Jesus.)

From that day to this, anywhere the word of the Kingdom is obeyed and the works of the Kingdom are done, the Kingdom of God has come upon you, just as it once did in Jesus’ day.

Has the Kingdom come in its permanent fullness? No. No more than it did in Jesus’ day. Is the kingdom really, truly present? Yes—just as it was in Jesus’ day. Then He was bodily present. Today, He is present in His Body, and where the King is present, honored, and obeyed, the Kingdom is among you.


Kingdom Present?

20 August 2019

Let’s just get right to it: Jesus taught His followers to pray for the Kingdom to come…and also He said it had come (Mt.12:28//Lu.11:20). This is one of those things that gives Bible college freshmen a theology headache. (The cure is the same as for an ice cream headache: take it slow, and you’ll be fine.)

There’s a mountain of passages that describe the future Kingdom. These passages are often used to demonstrate that the Kingdom is still future (which it is) and therefore argue on that basis that it can’t be present.

The problem is, if we believe that “The Kingdom is future” means the Kingdom cannot be present, then somebody needs to tell Jesus.

If Jesus didn’t misspeak, then we have no choice but to reckon with the facts revealed to us in Scripture: at the moment Jesus said that, the Kingdom was future, and also in some sense present. We all read Isaiah, and nothing could be plainer than that the lion is not yet laying down with the lamb…and yet, Jesus said what He said.

And once we’re *there*, arguing for the future-ness of the Kingdom is not sufficient to establish that it can’t be present now. You might be able to argue that on other grounds, but just establishing that there’s a Kingdom in the future ain’t gonna do it.

Some folks will want to argue that the NT hardly speaks of the Kingdom outside the gospels, so how important a category can it really be? It’s a good question–but there’s a pretty compelling answer.

The answer has to do with where the Kingdom does come up in conversation. All over the Gospels, of course, which lays a strong foundation. But what about the rest of the New Testament?

  • The very last verse of Acts summarizes Paul’s preaching ministry in Rome thus: “Then Paul dwelt two hole years in his own rented house, and received all who came to him, preaching the Kingdom of God and teaching the things which concern the Lord Jesus Christ with all confidence, no one forbidding him.” If that were the only other place the Kingdom appeared in the NT, that’s enough to make a pretty decent case for its continuing relevance. But there’s more…
  • Luke also summarizes Paul’s preaching in a similar way in Acts 19:8, and Pihlip’s preaching to the Samaritans in Acts 8:12.
  • Paul himself describes his own preaching to the (mixed Jew-Gentile) Ephesian church as being about the Kingdom of God in Acts 20:25.
  • In addition, the Kingdom of God is sprinkled through the epistles as a present reality in some very interesting ways (Rom. 14:17, 1 Cor. 4:20, Col. 4:11).

So it appears as if, throughout the rest of the New Testament, the Kingdom is treated as a present reality. This bothers some folks, because how can it be future if it’s already here? Where’s the logic in that? And besides, if we’re already in the Kingdom, Jesus doesn’t seem to be ruling very well…

I get it, but we’re Christians. We worship the Triune God who is, in His own being, the only possible resolution to the problem of the one and the many. We do some interesting things with logic at times, and this is one of those times. We’re up against some very plain biblical statements, and the thing to do is #BelieveAllScripture, as the kids might say.

So how does this work? If we become obedient, perhaps we’ll find out–but that’s the subject for next week’s post.


Recognizing Good

13 August 2019

A week ago, I had occasion to speak to Faith Community Church in Littleton, CO on Philippians 1:3-11, or some portion thereof. 


Kissing Joshua Harris Goodbye…Temporarily

6 August 2019

So, a propos of last month’s post on the pursuit of purity and its attendant hazards, Josh Harris–having first kissed dating goodbye–has now also kissed his marriage goodbye, followed by his Christianity. I wasn’t going to comment on all that, but then homeschool maven Michael Farris decided to do a dumb about it, and I’m not letting this one pass without comment.

Farris’ open letter, appearing as an op/ed column and posted on social media, is worth reading, if only as a bad example. Click the link and read it. Seriously. I’ll wait. It’ll take you less than 5 minutes.

Read it? Good. Let’s talk, because this is a study in what not to do, on a whole bunch of levels. First of all, remember, this kid grew up under Farris’ wing. Michael Farris knew Joshua, by his own admission considered him a friend and a brother. If it’s true that the kid was just running a set of formulas, and it was never any deeper than that, where was Farris’ head at, that he didn’t notice *then*?

I’ll tell you where: building a movement, pushing an agenda. Selling his own set of formulas. Farris says — now — that the courtship agenda they pushed together was never a formula, never a recipe for a happy marriage. I call bullshit, and he must think we all have really short memories. I was there, and that’s *exactly* the way it was promoted. We were all promised blissful marriages and great sex lives if only we avoided this and that before marriage. (And yeah, that was totally a lie, but that’s a post for another day.)

If Josh Harris is in trouble today — and he is — it’s in large part because he was made a willing tool of the adults around him, promoted to prominence far beyond what his maturity warranted, and used up. The Bible tells us not to promote neophytes to leadership—did we listen? No. Michael Farris least of all. When Josh was forced later in life to come to terms with the damage that he’d been complicit in doing, he seemed initially to be handling it fairly well. Now, though, he’s hit a serious crisis of faith, and he’s not handling it well. That’s on him.

But the fact that he got there to start with, that’s on us. Yes, us — the adults like Michael Farris who promoted a kid as a celebrity, the publishers who profited from it, and us, the ones who went to the conferences and bought the books and supported the celebrity culture that created this mess. Wasn’t for us, Christian celebrity culture wouldn’t be a thing, and Josh Harris would just be another person who had some pretty naive ideas about love and marriage when he was 21 years old. Didn’t we all?

If Joshua Harris ever believed in Jesus—and we have good reason to think he did—then he came into possession of eternal life at that moment. And eternal life is…what’s the word I’m looking for here…oh yeah. ETERNAL!!! As in, lasting forever. He has passed from death to life, and that’s a one-way street.

He can decide to take a nap on a slab in the morgue, but that doesn’t make him dead any more than sleeping in a garage would make him a car. It’s not healthy. It’s not good. And if he ends this life in that condition, he’ll enter heaven reeking of wood, hay, and stubble, saved yet so at through fire—but saved nonetheless.

But I’m praying for better. Josh Harris was honest enough to face the damage he did early in life. He was honest enough to recognize that some of the views he was coming to did not line up well with his Christianity. I’m praying he’ll stay true to that honesty and eventually come out with a clear head. He’ll look around at the husks the pigs are eating and long for home—and when that happens, his Father will run to meet him.

God has not given up on Joshua Harris. Michael Farris clearly has. You decide who you’d rather follow.