On Being Misunderstood

24 November 2020

Paul required that elders be of good reputation among those outside the faith (1 Tim. 3:7)–and this in a culture that sometimes accused Christians of atheism and cannibalism, that crucified us, threw us to the lions, burned us alive. Paul himself had quite the criminal history as a Christian, as did that escaped jailbird Peter and many others, all following the condemned and executed Jesus. Plainly Paul did not mean that you can’t serve in church leadership if anybody has bad things to say about you. He cannot mean that you’re only qualified if your godly conduct has never been misunderstood by the world. 

Yet we are surrounded by Christians who think that’s exactly what having a good Christian testimony means. These credulous folks have been lulled by four centuries of unprecedented prosperity and freedom, during which the culture took it for granted that being a Christian was a good thing. (Perhaps a little too wholesome and not much fun, but a good thing nonetheless.) But it has not always been that way, and–have a look around–it is not really that way now. 

We are going to be misunderstood. Sometimes it will be an honest misunderstanding brought about by simple confusion. The devil excels at manufacturing that sort of thing. Sometimes it will be a tactical misunderstanding, and the wounded party will be flopping about like a French soccer player, even though nobody was within 3 yards of him. There’s a great deal of the latter, actually, and our National Evangelical Leadership (all rise!) has been steered by the flopping soccer players of the secular world for some time now. Steered straight into severe compromise, and all in the name of empathy for the player with the allegedly injured leg. 


Why Prepare When You Could Practice?

13 November 2020

When Jesus called Matthew, He didn’t put him in a classroom. He took him on a three-year adventure. They cast out demons, healed the sick, baptized converts, preached the Kingdom of God. They did the work together, and along the way, Matthew absorbed Jesus’ teaching so well that he eventually wrote a book about it—the Gospel According to Matthew. Matthew organized his gospel around big teaching sections, a series of lectures Jesus gave, you might say: the Sermon on the Mount, the sending of the Twelve, the Kingdom Parables, and so on. But those lectures are interspersed throughout a historical narrative that covers Jesus’ ministry. It’s not that Jesus didn’t give lectures. It’s that Jesus gave them in a context of ministry. He didn’t spend a year preparing the disciples for the work; He took them with Him into the work right away, and trained them as they went.

In the modern church, we have succumbed to an ethic of over-preparation. We’ll yank you out of your context for three years of schooling–during which we’ll keep you entirely too busy reading fat books to really try applying much of what you’re learning–and only then turn you loose to really do it. By then, you’re on your own. If you’re lucky, you have some good people to debrief with, but sometimes you won’t. And all too often, your first few years of ministry will be filled with “Welp, they didn’t teach me that in seminary!”

What were they teaching you? Wasn’t the whole point to prepare you for the work?

Jesus had a better way. His way was to practice, right out the gate. If you were at your job, minding your own business, and Jesus called you: “Hey, you! Come follow Me!”–you didn’t go into a classroom to prepare. You went with Jesus to practice ministry with Him. You would preach, pray, heal the sick, cast out demons, go to a wedding, do whatever He was doing that day. You were in it all the way, right away. And it worked! The people Jesus trained that way turned the world upside down.

So what about you? Do you want to go prepare, or do you want to practice?


Maybe We Won’t Have To

4 November 2020

I have made it my life’s work to know and love people who are very unlike me. As a result, I have a wide network of friends and contacts all across the political spectrum. I’m speaking to you all right now.

I wish you all knew each other the way I know you.

Most of the people you fear, or even hate, aren’t what you think they are. I know this, because I know them.

You could, too. The common ground is there. It might not be much, and it might not be something that’s all that important in the grand scheme of things: baseball cards, ‘40s movies, green chili. It might be something more consequential: losing your mom, a cancer diagnosis, raising kids, staying sober (or not). You all live in the same world; there are countless ways to connect.

Even as I write this, I can hear you thinking “Why should I? They [fill in the blank here].”

I know. Has it occurred to you, though, that human connection is a weapon? That it will be harder for them to hate and fear you after you’ve connected over your shared love of watercolor landscapes or good ice cream or jazz whatever it turns out to be? Has it occurred to you that they will have a hard time coming out of that experience unchanged?

So, of course, will you. Which may have something to do with your reluctance, if we’re honest.

Y’all are all over my feed promising not to give up fighting for your cause no matter what, and I’m not even gonna try to talk you out of that right now. But I’d like to see you add one more promise: commit yourself to make a human connection with someone that — if civil war broke out tomorrow — you would probably shoot.

Because then maybe you won’t have to.


How Seasoning Works

13 October 2020

You can’t season mashed potatoes by adding another potato. You also can’t season mashed potatoes by having salt in a saltshaker in your cupboard. Two things are necessary: you have to have something different from the food, and you have to bring that different thing into contact with the food.

You are the salt of the earth. Discuss.


Dodging the Ditch

6 October 2020

I was recently having a conversation with a friend about generosity. She was sorting through the tension between our finitude and God’s call to do things that are frequently beyond us, and had run into conflict with another believer about how to approach such things. It’s an interesting conversation in its own right, but we’ll save that for another day. Today I want to go a level up and look at a general trend in arguments about philosophy of ministry.

In anything we do, there’s more than one way to screw it up. In generosity ministry, there’s such a thing as stinginess on the one hand, and toxic charity on the other. (Sometimes our service to others is more about how it makes us feel than it is about actually helping the others in question.) There’s a ditch on both sides of the road.

Very often, our conflicts in philosophy of ministry happen thus:

  • Person A has already been in the ditch on the left side of the road, and he’s never gonna let that happen again.
  • Person B has already been in the ditch on the right side of the road, and is determined never to repeat his mistake.

Put them together, and hey, whaddaya know — a fight breaks out.

It’s easy enough for each to damn the other for steering toward a ditch, and then go their separate ways. That’s tragic, because their stickiest difference is actually the reason God put them together to start with. God means for them to honor each other and listen to each other, so they will balance each other out. If they can do that, they stay on the (narrow) road between the ditches.

As a pastor’s kid and lifelong minister, I’ve seen this play out many times over many different issues. Partnerships regularly fall apart over exactly the issues where they could benefit each other most…and then the resulting ‘independent’ ministries fall apart for lack of balance.

This to say: the unity of the Body actually matters. We are impoverished — and as a result, the world around us is impoverished — when we won’t live up to it.


One Mind?

22 September 2020

Therefore if there is any consolation in Christ, if any comfort of love, if any fellowship of the Spirit, if any affection and mercy, fulfill my joy by being like-minded, having the same love, being of one accord, of one mind. (Phil. 2:1-2)

What does God’s idea of “one mind” actually look like? In an age of ideology, we look for the wrong thing. We look for someone to parrot the party line, to have no “unapproved” thoughts, no unexpected questions. If we’re impatient, we punish anyone who deviates from expectations with whatever label our community uses to mark out Something You Can’t Say (i.e., blasphemy): “heretical,” “problematic,” or the ever-popular “racist” or “sexist.”

But God is not an ideologue, and we are not Unitarians. We are trinitarian, and that means we expect to hear the truth in multiple complementary voices. Our proverbs have two lines. We don’t all sing the same note; we believe in harmony. We even believe in discord: Jesus died on a tree. That was a hell of a note, but it’s not the end of the song.

On a walk recently, the Lady Wife and I were talking about the relationships where we have one-mindedness, and what characterizes those relationships. There’s certainly a lot of agreement, but that’s not the thing. We disagree too, and not just temporarily. I often find myself “holding hands across the fence” with someone who on paper holds a view on the other side of the ideological bright line, but has the same heart I do, and we are nearer to one another than we are to other people who *on paper* are on “our” respective sides.

Where we disagree, we find — Kimberly’s words here — “a place of peace where we’re not sinning” against each other, we’re not mad about it, and the work God’s called us to can go forward. We’re not all singing the same note, but there’s harmony. Even discord doesn’t in itself mean we’ve lost one-mindedness; it just means we’re doing jazz — if you keep playing, it wasn’t a mistake, and it will come to resolution in time.

Of course, as our more ideological brothers will be quick to point out, there is such a thing as intractable discord, and that really does create problems. Part of maintaining unity is discernment and discipline.

But the ideologues are good at discipline and no good at discernment, and as a result, they have conformity, but not unity. They don’t know what they’re missing.


Is There An Interpretation?

15 September 2020

In 1 Corinthians 14, Paul gives instructions for the use of tongues in public worship. It profits on one, Paul says, for someone to blather on in a tongue if nobody understands it. The tongues-speaker is welcome to speak to himself and to God in private, but in public worship, Paul says, tongues must be interpreted.

Makes sense, right? Seems simple enough.

Here’s the problem, though: how do you know if there’s an interpretation?

Think it through like a scene in a movie. Someone feels moved by the Spirit to stand up and speak in a tongue, but he’s not supposed to do it unless someone can interpret it. Does he have to find an interpreter in advance? How does that work? (“Hey, buddy — I’m gonna speak in tongues. Do you have the interpretation?”) Does he just speak, and trust that the Spirit will give someone the interpretation? How long do we let him go on before we decide there’s no interpreter, and have him sit down?

See, Paul sets them up for a “try it and see” model here. To even have a hope of following Paul’s instructions, they’ll have to rely on the Spirit, and discern His will together.

And so should we all.


On Rebaptism

8 September 2020

Zaccheus walks into the temple. Since Jesus visited his home a few weeks ago, he’s a changed man. He has restored everything that he cheated anyone of, like he promised–and that took a while–and word has spread far and wide of the tax collector who has repented. As he passes through the temple gate, whispers spread through the crowd like a wind through dry leaves. He stops inside the gate and looks up at the inner temple. It’s been so long since he was welcome here. So long since he came here to worship.

A wizened priest approaches him, suspicion etched deep in his wrinkled face. “What brings you here, tax collector?”

Not long ago, the man’s tone alone would have been enough to drive Zaccheus out of the temple. But he’s a different man now. Zaccheus bows his head. “I need to be circumcised again.”

Does that sound odd to you?

As circumcision was the rite of entry under the Old Covenant, baptism is the rite of entry in the New. Some folks have taken that to mean that we should baptize babies born into Christian families, but that’s only because they haven’t thought it all the way through. You circumcise an Old Covenant baby after he’s born into the Old Covenant, which was simple enough. Under the New Covenant, though, people are born twice. Which birth do we baptize them after? If baptism is the new circumcision, what is the new birth?

Well…the new birth. So once the person is born again, we baptize them. If the man wanders away, becomes a gambler and a drunkard, joins the Hell’s Angels, sells automatic weapons to third-world dictators, the whole works, and then comes back, does he need to be baptized again?

No. The original baptism counted, and it still counts. His many sins are an insult to his baptism, but they don’t undo it, anymore than cheating on your spouse undoes your wedding. You can’t commit adultery enough times to make your wedding didn’t happen. (You might induce your spouse to divorce you, but that’s a different thing.)

Now, if this man comes to me, repentant of his life and seeking to return to the Lord, will I receive him? Of course! If he wants to be rebaptized as a symbol of his repentance and return, will I refuse him? Of course not!

A couple whose marriage was dead and has come alive again may renew their wedding vows. I see nothing wrong with renewing the man’s baptism. But that is what we’re doing — renewing it.


Being Lifted Up

1 September 2020

In John 15, Jesus presents His followers with a vineyard as a metaphor for living in harmony with God. Jesus is the vine, all His people are branches, and–this part is much neglected–the Father is the caretaker.

The traditional 3DM rendering of this passage uses a semicircle, a pendulum that oscillates back and forth between seasons of fruitfulness (work) and seasons of abiding (rest). While it’s true that there’s a need to maintain healthy rhythms of work and rest (a lesson contained in Genesis 1 and a number of other places in the Bible), this passage is actually headed a different — and far deeper — direction.

The first necessary modification to the 3DM picture was suggested by one of my coaches, Jeff Allen. He moved “abide” from one of the extremes on the pendulum to the pivot point, thus:

Slide1

Jeff’s point is that we don’t actually alternate between work and abiding. We abide in Christ all the time as we alternate between work and rest.

There’s another tweak we have to make in order to understand the passage properly, and that is a correct understanding of the Greek word airo, that is so often translated “He takes away” in v. 2. Airo means to lift up or take away, and so that translation is understandable…but absolutely wrong in this context. The word also means “to lift up,” and in this context, that’s much more to the point.

The conversation here is about the care of a vineyard. At the beginning of the growing season, the caretaker passes through the vineyard, looking for threats to fruitfulness. There are two conditions, not just one, that threaten the fruitfulness of the vines: too much growth, and not enough.

Where the branches are growing too much, they won’t produce good-quality fruit. If a branch is trying to produce too much fruit at the same time, it won’t have the nutrients it needs to make good-quality fruit, so all of the fruit will be stunted and poor. At the other extreme, some branches fall down into the dirt. Down in the dirt, they are in danger, threatened by rot, mildew, and pests.

Slide2

The branches that are overactive, spreading themselves too thin, get pruned back. In other words, God will cut off some of what you are trying to do, in order to get you to focus all your resources in a smaller, more productive area. That is really hard to take, especially when some of the things God prunes off are things you worked really hard for. They may be good things, but if God is not authoring them for you, now, then it’s time to let them go. The job here is to accept the Father’s pruning with grace, and trust that He knows what He’s doing.

Then there’s the branches that have fallen into the dirt and aren’t producing anything…and this is where that Greek word comes in. “Every branch in me that does not bear fruit He lifts up.” The caretaker lifts the fallen branch back up onto the trellis where it can thrive in the air and sunlight. If you have fallen into the dirt, and you’re not producing anything, your job is to let the Father lift you up, so that you might bear fruit.

There will be seasons in your life where you’re overproducing; there will be seasons in your life where you’re in the dirt. God will take care of you in either condition, and bring you back to fruitful health. The constant through every season is the command given in the passage: Abide in Him.


A Choice of Judgments

18 August 2020

Once upon a time, David led the nation of Israel into a serious sin. God was going to judge him, but He offered David a choice of which judgment the nation would suffer. The story appears in 1 Samuel 24:11-15:

When David got up in the morning, a revelation from the Lord had come to the prophet Gad, David’s seer: “Go and say to David, ‘This is what the Lord says: I am offering you three choices. Choose one of them, and I will do it to you.’” So Gad went to David, told him the choices, and asked him, “Do you want three[a] years of famine to come on your land, to flee from your foes three months while they pursue you, or to have a plague in your land three days? Now, think it over and decide what answer I should take back to the One who sent me.” David answered Gad, “I have great anxiety. Please, let us fall into the Lord’s hands because His mercies are great, but don’t let me fall into human hands.” So the Lord sent a plague on Israel from that morning until the appointed time, and from Dan to Beer-sheba 70,000 men died.

The 2016 presidential election was just such a choice, and 2020 is shaping up to be more of the same. You don’t have to be a howling fan of one of the options to prefer one over the other. In fact, you can even strongly prefer one over the other, without losing sight of the fact that all of this is divine judgment.

We are being given the candidates we deserve. The ostensible progressive candidate is the kinda guy #metoo was about, and an architect of mass incarceration, to boot. The ostensibly conservative candidate is manifestly neither principled nor conservative, and yet by every meaningful measure, has outperformed any of the real conservative candidates in the past two decades.

I repeat, we are being given what we deserve: liars and hypocrites. If we want better, then we need to repent of our hypocrisies and beg God for mercy. There is no way out of this but repentance. 

Christ have mercy.