Covering Grace

17 November 2017

It’s not possible to learn a craft—-any craft—without messing up. Whether it’s shoe-shining or surgery, you’re going to make mistakes. And how! So what do you do when you’re in ministry? You’re elbow-deep in people’s lives, at the moments when they’re in deepest pain. You represent God. When you make a mistake, people get hurt — badly. They get a false view of God and other people that can impact them for years to come. You can’t afford to make those kinds of mistakes. Right?

Wrong. That is a lie from the enemy, designed to paralyze you into inaction.

God knows better than anyone that you can’t learn anything without making some mistakes. And He has planned, from eternity past, for your mistakes. He loves the people you work with and minister to, just as much as He loves you. He’s got them, just like He’s got you. This isn’t an excuse to be lazy or a reason to shortcut your preparation. Your diligence is definitely required, or you won’t get better at your craft.

But God has not given us a spirit of fear. Don’t refuse to practice your craft because you’re afraid. Get out there. Do your work. Rest on the grace of God that covers you. Trust Him. He’s got you, and everyone around you. Trust and obey.

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A Reading Milestone

17 November 2017

Every year I set a reading goal. This year, it was only 25 books, split between the professionally relevant, the devotional, and fun. For me, that’s a remarkably unambitious goal, and it reflects the fact that I spent the year finishing school and launching a business, which left me precious little time for reading. But I hit my goal last night, finishing the 25th book with 6 weeks to spare. So I’ll probably hit 30 before the end of the year.

Which was my favorite? That’s a complicated question. How do you compare a spirituality of midlife change to a romp through a fictional, Manhattan landscape featuring parkour and dragons, or either of them to a careful appraisal of C. S. Lewis’ philosophical differences with his longtime friend Owen Barfield?

You can’t, on any but wildly subjective criteria.

So let me speak subjectively: overall, for sheer joy of reading, my favorite was probably Owen Barfield’s Worlds Apart, a fictional discussion between a wide variety of specialists meditating together on the nature of reality and human consciousness. If it sounds heady, it was — but I’m a geek to the bone. Reading Worlds Apart was like being in a room with a bunch of people brighter than me, and just barely managing to keep up with their discussion. It was a great deal of fun, even if I did have to read some parts a few times to catch up. I read a good deal by (and about) Barfield in the past year, including a number of his essays and introductions to others’ works, but this one was my favorite. He’ll be changing my thought for many years to come.

More sensible comparisions would be within major categories of books: spiritual, healing, martial arts, philosophy, and so on. So here’s some of that.

Among the spiritual works, the clear standout was Hierotheos Vlachos’ magisterial work Orthodox Psychotherapy. Entertaining it ain’t, but when I was able to carve out the time to read a decent chunk at once, I found a depth and breadth of spiritual insight and compassionate understanding of the human condition that is rare in any tradition. It was helpful to me, and it will be helpful again when I read it next year–which I certainly will.

Among the healing works, Agnes Sanford’s The Healing Light was a clear standout. It’s a classic for a reason. And I have to make mention of Cyndi Dale’s Subtle Energy Techniques. While I widely disagree with Dale in spots, her reflections on her life’s work are well worth reading, and she is a master of her craft.

Among the martial works, I’ve gotta say, Maija Soderholm’s The Liar, The Cheat, and the Thief is a classic. I will read it again. And again. Her subject is sword duelling, which is only of peripheral interest to me, but her insights into the human condition along the way make it valuable for anybody — and again, she is a master of her craft.

Steven Pressfield’s wonderfully readable Turning Pro and Nobody Wants to Read Your Sh*t changed the way I practice my profession for the better, as did Sam Altman’s Startup Playbook. Reading Greg Gutfeld and Vox Day on rhetoric and political strategy may have made me a little spicier, not that I needed any help in that department.

I read fiction by Lee Child, Kel McDonald, Dan Millman, Tony Hillerman, Doug Wilson, and others — and if you have’t read Wilson’s Flags Out Front, you’re missing out — but for sheer entertainment value, Seanan McGuire’s Midnight Blue-Light Special was the most fun.

I’m still in process on a handful of books — when am I not? — but that’s the lineup for most of this year.


Not That Simple

10 November 2017

I was talking recently with a friend about the differences between the way I used to prepare people for ministry (back when I was working in a seminary) versus the way I do it now. The biggest difference by far is the degree of experiential learning I insist on. We aren’t just going to learn about the Lordship of Christ; we’re going to put it to work by seeking to hear what He has to say to us and obeying, by praying for the world to come into submission to His will, by sending demons packing.

That focus on experiential learning does many things. It weeds out the people who want to be hearers, but not doers. It inculcates a great reverence for the truth, because we see it set us and others free in practice. But it also forces us to come to grips with the messy business of real application, which is frequently a lot harder than discussions in seminary classrooms make it sound.

 

In the seminary classroom, the prevailing questions would be “What is right?” or “What is true?” — both outstanding questions for a Christian to ask. But for many students, there was also a prevailing assumption that once those questions were properly answered, the proper course of action would be obvious. Well…not so much. Other students had a persistent case of the what-ifs: they could spin out endless scenarios that impossibly complicated any discussion of application. For both these problems, the solution is actual application to a particular situation.

For example, several years ago I was involved in an online forum for survivors of a particularly abusive group of churches. Many of these survivors posted anonymously because they were terrified of reprisals against themselves and their families. Meanwhile, active members of the churches in question would periodically come on the forum to defend their pastors, and would routinely challenge the anonymous posters to approach the pastors directly in line with the guidelines of Mt. 18, to identify themselves, and so on.

How are we to think about this?

In a way, the church members were obviously right. The Matthew 18 guidelines for conflict resolution must be adhered to; they are not merely a suggestion. And how about the golden rule? Would the anonymous posters want someone to post anonymous accusations about them on a public forum for the whole internet-connected world to read?

Moreover, there is no biblical precedent at all for anonymous accusations, and why would there be? The whole point is to bring about resolution of the conflict, and that can’t happen as long as the accuser remains anonymous, can it?

So that settles it, yes?

Not so fast…

First of all, for a number of these anonymous folks, the Matthew 18 standards had been tried. When they approached the pastor about his transgressions alone, he abused them and then lied to others about the conversation. He had his congregation so fooled, or so cowed, that for the most part nobody was willing to accompany the offended party to confront him a second time. As for telling it to the church…forget it.

Secondly, let’s look at the Golden Rule again. Suppose you had been brutalized by such a pastor, and suppose, broken and battered, you spoke up about it, only to incur further abuse and reprisals. Suppose you discover an internet forum where you can talk with fellow victims, receive some help and validation, and begin to heal, a place where you can speak freely without reprisal, because nobody would know who you were. Would you want that chance? Thought so. So why would you deny it to someone else?

Let us not forget, too, that there is a biblical example of speaking publicly to this sort of failure and abuse in a pastor’s ministry — III John. John the Apostle is more than willing to speak frankly in his letter about Diotrephes’ character, and also promises to address the problem more directly when he comes in person.

So the whole picture is a bit more complicated. Of course it is true that reconciliation can only happen if both parties are at the table, and neither one is hiding behind a cloak of online anonymity. And of course it is true that reconciliation is desirable. But reconciliation is not the only thing at stake here. Battered sheep need wound care. They need time in the spiritual hospital. That healing cannot happen in silence. The wounds need to be addressed in community with fellow believers.

What this means in practice is that the anonymous party will probably end up telling his story more than once. As a battered sheep who is simply trying to heal, he can share it anonymously and get some help. As he recovers and becomes, not just a battered sheep, but a Christian soldier prepared to do battle with wolves, he will tell the story again — but this time he will identify himself, give specific names and dates, and handle the reprisals as the cost of doing business. The goal with a battered sheep is to grow him into a Christian warrior. But growth takes time, and we have to start him from where he is — which is what God does with us.


Children of Hagar and the Reformation Settlement

31 October 2017

On this day 500 years ago, the sound of a hammer rang through the streets of Wittenburg. An Augustinian friar, a nobody named Brother Martin, was posting a set of statements on the church door for debate. Although written in Latin, intended for scholarly debate, they were a raw challenge to some of the Church’s worst excesses. Brother Martin was calling the (then desperately corrupt) Church to repent, and he was doing it with style.

Someone translated Brother Martin’s work into German, and—as we would now say—it went viral. Suddenly everybody wanted to know (for example): if the Pope could pardon your sins for an exorbitant fee, why wouldn’t he just pardon everybody’s sins for free, out of simple Christian charity? (Answer: basilicas don’t build themselves, you know.

Brother Martin never intended to start some sort of alt-Christianity in Europe. He just wanted his beloved Church to reform. But there were really only two options with reformers, back in the day. Either the Pope would bless the reformer to start a new monastic order (thereby getting him out of everyone’s hair), or they’d burn him at the stake. With Brother Martin, they tried pretty hard to exercise option B, but a powerful prince objected, and one thing kind of led to another. 

A bunch of churches wanted to be part of the reformation that Brother Martin was hoping for, but the organizational headquarters in Rome wasn’t having any of it. The result was a church split, and next thing you know, a bunch of churches were having to figure out what it meant to be the Church and follow Jesus Christ without fitting into the organizational structure that everybody had been accustomed to for the last 500 years. The Reformation settlement was that Word and sacrament were the marks of a true church, with discipline following closely behind to maintain the first two.

That settlement has persisted for 500 years, and on paper, it still stands. In reality, though, there’s been quite a bit of drift, not because of theological discussion, but due to financial convenience and cultural expectation. Today in America, the marks of a church are corporate papers, a 501(c)(3) exemption, and a charismatic talking haircut with preternaturally straight teeth down front, in the spotlight. 

It’s time to revisit the Reformation settlement. First, we need to allow it to critique where we have come. Are corporate papers essential? Do we really need a charismatic talking haircut with a blinding smile to lead us? Does the 501(c)(3) exemption compromise the independence of the pulpit? How would our reformational fathers see where we have come? What would they say? Would they be right?

Second, we need to take a critical look at the Reformation settlement. We are not looking for perfection, but is it true, is it adequate, to conclude that Word, sacrament, and discipline alone distinguish a church from other types of organizations? Have not these very things been used and abused to quench the Spirit in our midst? Is it possible to have Word, sacrament, and discipline, and nonetheless be a sort of religious country club rather than a church? 

I know spiritually aware, awake, lively followers of Jesus whose leaders have clubbed them with the Word, denied them the sacraments, and driven them out through the discipline of the church. The Pharisees did this very thing with the man born blind, for the twin crimes of being healed and telling the truth about how it happened; do we think we are immune?

I know many more children of the Church who—never formally driven out—nonetheless found no place for themselves in the churches. Their gifts were not acknowledged, their discernment was ignored, their calling was trivialized (or, as in my case, cursed outright). God handcrafted them for a destiny that the church deemed unwelcome or unimportant. Denied their rightful place in the churches, they have gone out into the world, bearing the church’s reproach, taking shelter where best they can. They have been called by God. Drawn by Him, they are seeking His embrace, and they are seeking it outside the church because they did not find it there. 

The guardians of the institutional church call them rebellious; they are the furthest thing from it. Like Hagar, they did what they were told, and they were blessed with fruit that the lady of the house was unwilling to accept. But God-Who-Sees loves them, seeks them in the wilderness, and will yet make of them a great nation. Despite the separation, through Christ He offers them entry into the family of promise. He has raised up David’s fallen tabernacle, and through the Spirit we are all welcome to come and worship together. But what will it look like for us to honor this spiritual reality that God has already accomplished?

It is my belief that in addition to Word, sacrament, and discipline, we need two further things. We need liveliness — the living presence of the Spirit working supernaturally among us — and we need real, functioning discernment. Not doctrinal screening —nothing wrong with that, but that’s just table stakes here — but discernment, the actual ability to tell one spirit from another, to recognize good and evil even when (as God often does) it defies our expectations.

It is my hope that we can recognize each other for what we are and be united in our common ancestry. This is our eventual destiny, and God will accomplish it. When the Kingdom of God comes in all its fullness, we will all be united. Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. May it be so today. 


Living at God Speed

16 September 2017

Once upon a time, a fast-paced American moved to a little village to learn what it meant to really know people, and be known by them. He had no idea of the journey he was beginning. As one of the villagers put it…

Godspeed

The film is 40 minutes long, and you should watch it.


Can You Be A Christian And…?

3 August 2017

When you’ve been in the ministry as long as I have, you find that there are certain questions that come up over and over. This post is about one of them. I’ve heard it in all kinds of different forms.

  • Can you be a Christian and commit suicide?
  • Can you be a Christian and homosexual?
  • Can you be a Christian and an alcoholic?
  • Can you be a Christian and commit murder?
  • Can you be a Christian and a witch?
  • Can you be a Christian and believe ____[fill in the blank]___?
  • Can you be a Christian and not believe __[some basic Christian truth]__?

Of course with any of these issues there’s a lot to talk about, and the pastoral situation in which the question comes up is often very delicate, and calls for a nuanced approach that has little to do with answering the question as asked. Very often the stupidest thing I could possibly do is just answer the question, and the best possible answer is to drop whatever I’m doing, focus my whole attention on the person who asked, and say, “What makes you ask?”

All that to say that there’s a whole pastoral angle to addressing such questions that is an entirely different discussion from where I’m going today. Today, I want to talk about what all these kinds of questions have in common.

One of the things such questions have in common is a presumption that there’s a line you can cross somewhere that makes you not-a-Christian. Let’s talk about what that might look like.

Based on the evidence in the New Testament, it’s possible to be a Christian and deny Jesus (cf. Peter). It’s possible to be a Christian and commit murder (as some of the addressees of the epistle of James had done). It’s possible to be a Christian and an adulterer (as had some of the Corinthians). It’s possible to be a Christian and so abuse the poor at the Lord’s Table that God actually kills you over it (the Corinthians). It’s possible to be a Christian and a deny the resurrection (Corinthians again — they were a mess!) And so on. In none of these cases does the writer say that they have somehow crossed over and are no longer Christians. In fact, in each of these cases, the writer rebukes them as Christians and calls them to repent and return to faithful practice.

Is it possible to be a Christian and _______?  Yes. Whatever you’re filling the blank with is either sin or it’s not. If not, what’s the problem? If it’s sin, then Jesus died for it, precisely so that such things cannot define you out of the family. God is a better Father than that, and He has already prepared for every sin and mistake you could ever make.

Is it possible to be a faithful Christian and ________? That’s a different question, and a lot of the time, when we’re asking the question, we already know the answer is no.


Dust and Breath Podcast Episode

25 July 2017

I had an opportunity recently to be the guest on Eden to the City of God for a discussion of the creation of man. We could have talked for hours, but had to cut it off after one. Check it out!