All about the heart?

13 July 2018

As we approach God in worship, there’s a natural tendency to get sidetracked on production values, thinking that musical quality and such are more important than anything else. Of course, that’s not true, and evangelical Christianity also contains a strong impulse to repent of that and focus on the heart as the central thing — as it should.

1. The heart is the central thing. If the heart is not there, then the rest is worthless.

2. A right heart is not a license to do whatever you want. Because a wrong heart invalidates even the best and most tasteful production, there’s a tendency to think that a right heart validates all production decisions, and nothing else matters.

In other words, knowing that the heart is the primary thing, and without it, everything else is worthless, it is easy to slip into thinking that if the heart is there, everything else is still worthless. That it doesn’t really matter what we do, as long as our hearts are right. Not true. Does God value our imperfect production? Of course. Like a proud father sticking a 4-year-old’s drawing on the refrigerator, He sees the heart in what we do, and loves it. But it would be weird for a 25-year-old to produce the same drawing and expect the same response. A good father expects the kids to embrace their responsibility to grow up.

3. Getting your heart right is always the first priority. A right heart will discover that there are vehicles that are more fitting, and others less fitting, to express itself. As that right heart grows into adult capacities, it will find adult means of expression, not just stick to the tried and true strategies of childhood.

4. A right heart worships God, not excellence. When your heart wants to bury the talent in the backyard, you can be sure that your heart is not right. A right heart has a sense of proportion, and would rather do a good thing imperfectly than do nothing because perfection is not available. It never will be, this side of glory.

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Stripped to Nothing

5 July 2018

My friend and advisor Rich Bedsoe offers a powerful reflection on how Jesus impacts history in Principalities and Powers, part 1 and part 2. They’re long pieces, but worth your time.

The question that occurs to me is, what now? The Incarnation founded a new civilization when it destroyed Caesar’s power to rule by right of divinity. Justification by faith founded a new church when it destroyed the Roman Church’s power to rule by condemnation. So what now? Something like theosis–the re-animation of the naked/dead ego by the Holy Spirit founds a new…what? when it destroys…what?

Of course the sensible answer is, “Ask again in another 150 years or so.” But in the meantime, let’s speculate.

A friend suggests that the re-animation of the naked ego by the Spirit founds a new kind of human by destroying autonomous man. This new human is no longer animated by justification alone, but by glory.

I want to chase that idea a little further, and cash out something I think is implicit in Bledsoe’s articles. Ideas have the ability to shift culture, sometimes very powerfully, but Christianity makes a substantially greater claim for itself than just some transformative ideas. I want to suggest (and I think Bledsoe would agree) that in each case, it is not simply the idea operating upon the culture. The transformative effect on the culture comes from people animated by the experience which the idea describes.

The ancient kings’ right to rule as divine was not overturned simply by the idea that men cannot be gods. It was overturned by a critical mass of people whose authentic experience of actual divinity rendered Caesar’s pretensions an obvious sham. Providence makes the contrast even starker by providing real-life satire in the person of emperors like Caligula, and in due course, Julian the Apostate.

Likewise, the Roman church’s power to rule by condemnation and contempt was not simply overturned by the idea of justification by faith. It was defeated by people who were no longer vulnerable to human manipulation through false guilt, because they had experienced for themselves the freedom of being justified by faith. In the harsh light of their new experience, the guilt-manipulations of the Roman church stood revealed for what they truly were, and again, providential real-life satire in the person of Tetzel and his ilk only served to further highlight the problem.

Today, our suspicion of all authority strips the self bare. We have succeeded in divesting ourselves of anything that would interfere with our autonomy, and as a result, we have rendered the most mundane relationships impossible. Every relational overture is interpreted as a power play, and therefore treated with suspicion. The real-life satire is all around us, if we have eyes to see. We are headed toward a world where it won’t even be possible to share a cup of coffee except by the power of the Spirit, because everything is overwhelmed with suspicion, and we’re scared we’ll be taken in.

The autonomous self, “liberated” from constricting relationships, discovers it has also rendered its much-vaunted power of choice completely meaningless. Those same substantial relationships that once constricted our choices also provided context within which our choices had meaning. Apart from that context, our choices are wholly arbitrary, and therefore meaningless.

Autonomous and alone, the self craves absolution, but recognizes no authority that might offer it; craves glory, but hates any standard by which glory might be recognizable. Everywhere people gather in elective tribes, collectives, and fandoms in hopes of re-creating a context for themselves–only to abandon them when relational problems crop up, as they always do. As substantial communities, our churches are rarely better than any other affinity group–Jeep Owners, Juggalos, or Jubilee Baptist, take your pick.

But the Spirit broods over humanity, incubating a new people. As Caesar fell before the Incarnation and the church of Rome before the Cross, autonomous man must fall before the power of Pentecost.

United with the indwelling Holy Spirit, the self automatically enters into relationship with the Father and the Son. All who thus enter are in relationship with each other as well, invited into the perichoretic triune dance. We receive this relationship not as something we might possibly earn, but rather as a gift already accomplished for us. We could not, and by God’s grace need not, manufacture such relationships; we need only steward them and harvest their bounty.

We can quench the Spirit; we can grieve the Spirit; we can prefer the flesh’s works over the Spirit’s fruit–and we often do. When we refuse the Spirit’s bounty, our benefit from one another is as insubstantial as if we were just fans of the same band, car, or TV show. But there’s a crucial difference. You can stop liking that band, and just leave the group.

You can’t escape the new birth so easily. Unlike a fandom, the new birth is a historical event, and nothing you do now can make it didn’t happen. You are a child of God forever, and your only choice now is to be a good one or a bad one. Our culture, and even most of our churches, will tell you that being a good child of God means being a great person, possessed of the kind of cleanliness everyone at the country club pretends to have, but doesn’t really. (Pro tip: they’re all wrong about that. Abraham ran off to Egypt; Samuel was a bad father; David was an adulterer and murderer, Elijah sulked in a cave, and so on. Don’t worry; you’re in good company.)

Being the child God calls you to be isn’t about moral perfection. It’s about refusing to hide your faults and flaws (what 1 John aptly calls “walking in the light”), owning what God shows you. It means being seen by the people around you and refusing to project a nice, clean image. You live in the light, and God will grow you into a great person over time.

If you hide, then you miss all the relational benefits God is offering you, and you’ll get worse every day. You’re one of those friends invited to the wedding feast who never shows up. But if you live in the light…ah, my friend, what relationships you will have!

In the context of these relationships, already provided for us, our choices become meaningful again. When we invite the Spirit to move in power and allow Him to follow through, we are not only united to God in fact, but we reap the benefits in practice. The fellowship of the triune life (into which we enter vertically) is mirrored horizontally in our fellowship with one another. In the triune dance, we find our freedom in the ability to grow into who and what we were built to be, in relation to others who do the same.


The Fall of Ecclesiastical Communism

28 June 2018

Many American churches are closing, or merging, to survive. In many denominations, there are now the equivalent of hospice nurses for churches–interim pastors who specialize in closing churches down. The widespread feeling is that the church in America is shrinking. In fact, however, research suggests that “only moderate religion is on the decline in the United States.”

Serious engagement is another matter entirely.  

The percentage of Americans who attend church more than once a week, pray daily, and accept the Bible as wholly reliable and deeply instructive to their lives has remained absolutely, steel-bar constant for the last 50 years or more, right up to today. These authors describe this continuity as “patently persistent.”

This also means, of course, that those who take their faith seriously are becoming a markedly larger proportion of all religious people.

What is this?

I submit that we are seeing the fall of central planning in church ministry. Central planning was one of the great idols of the twentieth century, the idea that if you could systematize an endeavor on a large scale and execute it “scientifically,” there would be greater efficiency, less waste, and so on: the worship of technique with a capital T.

In 1917, a visionary went to Tsarist Russia to put this theory into action. His name was Vladimir Lenin, and his experiment failed horribly. Not only did the communists have to murder a bunch of people who didn’t really fit into the grand “scientific” design of the new society–which would have been bad enough–they were also notably less prosperous than the free world, and the entire enterprise eventually collapsed under its own weight. Everywhere central planning has been implemented on a national level, it begins by destroying those who don’t fit, and ends in dire poverty and starvation. Think East Germany versus West Germany, North Korea versus South. Cuba was once the jewel of the Caribbean. And so on, though endless 20th-century examples, right up to present-day Venezuela.

In the West, the publishing world offers another strong example of central planning in action. The Big Six publishers moved away from a broad set of offerings and responding to orders by booksellers to a “push model,” which allowed them to manufacture bestsellers by deciding on them in advance, and “pushing” them out into the market, whether the market wanted them or not. The market didn’t, as it turned out. And again, they began by destroying the careers of the authors that didn’t fit their vision — authors deemed unsuitable for whatever reason would never be “pushed,” and would not be allowed to become bestsellers. (They literally let books that were surprise successes go out of print rather than incur the cost of extra print runs to meet the demand. It’s nuts.) The Big Six became the Big Five, and the whole enterprise is looking increasingly green around the gills.

They blamed declining reading habits. Then Harry Potter taught a whole generation to read for fun, and they had to find another excuse. They blamed ebooks. Yeah, sure. There’s a bunch independent authors making a good living from ebooks, but never mind. They blame anyone and anything, except themselves and their failed theory.

The central planners are always looking for scapegoats, people to blame when the plan doesn’t work. They need a lot of scapegoats, because central planning never works.

Which brings us back to the church and its relationship to millennials. If my generation (Gen X) was so independent as to be fundamentally unmanageable (and we are, mostly), millennials are not. They are generally collaborative and team-oriented. They should be flocking to church in droves.

They aren’t. In my experience, that’s not because they’re rebellious. There’s a good bit of confusion and spiritual tourism, but that’s nothing new. The Boomers and Xers had plenty of that, too. It’s not because they don’t hear from God; in my experience they’re more open than Boomers or Xers there, too.

The fundamental problem is deeper: what they hear from God doesn’t match what they hear from church. God says to heal the brokenhearted; the church wants to point out all the ways it is their own fault. God says to seek the peace of the city; the church is mostly concerned about the peace within its own four walls. God says feed the hungry; the church wants a vision statement, a mission statement, an overseeing staff member, a proposal for the budget committee, and then of course we’ll need to run it by the property committee, which only meets every other month….

Most churches in the US are very top-down enterprises. There are a few people at the top that are allowed to have ideas, and everybody else is recruited to be support staff. Touted as “vision-driven leadership,” this pyramidal endeavor is actually central planning at its finest. And it works just as well as the other examples.

It’s vision-stifling leadership. Millennials as a class aren’t confrontational enough to try to take over the church from within (that would be my generation.) They’ll just go elsewhere. And they have.

So there’s a parallel reformation happening. You can find it in service organizations, at parks, in community meetings in city halls across the country. You can even find it in church basements–where there’s an AA meeting in progress, or a food bank at work.

When the Spirit is in a ministry initiative, of course, He also calls the necessary people together to make it run, whether that means two or a small army. But He blows where He wills, and that can’t be controlled in our day any better than it was in Jesus’ time.

When the American church learns this, and develops eyes to see where the Spirit is at work, we will be surprised at what is already under way.


A Parallel Revival

21 June 2018

I knew when God called me to go to massage therapy school that the experience was going to rock my world. I had grandiose visions of pouring a ton of extra time into my developing theology of the body before I started school, but life providentially interfered, as it so often does. I had to settle for making God a promise: “I will seek to give account of the experiences You give me. I will not ignore anything that happens, no matter how strange or how far off the map it might seem.” 

My friends, when you write God a blank check like that, He cashes it. This post lays out one of the lines of thought that came from the many, many off-the-map experiences God gave me in school and afterwards. 

God is willing to move for the healing of the world through those who are willing–including those who don’t yet recognize Him for who He is, and aren’t “members of the club,” as it were. We want God to move through the church people. He does, when they are willing. But there’s a lot more willing people out there, many of whom have never seen anything in the institutional church that they’d want to join. People who are called to healing, and know it, and the church doesn’t seem to them to be interested in or helpful for people who are trying to heal. I’m talking about the addiction counselors, AA sponsors, somatic psychotherapists, lightworkers…it’s a vast and tangled landscape, with a lot of evil and downright demonic things loose in it, but a lot of good, too. Some do their work from selfish ambition, and others from a sense of higher calling…in other words, not so different from the church, after all.

When God providentially allows some of His people to be squeezed out of the church institutions where they formerly found a comfortable home, we have no choice but to go out into the world. (Perhaps we ought to have been there already.) Called for the healing of the world, we seek the company of those similarly called, and we engage them as Jesus taught His followers to do: when you come into the house, say “Peace to this house,” and go from there. If a child of peace lives there, the peace of the Trinity rests on them through our blessing, and they recognize it as something special. I find these folks often have the sense to desire the good things God gave us, things the institutional church was all too ready to throw away without a second look.

Speaking of throwing us away, if those in the house are not children of peace, our peace will return to us (which is also how we find peace outside the institutional church.) Shake the dust and go. God will tend to them; we are called elsewhere.

Among the people of peace, wherever found, we thrive. Many times, they know things we don’t, things we refused to know because we couldn’t integrate the knowledge. In turn, we know the Name of the Higher Power they call on. We have a lot to share with one another, if we’re willing.

Now, for the past 40 years or so, we’ve seen the biggest revival in the history of the Church (notwithstanding the folks pretending it isn’t happening because the cost of admission is leaving your cessationism behind). It’s a fascinating phenomenon, and you can read more about it here if you like. For now, though, I want to draw a comparison to it.

If the trend I’m discussing here takes off the way I think it will, I expect to see a “parallel revival” on par with the current Pentecostal one. It may be some time before the exiles are willing to admit any real kinship with the institutional church, since that’s what we had to leave behind in order to participate. But as God continues to work on hearts both within and outside the institutions, I pray that He will free the insiders of their legalism, and the outsiders of their lawlessness, so that we can be one in the grace of Christ.

It’s a big dream, but I read the last couple chapters of Revelation before. I think this dream is on the way to the fulfillment of that one.

 


Moana, Frozen, and Repentance

14 June 2018

Elsa is Moana’s polar opposite. (See what I did there?) Elsa has no real guidance or mentors to speak of, and she finds something in herself that she has no way of living with. First she denies what is obviously true about herself; then she denies her connection to her people. (It’s more than a little revealing that “Let It Go,” the iconic song from the film, comes from this point of near-murderous isolation in the story, and not from the later resolution. As a culture, we don’t identify with the resolution.)

When Elsa finally comes to terms with both the reality of who she is and her connections to her people, she finds rest — but she gets little help along the way. She has no grandmother, no sea looking out for her, no Yoda, no Jiminy Cricket, no Philektetes. The only person who believes in her is her sister Anna, and she’s separated from Anna for the critical portion of the story arc. Elsa has to figure it out all by herself.

As evangelicals, we tell ourselves that we are in Elsa’s position. It’s all new, and we have to figure it out for ourselves. But it isn’t true.

On the surface, Moana looks similar to Elsa: overcoming parental resistance to embrace her true identity and calling. But as it turns out, Moana’s calling is the same calling her people have shared for generations. Her father turned away; it is her job to turn back, and in that task she is assisted by her grandmother, her mother, mystical visions, and the very sea itself.

Her people have been long-distance seafarers from time out of mind. They turned from the path because the seas became too dangerous as a result of Maui’s theft. Her father continues the error by trying to turn her from the path too, but as the deadly consequences of Maui’s sin reach her home island, Moana’s people can no longer hide. It falls to Moana to heal the brokenness of her world and reclaim her lost heritage, and she does.

Herein lies a tricky business. “Move not the ancient landmark which thy fathers have set.” “Honor thy father and mother.” In a perfect  world, those two commands would never be in conflict. But what if you are the child of the man who moved the ancient landmark? What if he’s your grandfather? Great-grandfather?

That is the evangelical dilemma. And Moana has a lesson to teach.


New Page

7 June 2018

Although I’ve been off the scene of the Free Grace movement for some time now, I remain Free Grace in key elements of my theology. As I’ve interacted widely with my brothers and sisters in the broader Church, I find that the best of the Free Grace tradition holds treasures in trust for the rest of the Body (and vice versa, of course).

In hopes of providing some starting points for those not familiar with the Free Grace traditions, I’ve put up a page of resources. You can find it here; feel free to offer suggestions or feedback.


Forgiving Sins

31 May 2018

I woke up a couple weeks ago with this sermon in my head, to be delivered after really good musical/liturgical worship. The Lord spurred me to send it on to someone, a person I don’t even really know; friend of a friend kind of thing, with a note that I don’t know who it’s for or what use it should be put to, but I’m giving it away for whatever God’s purposes may turn out to be. I hope it’s a benefit to that person, and for what it’s worth, I offer it to you as well.

I want to talk with you about what we’ve done here today, because I want you to see it with heaven’s eyes. When we gather like this, something special happens. And to see it as God sees it, we need to go back, all the way back to Genesis, because that’s where our story starts.

From the waters below the sky, He calls forth land and sea, and covers the land with plants. But it’s still empty.

Then on the fourth day, He takes the waters above the sky and fills the empty sky with sun, moon, and stars. The fifth day He fills the air with birds and the waters with fish. The sixth day, He fills the land with every kind of animal. And then, it’s time to sign the masterpiece.

How do you sign the painting when you just made the universe? It’s not like there’s a corner you can scribble your name in, right?
And so He made us from dust, and breathed spirit into us, His image, male and female together to bear His name in the world.

And you know the story. We blew it, and in the process we broke our relationships with each other and with God, and we broke the world, too. And the very first thing God tells us about that is, there’s a redeemer coming, a seed of the woman who will really be exactly like us—but victorious—and He will crush the serpent’s head.

Through the whole Hebrew Bible, this longing grows. Who is the redeemer? What will he be like? God reveals more and more, but it’s cryptic. Sometimes it says He will conquer and reign, and set everything right. Sometimes it says He will suffer and die. How can he do both? Late in those times, we learn about where He will be born, from the prophet Micah. We learn about when He will come, from Daniel.

And then…silence. There is no prophet among God’s people, for four hundred years.

The new beginning doesn’t look like much. Just a wild man calling people back to God. He doesn’t work with the Temple; instead he calls people out into the wilderness and baptizes them there, having them pass through water as Israel once did, because God is calling out a new people for Himself. He has no credentials, this wild man, and he says so himself. He’s just a voice crying out in the wilderness—but he is announcing the coming redeemer.

Then Jesus comes to the wild man. The wild man says “you should be baptizing me” but Jesus talks him into baptizing Him anyway, because Jesus is the foundation of the new people of God. When he comes up out of the water: The Spirit descends from heaven and rests on Him, and the Father speaks from heaven , “This is my beloved son; I am pleased with Him.”

That is what we are invited to join. We are invited to be a people the Spirit rests on, and our Father is pleased with us. What would it be worth, if we could earn something like that? But God is even more gracious than that.
Jesus goes to the cross, and there, He takes all our sin, all our shame, all the weight of every time we’ve failed to bear God’s name well. All of it is nailed to the cross and all of it dies with him, and is buried with him in the heart of the earth. When He comes out, He leaves it all behind, and so we are raised with Him, free from every weight that drags us down, and it’s all a gift. Jesus bought it for us.

And then, in the upper room just before He leaves, He breathes on His disciples and says two things to them“receive the Holy Spirit”. and “if you forgive anyone’s sins, they are forgiven; if you retain their sins, they are retained.” It’s a re-creation of humanity, implanting a new spirit in them, a spirit that can move in power for the healing of the world. He ascends to heaven, and on Pentecost the Spirit breaks out and begins to move in power among God’s people, and from that day to this one, He hasn’t stopped. That is what you experienced tonight, and I’m going to invite you to extend the experience a little further.
You are the new people that God is making. You bear His name in the world, and by the Spirit you carry the authority to remake and heal the world that He made. If you forgive the sins of anyone, they are forgiven.

All around us, people carry weights they don’t have to. There’s something they are, something they’ve done, that holds them back from the glorious freedom God designed us for. Some of us also struggle; the past still holds us back. It doesn’t have to, and tonight, I want you to do something about that, starting right in this room.

Turn to someone nearby you. If God gives you something to say in addition to this, then say what He gives you too. But I want you to be sure to say what God gave us all to say when He gave us His Spirit: Your sins are forgiven. Look each other in the eye and say it: I forgive your sins in Jesus’ name. You have the authority to do that.

Make sure nobody gets left out. The people who kinda slid into the corners of the room? Hunt them down. Make sure you get whoever’s hiding in the bathroom. Don’t forget the people down front. We need this too. Go now; I commission you in Jesus’ name, by the power of the Spirit: go do it!