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. 


Shot in the back

11 August 2020

“Tragically, many sectors of the church have become so worldly that they too are hostile to the demands of Jesus. If you call the church to repentance, be prepared for the assaults. Don’t take up the task unless you’re prepared to die.”
-Peter Leithart

That has been my experience as well. You know how often an angry unbeliever has ruined my life?

Never.

Not that it couldn’t or doesn’t happen. I’m aware of plenty of people it’s happened to. I’ve certainly had unbelievers angry at me. But in my life thus far, every time someone has betrayed me and tried to ruin my life and reputation, every single time, it has been a fellow Christian.

One time it was disagreement, personal offense, and wanting me out of the way. Another it was vendetta for wrongs partly real and partly imagined. Twice it was protecting my assailant’s hegemony over his petty fiefdom, which he felt I threatened. Once it was totally ordinary sin and lack of character, and as far as I can tell, I wasn’t even particularly a target; I just happened to be in the way.

As I say, it’s not that unbelievers can’t or won’t do this, and I’m only middle-aged. If the actuarial tables are to be believed, I have a long way to go yet, and there’s plenty of time for the pagans to get around to savaging me. But it’s worth noting how much danger comes from inside the family.

 


Working Through the Risk

5 August 2020

“We get it, you miss your friends and your normal life. The virus doesn’t care. Don’t be selfish. Stay home. If you can’t order it online or pick it up curbside, you don’t need it.”

It’s time we thought through that message.

Some people really can live that way. Everything they need is delivered to their doorstep, or they go drive by the store and pick up their purchase at the curb. But plainly, these people’s “unselfish” and “safe” lifestyle is dependent on another whole class of people who deliver their goodies to them — and those people definitely cannot work from home.

Question #1: Why should the delivery driver leave his house to deliver goodies to yours? Because your life is of incalculable value, and his is worth $12 an hour (until he gets sick and can’t work, that is)? Surely not.

In the end, though, this is what it comes down to: he does it because he can’t afford not to. And you stay home because you can afford to.  Your safety comes at his expense — and you pay him for that. (So tip well, y’all.)

Question #2: If he needs to go out into the world in order to support himself, what do you think he should do for church? Is worship less important than work, or is it more important? He risks no more going to worship than he does going out to make the rent; why shouldn’t he?

So when you decide that it’s too risky to open the church doors…you are denying him the opportunity to worship, because gathering in person seems so risky to you. And remember, the delivery drivers, paramedics, nurses, mechanics, social workers, etc. never stopped working. If there’s such a severe risk that you’d put yourself under house arrest to avoid it, then how dare you demand that they take those risks without the opportunity to gather and draw strength from corporate worship? What gives you the right?


No One Else Can

28 July 2020

If you’re sleeping with someone else’s spouse, I need not inquire into the motives of your heart to know that you are in sin. God has already told us that there is simply no righteous way to do what you are doing. Before we even look, we know that the motives of your heart are going to be a mess. (What sort of mess, we’ll find out when we look. But there will be a mess, right enough.) As a minister of the gospel it is my solemn duty to name your adultery for what it is and encourage you to get out of it, right now.

But when it comes to what you eat or don’t, which holidays you celebrate, and similar matters, I am not allowed to tell you what to do, and you are not allowed to let me. Colossians 2 and Romans 14 are painfully clear on this point.

Christian liberty does not mean that there is no way to be wrong before God. It means that the nature of the issue is such that it’s your mistake to make. The thing may be fine in itself, but something God is calling you to leave behind as a hindrance for you. I don’t get to make that call for you; my pastoral authority does not extend that far. I can (and do, cautiously) make observations and suggestions, but the matter is between you and God.

God may give you Rolex watches, catalog dresses, snazzy cars, ice cream, good Scotch, fat theology books, interesting movies, thick steaks. These are all good gifts to enjoy, so enjoy them, knowing that a day may come when He calls you to give them up. As David Field recently put it, there is nothing in your life that you did not already lose the day you became Jesus’ disciple. God can, at any time, with anything you have, say, “I’ll have that back now, thank you.” He has given you everything, down to your very breath — and the day will come when you release a breath, and God does not give you another.

So hold it all loosely. God might call you to wear your blue jeans to church in order to mortify your vanity. He might call you to wear a suit and tie to church, to mortify your sloth. He may call you to dye your hair pink for reasons that aren’t quite clear to you, or to quit dyeing your hair pink…or even to quit dyeing your hair its pre-grey natural color (gasp!) because that’s become an idol for you. Now taking one thing with another, hair dye is among those things which perish with the using, and I don’t have the right to tell you what to do. This matter is within your liberty, and that means that you are permitted to do as you like, even though you may be dead wrong.

The point is not that God can’t or won’t require you to move in a particular direction; the point is that nobody else can.


Lost Worlds?

24 July 2020

These days, pretty much everybody who calls themselves “Christian” accepts the resurrection of Jesus, but I’ve noticed a trend among Bible scholars. The more academic accolades they aspire to, the less of the Bible they take seriously in its historical details.

The grace gospel is founded on taking the biblical story seriously, down into its details. God blessed Adam and Eve before they’d done anything to deserve it. Abraham was justified before he was circumcised. David celebrated having no sin imputed to him, despite the fact that he’d sinned grievously.

On that point, this article is well worth reading. Here’s one money quote, to whet your appetite:

Taking Genesis 1-11 seriously invites mockery and ridicule, not to mention exclusion from elite intellectual circles. Walton’s “Lost” series is an attempt to “save” Christians from the embarrassment of believing the Bible, without actually denying our faith….


Two Kinds of Hard Obedience

21 July 2020

We are Christians. We must seek to obey Scripture. We must particularly obey those passages which seem “hard” to us. There are two kinds of hard obedience, and two corresponding kinds of resistance.

The first kind of hard obedience is pretty well understood: we all know what to do and why to do it, but it’s just difficult. For example, a lot of Christians have a problem with drunkenness. Even when they decide to get sober, it is usually a significant struggle. In this kind of hard obedience, everybody understands very clearly why a good Christian needs to be sober. The hard part comes in the day-by-day slog of doing it.

The common resistance to this kind of hard obedience stems from laziness and/or despair. The drunk doesn’t believe he has the strength to really do it. Lacking hope, the whole thing seems impossibly hard. If he gets on the wagon anyway, he’ll start to build some hope…and that’s where the laziness often gets him. Staying sober is just so much work. So he slacks off, goes dry drunk, and then relapses.

But there’s a second kind of hard obedience that is not primarily about the difficulty of doing it. For example, we’re told three times in the New Testament to sing Psalms. Do we obey? Mostly, no. Why not?

Is it because it’s very hard to find tunes and singable settings and so forth? Not really. First of all, if you bother to really look, all that stuff is out there. Second, even if it weren’t, we have a multi-million dollar Christian music industry devoted to solving the logistical problems of generating and delivering Christian music to the end user. Hundreds of songs are written, recorded, and broadcast every year. Most of you reading this routinely learn new (or at least new to you) songs in church already, not to mention what you pick up off the radio. If our problems with Psalm-singing were merely logistical, we’d be well on our way to obedience in a couple months. (And don’t blame the music-industrial complex for our disobedience; they’re producing what we’re willing to buy. If we wanted albums full of Psalms, rest assured, they’d be delivering.)

It’s not hard for us because there’s anything especially difficult about doing it. In this case, the matter is hard for us because we don’t see why we should. We already have songs we like. The psalms are so long. They don’t fit our musical culture. They talk about things that you can’t sing about on Christian radio. And what about all that “slay my enemies” talk?

In other words, we are so far gone, we can’t even see the sense in obeying. We have been so disobedient for so long that the disobedience has become normal to us, and obedience has become impossibly weird. Why would anyone even want to do that? This is exactly what the author of Hebrews called “being hardened through the deceitfulness of sin.”

And there’s only one thing to do at that point: a practice I call “mere obedience.” Just do the thing. Obey, however ineptly to start with. Settle in for the long haul. Get better at it as you go. Trust that in due time, your obedience will bear fruit, and the reasons for the command will become very clear. It has been my experience that this is the case.

I can tell you now a bunch of reasons why we should sing Psalms. But I didn’t know any of those reasons when I started singing Psalms. I just started singing because the New Testament said I should. It was awkward at first and I had no idea what I was doing. But God was kind, and I grew, and the blessings began to roll in. In hindsight it all seems so inevitable…but only in hindsight.

I began praying the Lord’s Prayer seriously out of mere obedience too (“When you pray, say…” from Luke 11:2). And literally speaking blessing to people I meet (Luke 10:5). And a host of other things that I didn’t know the benefits for until I had been doing them a while. They’ve all proven fruitful.

So what obedience is God setting before you?