An Introduction to Spiritual Disciplines

17 September 2015

I had occasion to address Mosaic Church on the subject of spiritual disciplines. In this sermon, I don’t present a bunch of options so much as I aim for the heart of what makes a life of spiritual discipline that moves us closer to God instead of just building a better Pharisee. I hope you find it helpful.


Firm Foundations

24 August 2015

This post is part of the August 2015 Synchroblog on “What it means to be pro-life.” The writing prompt included the following quote from Sister Joan Chittister, OSB: “I do not believe that just because you’re opposed to abortion, that that makes you pro-life. In fact, I think in many cases, your morality is deeply lacking if all you want is a child born but not a child fed, not a child educated, not a child housed. And why would I think that you don’t? Because you don’t want any tax money to go there. That’s not pro-life. That’s pro-birth. We need a much broader conversation on what the morality of pro-life is.”

“I say, old chap, you don’t look very balanced.”

Opposing abortion but turning a blind eye to the child once he’s born is not a balanced way to love your neighbor. That said, the imbalance on display is the same kind of imbalance you see in a sailor leaning off the high side of the boat for all he’s worth, trying to keep it from going over. The legal slaughter of a couple thousand children every day is the sort of thing that might send you off-center, if you think about it. Molech never had it so good; for Yahweh-fearing vertebrates, single-issue voting is an astonishingly mild response. What would Phineas do?

But a bunch of us want to talk about subsidized school lunches, early reading programs, and clean water in the third world — not so much because we are pro-life all the way through as because we’re tired of being uncool. [EDIT: The notable lack of participation in this month’s Synchroblog is a case in point. Compare it to August last year, or the ‘cooler’ topics — it’s painfully obvious that a bunch of us just found this one too hot to touch.] All the cool kids still think it’s better to keep the slaughter legal, and we’re tired of sitting at the nerds’ table. And the thing is, we don’t even have to give up our private pro-life convictions to change seats — all we have to do is not talk about it. Talk about Head Start, STEM education for girls, ethical coffee farming — anything but abortion.

Why? Because we are winning the war of definition. It used to be impossible to say that abortion is killing a baby without my hardcore pro-choice friends going off like Mount Vesuvius, but not anymore. I can say so out loud and in public and get away with it — as a man, yet! That was definitely not true even ten years ago. Even at the cool kids’ table, you can win that argument. You might struggle to get anyone to engage in the conversation, but if you have any spine at all, you’re not going to lose.

We. Are. Winning.

So as we engage the broader conversation of what it means to be pro-life, we need to build on the very effective and clear foundation that we have laid. We need to be masters of good and necessary consequence. We should take every opportunity to drive Sister Chittister’s reasoning to its conclusions. If we are in favor of saving that baby in utero, then we can’t balk at feeding the kid, or teaching him to read. We’re pro-life. And on the other hand, if you’re such a big fan of WIC that you’re willing to send IRS agents armed with home liens to collect the funding, then how in the world could you have been okay with flushing the kid just months before? Or put the other way round, if you were fine with killing him in utero, then why in the world do you care if we flush him now, at age 5, when it’s clear that he isn’t keeping up with the pack? Back then we were only guessing that he’d get left behind; now we know….

We should be sharpening the antithesis at every turn. The merchants of death who suddenly get religion about caring for children once they pass through the birth canal must be called to follow their visceral convictions about the value of newborns to the necessary conclusion. (Which, in case you missed it, is that Jesus is King and He built us to know the value of every life, including the ones who aren’t born yet.)

It is equally vital that the broader conversation focus on actual results, not just good intentions. We’re more than willing to hold the pro-life movement to this standard.

“Don’t be ridiculous,” they say, “of course we love children after they’re born.”

“Sure,” we reply, “but what are you going to do about it?”

And if all their money goes into fighting abortion at the opportunity cost of early literacy programs, if their intentions for the young children are professedly good but the results just aren’t there, then we will call them hypocrites — as Sister Chittister did.

But that leverage needs to get applied on the other side of the fence as well, and Sister Chittister’s statement sparkles with irony coming, as it does, from a Roman Catholic nun. She surely knows that privately funded programs (like the ones the Church runs all over the world) produce much better results than the expensive and ineffective tax-funded programs she wants us all to endorse. I am not quite prepared to believe that I can’t really be pro-life unless I’m willing to sign off on an extensive set of interventions administered by the same set of jokers that brought us the DMV.

Yes, yes, the intentions are good. We all feel ourselves very virtuous voting a bunch of public funding into something for the children. But remember, we are building on the foundation of the abortion conversation, and one of the key lessons is that results matter more than intentions. The mother may believe the hype about a lump of tissue, and have no intention of killing a baby. But if she goes through with the abortion, the baby is just as dead as if she’d given birth and then smothered it with a pillow. The actual results are what matter, and that doesn’t change after the child passes through the birth canal. So let’s not be idiots. Intentions don’t feed a kid or teach him to read — and neither does voting.

So I work with a community church that hosts a weekly food bank — not just dry goods, but fruit, vegetables, meat, and dairy, too. Beyond that, we have a drop-in youth center 3 days a week (we want to do every day, but we don’t have the volunteer base for it yet), and we have a little “coffee shop” area that’s open anytime we’re in the building. Come calling anytime, and if someone’s there, you’re welcome to come in out of the weather, have a seat, and get a cup of cold water or hot coffee, as the whim takes you.

Our friends at the church two blocks down host a small medical clinic (and a food bank, too). Our friends at the church across the street have a day care and preschool for low-income families. And we do it all for you-wouldn’t-believe-how-little money. Because we are pro-life.

Is it working? Some of it, yes. The youth center is going gangbusters. The day care is great. The medical clinic catches problems that would become ER cases left untreated, and treats them while they’re easy and cheap to treat. That saves our local homeless population an incalculable amount of human suffering. The food banks, though….

You can’t starve in this town if you get sick and can’t go to work. The food banks furnish a safety net to folks who hit a run of bad luck, and that’s great. Some of our clients have taken advantage of the safety net when they needed it, and then gotten back up on their feet. Some others, instead of being empowered and encouraged, have become permanently dependent on us. That was never the goal, and we need to do better by them. Human dignity thrives when we are able to be generous, not when we are continually dependent on the generosity of others. We have a population that we have failed to empower to give; we are robbing them of their dignity in order to feed them. I don’t know what the answer is — if I had a better solution, I’d be pushing for it. I pray that God will give us one.

Until the New Jerusalem comes in for a landing and heaven has officially come to earth, there will be room for improvement. Let’s seek all the improvement that God will give us.

***

You might also enjoy the other posts in this month’s synchroblog:

 


Imago Dei: Loving the Different

21 July 2015

This post is part of the July Synchroblog on gay marriage. 

Once upon a time — if time is an appropriate word — there was nothing. Not infinite empty space, just…nothing. Nothing but the triune God, dancing alone, complete and content. And then again, not alone, because there were three Persons together, each one distinct and quite different from the others, each one loving the other two. (If two other people love you, you’re hardly alone, right?) Lacking nothing and needing nothing, secure in the love of each Person for the others, God danced like nobody was watching.

There was nobody to watch, until out of the overflow of each Person’s love for the others, God made the heavens and the earth.

The Breath of God brooded over the primordial waters like a hen on a nest, until the Father spoke a Word.

“Be light!” And there was light. Having commanded the light into existence, He divided it from its contrasting element, the darkness, and gave them each a name: Day and Night. The Three gazed on what He had made. Seeing that it reflected the aspects of the Three that He wished it to display, He pronounced it good.

Then evening came, and morning, and God began to create again. For six days, the Three enriched the creation like a painter working on a canvas, pausing each evening and beginning work again the next day, and it was all good. He made the sky, separating the waters above from the waters below. He gathered the waters below the sky into one place, and brought up dry land out of the water. In the middle of the third day, the Three stopped naming things, but He kept creating. He populated the land with plants and set lights in the sky to give signs and seasons, to measure out days and years. He made great swarms of creatures to populate the water and the air. He populated the land with domestic animals, wild beasts, and an abundance of creepy-crawlies of every description. He seemed to have a great fondness for beetles.

All this reflected aspects of the Three, but when it came time to sign the canvas, God wanted to do something special, to put a particular representation of Himself on His creation. So the Three took counsel together: “Let’s make humanity in Our image, like Us, and let’s give them rule over the whole earth and all its creatures.” And God began to sculpt. He formed a man from the dust, and breathed life into his nostrils, and man became a living being named Dirt. Then God did something He had never done before. The Three Persons looked at the sculpture, which was just one person, and said, “That’s not good. Something is missing. I will make a helper comparable to him.”

God brought animals out of the ground and brought them to Dirt, and whatever he named them, that was their name — but while they all had mates, there was no comparable mate for Dirt. So God caused him to fall asleep, and pulled a rib out of his side, and from that rib, He made a woman. Different — so different from Dirt — and yet comparable to him, his match.

God woke him, and brought her to him. Dirt had never seen anything like her before, but he knew her for what she was: bone of his bone, and flesh of his flesh. The woman was him, she was part of him and one with him…but distinct from him, and quite different. God gave them to each other, and marriage was born. And He blessed them: “Be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth, and rule over it — over all its creatures.”

God had signed His canvas, and He saw that it was good. And on the seventh day, God rested.

(Of course, it didn’t take us long to mess it up, but in Christ God is re-forming a new humanity that will one day inherit the earth, and once again be His perfected signature on the canvas of creation.)

That is the real story of how you came to be, and you are heir to all the considerable dignity that it implies. It is true of all people — all ethnicities, all creeds, all sexual orientations, all genders. As Paul would later summarize the story, “He made from one blood every nation under heaven.”

In the church, we have the nasty habit of treating certain people as if they don’t belong. Not just as if they don’t belong in the church — which would be bad enough —  but as if they don’t belong anywhere at all. Which distinguishing traits we decide to ostracize varies from culture to culture, from church to church, but churches that swear off this sin, and truly welcome whoever God brings them? Those churches are still quite rare.

We of all people should know better. The church is a hospital, not a country club. There’s no such thing as being too sick to go to the hospital. If you are here, then you were handcrafted in your mother’s womb for a purpose, and if you are still using the communal oxygen, then God hasn’t given up on you. Why should we?

Unfortunately, homosexuals are one of the groups that the church has too often given up on. We have preferred to ignore them, to pretend that they didn’t exist, to treat them as ‘other,’ rather than as part of us — people created by God with dignity and purpose. It was more comfortable to simply pass them by. But God is far less interested in our comfort than he is in leading us to fulfill our purpose: to be His signature on the canvas of creation. To that end, He has provided the Church in the USA with a situation that forces us to engage. Gay marriage promises to be quite a mess in the Church, and that is great news! The Church gets a lot of mileage out of messes — look at the Christological controversies or the Reformation.

The challenge before us is to mirror the Trinity as God has called us to do by showing honor to all people, by loving all sinners as Christ loved all sinners, by loving those who are different from us, by welcoming all who come as a hospital welcomes all who come. The challenge is to do all this faithfully, not out of sentimentality but because we are faithful to the word of God and the gospel of Jesus Christ, who called us to be like Him.

This means that a gay couple who walks into one of our churches must be deeply loved, no matter how uncomfortable that might make some of the people in the church. We walk by faith, not by sentiment. It does not mean, however, that we should be performing their marriage ceremony. The exegesis is not in any way unclear here: the same story that tells me a gay man is part of me and has dignity and purpose just like I do, also tells me that marriage is a man and a woman given to one another by God. The rest of the biblical revelation repeatedly reinforces this (including some pointed instructions on divorce that most evangelicals have seen fit to ignore), and repeatedly says that same-sex unions are sin. We may struggle with why that would be the case (and I would suggest that the answers are in that same story, above), but again, we walk by faith, not by sentiment. If you are attempting to submit yourself to the word of God, there are some complicated interpretive problems that you will have difficulty untangling — but this isn’t one of them.

The practical question posed by the legal possibility of gay marriage is likewise pretty simple. “Same-sex marriage” is a contradiction on the order of “four-sided triangles,” and it won’t do for Christ’s people to dignify the sin with a four-sided triangle celebration ceremony. If we do that, we become a hospital that sides with the cancer rather than the patient.

This issue is not hard for us because the text is unclear. It is hard for us because the demands of faith clash with the demands of sentiment. Some folks’ sentiment is that all things gay are icky, and they want to pretend the whole thing doesn’t exist, and make the “icky” people unwelcome in the church. Other folks’ sentiment is to be welcoming, but offer no call to repentance. The demands of faith cut against both these impulses, and require of us a response that is loving and welcoming while presenting God’s call to mirror His nature on earth. Doing that well — that is going to take a miracle. Let’s pray that God will work that miracle in us.

***

You may also enjoy the other posts in July’s Synchroblog:


…but He never really does

21 July 2015

“Hey, do you think God could really speak today? Could He reveal Himself to someone with a thought, an impression, a circumstance?”

Sure. Shoot, He could do an audible voice if He wanted to. Nobody really thinks God couldn’t do it. He’s God, after all.”

“Great. Glad we’re on the same page about that. So last night, when I was praying, God said…”

“Wait. What do you mean, ‘God said’?”

“I mean that He talked to me, and I heard it. Look here in my journal — I even wrote it down.”

“Oh come on! How do you know that’s God?”

“Same way I know it’s my Mom calling when I hear her on the phone — I know what her voice sounds like.”

“You’re telling me you literally heard an audible voice, and you know it was God?”

“No, I’m telling you God spoke to me in my thoughts, and I know what it sounds like when He does that.”

“Don’t be silly! How could you possibly tell?”

*****

Interesting, huh? Here we have a conversation between two Christians, both of whom profess that God can speak to individuals today — to whomever He wants, anytime He wants. But one of them is certain, in advance of all the evidence, that He didn’t speak to this particular guy last night. This is the difference between theology on paper and theology in real life: only one of them actually expects it to happen. Last night, only one of them was listening in the expectation that God might speak. Big surprise — only one of them heard anything.


Answering the 40 Questions

17 July 2015

On July 3, Matthew Vines posted an article titled “40 questions for Christians who oppose marriage equality.” A friend brought the article to my attention, and I wrote out my answers to the 40 questions mostly as an exercise for myself. Some of the questions were really good, thought-provoking discussion starters. Some exposed really weird presuppositions about history, marriage, and Christianity. A few questions struck me as purely rhetorical traps, but it might be that I misunderstood. All in all, I think the article bears discussing. So let’s. Here are my answers. What are yours?

  1. Do you accept that sexual orientation is not a choice?
    I doubt it’s that simple. We are sinners by nature and by choice; why wouldn’t both enter into it? I suspect that for most of us, our choices, especially our early choices, have something to do with it, as do our native proclivities and our early experiences. At the moment, it is politically convenient to present sexual orientation as fixed at birth and totally immutable, something one discovers rather than something one develops. (It is, in other words, the last stand of essentialism.) Ten minutes after the political necessity passes, I expect we’ll be up to our necks in carefully footnoted research about how sexual orientation is far more nuanced, complex and dynamic than we previously suspected.
  2. Do you accept that sexual orientation is highly resistant to attempts to change it?
    If you mean ham-handed attempts to “decide not to be gay” and that sort of thing, then yeah, I do. Many of any given person’s desires are highly resistant to that sort of will-driven change — a “beach bum” can’t just decide not to like the beach and love the desert instead, either.That said, I have known people who experienced themselves as having one sexual orientation, then later experienced themselves as having a different sexual orientation. Since I’ve seen it go straight->gay and gay->straight, again, the situation does seem to be a bit more complicated. And “gay for the stay” is a thing among prisoners for a reason.
  3. How many meaningful relationships with lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender (LGBT) people do you have?
    Of course I don’t know. I’m 40 years old; I remember a time when almost nobody was ‘out’ in mainstream America. I had a friend in high school that was gay — he didn’t know I knew, and I didn’t bring it up to him out of respect for his decision to keep it private. I have (or have had) good friendships with several LGBT folk, along with a fairly large number of acquaintances. But here I have a question in response: So what? What are the implications for the conversation if someone says “Well, I’ve never had any,” or conversely, their number is bigger than yours?
  4. How many openly LGBT people would say you are one of their closest friends?
    You’d have to ask them. 
  5. How much time have you spent in one-on-one conversation with LGBT Christians about their faith and sexuality?
    A little. Not a ton, but not many seem to want to have that conversation with me — there’s a self-selection factor in play here.
  6. Do you accept that heterosexual marriage is not a realistic option for most gay people?
    I’m not sure that I do. It appears to have been the default option for nearly all of humanity for nearly all of human history. Obviously it can be done, and usually was. I guess we’d have to talk about what you mean by “realistic option.”
  7. Do you accept that lifelong celibacy is the only valid option for most gay people if all same-sex relationships are sinful?
    Lifelong celibacy is the only valid option for anybody who doesn’t get married. It was good enough for Jesus — what’s wrong with it?
  8. How many gay brothers and sisters in Christ have you walked with on the path of mandatory celibacy, and for how long?
    A couple, and for a while. I have the same follow-up question here as in #3. So what? From your perspective, what are the implications for the discussion if I say “None,” or if my number is bigger than yours?
  9. What is your answer for gay Christians who struggled for years to live out a celibacy mandate but were driven to suicidal despair in the process?
    The same as for straight Christians who struggled for years to live out a celibacy mandate but were driven to suicidal despair in the process, or for any Christian who struggled with anything whatever and was driven to suicidal despair in the process. In a nutshell, to walk with them and help them to walk with God and hear His voice, so as to pursue their God-given destinies rather than letting their whole lives be about what they can’t do. I can hear the peanut gallery muttering something about cliches and platitudes, and I have two things to say: first, you may have had someone throw those words at you before, someone who didn’t know you, didn’t walk with you, someone who didn’t themselves live out the realities to which those words refer. Someone who was using “cast your cares on Jesus” as a screen to keep you away, because they were afraid of your hurts and your despair. Regardless of your personal history with them, those statements are not platitudes. They are living truths, and if God puts you in my life, I will live them with you, neck-deep in your mess (and you in mine), doing whatever it takes to help. Second, I know this approach is real because I have lived it out myself. Suicidal despair and I are old enemies.
  10. Has mandatory celibacy produced good fruit in the lives of most gay Christians you know?
    Most gay Christians I know haven’t tried it. A great number of the unmarried straight Christians I know haven’t tried it either. This is a serious problem in the church, and our inability to address the issues surrounding gay “marriage” is just a symptom of a much deeper problem: evangelicals have as much trouble as the general culture does with sexual ethics. As a group, we hate biblical sexual ethics generally, and fall woefully short of even trying to live up to them. Having deified orgasm, we are now prepared to believe that there are many roads up the mountain, and it doesn’t really matter which one you take, as long as it gets you there.
  11. How many married same-sex couples do you know?
    One…but they just split up. Same follow-up question as #3.
  12. Do you believe that same-sex couples’ relationships can show the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control?
    I am sure that at times it can. Sin in one area does not stop God from producing fruit in our lives — for which all thanksgiving. It does not follow that the sin is not sin, or that God approves of it, or that we ought to turn a blind eye to it, or refuse to call it by its right name.
  13. Do you believe that it is possible to be a Christian and support same-sex marriage in the church?
    There’s some kind of weird presupposition behind these “Is it possible to be a Christian and ____” questions. 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 again — they were a mess!) In the same vein, it’s surely possible to be a Christian and a practicing homosexual — or simply approving of Christian homosexuals. Sure. God receives all who come to Him into His family. He doesn’t require that you clean up first — just come. And once you’re part of the family, you’re part of the family forever. If we are faithless, He remains faithful. But it certainly is possible to be faithless. It’s possible to be a Christian and sin in thought, word and deed, by what we have done and what we have left undone. Happens all the time, and praise God, He is kind to us. He came to seek and save the lost. So all that said, is supporting same-sex marriage the act of a discerning and faithful Christian? No. it’s rather plainly not. Does it define you out of the family? Of course not. God is a better father than that.
  14. Do you believe that it is possible to be a Christian and support slavery?
    Many were. Including Moses and Paul, depending on what you mean by “support slavery.”
  15. If not, do you believe that Martin Luther, John Calvin, and Jonathan Edwards were not actually Christians because they supported slavery?
    See above.
  16. Do you think supporting same-sex marriage is a more serious problem than supporting slavery?
    Yes, and how! They’re not even in the same league. Supporting same-sex marriage is supporting four-sided triangles. You are declaring a thing to be which is simply not so — and doing so in order to dignify a serious sin. Slavery doesn’t fall into the same category. So yes, it’s a much more serious problem.
  17. Did you spend any time studying the Bible’s passages about slavery before you felt comfortable believing that slavery is wrong?
    Lots, which is why I would say that slavery is not necessarily wrong. It was not a sin for Abraham to own slaves, nor for Israel to own slaves, nor for Paul — under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit — to return Onesimus to Philemon and encourage slaves to obey their masters and masters to treat their slaves well. If you believe that slavery is categorically wrong, well…did you read any of these passages? Would you accuse God of wrong?
  18. Does it cause you any concern that Christians throughout most of church history would have disagreed with you?

    Moi
    ? No, they wouldn’t. Does it bother you that they would find your position unconscionable?
  19. Did you know that, for most of church history, Christians believed that the Bible taught the earth stood still at the center of the universe?
    Some Christians said so, because they made the mistake of rooting their cosmology in pagan balloon juice and prettying it up with a few verses. It’s a pretty serious mistake to make, but it happens. As I said above, it doesn’t automatically define you out fo the faith, for which all thanksgiving.
  20. Does it cause you any concern that you disagree with their interpretation of the Bible?
    Nope. Does it cause you any concern that you are repeating their methodological mistake with the current vintage of pagan balloon juice?
  21. Did you spend any time studying the Bible’s verses on the topic before you felt comfortable believing that the earth revolves around the sun?
    I did, actually. I was quite the apologetics geek in my teenage years, before I learned how to love people instead of clubbing them.
  22. Do you know of any Christian writers before the 20th century who acknowledged that gay people must be celibate for life due to the church’s rejection of same-sex relationships?
    What a very tactical framing of the question. No, prior to the 20th century’s particular madness, this framing of the issue was unthinkable.  All the single folk were told the same thing regardless of sexual orientation: marry the spouse your family picks for you, and be fruitful. The relevant passages were fifth commandment and the creation mandate. Counterquestion: do you know of Christian writers before the 20th century who encouraged sexual activity outside of marriage? And even if you had dozens of  examples, do you think they matter, stacked up against the plain teaching of Scripture?
  23. If not, might it be fair to say that mandating celibacy for gay Christians is not a traditional position?
    This is just dumb. Traditionally, Mom and Dad picked a spouse for their kids, who had precious little choice in the matter anyway. Do you prefer that position? And the traditional position is to remain celibate unless and until you marry a person of the opposite sex — and you know it.
  24. Do you believe that the Bible explicitly teaches that all gay Christians must be single and celibate for life?
    Nope. It says no such thing. A gay man is free to marry a woman and bear children — as regularly happened.  A lesbian is similarly free to marry a man and raise children together. The Bible says, “Children, obey your parents,” which for most of history meant marrying who they said.  But perhaps you’ve heard of “necessary consequence?”
  25. If not, do you feel comfortable affirming something that is not explicitly affirmed in the Bible?
    Well, given what I said above, this little trap doesn’t apply to me — but just to be talking about it, yes, I do. The trinity, for example. Again, perhaps you’ve heard of “necessary consequence?”
  26. Do you believe that the moral distinction between lust and love matters for LGBT people’s romantic relationships?
    Of course, although it’s more a spectrum than a hard distinction. I’m not sure 0% lust is really attainable. But just because you care about the whole person to some extent doesn’t mean your actions are in their best interests. You can damage a person with good intentions, and same-sex relationships do.
  27. Do you think that loving same-sex relationships should be assessed in the same way as the same-sex behavior Paul explicitly describes as lustful in Romans 1?
    Paul seems to be saying that lust drives the descent into same-sex relationships, and he makes no qualifications in his denunciation of same-sex relationships. But come now, be serious. The exegesis here is in no way complicated. Paul’s denunciations of same-sex sexual relationships are as straightforward as they could be.
  28. Do you believe that Paul’s use of the terms “shameful” and “unnatural” in Romans 1:26-27 means that all same-sex relationships are sinful?
    Yup.
  29. Would you say the same about Paul’s description of long hair in men as “shameful” and against “nature” in 1 Corinthians 11:14, or would you say he was describing cultural norms of his time?
    I would say the same, actually. I see you rolling your eyes, but I’m serious, and so should you be. There are pretty hefty exegetical reasons to take it that way, and the reason we overwhelmingly try to beg off on some “cultural norm” explanation is not because the exegesis points that way — it rather plainly doesn’t — but because we don’t want to believe it. Sounds familiar….
  30. Do you believe that the capacity for procreation is essential to marriage?
    It is central to marriage in a center-of-the-bell-curve kind of way — and God explicitly commanded it, so it’s out of bounds for a Christian marriage to be hostile to procreation. That said, procreation does not define marriage: Adam and Eve had a marriage before there were children. The marriage must be valid in order for the activity that leads to procreation to be lawful. 
  31. If so, what does that mean for infertile heterosexual couples?
    It means it really hurts to be me some days. Other days I don’t think about it as much. Apparently today’s going to be one of the former — thanks for that. (If you’re feeling bad for bringing up a topic that is personally quite painful for me, don’t. My feelings are real, but they are not, in fact, the point, and you don’t have to let them dictate the course of the discussion.) Now, you see what I did there — dodge the issue and make it about my feelings? Let’s just make that off-limits for everybody, because it’s not helpful to the discussion. So to actually answer the question, for infertile couples it means that God opens and closes the womb as He wills, and we trust Him to know best, even though we don’t understand.
  32. How much time have you spent engaging with the writings of LGBT-affirming Christians like Justin Lee, James Brownson, and Rachel Murr?
    I haven’t. I don’t read the patents for perpetual-motion machines, either, and for the same reason.
  33. What relationship recognition rights short of marriage do you support for same-sex couples?
    If by “relationship recognition rights” you  ean, do  I pretend they’re really not together, then of course not. I If you mean some version of “marriage lite” like civil unions, I don’t. It isn’t my job to condemn or to fix people, but neither is it my job to nurture their sins. It is my job to love them. On a good day, I do my best. On a bad day, I do poorly, like everyone else.
  34. What are you doing to advocate for those rights?
    See above.
  35. Do you know who Tyler Clementi, Leelah Alcorn, and Blake Brockington are, and did your church offer any kind of prayer for them when their deaths made national news?
    My church doesn’t offer up prayers for the dead, but that’s not really the point you’re making. No, I had to google them. So I want to ask that follow-up question again: So what? Is attention to the popular news now a requirement for reading the Bible properly?
  36. Do you know that LGBT youth whose families reject them are 8.4 times more likely to attempt suicide than LGBT youth whose families support them?
    Define “reject” and “support” please. I smell a false dichotomy.
  37. Have you vocally objected when church leaders and other Christians have compared same-sex relationships to things like bestiality, incest, and pedophilia?
    No, and for good reason. You listed four perversions in the same sentence. Why would I object?
  38. How certain are you that God’s will for all gay Christians is lifelong celibacy?
    I’m not. See above re. marriage. That said, God’s will for all unmarried Christians is celibacy, and again, by “marriage,” I mean the real kind.
  39. What do you think the result would be if we told all straight teenagers in the church that if they ever dated someone they liked, held someone’s hand, kissed someone, or got married, they would be rebelling against God?
    I think we would be lying to them about what God said, and as with all such lies, the results would be disastrous.
  40. Are you willing to be in fellowship with Christians who disagree with you on this topic?
    Again, define your terms. Have-a-beer-together fellowship? Sure. I do. Make-common-cause-on-sexual-issues fellowship? Not a chance — how would that even work? Welcome them to the Table? Of course — that’s where we all meet Jesus; why would I try to keep them away?

Thirty-Five Theological Notes

26 June 2015

(for old friends and new, who are trying to figure out where I’m coming from) 

Prolegomena

1.  I am an exegete, storyteller, and shepherd. My personal ministry focuses on helping people to pray, know God personally and directly, learn and live the biblical Story, retake lost territory the Church has ceded to the pagans, and use high-concept folk culture as a vehicle for reformation. Mostly in Englewood, Colorado.

2.  I have tried to listen well to the Scriptures and be as faithful as I can be to what they say. Theologians tend to gather in herds like anybody else, and my particular set of emphases has not led me into one of the standard herds.

3.  The spirit of the day being what it is — postmodern ectoplasm that evaporates in a strong light — I am expected to reject herding and its attendant labels, and demand recognition as an absolutely unique snowflake. But no. Gathering in community and giving apt names to things are expressions of the image of God. Hence this explanation, which I hope will help.

4.  Much mischief comes of affirming something we ought to affirm, and then on that basis denying something we ought not to deny. We ought to have learnt this from the doctrine of the Trinity: if we believe in inerrancy, then sometimes we must submit to mystery.

5.  Mood is often more important–and harder to capture–than the standard talking points. For example, I have worked productively with postmil brethren with no problem, and had trouble working with some of my fellow premil folk. The practical difference is mood: when the kings of the earth conspire against Him, Yahweh laughs at them. Do we laugh with Him, or do we think the sky is falling? The difference is easy to see in real life, but it can be quite difficult to codify meaningfully in the standard form of a doctrinal statement.

Basics

6.  I believe the historic Christian faith expressed in the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds, the Definition of Chalcedon, and the National Association of Evangelicals statement of faith.

7.  I believe in the biblically attested miracles — crossing the Red Sea, Joshua’s long day, virgin birth, water into wine, all of it, because the Bible says so. I believe in a recent, six-literal-day creation and a worldwide flood for the same reason.

8.  Since I don’t approach the Scriptures with the skepticism of a 19th-century liberal, I don’t approach the history of the Church that way either. Having been taught by the Scriptures to believe in such things, I believe in the miracles of the Christian Church, reported in the ministries of such notable saints as Augustine, Patrick of Ireland, George Wishart, John Knox, Charles Spurgeon, and Francis MacNutt. And I’ve seen some myself.

9.  I have personally experienced the exegetical bankruptcy, practical impotence, and willful historical ignorance of cessationism. Never again. That said, supernatural ministry can be mightily abused, as in Corinth. 1 Corinthians prescribes a solution; cessationism ain’t it.

10.  Just to get it out of the way, I am not a Calvinist, and still less of an Arminian. Both Calvin and Arminius did good service to the church, but they were both Calvinists, and shared a number of assumptions which the Scriptures do not support. Talking about “the theological spectrum from Calvinism to Arminianism” is like talking about “all the colors of the rainbow, from red to pink.” There were 15 glorious centuries of Christian theology before those two worthy gents came along, and a few centuries after them, too. For which all thanksgiving.

11.  I am Protestant, and happy to be. I am deeply in debt to the magisterial Reformation; it remains one of the finest creations of the Roman Church.

Prayer

12.  A strong view of divine sovereignty is necessary to the integrity of the Christian faith. The Scriptures require it, and there’s no point in praying for things unless God is in control.

13.  I believe that God’s hand moves in response to prayer, and sometimes we do not have because we do not ask. This is tough to square with divine sovereignty, but if we only know enough to be obedient, then we know enough. So I pray; resolving the mysteries can wait.

14.  I believe we should learn to pray by praying in the categories of the Lord’s Prayer, because Matthew says so, and in the words of the Lord’s Prayer, because Luke says so. Many struggle to pray effectively because we do not honor our Lord’s instruction in this matter.

The Unity of Christ’s Body

15.   I am small-c catholic. Those who belong to Christ belong to me, and I to them.

16.  I believe in the unity of the Body of Christ. Unity is a cardinal doctrine and practice, essential to maintaining justification by faith (as Paul said in Galatians), and a crucial part of our witness to the world, not to mention being Jesus’ dying wish for His people. Our real convictions on unity are demonstrated in our choices of whom to eat with, pray with, worship with, and work with. If we don’t do those things outside the narrow confines of our home community, we might think unity is permissible, but we don’t think it’s important.

17.  I believe in historical unity. All Christ’s people, everywhere and everywhen, are My People, more so than my family, my fellow Americans or the members of my martial arts club. In the second century, my Church was still finding her feet. In the eleventh century, my Church had suffered an unfortunate split that has yet to be healed. In the fifteenth century, my Church was hopelessly corrupt. She has always been headquartered in the New Jerusalem, no matter what some folks believed about Rome. If we celebrate Veteran’s Day but not Purim or the Feast of All Saints, we have an odd notion of where our primary loyalties lie.

18.  Today the Church lives with denominations and highly denominated nondenominational entities by the million. These tribal loyalties are a blessing insofar as they inspire greater love for God and our neighbors, but when we cease to act as one Body with others who belong to Christ but not to our tribe, we are failing in exactly the way Peter failed at Antioch.

The Church Service

19.  Every regularly held public meeting has some kind of liturgy to it; some churches are more conscious and competent at using their liturgies to achieve their goals. I prefer them.

20.  I believe that worship is about what God wants to receive, not about what we happen to want to give (cf. Cain), and still less about what’s fashionable this month. I believe God has told us to be a Psalm-singing people. If we sing the Psalms and follow the directions they give, we will experience richer worship than is typical in the American church.

21.  Having been taught by Psalm-singing, baptism, communion, and anointing with oil, I believe in physical expressions of worship. I believe that the arts have a strong place in the church’s worship. There’s nothing wrong with spontaneous worship, but I believe in the value of planned prayer, painting, and dance as I believe in the value of planned music and sermons.

22.  I believe in the use of the supernatural ministry gifts in the worship service, because the Bible says so. I also believe that if you’re serious about that, you leave space for it. If you have a 90-minute service time, and you plan 90 minutes of content, you don’t value supernatural ministry. If you schedule a move of the Spirit 27 minutes into the service, you are attempting to control something you shouldn’t. He blows where he wills.

23.  I believe the church service ought to end in communion, with its attendant implications of security and fellowship, rather than an invitation, with its attendant implications of insecurity and crisis. Invitations are fine for revival meetings, but have no place at family gatherings. Repeated invitations of the “Maybe you know a lot about Jesus, but have you ever really…” type have done much mischief to impressionable children who were unfortunate enough to grow up hearing them every week.

Sacraments

24.  I believe in baptizing believers immediately, like they did in Acts. Baptism is the New Covenant analog to circumcision. Of course, we circumcise the baby after he’s born, but since New Covenant members are born twice, we have to ask: “Which birth are we talking about?” If baptism is the new circumcision, then what is the new birth? Well…the new birth. Paedobaptism is a throwback to the days before Christ broke the power of the clan.

25.  I believe in weekly communion, but I also believe that weekly communion will be unbearable until it is celebrated as the feast of victory that it is, rather than observed as an orgy of ungodly introspection. It is vile for a shepherd in Christ’s flock to turn the Corinthians’ sin — which no one is committing today — into an excuse to torment the sheep with every imaginable doubt. Self-examination for the sins discussed in the passage is fair game.

26.  I believe that the wine in the communion cup should be wine, because the Bible says so. I also believe that it is foolish and wicked to divide the Body over how we conduct the Table, so when necessary, I drink my grape juice with joy and thanksgiving.

27.  It is not my Table; it is Christ’s. I am nowhere commanded to fence it; how dare I? All who are His are welcome; all who desire Him are welcome. Jesus did not stint to give Himself to the children, the outcasts, and those who did not yet believe. Of course giving the body and blood of the very Son of God to such people (to any people, for that matter) is blasphemy and sacrilege. But it is Jesus’ sacrilege, not ours. Who am I to argue?

28.  I believe we must speak of the Table as God speaks of it, without hedging. I believe in the real presence of Christ in the elements, without feeling a need to explain the details. I follow the examples of John Knox, John Williamson Nevin, and other stalwart Protestants in refusing to let vain Romish speculation ruin this for me, as it did for poor Zwingli.

Living as a Christian

29.  Eternal life is knowing God. Salvation is irreducibly relational, and individual conversion is absolutely necessary; well-remembered crisis conversion is another matter entirely. Seeing a child on the playground, I can be sure the child is alive without knowing the moment of his birth. Striking up a conversation, I might find that the child himself does not know when he was born. It does not follow that he was never born.

30.  The new birth is a miraculous, gracious act of God which we receive by trusting God. Like any birth, it is the work of the parents, and not the child, that accomplishes it.

31.  The body is dead because of sin, but the spirit is life because of righteousness. Continuing to grow in Christ requires an ongoing miracle, and again, we must be willing to receive that miracle. But if we are, God will do it.

32.  It is the birthright of every child of God to hear and understand his Father’s voice, in the Bible and in his heart.

33.  Uncertainty is a poor foundation for a life of righteousness. Like any good father, God assures us that we are His own, and urges us to live on that basis. The accusations and doubts that cause us to question our place in the family come from the world, the flesh and the devil–or from our fellow believers, doing the devil’s work for him.

34.  Living as a Christian is a life of continual repentance. We always fall short, and God’s grace is always there to transform us and move us closer to Him. We need only be willing.

35.  Willingness is being open with God: openly communicating to Him what we think, believe and have done, openly hearing His approval and correction, and obeying.


Reflections on Catalyst One-Day Conference

10 May 2015

I had the opportunity a few months ago to attend the Catalyst one-day conference here in Denver with Andy Stanley and Craig Groeschel. A lot of good things were said, especially Andy Stanley’s ruminations on autonomy and why it’s a bad idea. I can think of a couple  whole movements of pastors and activists who need to hear that talk, and will refuse to listen to it. There were also some deeply stupid things said — CEO-think getting the better of following Jesus. I don’t intend to write a review of the whole thing, but here are some thoughts I wrote down just after the event.

By any biblically recognizable definition, these guys are not pastors. The organizations they lead are not churches — again, by any biblically recognizable standard. In some circles, that would be the whole critique. There was a time when that would have been my whole critique.

But these guys and their organizations are doing significant work for the Kingdom of God. They’re not pastors and not churches, but they’re not nothing either–so what are they? They are parachurch organizations that provide a variety of religious goods and services. For the purposes of the Internal Revenue Code, they happen to be organized as an entity called “church,” but let’s face it, the IRS doesn’t have the best possible grasp on spiritual reality.

Church happens within these organizations — in small groups, student ministries, other smaller cadres where there is real accountability, shared mission, and life together. And it doesn’t just happen by accident — quite often, those things are what they’re aiming for.

The organization itself, however, is not a church. It is a monastic order. Craig Groeschel is not a pastor, he’s the next Ignatius of Loyola, leading a militant, dedicated cadre of broadly Protestant monks and nuns in a rigorous program of spiritual discipline and leadership development to serve the Church and the world. It is impressive, admirable work.

There is an argument to be made, perhaps, that doing the work of a monastic order under the guise of being a local church muddies the water and causes trouble. I’ll let someone else make that argument if they can. For me, the issue is simpler than that: this is good work that ought to be done, and someone is doing it. The Lord of the Harvest has heard our prayer and sent laborers into His harvest, and we should thank Him and ask for more.