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.

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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.


Practical Unity

9 March 2018

I want to speak a little on practical unity.

You reap what you sow. If you sow constant conflict about ever-finer distinctions, you reap that. If you sow into the little common ground you have, you reap more common ground — some thirty, some sixty, some a hundred-fold.

I haven’t given up on doctrinal precision. I still talk theology with people, and I still seek to come to one mind with my brothers and sisters as we can — which is our Christian duty (Phil. 2:1-4). But I find that tangibly loving each other while we work together is the context within which those conversations happen productively.

“I’ll work with you if we can come to agreement on doctrine” is an approach that has not profited those who have been occupied with it. Scripture teaches us to notice that. (Hebrews 13:9)

I find it fascinating how often theological conservatives respond to my pro-untiy sentiment by tossing out a scenario like “What if a liberal lesbian Methodist minister who thinks Jesus is just a good moral teacher wants to work with you?”

It’s a good question, and it’s come up every now and again. The answer is that it depends on what we’re doing. Volunteering for the Chamber of Commerce golf tournament? No problem. Lobbying the city to get off our backs and let us feed homeless folks at the park? Sure. Introduce people to Jesus together? Of course not — we’re not talking about the same person. She’s talking about a Ghandi-type figure, and I’m talking about the Lord of the Universe in flesh.

But this isn’t an issue that crops up often, and I find it fascinating how often conservatives will use this supposed “nightmare scenario” (which isn’t that hard to deal with, actually—it’s just an awkward conversation) to avoid driving 4 blocks to establish a relationship with the historically orthodox church right down the street. They won’t take the low-hanging fruit, for fear that if we start picking, there might be a rotten apple in the upper branches. So there might, and we’ll handle that when we get to it.

But in day to day reality, there’s plenty of people who know and love the same Jesus we do — they baptize babies (or not), believe in real presence at the Lord’s Table (or not), expect a pretrib rapture (or not), celebrate Lent (or don’t celebrate Christmas, as the case may be), think too highly of Calvin, whatever. But they are our brothers and sisters, and we know it. We refuse to meet them, learn their names, start tangibly loving them…why?


Covering Grace

17 November 2017

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

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

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

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


Not That Simple

10 November 2017

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

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

 

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

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

How are we to think about this?

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

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

So that settles it, yes?

Not so fast…

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

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

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

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

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