Covering Grace

17 November 2017

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

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

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

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

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Children of Hagar and the Reformation Settlement

31 October 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Kingdom Has Come

15 October 2014

In the theology I grew up with, the kingdom of God is future, period.

We were aware that Jesus said the kingdom was near, in passages like this one, for example:

Now after John was put in prison, Jesus came to Galilee, preaching the gospel of the kingdom of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel.”

We interpreted that the same way you interpret a guy on the street corner with a sign that says, “The end is near.” In other words, “near” meant that it was still future, coming soon.

There’s an obvious way in which that was true. The consummation of the kingdom promises is still future. Obviously, the knowledge of the glory of God has not yet covered the earth like water covers the sea.

I’m aware that people have issues with the eschatology, but let’s not get sidetracked onto that at the moment. For the sake of discussion, let’s grant a future literal kingdom of exactly the kind envisioned by pre- and post-mil theologians.

Granting that, is the kingdom entirely future?

No.

We know it isn’t, because it wasn’t entirely future even in Jesus’ day. Notice what He says in Matthew 12:

Every kingdom divided against itself is brought to desolation, and every city or house divided against itself will not stand. If Satan casts out Satan, he is divided against himself. How then will his kingdom stand? And if I cast out demons by Beelzebub, by whom do your sons cast them out? Therefore they shall be your judges. But if I cast out demons by the Spirit of God, surely the kingdom of God has come upon you.

“Has come.” Not “will come” or “is about to come.” Has. In other words, when Jesus cast out a demon, the kingdom came right there. And this is what Jesus meant all along when He said that the kingdom was near. The old King James translation, “The kingdom of heaven is at hand” is exactly right. “At hand” is where you keep your cell phone–close enough you can reach out and grab it.

The message of Jesus, from the inception of His ministry right down to the present day, is this: the kingdom of God is close enough to you, right now, that you could reach out and touch it. Do you want to?


That Darned Piggy

26 May 2013

Last Sunday was our joint Pentecost service here in Englewood.  Seven or eight sponsoring churches cancelled their Sunday morning service and met together on a baseball field to share in a joint service of prayer and worship followed by a meal.  As Billy Waters pointed out in his brief sermon, Paul’s letters to the churches are addressed to the “church of God which is at Corinth” or “to the saints who are in Philippi,” not to First Baptist or Third Anglican or even to the church that meets at so-and-so’s house as over against the others.  We believe in One Church in Englewood, and it was as the One Church of Englewood that we gathered.  Of course, there are other churches that weren’t involved in sponsoring the event, and they went on with their regularly scheduled services, which is fine.  All were invited, and all are welcome — they are part of the One Church in Englewood whether they jump in on this particular event or not.  Because I come from a much more sectarian tradition, this kind of occurrence always prompts me to meditate on why I do this, and why I no longer believe that I’m transgressing some boundary of doctrinal faithfulness when I do it.

Biblical truth and Christian love are two virtues which we must cultivate; two doctrines to which we must be faithful, and they cannot be separated such that it’s possible to prioritize one over the other.  The two are not in competition; “I am the…Truth” and “God is love” show us that truth and love are a perfect unity within the Triune Godhead, and they ought to be in God’s creaturely images too.  It is neither wise nor virtuous to set our virtues at one another’s throats.  When we have “love” lacking truth, the prime critique is not the lack of truth.  Love without truth isn’t true, fair enough — but more importantly it’s not really loving.  Likewise, “truth” lacking love is a sounding brass and a clanging cymbal, and of course unloving by definition, but more importantly, it fails on its own criterion — it falls short of genuine truth.  The One who is the Truth is loving, and real love rejoices in the truth.

It is precisely because I care that truth be lived as well as honored on paper that my fellowship and working relationships are as wide as they are.  Once upon a time, Paul came to Antioch and discovered Peter, his breath still reeking of pulled pork, suddenly refusing to sit and eat with the Gentile believers.  Paul could have upbraided him for being unloving.  Paul could have simply criticized his legalism.  But what Paul did, in fact, was rebuke him for not being straightforward about the gospel — and Paul’s subsequent tirade is one of the clearest expositions of justification by faith in all of Scripture.  Christ had spoken; the Gentile brothers were as clean as it gets.  By breaking table fellowship with them, Peter was implicitly succumbing to a “Christ-plus” gospel — of course the Gentile brothers belonged to Christ, but something was still missing because they ate that darned piggy.

Except for the occasional sectarian Messianic Jewish group, we seem to do okay these days on the piggy question, as long as we’re talking about literal piggy.  But we seem to have more than our fair share of metaphorical piggies coming out of the woodwork.  Whether it’s pre-, mid- or post-somethingism, hand-wringing over whether those guys are “radical” enough in the pursuit of Jesus, or whatever — anything that makes you look at someone Jesus called clean and think, “But is he really clean enough?” — lay down your idols and repent.

Christ is among us.  We are His people.  That is enough.


Being Bi…

24 March 2013

Hi. For a number of years now, I have been living an alternative lifestyle, and it’s time to get it out in the open. My name is Tim, and I’m bi…

…vocational.

If that seems an unnecessarily provocative way to start out a post, I don’t think it is. I’ve been in American church culture all my life, and this lifestyle choice is poorly understood. The church exhibits a staggering ignorance of what it is to be bivocational, and there’s a real stigma attached to it. I never really noticed the extent of it until I came to terms with my own bivocationality. And before you ask, yes, I’ve tried “not being bivocational.” I have. I tried really hard, but in the end…nothing else worked. I don’t know what the future holds, and hey, God can do anything. Maybe one day, I won’t be bivocational. But right now, this is what I am. I don’t want to be cranky about it, but I’m not in love with the way the church tends to view me.

Mike Breen gives the best description I’ve seen so far of the bivocational stigma in his latest book, Leading Kingdom Movements:

..I think there is a pretty unhealthy stigma that attaches itself to being bi-vocational, strangely enough, even for church planters. This seems to be the train of thought:

A ‘real’ pastor does ministry full time for full-time pay
If you’re good enough to pastor, you’ll be paid full-time.
If a pastor isn’t paid full-time, it’s because he or she isn’t good at his or her job.
Most people find their identity in their job (an unfortunate reality).
If I’m not paid full-time, it means I’m not a good pastor.
Therefore, the core of my identity is shaken because I’m bi-vocational.

That’s the stigma.

I want to add a little to that.

In almost any professional field in our society, the aspiring professional goes to school. Depending on the field, he will seek an associate’s degree, at the very least, usually a bachelor’s and often a master’s. Sometimes he will need a doctorate. During the schooling, the student is not yet qualified to work in his chosen field, so unless he’s lucky enough to be born with a trust fund, he works at whatever comes his way — waiting tables, tending bar, landscaping, temping, moving, retail, limo driving, the usual assortment of common student jobs.

Nearly every student is ‘bivocational’ in this sense of straddling the line between preparation for his chosen field and some form of totally unrelated employment that he’s doing purely to pay the bills. But it is universally understood that this is temporary, and the signal that all the menial labor and the grinding poverty of the student lifestyle has finally paid off is…what?

He finally gets his first “real job,” which is to say, a full-time job in his chosen field.

What if it doesn’t work? He keeps pushing, keeps applying different places, but after a few years, his resume makes it obvious to prospective employers that he just didn’t make the cut. Then what?

He does something else, something unrelated to his education, just to pay the bills. At some point, if he doesn’t just take the hit and move on, it starts to look a bit sad. A guy getting his master’s in marine biology and then ending up working for Nationwide Insurance is a failure of sorts, but hey, he’s feeding his family and not everybody can swim with the dolphins, can they? But there’s something pathetic about that guy taking a job as a security guard at Sea World just to be near the orcas.

That is what bivocational ministry looks like.

Failing, followed by failing to move on.

It’s actually a little worse than that. If the guy always wanted to be a cop, got his degree in criminal justice, became a cop, and has a ministry with homeless kids on the side, he’s a hero, a saint. Everybody admires him.

If the guy always wanted to be in full-time ministry, went to Bible college, couldn’t make it pay and ended up a cop to pay the bills, but has a ministry with homeless kids on the side — he failed, and he’s making the best of it. We pity him at best, and sometimes we make him a cautionary tale. “You know, lots of these guys graduate and go into full-time ministry to start with, but it gets hard and they bail out for secular employment,” we tell our aspiring ministers. “Stand strong. God will provide.” And they nod their heads as if that’s wisdom.

These two guys could be partners in the same ministry together, doing the exact same work shoulder to shoulder, advancing God’s Kingdom among homeless children. Yet in the eyes of the church, one of them is going above and beyond the call of duty, while the other one is a failure, a wash-out.

What is this?

It is a culture of professionalism. We have been indulging in a centuries-long experiment in professionalizing the clergy, and this is one of the things we get out of it.

On one hand, a well-paid, well-educated, slick and presentable corps of motivated, upwardly-mobile professionals, and on the other, a bunch of God’s people who are being implicitly discouraged from continuing to pursue their calling.

Being one of the latter is a lot of what 2012 was about for me. For those of you who don’t know, my other vocation is school bus driver, which is just about perfect for mortifying my ambitions. Unless I deliberately make a discipline of humanizing myself to the children I drive, they don’t even see me as a person. To them, I am just a part of the bus, attached to the seat at the factory. My peers in society understand correctly that nobody wants to be a bus driver when they grow up, and infer on that basis that I couldn’t cut it at much else. Otherwise, why would I be a bus driver? In terms of social status, it’s barely a cut above being a greeter at Wal-Mart.

Once upon a time, I did do other things successfully. For nine years I taught and designed curriculum for two different seminaries. I was an assistant pastor for a year, then a pastor for 6 years. I’m pretty smart, well-read, I’ve travelled and taught on 4 continents, spoken at numerous conferences, published articles, and so on — I was an up-and-coming young professional theologian.

And I really, really wanted people to know it. That was part of the problem. Even when I first started driving a bus, I thought it was only a temporary setback. I was really only doing it because I needed the money, and the nature of the work and the timing of it allow me to continue pursuing my calling — so I told myself. I’d drum up some more classes to teach, raise a little support, and get right back in the saddle…

But no. God was steering me, and early in 2012, God made it clear that He wanted me to let go of the professional theologian schtick and fully embrace my other vocation. Buy the hat with a school bus on it, wear the school district Transportation Department jacket, the whole deal. I’m lucky He didn’t ask me to buy a bumper sticker that said “My other car is a school bus.”

Why? I don’t really know. I’m still not sure what all God is up to, but I can tell you some of the things that have come out of it.

1. It forced me to get more conscious and skilled at the disciplines of building a relationship. On the bus, I see the same kids every day, but most of the time, I interact with them for only seconds at a time. Building relationships under those circumstances means not wasting opportunities, and I’ve gotten much better at capitalizing on the chances God gives me to build relationships through a series of tiny interactions. The same skills apply off the bus, and make my life much richer.

2. Until I was well out of the ‘professional ministry’ culture, I had no idea how much its expectations controlled my thinking about what ministry was. Fully embracing the bus driver vocation let me ‘cleanse my palate’ enough to contemplate a much wider field of ministry than I had in the past. I could not possibly have contemplated the sort of ministry I have now while immersed in the culture of professional ministry.

3. I keenly appreciate the control of my schedule that came with being in full-time ministry. There’s so much I want to do that I can’t now, because I simply am not free at, say, 7:00 on Wednesday morning. In the event I ever have that freedom again, believe me, I’ll make the most of it.

4. As I mentioned above, driving a school bus has been a beautiful tool for mortifying my ambitions. I was building a career, a little Kingdom of Tim, and that’s just not what life is about. Seeing my little sandcastle carried out with the tide was destructive in the best possible way, and cleared the way for beginning to lean into building God’s Kingdom instead of mine.

There’s probably more, but those are the ones that leap to mind right at the moment.

Oh yeah, and I’m pretty sure the breaking isn’t done yet. I don’t know what the next stage looks like, but in a weird way I’m looking forward to it. “Go to a land I will show you” leads to really good stuff, but only when you get out of Haran.


Social Justice?

17 March 2013

Last week we looked at how Jesus interacted with the woman taken in adultery in John 8. Jesus defended her from people who wanted to kill her — and she was guilty of a capital crime.

If we’re going to be like Jesus, we have to be ready to do the same.

This means that sometimes, we will protect people from the rightful consequences of their sinful actions.

Is that right?

No. No, it isn’t.

But there was nothing right about Jesus bearing our sins on the cross either, was there?

***

Earlier this week, I was reading the discussion between Doug Wilson and Thabiti Anyabwile on southern slavery and Wilson’s highly controversial writings on same. (That discussion, by the way, is how adults ought to interact, and I commend it to your attention.) In the course of the discussion, Anyabwile said something that caught my attention:

Notice how Paul keeps rattling his own chains of imprisonment in Philemon’s ears. Paul identifies himself repeatedly as the prisoner, the bound man, the one without freedom. He could have identified himself as the man of authority, the apostle, the one with right to exert himself over others. He nowhere does. That, I think, is instructive for how Christians should engage discussions involving oppressors and the oppressed. We should normally be on the side of the oppressed in the fight for justice. [Emphasis added]

While I am not sure that I agree with every nuance of Anyabwile’s meaning in the context of that particular discussion, consider the statement as a broad generalization for a moment. We should normally be on the side of the oppressed in the fight for justice.
Sure.

We have framed these discussions in terms of “social justice,” and tactically, that was a good move. Who could be against justice?

Jesus could, and that ought to give us pause.

***
The debtor cries out under the weight of a crushing, debilitating debt. If only he could get some relief, he might be able to make a life for himself. A Christian takes up his cause, and cries out against the creditors, demanding social justice.
The creditors, in response, demand the justice of the debtor paying the debts he freely agreed to undertake. “Let your yes be yes,” they say. “Honor your word,” they say. Isn’t that just too?

“This woman was caught in adultery, in the very act! Moses taught us that such a person should be stoned to death. What do you say?”
Note that by “Moses” they mean “Yahweh, speaking from the glory cloud on Mount Sinai to Moses, who passed it on to us.” And don’t forget that they are right. Isn’t that just?

Of course it is.

But what does Jesus do?

He stands between her and her accusers, backs them down, and sets her free. Then He goes to the cross and dies for her sin. Justice is served, but mercy reigns.

We ought to spend less time talking about social justice, and more time investing our own resources in social mercy. May a creditor insist that the debt due him be paid, and be a good Christian? Sure. What would Jesus do? He would step in between the debtor and the creditor, and pay the debt Himself, thereby doing justly and loving mercy at the same time.

***
If you’re reading the Anyabwile/Wilson discussion, you’ll have noticed that Philemon figures heavily in it. Both parties agree that Paul effectively manumits Onesimus, and does so without coercing Philemon, but so far I don’t think anybody has paid much attention to the mechanism that allows Paul to achieve that end. “But if he has wronged you, or owes you anything, put that on my account.”

Whether Philemon ever insisted on Paul settling up is, of course, another question. As Paul notes, Philemon did owe Paul his very life. However, Paul puts himself on the hook for it, writing with his own hand, “I will repay.”

Paul learned from Jesus, and it shows. We ought to do the same.


Starting with Love

10 March 2013

Joe Christian meets a guy who’s shacking up with his girlfriend. Within the first conversation, Joe lets this guy know that he needs to “make an honest woman” of his girlfriend.

Susie Christian discovers that her coworker at the real estate office is a lesbian. Susie isn’t rude, but she makes a point of telling her coworker that her lifestyle is a sinful choice.

Jack Christian answers the door to find two Mormon missionaries on his front porch. He wastes no time explaining to the two young women that Joseph Smith was a false prophet and they are doing the devil’s work.

***

I wish I could say these types of situations are rare. They’re not. For some reason, many Christians seem to feel that when they encounter someone with (what they perceive as) a wrong belief or a wrong practice, they have a duty to express God’s disapproval. After all, Jesus said, “By this shall all men know that you are My disciples, if you have disapproval for everything wrong.”

Oh, wait…no He didn’t.

Why do we feel the need to express the disapproval right away, and then maybe follow with love later on?

In my experience, when we lead with disapproval, we never get a chance to show love. People don’t want to be around us. And seriously, why would they? Do you enjoy having your treasured sins dragged out into the light? Me neither.

“But it’s necessary to get the sins out into the light,” someone will say. Yes, it is. But how did Jesus do it?

***

Once the religious authorities — masters of disapproval, they — caught a woman in adultery. In the very act. They dragged her to Jesus and threw her down in front of him. Imagine the scene. Do you think they asked her politely to accompany them? Do you think they escorted her gently into Jesus’ presence? Do you think they waited patiently while she dressed? Of course not. So there she is, thrown headlong on the cobblestones, half-dressed at best, scratched, bruised and bleeding. “Moses told us that such a person should be stoned to death!” they said. “What do you say?”

What did Jesus do?

Did He explain to her how what she was doing was wrong? Did He assure the Pharisees that of course He disapproved of her lifestyle choices? I mean, what would people think if He didn’t clarify things?

But of course, He did clarify things. He refused to take it seriously. He looked at the ground, and wrote in the dirt. They kept insisting on an answer. Finally, Jesus looked up and spoke.

“Which of you is without sin? Let him cast the first stone.”

Then He went back to writing in the dirt. Beginning with the oldest and continuing to the youngest, every last one of her accusers left. Every one of them.

Jesus looked at her. “Where are those who condemn you?”

“Gone.”

“I don’t condemn you either,” Jesus said. “Go and sin no more.”

Do you see how He did it? Jesus loved her. Not just in word and in tongue, as a smart commentator would later say, but in deed and in truth. As she lay naked and bleeding on the cobblestones, the woman didn’t need someone to tell her how wrong she was. She didn’t need someone to express disapproval, to accuse her. The sons of the devil had that covered already. What she desperately needed was an advocate, someone to stand between her and her accusers and make them back off.

She needed an advocate precisely because she really was guilty. Obviously guilty. She had no case at all, no possibility of a defense. Johnny Cochran and Gerry Spence working together couldn’t have gotten her off.

And then, for no apparent reason, Jesus simply dismissed her sin. How is that right? Where’s the justice in that?

Jesus carried her sin to the cross, and let Himself be tortured to death for her sin. He paid everything anyone could ever ask in recompense for her sin, and then some. He bought the right to dismiss the consequences. You want justice? There it is — “He has shown you, O man, what is good — and what does Yahweh require of you but to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?” That’s exactly what Jesus did. He satisfied justice to the full, and gave her mercy.

And then, once He had met her obvious needs and protected her from the predatory men who were going to kill her, Jesus said “I don’t condemn you either.” Did she believe Him? Of course she did — He had proved it already, hadn’t he?

Only then, once she believed that He didn’t condemn her — only then — does He also say, “Go and sin no more.”

Jesus took her sin seriously. He called it what it was. He told her she needed to stop. He didn’t duck the issue at all.

But He loved her first. He met her needs first. He stood between her and her accusers first.

So should we.