Children of a Troubled Marriage

14 January 2020

An orphaned spirit can manifest in rebellion or in religion. It can be the prodigal who runs away or the older brother who stays with a sense of entitlement — either one of which boils down to “Look at me, Daddy!”

In reality, Father God has never looked away, never abandoned us, but it is no accident that we think he has. Mother Church told us Papa wouldn’t talk to us directly; she said he only spoke through her. (Convenient, right?) Because we were children, we believed her, and we lost confidence in our ability to hear God. Then, far too often, Mother Church withheld her love unless we conformed to rules designed for her comfort and convenience, rather than our growth. Within Mother Church, many of us found no breathing room.

Some of us grew up into everything she wanted. Some of us stayed around, but got progressively more angry and sullen. Some of us ran away from home. We were children. Perhaps we did the best we could with whatever we understood at the time. But we have to grow up sometime, and an adult is responsible to re-evaluate.

The truth is, Mother Church lied. She said you had to check all the boxes and do all the things or Papa would ignore you. But it was never actually about performance, and Father God loves you more than you can imagine. He never stopped speaking; you can hear His voice.

Yes, you. Yes, now.

What if you took a few minutes to just listen?


The Ninth Day of Christmas: Junk on the Mirror

2 January 2020

In the beginning, God made the world as a temple, and no temple is complete without the image of the deity inside. As His last act in creation, God installed man and woman in the temple as His image. You can’t escape this; it is the very core of who you are. Mystics and meditators the world over testify that if you dig far enough inside yourself, if you can peel back layers of ego and shame and damage, you will find, deep within, a light so bright you will consider worshipping it. What you are seeing is what the Desert Fathers and Mothers described as the Created Light — the very image of God, a mirror that reflects the beauty of God Himself. 

It’s very hard to find that beauty in some people, isn’t it? If we’re honest, it’s often very hard to find in ourselves, too. We excel at piling all kinds of junk on the mirror, and we’re not good at cleaning it off. On top of that, we’re really good at rationalizing the junk we pile up for ourselves. Maybe this is what we’re supposed to look like….

The incarnation of God as His own image — the coming of Jesus — blew away all our rationalizations. He reflected God’s beauty Himself, and He never failed to find it in others. Jesus showed us a whole new set of possibilities. Possibilities that only become visible to us when we hear them from God directly, as He did.

So listen. What would the day be like if it were one long, running conversation between you and God? 


“And Sister”

17 December 2019

In traditional cultures, adult men and women are not friends. It’s just not a thing. Billy Crystal’s character in When Harry Met Sally argues that it’s impossible; a lot of evangelicals agree.

But are they right?

Maybe so…before the cross. But Jesus really did change everything about our relationships. Let’s look at what it’s changed already….

In traditional cultures, the blood tie of the clan trumps every other allegiance. In traditional cultures, marriage is generally about familial alliances and property. In traditional cultures, the glue that holds clan-sized small communities together is a network of family relationships around a shared economic endeavor (farming, fishing, hunting, blacksmithing, whatever.) In other words, they’re related to start with, and they need each other to survive.

In that setting, the authority of the clan is absolute. You are who your clan says you are. You marry who they say, you go into the line of work that is chosen for you. Your whole life is laid out virtually from birth…before the cross.

But the cross casts a very long shadow.

The Christian priesthood and monastic movements broke the power of the clan. A young woman fleeing a repellent arranged marriage could take vows in a convent, and be devoted to God for the rest of her life. Her family couldn’t force her to leave. A young man could choose the monastic life over the vocation his family chose for him (as a young Martin Luther did, in response to a near death experience.) Today, the choice sounds horrifying. Who wants to choose between an awful marriage and a celibate life? “Why not more options?” we think. But back then, it was revolutionary–there was a choice! That was new, and the possibility of having a choice opened the door to further options. Today, it’s rare in Western culture for anyone to face that dilemma.

Without the external pressures of the clan holding a marriage together, without the economic stimulus of property at the center of the marriage, is marriage doomed? It seems a silly question now; it wasn’t, to them. Martin and Katie Luther effectively invented (and the Puritans refined) companionate marriage, and today, we can see that with Christ at the center, marriages flourish apart from considerations of property or familial alliance.

Of course, marriages are also failing at significant rates today. God is sharpening the antithesis: will you have Christ at the center? If not, you may not be able to have a marriage at all.

Having broken the power of the clan, and reconstituted marriage in the image of Christ and the church, the long shadow of the cross is now reaching out to touch the clan itself and reconstitute it around Christ. Can extended-family sized small groups sustain themselves apart from blood relation and a shared economic center? It seems unthinkable…but why can’t we? Marriage has been reconstituted around the mission of God; why not the clan?

We saw the beginnings of the re-formation of the clan already in the life of Jesus, in two ways: repurposing the existing structure, and forming entirely new structures around a superior blood tie.

When Jesus healed Peter’s mother-in-law, she got up and made food for them…and then the village brought their sick to the house, to be healed. Peter’s home, Peter’s oikos, became ground zero for the Kingdom of God coming to his city. Paul similarly turned Lydia’s home into a base of operations (following Jesus’ instructions in Matthew 10).

Similar things could happen today. An economic engine may be part of the new clan in the same way that familial alliance and property are still possible considerations in marriage. Sure it’s possible; the dominion mandate is part of the missio Dei, after all.

But Jesus is up to more than just repurposing existing social institutions. He’s remaking them all. What happens when we allow the blood tie of the clan to be supplanted by a superior blood tie? Jesus showed us a glimpse of that when He looked around the room at a devoted group of His followers and said, “these are my mother and my brothers” — and again, “whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.” (Matthew 12:49-50) He is showing us a new family–not a postmodern “family of choice,” but a family that is born, “not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of the husband, but of God.”

Who is in this family? All the devoted Christ-followers — “whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”

Notice that: “and sister.” There it is. Cross-gender, same-generation, familial relation in the family of God. I cannot live a Jesus-shaped life unless I learn how to live in a clan that is united — this side of the cross — by our common relation in the blood of Jesus and our common devotion to doing the will of God. And that clan will, of necessity, include both men and women. We have to be able to relate to each other, seek counsel from each other, encourage each other, care for each other. In other words, we have to be able to be friends.


At The Pace Of Life

10 December 2019

In theological discussion, much is made of allowing the conversation to rest on common ground, things all parties at the table accept as true. Those conversations are both useful and frequently important for the growth and development of the church and its people. They are (appropriately) common in, say, a seminary classroom, or over a leisurely cup of coffee among friends on a lazy Saturday morning. I partake in them often.

But those conversations take time–time we often don’t have in the moment. On the fly, we have a different sort of conversation, one that arises from what I call the “practitioner mentality.” No matter how long we might take to discuss an issue in the classroom or over coffee, when the same issue comes up in a practical context, we usually have very limited time and bandwidth, and so it’s a different sort of conversation. We have to do something, now.

In those conversations, authority and trust are vital. We aren’t all going to agree on all the details. If we can agree on who has the authority to make the call, and we can trust God to lead us as we move forward, that has to be enough.

***

A fellow that wasn’t at the wedding at Cana has a certain epistemic right to doubt the accounts of water turning to wine; a servant who was in the room at the time does not have the same right. In fact, it would be foolish and wicked for him to retreat to skepticism instead of bearing witness to what he has seen and heard.

In the moment, a leader makes decisions based on what he knows, and he does this even if other people don’t know all the same things.

I have seen God at work, from simple things like bringing someone to repentance to more showy things like healing and casting out demons. I was there. That which I have seen with my eyes, which I have heard, which I have looked upon, and my hands have handled–this is what I proclaim to you. I can no longer refuse to know, and I don’t pretend ignorance for the sake of someone else’s comfort.

I accept that someone else might be within his epistemic rights to doubt my account of my experiences, particularly if he doesn’t know me anyway. Perhaps I’m lying. Perhaps I’m deluded. Perhaps I’m simply mistaken. How could he know? (There are ways, actually–read the beginning of The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe for one of them–but skip that for now.) Thus far, someone else’s epistemic rights.

But I also have an epistemic responsibility. I may not pretend that I don’t know things that I do, in fact, know. And so my decision-making must address the factors I know to be real, and this despite the fact that not everybody I’m leading is going to be on the same page about that.

Nice as it would be to have everyone on the same page before we move forward, Pisidian Antioch isn’t going to evangelize itself while we wait for the Jerusalem Council to figure things out. The opposite, actually: The issues were already worked out in practice; the Jerusalem Council was vetting the theory after the fact. That after-the-fact vetting is a really important church function, but the point here is that you don’t pause all the work of ministry waiting for it. It does happen after the fact. If course corrections are needed, as they sometimes are (cf. 1 Corinthians 12-14), then you make them as soon as you figure it out. That’s how a bunch of the church epistles got written.

The weekly services, the weddings and funerals, this week’s counseling appointments–these things keep coming. Every day, all the problems get a day older, whether we have the necessary theory worked out or not. Life does not wait. Theory does not move at the pace of life; effective practice had better, even if there are unsolved questions.

That’s a panic-inducing thought to a theoretician. With events flying at you at the pace of real life, how do you ever know what to do? But here’s a thing practitioners know from experience: certainly we sometimes don’t know what to do, and we improvise. But very, very often, we actually know what God would have us do; we just can’t explain why it’s the right course of action. In other words, our courage gets tested a lot more than our discernment. So we pray really hard, listen really well, and move forward anyway with the best call we can make at the time. It is enough to obey as best we can, and trust that over time, the underlying wisdom of God’s way will be revealed. 

The underlying explanation, when it comes, will be fascinating, and may even allow us a fresh take on things that will reveal better practices or new frontiers for application. But if we don’t have that, we have to keep moving anyway. We rely on what we know is real, and trust that the explanations will get better in time.

Does that feel a bit shaky to you? Consider this: our best physicists still don’t know how the four fundamental forces relate to each other, but in the meantime, the engineers keep building bridges…and the bridges work pretty well.

So let’s build.


Pevensie Epistemology

3 December 2019

At the beginning of the Narnia series, in the opening chapters of The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, C. S. Lewis uses the four Pevensie children to teach us an important lesson in how to behave in the face of varying degrees of uncertainty. Lucy has gone into the wardrobe, experienced Narnia, and met Mr. Tumnus. Edmund has also gone into the wardrobe. Peter and Susan, the older siblings, have not yet experienced Narnia.

Lucy is maintaining that her experience is real. Edmund is saying it was just make-believe. Peter and Susan don’t know what to do. Lucy doesn’t lie, and yet her story can’t be true. They all know Edmund is a liar, and yet his story is entirely plausible.

Were the roles reversed–Edmund talking about Narnia and Lucy saying it was make-believe–they would blow it off without a second thought. In fact, without Edmund’s contribution to the situation, it would be easy: perhaps Lucy dreamt the whole thing. This would be a promising line of reasoning, except for the fact that Edmund gives an alternate account. If Edmund said he didn’t know what she was talking about, that would be one thing. But since Edmund says they were playing together and made the whole thing up…no. It wasn’t a dream. They were both involved together in something. But what? How do we know?

The professor’s answer is simple: you know the people better than you know the world, so trust your knowledge of the people. The dishonest one is lying, and the honest one–however implausible her story–is somehow telling the truth.

Of course Peter and Susan are still unsure. Further events demonstrate the wisdom of the professor’s counsel, but I want to consider the question of everyone’s duty during that period of uncertainty. Obviously Edmund’s duty is to come clean. Obviously Lucy’s duty is to tell the truth, but we’ll come back to that.

What about Peter and Susan? They are wise enough to seek counsel, but that doesn’t really settle the matter in their minds. Their temptation would be to rush to judgment too soon, to make a premature decision about who is telling the truth and then declare the problem solved. Their job is to hang with the problem until there’s a real solution. They do–and the thing gets decisively settled. Eventually. In the meantime, everyone is profoundly uncomfortable.

That discomfort brings us back to Lucy’s duty. Doesn’t her continued insistence on her Narnian experience create tension and difficulty for everyone? Doesn’t Lucy also have a responsibility to family harmony? (Sure, so does Edmund, but everybody knows he doesn’t care, so the shortest road to family harmony is for Lucy–the dependable one, the one who cares about her duty–to change her story.)

In situations like this, there is a great temptation for the Peters and Susans of the world to put incredible pressure on Lucy to just cave. Change your story, admit that you mighta’ dreamt it, and everything can go back to normal. But let’s talk about this harmony that Lucy has a duty to help create: should that harmony be founded on truth, or on lies? On truth, of course–and so she has a duty to keep telling the truth, and let the chips fall where they may. 

Suppose you were a servant at that wedding in Cana. You poured the water into the jars yourself, and then drew out the wine. You know what happened; you were there. What is your duty? Keep it to yourself? Or bear witness to what God has done?

To ask the question is to answer it. Of course you are responsible to bear witness.

The harder problem is the one confronting Peter and Susan. What do you do if you weren’t there? You didn’t see it for yourself, and now you have to decide what really happened–tricky business, that.

At one level, it’s a very easy question. The story can’t be true, it just can’t. Wardrobes have backs, not whole worlds secretly hidden in them. Water does not spontaneously turn into wine in a stone water jar. It just doesn’t happen. Besides, we all heard about that wedding–good wine, and lots of it. So much that the servants got into it and got a little confused, apparently. A couple drunk guys misjudging reality. It happens every day. Simple as that.

But Occam’s razor doesn’t apply to history. The real world is full of bizarre coincidences and baroque chains of causality, particularly where people are concerned. And especially where God is involved.


Not Talking Past

26 November 2019

I first encountered the egalitarianism/complementarianism discussion when I was in college. I’ve been away from the conversation for nearly 20 years–having way too much fun enjoying my rich relationships to waste time theorizing about them–but of late it’s come up again. Naturally I have many friends who call themselves feminists, others who don’t prefer that label but will cop to ‘egalitarian,’ and a stolid few who know what a complementarian is, and admit to being one.

I’ve noticed that in these complementarian/egalitarian/feminist conversations — as is common with any highly charged issue — the two (or more) sides are regularly talking past each other. Here are a few key starting points that I’ve found to be helpful.

1. Ask “Was Paul right to give that instruction to that particular audience in that particular time and place, or was he wrong?” This question accomplishes two purposes. The first is to tell you what sort of discussion you are in. The “Paul was right, but he wasn’t speaking to our culture” conversation and the “Paul was wrong” conversation are two entirely different discussions. The former is an exegetical and pastoral conversation among Christians. The latter is an apologetic conversation between Christians and moderns who happen to take inspiration from parts of the Bible — entirely different religions, as Machen pointed out a while back. In the latter case, it’s a much wider discussion about epistemology and authority — there’s really not much sense in talking about the specifics of Ephesians 5 until the more foundational issues are settled.
The second purpose of this question is to regulate the exegetical conversation. Many (not all) proposed schemes for understanding the passages under discussion would imply that Paul made a mistake, if the principles were applied consistently (not that they will be…yet). If we are seeking to obey the Scriptures, rather than simply avoid parts of them that we don’t like, then it’s not enough to propose an interpretation/application that yields the results we’re hoping for, like medical researchers that work for tobacco companies. For the proposal to be viable, it has to address what we should be doing now, but it also has to account for what Paul told the original recipients to do then. (For example, a number of complementarian schemes for evading uncomfortable applications like head coverings fail to meet this standard.)

2. If you’re in an exegetical/pastoral discussion, talk about a specific passage, not about “those passages.” When we lump passages from 1 Timothy, 1 Corinthians, Ephesians and other books together, we are assuming that they all have the same basic things going on exegetically. That is a conclusion to be demonstrated, not a bit of groundwork to be assumed. Papering over the differences between specific books, passages and audiences is no way to exegete. Deal with the specifics of each passage; “those passages” may have less in common than you think. Or more—but you don’t find that out by assuming.

3. Meet serious exegetical discussion with serious exegetical discussion, and rhetorical tricks with rhetorical tricks. A serious wrestling with the application of that rough passage in 1 Timothy should be treated with respect. An attempt to dodge the Son’s submission to the Father through appeals to the immanent vs. economic trinity ought to be met with a proposal of immanent vs. economic gender relations. Likewise, a serious consideration of how to map NT categories onto present-day pastoral ordination (which has no obvious NT parallel) is well worth discussing, but a knee-jerk rejection of ordaining women under any circumstances ought to be met with a challenge to demonstrate that we should ordain anyone to the position of pastor, as we presently define it. There’s not much point being serious with people who refuse to be serious…might as well have some fun.


Joel Is Not A Cessationist

5 November 2019

In Acts 2, Peter applies Joel 2 in an interesting way. Some people believe Peter is stating the direct fulfillment of Joel 2: Joel predicted this day, and here it is.

Most commentators, however, notice some end-of-the-world markers in Joel 2, and therefore feel that Joel’s prophecy has not yet been fulfilled. That being the case, they then say either that Peter was saying Joel 2 was partly fulfilled at Pentecost, or that Peter was just making an analogy.

What I’m about to say here would apply to partial fulfillment positions, but just for the moment let’s accept, for the sake of discussion, that Peter is making an analogical argument (This is like what Joel prophesied…”).

That means Peter is claiming that Pentecost has various points of contact with the Joel prophecy, but the events of Pentecost do not exhaust Joel 2; the actual fulfillment is yet future from Peter’s point of view (and from ours as well, yes?).

In turn, that means—follow me closely here—that all the favored cessation proof texts that are supposed to be telling us that revelation is over, finito, done with, the canon is closed, no fresh revelation, no more—every single one of those passages is in conflict with Joel 2, which pointedly tells us that in the future, our young men will see visions, our old men will dream dreams, our sons and daughters will prophesy—in short, that there will be fresh revelation in the future.

If the fulfillment of Joel 2 is future, then prophecy has not yet ceased.