We’re the Weird Ones (Part 2)

10 August 2021

In the first “We’re the Weird Ones” post, we looked at the way we tend to assume something is normal because our culture does it, and how we often think that what is “normal” is right.  As we broaden our view beyond the provincial culture of our historical moment and begin to look at other places and other times, there are some temptations waiting for us.

When we realize that our culture is out of step with pretty much everybody, everywhere on an issue, most of us are easy prey for one of two temptations.  Either we assume that we must be wrong, or we assume that everybody who came before us is an idiot, we got it right, and the people who are still doing it the old way are backward and behind the times.  To put labels on these, the first one is simple peer pressure applied on a grand scale, and the second one is modernism.

The peer pressure temptation is familiar to all of us.  We want to fit in, to do what everybody else is doing.  To apply it on a grand scale, all we need is a stack of anthropological studies telling us what most of the human race does, and then follow the crowd.

On the surface, the modernist temptation resembles a proper Christian response to peer pressure.  Rather than caving in, the modernist seeks not to conform, but to transform himself.  We are not made to undertake transformation without divine help, and without that help the modernist finds himself unable to simply grow from the past into the future in a natural way.  Instead, the modernist must resort to a paroxysm, a violent break with the past.  He wants to make all things new, in his own image — and quickly.  The modernist says that there’s a better way, that those who have come before are benighted and backward.  He throws out the past without a second glance.

The modernist seeks a new world, but not the same new world as the Christian.  The Christian seeks a city which has foundations, whose builder and maker is God.  The modernist seeks a city of his own making, where he can make a name for himself — which is to say he is building Babel, not the New Jerusalem.  Although we associate the modernist impulse with with relatively recent times — hence the name — there is nothing new under the sun.  Modernists are in fact succumbing to a very old temptation: the ancient sin of father-hatred.  

As a society, we have lived with modernism for enough generations to see a third temptation arise.  Some people would call it a feature of postmodernism; others would call it an “ancient future” approach.  By either name, what we are seeing is a recognition that our modernist fathers destroyed and abandoned many good things in their war on the past.  Sadly, when we attempt to address this issue without divine help, we revisit the habits of our pre-modern grandfathers as a way of rebelling against our modernist fathers.  We end up exactly like our fathers: they rejected their fathers, and we in turn commit the same sin.  The problem with rebellion is that you can’t compartmentalize it; once you let it in, it leaks all over everything.  Consequently, we don’t really submit to the ways of our earlier forebears any more than we submit to our fathers.  Rather, we walk down the anthropological and archaeological smorgasbord and take a little of this, a little of that, and bit more of a third thing — whatever happens to suit us at the time.  The modernist tries to build the world in his own image by rejecting the past, and the postmodernist tries to custom-build his own life as a collage of bits and pieces of the past, but both of them place themselves in rebellious judgment over their fathers.

But we are Christians; we are citizens of a kingdom whose capital city is in heaven.  In that future city, the New Jerusalem, Jesus will perfectly honor His Father, and so we too are called to honor the fathers that God has providentially given to us.  At our moment in history, we are inheriting several generations of father-hatred, so there is no way out of this without repentance.  We must repent of our culture’s endemic father-hatred, and we must return to proper honor of our fathers — all our fathers.  They are imperfect to be sure, but in God’s providence they are a repository of wisdom that we are called to heed.  We may not simply cut ourselves free, modernist-fashion, and reject everything that came before us.  Nor may we treat the wisdom of the ages as if we are above it all, and it is just a smorgasbord from which we may pick and choose, as the postmodern or ancient-future folks would do.  We must submit to the wisdom of our fathers, at the same time testing what they tell us against the counsel of God, because “There is no wisdom, nor understanding, nor counsel, against Yahweh.” 

So we require a discerning vision of the past and a sanctified imagination of the future.  “What is everybody else doing?” is the wrong question; the question is “What is God doing, and how can I be part of it?”  The answer to that question starts with the story of a coming new world whose capital is the New Jerusalem, a city that is literally heaven on earth. God is bringing heaven to earth, and He calls us to pray for it (“Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven”) and to be the present reflection of it, the sign that it is coming — and to reflect both the newness of the New Jerusalem and its culture of father-honor.  Frankly, this is an impossible task; the flesh simply cannot do it. But in living relationship with God, all things are possible for those who believe.

***

Prayer Exercises

  1. It’s easy to talk about trends of whole societies without bringing it down to personal practice.  We cannot repent of societal father-hatred if we do not first repent of personal father-hatred; this is a case where the personal really is political.  Ask God if there are personal sins for you to repent of before you try to go any further.  If He brings something to mind, deal with it.
  2. Having addressed personal sins, you’re ready to ask God about the sins of the society you live in.  Don’t ask about “the sins of our culture” in the abstract.  Ask God to show you places in your own life where you have assimilated the sins of the culture.  As God reveals these areas to you, accept your cultural identity, confess the sins of your culture, renounce the sin, and ask God to heal the damage that you have done to yourself through the sin.  Ask Him to guide and guard you as you learn to live differently.

We’re the Weird Ones

3 August 2021

In Kissimmee, Florida, in 1993, I took my first college counseling class.  On the very first day, the instructor stood up and said, “We are going to talk about how families work in this class, and at some point we will be talking about some dysfunction, and you will want to say, ‘That’s totally normal.  My family did it.’  You have to understand, that is not an argument.  It seems normal to you because that’s how you grew up, but that doesn’t make it right, or healthy, or even normal.”

Considered in the abstract, I thought that was an insightful point.  About three weeks later when I caught myself in the middle of an argument with those very words on the tip of my tongue, it seemed like some kind of a trick.  Of course what I grew up with was normal!

But no.  It is possible that other people are normal and I am the weird one.

As with individuals and families, so with cultures.  A culture can be weird in some respects, and we should expect that in some respects, we are the weird ones.

For example, through the history of the world, standards of physical attractiveness trend toward wide hips in women and a certain amount of fat in both genders.  Why?  Because the wide hips indicate a good capacity for bearing children, and the extra fat indicates prosperity.  In the West today, our standards of feminine attractiveness run to rib-counting skinny, and even our standard of masculine beauty involves almost no body fat.  Let’s not get into arguing about who is right; the point is just that virtually no culture in the history of humanity agrees with us about this — we are the weird ones.

Similarly, how we find a mate is plainly out of step with the mainstream of human society.  In the West, we see our way of finding and choosing a mate as better, because it gives people the freedom to choose their own mate.  In most cultures through most of history, it was understood that kids of marriageable age were morons who knew nothing about picking a mate, and matches were made by the parents and extended family.  Viewed from that perspective, the Western way amounts to familial neglect at a critical moment when the child needs the family’s support.  They would no more let an 18-year-old pick his own wife than they would set a 2-year-old loose in the jungle to find his own food — they would say neither one is equipped to make an intelligent choice.  Again, the point is not to argue who is right or wrong, but just to notice that what we find ‘normal’ is in fact highly unusual — we are the weird ones.

In an earlier post, we talked about the isolation that is so common in our society now.  Just a few decades ago most people knew their neighbors, and could rely on them for small things like a cup of sugar or help raking the leaves.  Today, it’s often considered normal not to know the names of the people who live across the street or two houses down.  This isolation is new even for us, and is practically unheard of in the history of humanity.  Showing up at your neighbor’s door unannounced, asking for a half-cup of flour, is socially awkward today — but that kind of community support is the norm in human history.  Again, we’re the weird ones.

In fact, we are the weird ones in a whole series of instances.  We are the only slaveholding culture in the world ever to willingly give up slavery on the grounds of the golden rule.  (“As I would not want to be a slave, so I would not be a master,” as Lincoln put it.)  We are nearly the only culture in the world to punish wife-beating or spousal rape as crimes in themselves.  We have criminalized polygamy, which again puts us in the minority.  (For a book-length description of our weirdness, see Jared Diamond’s The World Until Yesterday.)

In any given case, the fact that our culture is weird does not mean that we are wrong.  Arguably, the New Jerusalem will be the ultimate outlier culture, at many points radically different from anything that has preceded it in the history of humanity — but of course, the New Jerusalem’s culture will be designed and implemented by God Himself and His perfected saints.  No Christian would argue that because the New Jerusalem is weird, it is therefore wrong.

All this to say that what our culture does, is simply what our culture does.  It is not necessarily right or wrong, normal or abnormal — it just happens to be the way we do it.  This is important because like neophyte counseling students that assume their family of origin was right and normal, we tend to assume that our culture is right and normal, and then use our culture’s way of doing things as the measure of what is reasonable and attainable.  That will not do.  God often calls us to be countercultural.  “That’s weird” does not mean “We can’t do it.”  Maybe we can.  Maybe we should.  And maybe it’s not even really that weird — maybe it’s normal and we’re the weird ones.

***

Discussion Questions

  1. This post discussed several ways in which our culture is weird.  Can you think of three more ways we are weird?  Are those things right or wrong?
  2. Have you ever traveled outside your own culture or country?  What were some things that seemed normal to them but very strange to you?
  3. Is God calling you to do something that would seem weird in our culture?  What could you do this week to begin obeying God’s call?

Of Pink Hair and Yoga

27 July 2021

Some years ago, I had the opportunity to observe a kerfluffle caused by a seminary professor issuing blanket condemnations of yoga practice from the pulpit. A few years later, I had the opportunity to observe another kerfluffle in another group caused by a pastor issuing a blanket condemnation of pink hair based on 1 Timothy. (For your amusement and edification, links to the latter are below. We’ve had the discussion of yoga elsewhere.)

I teach my students to pay careful attention to such controversies, including some that are well outside your own community and in which you have no particular stake. There’s a lot to learn from observing the conversations, both in terms of thinking through the positions and from noticing how people interact with one another. These situations give rise to a near-universal set of temptations, and it’s easier to notice how the temptations work when you are not particularly tempted. If you pay careful attention, you greatly improve your chances of correctly diagnosing your own temptations later on, when it’s your controversy.

There is always someone who wants to claim that Scripture simply doesn’t apply to these situations. That’s silly — Scripture applies to everything. Arguing that someone has misapplied a Bible passage is one thing; arguing that the passage ought never be applied is something else entirely. There’s a wide difference between the two.

That said, establishing that this verse makes that particular point is hard work, and we should come having done that work, and prepared to demonstrate it to everyone’s satisfaction. On the negative of the debate, it’s entirely permissible to argue “This text doesn’t say that!” but it is not permissible to stop there. We should want to know what it does say, and how to apply it properly. The goal is always a faithful, obedient response.

Making a claim like “1 Timothy forbids pink hair” or “1 Corinthians 8 forbids practicing yoga” is not just a matter of exegeting the text of Scripture. It’s also a matter of correctly exegeting the culture. Cultural exegesis is tricky business. It can be hard for us to see our own culture clearly; doubly so when the speaker may be immersed in a subcultural bubble that his hearers are not part of. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t tackle the job — exegeting the culture is absolutely necessary. It just meant that cultural exegesis calls for the same kind of careful validation that biblical exegesis does — and that is not something they teach well in seminary.

The whole conversation goes better if you can correctly identify where you actually agree, and exactly where the disagreement lies. It’s entirely possible to agree on the biblical exegesis, and still have well-founded differences in the way you read the culture.

Some of those differences may be highly context-dependent. A particular act or way of speaking may send a very different message on the Jersey Shore than it would send in Charleston or Birmingham, and different again in Denver or Los Angeles…to say nothing of Dubai, Jakarta, or Shanghai. There’s a temptation to provincialism wherein we think that what an action means is what it would mean to me, right here, in my setting. This is particularly an issue when you’re having an online discussion.

Because we are seeking to stir one another up to love and good works, there is a certain kind of ad hominem that is not a fallacy. Someone really can object to a valid biblical application because of their own sin and/or spiritual cluelessness, and it is not out of order to say so. Jesus did, regularly.

At the same time, as a working pastor, I have learned to be extraordinarily suspicious of myself when I begin to feel that anyone who disagrees with me on a particular issue is simply revealing their own cluelessness or sin. There are many cases where that approach is a demonstration of pastoral autonomy and pride, and as the old sage said, that goeth before something unpleasant.

These are high-stakes conversations. On the one hand, a certain amount of suspicion of established authorities is required: “let no one subject you to regulations.” On the other hand, there really are cases where — however hubristic it might appear to say so — it is actually the case that anyone who disagrees is demonstrating their own sin or cluelessness. For example, I think it is vile to dismember a baby in utero for the convenience of the mother. It is viler yet to hawk the murdered child’s organs and exploit them; that’s effectively necromancy. I you disagree, I am prepared to insist that you are demonstrating your own sin and/or cluelessness. Accuse me of hubris all you like; I’m not backing off this one.

In the discussion below, Sumpter and Wilson are concerned to resist the human drive toward total autonomy, and one of the central places that drive expresses itself in our age is in gender confusions of various kinds. God made His image male and female, but we have sought out many schemes. Sumpter and Wilson are — as good pastors — interested not just in opposing sin in principle, but opposing it in practice where it matters. That means that they are not just going to fight the sin when it has become so obvious that anyone (you know, outside a major Christian publishing house) can see it. They are correctly concerned to fight the sin at the edges, in the little compromises that lull the faithful into bigger compromises down the road. Littlejohn is concerned that Sumpter and Wilson have over-exegeted innocuous actions as implying some larger sin, and are unlawfully binding the consciences of their congregants.

All these folks are concerned to obey God and love their fellow believers. All of this is holy and just and good…but who is right?

That, dear reader, I leave for you to mull over on your own. Here are the posts (all from 2017):

Pink Hair and Boys Wearing Girls’ Underwear – Toby Sumpter – April 18

Pink Hair and the Love of Christ – Toby Sumpter – April 21

The Coronation of the Infantile – Doug Wilson – April 21

When You Paint the Barn – Doug Wilson – April 22

On Binding Consciences – Brad Littlejohn – April 24

How Liberty of Conscience Looks in Yoga Pants – Doug Wilson – April 25

The Perilous Business of Pastoring – Brad Littlejohn – April 25

Poodle Skirts as Ruination – Doug Wilson – April 26


Music Under the Sun

24 July 2021

Listen.

When your friends talk, listen.

It’s amazing what you can hear.

We sometimes labor under the “you gotta get ’em lost before you can get ’em saved” mentality. We think of “getting ’em lost” as this enormously tricky task.

Listen.

You know what the real problem is, far more often than not? We listen a little, hear things we don’t want to hear, and stop listening. And yeah, if you’re unwilling to keep listening, caring for your friends is gonna be tricky.

Diamante just came out with a new album called American Dream not too long ago. I’m going to stop short of recommending it, but I will say this: if you listen, and listen well, you’re not just going to hear a bunch of things you don’t want to (although there is that).

You’ll also hear the cheap thrills of American Dream, the title cut, crash and burn into Obvious. If that doesn’t break your heart, I don’t know what would.

And from that place, when you can hear that and not move away, you’re ready to care for your friends.


Like the Other Nations

20 July 2021

Toward the end of Samuel’s life, Israel asked for a king (1 Samuel 8:1-5).  “Make us a king to judge us like all the nations,” they said.  We typically pick on them for wanting to be like everybody else — makes an easy Sunday school lesson on peer pressure, or a good sermon on “keeping up with the Joneses.”  But there’s a subtlety here that we shouldn’t miss.  Israel had good legal support for their request, and there was a certain amount of wisdom in it.  

Centuries before, the book of Deuteronomy had already set forth the laws for a king (Deut. 17:14-20).  We pick on them for wanting to be like everybody else, but Deuteronomy plainly says that Israel can have a king “like all the nations.”  Moreover, Deuteronomy stipulated that God Himself would choose the king, but Israel was fine with that.  They didn’t appoint a king for themselves and then ask God to rubber-stamp their choice after the fact.  No, they came to Samuel the priest/judge, God’s living representative, and asked for a king.  On paper, Israel’s request was completely legal.

That said, Israel had been without a king for centuries.  In fact, they had never had a king, although God clearly expected that they one day would.  So why now?  How could they argue that this was a good time?  Easy.  With Samuel growing older, and his sons unfit to follow in his footsteps, they needed another ruler.  If Samuel died without appointing a successor, his wicked sons would wind up in power by default.  How would that be good for anyone?  “When a wicked man rules, the people groan.”  It was the elders’ responsibility to see trouble coming and avert it if possible — “The prudent man foresees evil and hides himself; the simple pass on and are punished.”  If Samuel appointed a king, the problem would be neatly solved.  Not only was it legal, it also seemed a wise course of action in those circumstances.

On paper, Israel was covered all the way around.  What’s to criticize?

Seriously, stop for a minute and think about it.  Is there anything wrong with what they asked for?

***

God thought so.  “They have not rejected you,” God said to Samuel.  “They have rejected Me, that I should not reign over them.”

On what grounds was God able to say that?  He continues with an explanation: “According to all the works which they have done since the day that I brought them up out of Egypt, even to this day — with which they have forsaken Me and served other gods — so they are doing to you also.”  It would be one thing if Israel were faithfully worshipping God, forsaking all idols, and in the course of seeking God, asked for a king like Deuteronomy talked about.  

This was something else entirely.  Israel was bowing down to idols left and right, serving the gods of all the other nations, violating God’s commandments all over the place.  Then, under those circumstances, she was also seeking a king like all the other nations.  Even though on paper the request was neatly covered by the law and the circumstances, her heart was absolutely wrong.   Israel was more than willing to be covered by the Law when it suited her purposes, but her real attitude toward God was revealed by her continual idolatry.

God gave Israel exactly what she asked for — a king like the other nations.  The son of a powerful man, Saul was the handsomest man in Israel, and head and shoulders taller than everybody else to boot.  No doubt he cut a fine figure as Israel’s king.

How did that all work out?  Not too well — once you got past the exterior, there wasn’t much to Saul.  He was cowardly, petty and jealous, and it cost him heavily.  As Israel wasn’t walking with God when she asked for a king, she got a king that didn’t walk with God either.  

So it turns out this is a lesson on peer pressure and “keeping up with the Joneses” after all, but there’s more depth to it than first appears.  There wasn’t anything wrong with the request for a king — God never intended to rule Israel through judges forever.  But everything was wrong with their hearts.  So the question is not whether an inventory of our property and our habits will reveal similarities with our pagan neighbors.  Of course it will, and that’s not necessarily bad.

The question is whether an inventory of our worship will reveal that we share the idolatries of our pagan neighbors.  Do we worship what they worship?  In our society, gross idolatry of the sort Israel fell into is rare.  Even in the post-Christian West, almost nobody makes little statues and bows down to them anymore. But do we seek life and comfort from our insurance policies, our savings and retirement accounts, our homes and possessions?  Do we seek status based on the perceived prestige of our careers?  Do we covet a certain car, certain clothes, annual vacations in a certain place, a certain kind of house in a certain school district?  These things are all subtler forms of idolatry, and they poison us spiritually just as surely as if we were bringing baskets of fruit to a little statue.

When we go to God in prayer, we can feel that what we are asking for is proper and biblical, just as Israel’s request for a king was proper and biblical — on paper.  The question we need to ask ourselves is, have we listened to what God is saying to us?  Have we obeyed in the things we know to do?  Are we seeking to know God and follow His priorities, or are we simply hiding our own desire to “keep up with the Joneses” under cover of a Bible verse?

***

Prayer Exercise

  1. Take some time apart to pray.  Ask God if there is an area of your life where you are following an idol rather than seeking after Him.  Wait in silence for an answer.
  2. If God shows you an area of idolatry in your life, don’t beat yourself up about it.  Rather, face it squarely and name the issue.  “Father, I confess that I believe this [house, car, vacation, business success, whatever] will give me life and comfort that You can’t or won’t give me.  Of course I know I’m not supposed to say things like this out loud, but if I’m honest, that’s how I really behave, and it’s what I really think.  Please reveal the truth about this to me.”    Remain alert for God’s answer.

For Three Failures, and for Four

13 July 2021

In the beginning, God made Adam and Eve and put them in the Garden with a simple set of instructions.  As we all know, they blew it, and afterwards, they were ashamed, and hid from God.  

How sad would it have been if God had come down into the Garden, looked around, shrugged and said, “Oh well,” and gone back to heaven?  But of course He didn’t, because He loved them.  So God sought Adam and Eve, calling out for them in the Garden.  When Adam responded, God didn’t just pretend everything was okay.  He went right after the root of their shame, the sin they had committed.  He dragged it out into the light, dealt with it, and promised them a restoration (Gen. 3:15).

***

Peter denied Jesus three times, and then went out and wept bitterly.  He knew he’d sinned, but he didn’t let that sin keep him away from Jesus.  Unlike Adam, when the opportunity to be with Jesus arose again, he jumped at it.  John 21 tells the story of how the disciples went fishing, and caught nothing all night.  As they were returning, a man on the shore called out to them to let down their net again, and it was filled with fish.  John recognized that it was Jesus, and Peter jumped in the water and swam to shore to be with Him.  

When the others arrived, they found Jesus already cooking breakfast over a fire.  As they ate, Jesus went right after the root of Peter’s shame: 

“Simon, son of Jonah, do you love Me more than these?”

“Yes, Lord, You know that I love You.”

“Feed My lambs.”

If Jesus had stopped right there, all the other disciples would know that Jesus still had a use for Peter.  No one would think that he couldn’t be a disciple anymore because he had denied Jesus — after all, Jesus gave him a job to do.  Jesus doesn’t stop there, because He wants to make sure Peter is fully restored.  So He asks again.

“Simon, son of Jonah, do you love Me?”

“Yes, Lord, You know that I love you.”

“Tend My sheep.”

The silence must have hung heavy.  Jesus was clearly up to something.  The other disciples waited.  Peter sat, dreading what he had to know was coming.

“Simon, son of Jonah, do you love Me?”

“Yes, Lord, You know all things; You know that I love you.”

“Feed My sheep.  I tell you the truth: when you were younger, you dressed yourself adn walked where you wished, but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and carry you where you do not wish.”

Peter denied Jesus three times; Jesus makes Peter affirm his love for Jesus three times.  The sin can’t be undone, but it is mended.  The root of shame in Peter’s heart has been dragged out into the light.  Three times Jesus affirms that He still has work for Peter to do.  

All this is grace upon grace, but Jesus isn’t done yet.  If He stopped here, Peter would know he was forgiven, and he would know that he was useful, but he would always wonder what would happen the next time his life was on the line.  Would he have the courage to stand up, or would he buckle again, just like the last time?  Peter would wonder, and the devil would prey upon those fears mercilessly.

So Jesus does one more thing: He tells Peter that in the end, he will have the courage to die a martyr’s death after all.  And He says it publicly, where all the disciples can hear.  On the eve of the crucifixion, Peter had claimed to be ready to die for Jesus.  Now, Peter is not only fully restored, he is better off than he was — he is finally the man he thought he was before.  

***

John Mark was a young man when he first went with Paul and Barnabas.  He seems to have grown up in Jerusalem, but he had made his way up to Antioch at some point.  We don’t know why he left them at Pamphylia, only that he did.  Maybe he was afraid.  Maybe he was sickly.  Maybe he was homesick.  In any event, he left them, and returned not to the Antioch church that had sent them out, but to his home church in Jerusalem.

Mark must have been tempted to just not go back, to just disappear into a place where nobody knew him.  Once he was past that temptation, he must have been tempted to stay at home in Jerusalem.  However, he didn’t stay in Jerusalem.  By the time Paul and Barnabas were ready to go back and encourage the churches they had planted on the first trip, John Mark had apparently made it back to Antioch, to the church that had sent him out with Paul and Barnabas, the church that he had let down by leaving the work.  He was ready to try again.  Barnabas was willing, but not Paul.  They split up, Paul taking Silas and Barnabas taking Mark with him to minister in Cyprus.

We lose track of John Mark for about 7 years after that, until Paul wrote to the church at Colosse.  In his letter, he reminded them that they had instructions to welcome John Mark if he should come to them.  This little reminder meant two things.  First, it meant that Paul was instructing people not to ostracize John Mark.  Paul had not been ready to rely on him as a partner, but he was not going to let Mark’s failure follow him around for the rest of his life.  Mark was welcome in the churches where Paul ministered, in person or by letter.  Second, it meant that Paul thought it was possible that John Mark would come to the Colossian church.  Why would he think that?  We get a clue in Paul’s letter to Philemon, which was written around the same time.  At the close of the letter, Paul passes on greetings to Philemon from a number of his “fellow laborers” — Aristarchus, Demas, Luke…and Mark.  In the seven years since Paul refused to take Mark with him as a partner, Mark had grown into someone Paul can rely on.  He was with Paul, working alongside him.  Shortly thereafter, Paul sent him out to work on his own.  We know this because   later that same year, Paul wrote Timothy to get Mark and bring him to Paul, “for he is useful to me for ministry.”

***

Is there a failure that is weighing you down?  Maybe you’ve never even acknowledged it.  Maybe you have confessed it to God, but you don’t really feel forgiven.  Maybe you grasp that you are forgiven, but the festering wound of your failure continues to plague you, even though you know God has forgiven you.

If any of these things are true of you, know that Yahweh is the same yesterday, today, and forever.  He sought out Adam, and He is calling for you too.  He will go right to the root of your shame, as He did with Adam.  Jesus restored Peter fully to ministry, and He can do the same for you.  The process will probably be painful, as it was for Peter.  But the pain is brief, and the healing lasts a long, long time.


What About the Girls?

6 July 2021

When instructing teenagers in matters of chastity, it is natural to turn to Proverbs 5 and 7. Solomon is speaking to his sons there, and in those two chapters he paints a vivid portrait of what sexual sin is really like. He pulls no punches about the tactile allure of the immoral woman. “Her lips drip honey; her mouth is smoother than oil.” The imagery of how it all ends is equally tactile. “She is like a two-edged sword.” French kiss that!

All this is great stuff. I’d love to see someone make a 3-minute animated featurette of Proverbs 7 to show to teenaged boys. That would be something.

But what about the girls?

I mean, we can point at the same passages and say, “Don’t be that girl,” but let’s face it, that’s not where the temptation really lies. Young virgins are mostly not tempted to become whores.

When one of our girls falls into immorality, what does she say?

  • “He told me he loved me.”
  • “I love him.”
  • “I never felt like that about anybody before.”
  • “You don’t understand — what we have is special.”

Right?

So where does the Bible speak to the kind of temptations represented in our most common experience?

The Song of Songs.

The Song is not a book bulging with commands. Mostly it’s very frank love poetry. Why would we give that to an unmarried teenaged girl? Because the commands that are in the book are addressed to her. “I charge you, O daughters of Jerusalem, not to stir up or awaken love until it pleases.” Three times the Shulamite gives the daughters of Jerusalem this pointed command. Who are the daughters of Jerusalem? Unmarried young women. In that culture, they would have to be young teenagers — everybody got married in their teens.

Upon reflection, this is not surprising.

In a world where expectations for romance are set by movies like Twilight, to what Scripture do we turn to teach our daughters about real romance? To the book that talks about it.


Bringing the Umbrella

29 June 2021

The last rain was a month ago, and that wasn’t near enough.  Hot, dry wind whips dust along the roads and across the fields, where the scraggly remnants of this year’s crops cling to life.  The church has called an emergency all-night vigil to pray for rain.  People shuffle in, faces somber, heads bowed, hands empty.  Except for one little girl, who marches through the blowing dust toward the church, her small hands clutching a pink, kid-sized umbrella.

Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.  Faith is the concrete thing you do right now because you expect God to hold up His end of the bargain.  Faith is bringing an umbrella to the prayer meeting.

Faith makes you look like an idiot sometimes.  Like Noah did, building an enormous boat on dry land.  Like Abram did, leaving his city behind to go…where, exactly?  Like Gideon did, taking on the armies of Midian with a mere three hundred men.  Like Elijah did, stacking the altar with wood, drenching it with water, and then asking God to supply the fire.

When we insist on real results, and we focus on the things that God told us to…that takes faith.  Because the things God tells us to focus on aren’t things we can control.  They just won’t happen if He doesn’t show up and provide.  Do we think He will?

Faith is acting like He will.  Doing the things that don’t make any sense unless God is going to show up and do something.  And that’s pretty crazy, unless…

…unless we have some sense of what God wants to do, and we’re willing to align with it.  Or at least we know what God wants us to do, and we trust Him to do something useful with it, however crazy that may seem at the time.

In Psalm 25, David prays, “O my God, I trust in You; Let me not be ashamed.”  It sounds kinda fancy when you say it like that, but what it means is, “Please don’t let me look like an idiot for trusting You here.”  The key to the request is the first part: “I trust in You.”  Very often we don’t trust in God.  Very often, if we were honest, the more appropriate prayer would be, “God, I didn’t even bother to ask You what You want to do.  I just think my plan is a great idea, but it’s pretty high-risk.  Please don’t let me look like an idiot for taking this risk on something I just decided to do on my own.”  I’m not sure how excited God would be to answer that prayer.  

For many years now, I’ve built my ministry projects around a core of obedience to the things God told us to focus on.  I don’t claim to have the way to do it, but I take it as an article of faith that there must be some way to do what God told us to do, and do it well.  I am partnering with other believers who want to know what obedience looks like. We find out together — not usually on the first try. It’s a messy process, difficult to program and impossible to control.  How do we live with it?

I set goals, but all my goals are prayer requests. When I say the goal of the Victorious Bible curriculum project is to help people understand the biblical story and live in terms of it, I understand something of how the process will work…now.  Even now, I know that if God doesn’t show up and grant clarity and repentance to the people we are teaching, all of it will be for nothing.  But when we started, all we knew was this was something God wanted to do.  Stating the goal was saying, out loud, that we heard what God was saying and we were willing to receive it. We postured ourselves to receive the blessing that would come, and trusted God to deliver whatever we lacked along the way. 

In other words, we brought our umbrella.  What we are doing is taking a posture of reception.  We believe that obedience is the best posture of reception.  If we do what He says to do as far as we can, and trust Him to supply what we cannot, He will.  And we believe we’ll get further that way than we will if we wait for Him to ante up first.  “You bring the flood water, God, then I’ll start building the boat” doesn’t work so well.  

We are preparing to receive what God will give — whatever that will turn out to be.  If God does not give fruit, then we won’t have it, and there’s nothing we can do to change that, because we can’t manufacture Kingdom fruit anyway.

***

Prayer Exercise

Ask God to show you something He wants you to shoot for this year.

It could be something big, like finishing that book project, or something small like striking up an acquaintance with your neighbor. See what God might put on your radar.

Then ask what you need to do to receive that thing. Schedule time to receive, whether that means inviting the neighbor over for coffee, scheduling alone time to sit down and write, whatever. Commit yourself to taking that posture of reception once a week, and see what God will do.


Aiming for the Bullseye

22 June 2021

I talked in a previous post about the tendency to weasel-word our mission statements so we can pretend that whatever happened is what we were aiming for all along.  There’s a second issue also in play in our evangelical culture of ineffectiveness.  When we do aim for something definite, we often aim for the wrong thing.  Often a good and glorious thing — but God didn’t tell us to aim for it.

For example, we focus on planting churches, but where does the Bible ever tell us to plant churches?  It doesn’t.  The closest we get is Paul’s instruction to Titus to appoint elders in all the churches — which is not church planting; it’s organizing the churches that are already there.  Jesus said He would build the church: “On this rock I will build My church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.”  What He told us to do is make disciples: “Go and make disciples of all the nations….”

The evangelical church in America is pretty good at building churches, but has forgotten how to make disciples.  In fact, we’ve gotten so bad at disciple-making that at least one major ministry operation I’m aware of gets paid handsomely to travel around the country and teach churches how to do it effectively.  They’re pretty good at it, too.  I’m glad they do what they do, but I can’t overemphasize the absurdity of the situation.  A church that doesn’t know how to make disciples is like a library where the staff can’t read or an army where the soldiers don’t know how to shoot.  It’s crazy — this is the primary mission Jesus gave us.

What are these pastors and their flocks doing, if they’re not occupied with making disciples?  They’re building churches.  When we focus on building churches, we tend to get preoccupied with marketing, building programs, group dynamics, corporate papers, committees, and all the appurtenances of 21st-century organizational structure.  In the process, we lose sight of the priority of making disciples, and we end up not making very many…if any. 

There’s a very compelling built-in motivation to focus on building the church organization rather than on making disciples.  Building an organization is a process we understand and have some control over.  Send out x number of mailers to get y number of responses, do demographic surveys, run some focus groups, meet the felt needs of the community, buy some radio spots, etc.  There are definite action steps to take, and far more often than not, they work.  The hard part is getting the money to do what needs to be done.  

Making disciples is a lot cheaper, but it’s a slippery, messy process.  We have to trust God to operate in other people’s lives, and we have to be willing to accommodate what He is doing rather than try to program it to our convenience.  Disciple-making doesn’t work in semesters, or 10-week series.  It doesn’t confine itself to Wednesday nights from 7 to 8:30.  It’s about inconvenient phone calls, spur-of-the-moment painful conversations, dropping everything to attend to a crisis. It requires being present, involving people in your life, getting elbow-deep in theirs.  It doesn’t just end at a pre-defined point; disciple-making creates relationships (and obligations) that last for years.  

Churches are a good and glorious thing.  If we focus on making disciples, we will eventually have churches — Jesus said He would build His church, did He not?  But we have to trust Jesus to do it His way while we do what He told us to focus on.  That’s really uncomfortable for us.  

There are a lot of other areas where similar loss of proper focus has occurred.  The “worship wars” of the 80s and 90s were about whether we ought to sing the old hymns or the newer spiritual songs.  Paul says twice (Eph. 5:19 and Col. 3:16) that we should do both — and sing psalms, too.  We focus on social justice programs for third-world coffee farmers and Albanian victims of human trafficking because Jesus said we should love our neighbors — but we don’t even know our literal neighbors’ names, much less tangibly love them.  I could go on, but you get the idea.

But if we focus on the things God told us to, and those things are messy and impossible to program or control…then what do we do?  What does that look like?  Stay tuned….

*****

Prayer Exercise

“God, what are my real priorities, the things I really focus on?  Not just the things I would say on paper, but what I really do?”

Take some time to list them out.

“Father, is there something You want to adjust in my priorities?  What is it?”

Wait in silence and see what God will say to you.  


A Pauline Thicket of Prepositions

15 June 2021

A few years ago, I was talking with a good friend who has been deeply involved in church ministries for years.  She’s a psychotherapist, and part of her professional responsibility is to manage a crisis response team at work (24-hour hotline, that sort of thing.)  Her church recently set out to start a Christian crisis response team, and naturally they asked her to serve on the team that was setting it up.

So they get the team together — a rep from the pastoral staff, people from the congregation with expertise, and a consultant who helps churches do this kind of thing.  One of the first orders of business (after sorting out the snack schedule, of course) was a mission statement.  

The conversation was productive.  The team didn’t just want to pass out band-aids to people with problems.  Any crisis hotline does that — what difference would it make that this was a Christian hotline?  They concluded that in addition to connecting people to the resources they need, they wanted to help people meet God in the midst of the crisis.  Not hand out holy-sounding platitudes, not “evangelize” them, just introduce them to God, for real. So far so good, right?

So someone came out with a mission statement that started off “To redemptively shepherd people in crisis…” and then continued into a string of prepositional phrases and gerunds worthy of the book of Romans.

“Hang on,” my friend said.  “If what we want to do is connect people in crisis with the resources they need and help them meet God in their crisis, then why don’t we just say that? ‘Our mission is to connect people in crisis with the resources they need and help them meet God in their crisis.’”

Well, if you’ve been around churches much, you already know what happened after the hemming and hawing died down. Further chattering ensued, and in the end they adopted a mission statement: “To redemptively shepherd people in crisis…” plus a Pauline thicket of prepositions.

As my friend was telling me the story, somewhat baffled by it all, it suddenly hit me: I know why we do this!

It’s about accountability.  Say the ministry adopted my friend’s suggested mission statement: “Our mission is to connect people in crisis with the resources they need and help them meet God in their crisis.”  Say I take the Tuesday night shift. How would they check to see if I was fulfilling the mission? 

My friend: Jack, I understand you recently called our crisis line and talked to Tim.
Jack: Yeah.
My friend: So, did Tim connect you to the resources you needed?
Jack: Uh, I dunno.  I guess not.
My friend: Tim didn’t connect you to any resources?
Jack: No.
My friend: Did Tim help you to hear from God?
Jack: No.
My friend (turning to me): Tim, what did you do for an hour?

But if I’m working under that “redemptively shepherding” monstrosity of a mission statement, I can let Jack cry into the phone for an hour, do nothing that actually helps him, and still make it sound awesome.  “Mindful of the biblical command to ‘weep with those who weep,’ I provided Jack with a sympathetic ear and built rapport that would allow me to speak into Jack’s life.  I feel Jack is very close to recognizing his true need for a savior.”  Notice I didn’t say that I did speak into Jack’s life, just that I might be able to.

(Now, I recognize that from time to time a particular person in a particular moment needs something that’s off-mission for the ministry, and God will use that ministry to meet the need anyway.  Wise leaders recognize that when it happens and don’t choose that moment to get cranky about the mission statement.  But we’re talking about the overall mission of the ministry here.)

Moral of the story?  Not only do we have a culture of ineffectiveness, at some level, we know it.  So we avoid spelling out what we’re going to do in ways that would expose how little fruit we really see.

Why is that?

****

Prayer Exercise

Ask God to show you if there are areas of your life where you are afraid to ask Him to do specific things — things where it would be obvious if He showed up or not.  Wait in silence and see what He will show you.  

Don’t be concerned if nothing comes to mind; just remain attentive over the next few days and see what comes up.

If God does bring an area to your attention, pray, “God I confess that I am afraid to ask You to show up and act in definite ways in this area of my life.  Please give me the wisdom to know what to ask for, and the courage to keep asking.”  

Then keep praying for wisdom in that area until God shows you what to ask for.  When that happens, keep praying for it.