The Sixth Day of Christmas: Time Travel

30 December 2020

We are always tempted to yearn for earlier times. But we are born at one point on the timeline and die at another, and for our entire lives in between, we ride our bodies inexorably forward, never back. We are all time travellers, and we only move in one direction. As the clock turns, older things don’t necessarily go away, but they lose their power to compel. You can still play with Matchbox cars or dolls or whatever, and it’s fun for a few minutes…but remember when you could spend all day at it, and still be mad that Mom was making you stop to eat supper?

We graduate from toys to driving, from driving for its own sake to all the places driving can take us, to the people we can share those places with—first friends and love interests, then a spouse, then our children. It’s not that we lose the simple pleasure of skittering a Matchbox car across the kitchen floor or taking a drive in the country, but we discover there’s more beyond it…and more…and more again. Every direction we look, there are further glories to uncover.

We have moments when we want to go back, or to freeze time and never change anything…but we can’t. We can build on the past, but we have to keep our eyes on the road — the future is where we’re going. Along the way, we have the opportunity to anticipate as much heaven as we can cram into the present. But how do you get spiritual heaven into this physical mess? Have faith; it can be done.

Don’t forget: now, even God has a body.

The Fifth Day of Christmas: Growing Up (whether we want to or not)

29 December 2020

In his meditation on human freedom, the Epistle to the Galatians, Saint Paul outlines how in humanity’s childhood, we were kept under guard by “the basic elements of the world”—the stability of blood and soil, the natural powers and angelic principalities, even the Torah itself. “But when the fullness of the time had come,” Paul says, “God sent forth His Son…that we might receive the adoption as sons.” Something about the Incarnation means that we’ve come of age; we’re no longer under tutors.

We receive this freedom quite apart from whether we deserve it—Paul makes it rather clear we don’t—and with no guarantee that we will exercise it responsibly. Humanity newly in Christ is a bit like a teenager taking the family car for a solo drive for the first time. Hard lessons are virtually guaranteed. And this is in fact exactly what we see: nice as it is to have all those new possibilities, freedom is terrifying, the potential for disaster all too real.  

We are as alienated and neurotic as we’ve ever been. Cut off from the old sources of certainty, we try to forge a new identity from hobbies, fandoms, sartorial choices. But it takes more than (say) Jeep ownership, the Broncos, and a model airplane club to sustain a human soul. And we know it—that’s why we have to keep adding stuff, or totally reinvent ourselves every few years. But like that teenager out for the first solo drive, we can’t just quit; we’re already on the highway.

We gotta learn how to drive.

The Fourth Day of Christmas: Principalities and Powers

28 December 2020

There was more to the stifling stability of the ancient world than just social constructs; humanity was “a little lower than the angels.” The world into which Jesus was born was subject to angelic powers that governed via human intermediaries. A couple millennia after Jesus destroyed the system, the details are hard to reconstruct, but we know the broad outlines.

In the antediluvian world, we had close contact with angels, learned from them, sometimes had children with them. After the flood, there was more distance, but the basic arrangement continued. Even God’s law was mediated to men by angels (Acts 7:53). Under the powers, the court magicians worked real magic and the “divine” kings exercised a supernatural insight and charisma that historian John Pilkey once described as a kind of “Gentile Pentecost.” It was a world of fixed tribal identities under tutelary deities, a world of thousand-year empires and very little change. You couldn’t make the demons leave.

Before Jesus, exorcism amounted to restraining the possessed person and then doing things the demon wouldn’t like until it finally chose to leave. It could take days. Jesus did nothing like that; He commanded demons to leave, and they went. This was new: a man had authority over angels. The old order shattered: everywhere the gospel went, the patron gods lost their authority and the “divine” kings fell. With a man ascended to God’s right hand, the era of real human rule began…and we share in it.

This is both good news and bad news.

The Third Day of Christmas: The World That Was

27 December 2020

We have come so far from the world Jesus was born into that we forget how that world was a place of stifling stability. In the classical world, the major markers of your life were all predictable the day you were born: your trade, friends, spouse, residence, all of it. The twin powers of blood and soil dictated everything. Today we call that fascism; they called it common sense.

Jesus was born into that fascist world. The blood ties of His clan and the soil of His birthplace dictated a certain kind of life: He should practice His (presumed) father’s trade, marry a girl of equivalent station in the village, listen to the rabbis, pay His taxes to the Romans. Being born out of wedlock, He was also expected to submit to lifelong shame: they were still throwing that in His face in His 30s (John 8:41).

But a human partaking in the divine nature is not bound by blood and soil. Simply by incarnating and living the life His Father set before Him, Jesus broke that world forever. Everywhere His followers have gone, pursuing our common Father’s business, we have done unexpected things: care for orphans and widows, heal the sick, lift the last, the lost, and the least. We have called tyrants to repentance, founded hospitals, funded scientists, freed slaves. The progress has been slow—the Kingdom of God is like leaven—and because slow, easily forgotten.

Let us remember, that we might be grateful.

The Second Day of Christmas: The Offense of Particularity

26 December 2020

The ancient Jews were preoccupied with social station and purity before God, the Greeks with finding unchanging certainty beyond the messy and decaying physical realm. God offended both groups in the incarnation, the Jews by becoming this particular man—born out of wedlock to a nobody—and the Greeks by incarnating at all. In different ways, the incarnation was blasphemy to both groups.

The incarnation is just as blasphemous today. We vaunt our identity categories above everything—male, female, gay, straight, black, white, asian, 1%ers or 1%, you name it. We don’t believe anyone can represent us or grasp our lived experience unless they tick all the same boxes. We flatter ourselves that we can claim, create, or discover for ourselves an identity that is more important that the human identity we were given as a gift from our loving Creator.

But God became a particular human, born in a specific place and time, having a particular ethnicity, gender, and socioeconomic station. In that one particular person, Jesus shared in all that is essentially human, in order that all humans might be able to share in the divine nature. That which we already have in common with Jesus—our essential humanity—we also have in common with each other. The more we come to share in the divine nature, the closer we will draw to one another.

Let us be grateful that this is the case; the alternatives are not attractive.

The First Day of Christmas: This is our God!

25 December 2020

Have you ever wondered how the shepherds found Jesus? The angels had only given them a single clue: a swaddled newborn in a feed trough. Bethlehem was full of strangers that night, travellers from elsewhere. But labor is not a quiet process, and everybody would have known about the teenaged mom that gave birth in a barn. If the shepherds hadn’t already heard about it through small-town gossip, a few minutes of asking around would lead them to the right place.

What did they expect to find? Surely not a scene of great majesty, given the clue they were chasing. And what they did find was simple enough: a new teenaged mother, exhausted from labor, her not-quite-husband (bit of a scandal there, no doubt the talk of the town), and a baby, wrapped up and deposited in a feed trough.

Had we asked the shepherds a day earlier what the birth of their Messiah would be like, I doubt any of them would have predicted this. How vulgar. How…blasphemous, even. It is the first of many offenses yet to come. But the shepherds couldn’t shut up about what they’d seen and heard. They told everybody, and departed rejoicing and praising God.

And so should we.

Your Reputation in Heaven

22 December 2020

A couple weeks ago, I had the opportunity to address Faith Community Church in Littleton. Here’s the sermon:

Body and Corporation, Part II

15 December 2020

The body is the church. The corporation is an asset of the church, a possession. It not the church, it is something the church owns. Once we understand that, we know what to do with the corporation. Use it, just like we would use any other asset of the church: a building or a van or a sound board. It does not exist as an end in itself; its job is to serve the needs of the body.

We would find it odd if the whole church directed its energy toward the upkeep of the church van. Can you imagine? The whole church turns out on a Saturday morning to wash the van. The VBS sponsors a bake sale to get a new turbocharger. We don’t let the youth group use the van, because they always leave Cheeto crumbs under the seats.

When something like that happens, we realize that the van has become an idol. Likewise, when all our energy is being misdirected into the corporation to keep it running like a good business, things have gone awry.

And it is really easy for things to go awry in exactly that way. It turns out that the corporation can survive quite handily without indulging in the messy and inconvenient business of bringing its people into real relationships that provide fellowship and accountability. As long as the people keep attending, keep giving, and keep volunteering, the corporation hums along like a well-oiled machine. The metrics look great.

And–in our present cultural milieu, at least–many of the people have no interest in getting mired in such challenging relationships anyway. They want to be consumers of religious services, and the corporation that can provide the programs they’re shopping for will get their dollars and volunteer hours.

And so the vast majority of churches have established and well-understood patterns for taking care of the corporation’s needs, a clear understanding of who is responsible, and meaningful accountability to ensure that the job gets done. These same churches often have no established pattern for moving people into deep relationships that strengthen and feed them, do not understand the process, and hold no one accountable for doing it.

For example, I once worked for a church under the title “Pastor of Discipleship and Logistics.” During the two years I held that job, I had regular accountability and support around items like getting the bulletin done on time or ordering up on copy paper. Never once did anyone in my chain of command initiate a conversation about discipleship, check to see who I was discipling, how it was going, or if I needed support.

Not once.

In two years.

I wish I could say that’s an extreme example. In fact, it’s very common.

Flipping the Language

8 December 2020

In the previous post, we looked at how the interests of the body and the corporation diverge. In this post, we’re going to look at a very common failure to understand what the Bible says about life in the Body.

New Testament churches didn’t have a corporation. The New Testament doesn’t contemplate the needs of the corporation, or give commands regarding its upkeep.

As a result, there aren’t easily preachable biblical commands about taking care of the corporation, which presents a problem. How do we inspire the faithful to make sure the needs of the corporation get met? Well, there are a bunch of biblical commands about the individual believer’s relationship to the body. It is convenient for the corporation to re-interpret those commands (loving one another, accountability, fellowship, etc.) as though those commands were speaking of things that benefit the corporation.

And so commands to fellowship, for example, are taken as though they are simply commanding regular church attendance. Commands to be generous with the poor are taken as commands to give to the coffers of the corporation.

In order to shove the new corporation-serving meaning in, the old body-oriented meaning frequently gets shoved out. A person who regularly attends church is understood to have fulfilled the command–even if he gets no actual fellowship, as he frequently does not. A person who gives to the capital campaign is counted generous, no matter how he ignores his poor and needy neighbors. And so on.

The person who attends such a church often feels as if something is missing. He’s frequently isolated, lacks deep relationships, living a shallow spirituality. But the very commands that would guide him into a more godly and fulfilling life have been emptied of their life-giving meaning. Even when he’s looking right at the passage, he doesn’t see it.

He is likely to remain blind until someone shows him the real thing.

Body and Corporation

1 December 2020

Regardless of what our doctrinal statements say about the church really being the people, the American local church manifests itself as a corporation with property to maintain, payroll to meet, bills to pay. It’s important to remember that the body and the corporation really are two different things — witness the fact that over the past two thousand years, most local churches have managed to exist without drawing up corporate papers. Imagine trying to explain the church structure we take for granted to, say, the first-century church that met in Philemon’s house. “Corporate papers?” they would ask. “Isn’t that something you do for a business?”

Conversely, it’s entirely possible to be a service organization with corporate papers and not a church at all. The American Red Cross, the World Wildlife Fund, and the Boy Scouts of America have been managing it for decades.

But more often than not, in North America, we try to do both at the same time. The juggling act can be challenging. The corporation theoretically exists in order to serve the needs of the body. But the body is a familial structure and the corporation is a business structure. Families and businesses are different sorts of entities, and they operate on fundamentally different principles. What’s good for one is not always good for the other, and so the interests of the body and the interests of the corporation are often not well aligned.

Over time, the interests of the corporation almost always come to dominate. The needs of the corporation are immediately pressing and measurable. It’s easy to tell if you have enough money to cover this month’s mortgage and payroll, or enough volunteers for the fall program. You can give an employee a mark to hit, and everyone will know if he hit it. You can hire a slick, upwardly mobile manager of ecclesiastical affairs who will make sure he hits all the marks. As with any other such managerial position, you’ll work to find a good one, but if you’re willing to pay a competitive salary, you’ll get what you need. Thus far the needs of the corporation.

The body needs real, personal connection and relationships. These things provide no short-term benefit to the corporation, and they come with a huge opportunity cost: they’re messy, labor-intensive, and high-risk. The energy invested in doing them well could be going into something else, something that does the corporation measurable good: a glitzier children’s program, a slicker bulletin, the next capital campaign. Trying to find a capable manager for the corporation who will put the needs of the body first is…challenging, to say the least.