20 July 2017

I have recently run back across an older post by Doug Wilson that is simultaneously one of the more sensible things I’ve seen on the cessationism issue, and in another way, pretty silly.

“I don’t want a deep chasm between natural and supernatural. They are both part of the universe that God made, and they are woven together. So the fact that something is “spiritual” doesn’t make it inspired. Inspiration, of the kind described above, has ceased. But we still have spirits and souls and bodies, and the way they all are connected (within each man and between all men) is not something that we should allow materialistic atheists to define for us. The revelatory gifts have ceased. That does not mean that it is impossible for a man to be fey.”

Let’s grant all that for a second. If a man is fey, he ought to be fey subject to the Scriptures, in the service of Jesus Christ, for the glory of God’s kingdom and the benefit of the Body. He ought — not to put too fine a point on it — to behave generally in the way described in 1 Corinthians 12-14, the same way anyone should use any ability. That is, he should use his gifts lovingly for the edification and growth of the Body.

And what might such fey-ness look like? Well, it might look like…

  • knowing things about people or situations that the person “shouldn’t” know
  • preternaturally deep understanding, knowing what to do when the person shouldn’t have that kind of insight
  • an unusual degree of trust in God for improbable things to come to pass…but they usually seem to
  • an ability to make people feel better by touching or spending time with them, a pattern of people getting well with unusual speed around him/her
  • an accrual of other inexplicable happenings around him/her
  • a spooky ability to call out the secret desires and longings of a person’s heart

In other words, it might look like something you could describe as a word of knowledge, word of wisdom, gift of faith, healing, or prophecy…hmmm.

So when Grandma always seems to know when one of the grandkids gets hurt, even though she lives 900 miles away, what are we to call that? When a lady in the church is able to deliver on-target encouragement consistently to people whose life circumstances she could not possibly know, what are we to call that? When a man is able to identify the internal makeup calling of people he’s just met, turn them to living in the kingdom of God, and leaves in his wake a trail of transformed lives, what are we to do?

I submit we should kick the failed cessationist theological project to the curb and admit that the Spirit is doing, right in front of us, things which correspond to the words the Spirit used to describe such doings in the first-century church. Which is to say, we can either use the vocabulary God gave us, or we’ll have to make something up. Like “fey.”


Strong Magic Takes Blood

14 July 2017

My essay, “Strong Magic Takes Blood” was published at Theopolis Institute.  Take a look. 

Nobody Will Notice: A Love Letter

29 June 2017

“Pastor” means “shepherd,” but most of the people who have the word “pastor” on their business cards are not, in fact, shepherds. (This is okay; you can be a legit church leader without a shepherding gift. The Bible has other words for that — but that’s another post.)

Churches mostly don’t seek, interview for, or pay for shepherding. When it comes to the position we call “pastor,” churches mostly pay for the same things that any other corporation might pay for in a leader: visionaries, fundraisers, orators, administrators, technocrats — things that are visible or sexy (or preferably both), and relatively easy to track and measure.

Shepherds are hard to track.

The nature of effective shepherding is that if you don’t do it, nobody will notice. Injured sheep tend to hobble along with the rest of the flock as best they can, trying to look normal. They don’t want anyone to see. The whole group will join them in the pretense and be willfully blind to their wounds, because wounds make everyone uncomfortable. Lost sheep do not report themselves missing, and they don’t send up signal flares so you can find them. Nobody — not the missing or injured sheep, not the church leadership, and certainly not the rest of the flock — nobody actually wants a shepherd to do his or her job. Nobody wants the wound treated like it’s really there. Nobody wants to know why the lost sheep left.

You will be rewarded for following the crowd in their pretense that everything is fine. No one will complain. For the most part, even the lost and the wounded don’t expect you to help them. (In fact, “Why are you doing this?” is one of the most frequent questions I encounter. The answer is always the same: “Because you’re worth it. Because Jesus would.” They don’t believe me at first, but that’s okay.)

If you resist the temptation to ignore the lost and wounded, if you roll up your sleeves and do the hard work of fostering real healing, for the most part, no one will know except the people you help. You won’t announce to the world that you’re going to call Jack, who seems to be isolating himself, or that you think Madeline is not dealing with her mother’s death as well as she’s pretending. You will just call Jack and Madeline.

In most organizations, even those ostensibly devoted to healing, no one will assign you this job. If you resist the temptation to ignore the lost and wounded, about the best you can hope for is that nobody will notice. But honestly that’s not likely.

More likely, people will resent your shepherding without ever knowing what you are doing. Shepherding takes time, and you will always have other responsibilities. You will be encouraged to spend your time on visible, trackable things — managing programs, initiating a new social media marketing campaign, updating the website, promoting the building program, speaking, whatever. If you actually go and spend significant time with Jack and Madeline, your superiors are going to wonder why you’re not at your desk where you belong. What could you be doing, anyway, and why aren’t the TPS reports done?

(This is like wondering why a shepherd is out looking for a lost sheep instead of hanging around the sheepfold all day — but  good luck getting the board of your 501(c)(3) corporation to understand that.)

So you will initiate this work on your own, and in the teeth of your other responsibilities. You will just call a wounded sheep and say, “Hey, let’s get a cup of coffee.” Or you will swing by their house with a six-pack after work, sit on the patio, and drink and talk. You won’t just keep their secrets; you’ll keep it confidential that you even met, unless you want it blabbed all over church, or showing up as a sermon illustration. (Yeah, sorry, but that actually happens. Regularly.) It’s no one else’s business but theirs.

Maybe it’s one meeting. Maybe it’s two hours a week for a year. It doesn’t matter, because when you made that first phone call, you were signing up — to the best of your capacity — for whatever it takes. If you can’t help, you connect them with someone who can, but you usually don’t just get to drop it at that point. You check back in. You walk with them through it. Whatever it is — and it might be minor, or it might be literally the worst thing you’ve ever encountered in your life.

That’s the discipline.

That’s what good shepherds do.

If there’s a way of making a decent living at this, I certainly haven’t figured it out. But if Jesus called you to it…do it.

Helping Refugees: Effect or Display?

6 June 2017

As a sometime lifeguard with a few saves to my credit, I know that I can go into the water and pull a drowning person out. I’ve done it. I also know that it’s harder than people think. A drowning man will literally try to climb my body to get another breath. If I let him, I drown. And then he drowns anyway. 

I know I’m better off throwing him a rope or a float or one end of my shirt or *anything* he can grab onto than I am trying to grab him — it’s safer for both of us. But if I haven’t got anything handy, I’ll go in and get him anyway, risk be damned — I’m not going to sit on shore and watch the guy drown when I can do something about it. I can handle one guy trying to climb me. I’ll have to fight him to save him, but I’ll win, and we’ll both come out of the water alive.

I know I can’t go in and get three people at once. I can’t manage that many panicky people at the same time. They’ll climb me, and we’ll all die — or some other lifeguard will have to work that much harder to save them and me, too. Hard as it is to not just dive into the water, we’re all better off if I take the time to grab a float or a rope or branch. The goal is not just to “do something,” the goal is to actually help — effect, not display. When I spend precious seconds rummaging for a rope, one of them might go under for the last time. That’s awful.  But saving two is better than playing hero for a few seconds and drowning all four of us.

I believe in helping the stranger, the foreigner, the refugee. How many can we absorb into our country before our country — like theirs — becomes a place to flee from instead of a place to flee to? The answer cannot be zero, but as the experience of Europe is presently  demonstrating, the number will not be infinite, either. If we want real results and not just the warm feeling that we’re “doing something,” then we will have to accept two hard realities: 

1. There’s an upper limit to how many people we can help at a time.
2. There are ways of helping that will work, although they’re harder, and other ways that will fail, even though they will feel good and look heroic at first. We need to learn to tell the difference.

Dead Man’s Faith

20 April 2017

Greetings, all. The following is a shameless self-promotion. You have been warned.

My Th.M. thesis, Dead Man’s Faith: Spiritual Death, Faith, and Regeneration in Ephesians 2:1-10 is now available in print at a pretty reasonable price. You can find it on Amazon here

Fair warning; it is, literally, a master’s thesis. This means that it was not actually intended for human consumption; it was written to satisfy the arcane folkways of the academic guild. But there is a new foreword that will help you navigate to the parts that are relevant to you.

I am releasing it in this form because I’ve sat on it for 10 years, and I don’t know that I’ll ever get round to a rewrite that would bring it up to date and make it more accessible. At the moment, I have at least a half dozen projects that are more beneficial to the Kingdom of God, and so I’m devoting my effort to those instead. (By the way, you can find that stuff at Headwaters Christian Resources. If you were intrigued/infuriated by The Benedict Option, look for a new book in a few weeks. Fair warning: like all our stuff, this one will leave the high-concept theological debates for later, and put you to work.)

Ahem. Anyway, if you really want to understand either Ephesians 2:1-10 as a text, or BAR outlining as an exegetical tool, this is the best resource going at the moment (he said, modestly). And with respect to the latter, it may be the best resource available in print for some time to come — I don’t know when we’ll get round to producing an actual manual.  It’s on the radar, but all the people who could actually do it are tied up with other things, and likely to remain that way for some time. If you’re not friends with one of us already, this is the resource for you. 

A Moldy Kitchen Sponge Is Not A Grapefruit

12 April 2017

So The Shack recently became a movie, and came back onto my radar. Back in the day, Albert Mohler, the president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, wrote a critique of the book that recently made the rounds again in response to the movie, and which you can read here. I might have passed over all this, but he subtitled his review “The Missing Art of Evangelical Discernment.” I’ve been working on a theology of discernment, and this is a good chance to discuss it a little. 

I’m going to be kind of rough on Mohler, so lest I fall into the trap of just criticizing things other people write, I’d like to ante up a review of The Shack that I largely agree with. I think you’ll find it worthwhile. Now as to Mohler….

Mohler’s crankiness is why evangelicals can’t have nice things. We wonder why we can’t get another C. S. Lewis? This is why. Anybody as smart as another Lewis can see the Mohler Treatment coming, and is steering well clear of us.

As Mohler said, The Shack is not only a novel, it’s a sustained theological argument. Insofar as it is teaching doctrine — and it certainly is — “It’s fiction!” doesn’t magically render it immune to critique. Young’s doctrine could stand a good, stiff critique, and it’s a shame Mohler fails to deliver. On one hand, he picks at fictional devices in a way that would damn the parables of Jesus Himself. (A friend pointed out to me that the parable of the prodigal son features a permissive, non-judgmental father who — horrors! — represents God, and a lascivious wrench of a son who achieves reconciliation with the father without recourse to Jesus.) On the other hand, Mohler is flat wrong when it comes to, say, the reconciliation of creation to God. Mohler points an accusing finger at The Shack, and all I can think is, “But the Bible actually *says* that.” (Col. 1:20 comes to mind.)

Then there’s the matter of that subtitle. Here’s the problem: Mohler’s “discernment” isn’t. Mohler’s article is not discernment the way a moldy kitchen sponge is not a grapefruit. It’s not that he’s discerning poorly; he has not yet begun the actual task of discernment. He is criticizing, certainly, but that’s not the same thing.

Biblical discernment, the way Jesus actually said to do it, evaluates the fruit. Good fruit, good tree. Bad fruit, bad tree. But Mohler isn’t looking for fruit; he’s testing for doctrinal “purity” from the heights of his ivory armchair. Mohler cites not one person who actually came away from The Shack with a warped view of God. Not one counseling session where he’s had to clean up The Shack‘s mess. Not one actual, real-world, bad result. He’s like a restaurant critic who reads the chef’s recipes and then writes the reviews without ever tasting the food. Might be good, might be bad — but would you take his word for it?

Meanwhile, down here in the trenches, I know actual, real people whose view of God was dramatically reformed by reading The Shack. People who had seen God as a scowling meanie eager to punish, or an impersonal force, came to know God as a Person — Three, actually — who really loves them. Faced with this reality that God actually accomplished in the real world — am I emphasizing my point enough here? — I can either be cranky because I think Young should have done better, or I can give thanks. I choose to give thanks. It’s good fruit.

Perfect fruit? Of course not. But good nonetheless. 

Not good enough to suit you? Write something better. But don’t let Mohler read it….

Pathologizing Half the Country

12 November 2016

This article started with a simple plea on Facebook the morning after the election: “As we watch the results of pathologizing half the country roll in, can we please not double down on that?”

A friend didn’t understand what I meant and asked for an explanation. I made my initial try at explaining it in that Facebook conversation, and I’m trying to expand a little on that here. 

I learned this particular leadership lesson at the micro level, serving in a small church. In church leadership, you lead most of the time by taking the best direction that the convictions of your people will allow — which often means putting off (what you believe to be) the actual best choice for a more opportune time. You settle for second best, or third, or a distant fourth best option, because it’s the best option that your people can support right now. 

Sometimes you’re right about what’s best. Sometimes you’re dead wrong, and your people know better than you do. But in the moment it doesn’t really matter who’s right; what matters is the best option that you can agree on together.

Since that’s the case, most of your leadership comes from persuasion, changing the culture first and then making policy changes when people are ready — in other words, reformation rather than revolution. That takes a lot of patience. It always feels glacially slow, but it produces healthy, lasting change. And crucially, you don’t have to blow up your relationships in the process. (Or shoot anyone. Actual revolutions suck, guys. Stop wishing for one.)

Patience. Policy follows persuasion; it doesn’t lead it. 

Now if you’ve earned the trust of your people, then every once in a great while you can make an executive decision in policy that’s decidedly outside their comfort and convictions. You can get away with that every once in a while because while they don’t agree with you, they trust your judgment in the short term. If it works out well, then maybe you can do it again. If it doesn’t work out well, then they trust your judgment less the next time. 

The problem is, every leader is tempted to haste, to just make policies without persuading. It’s so much easier. And if you got away with the policy-first approach last time, the temptation becomes exponentially more powerful.You begin to think about how hard it will be to change your people’s convictions, and how long it’s going to take, and how much quicker and easier it will be to just change the policy and enforce it. You have the reins of power, don’t you? Why not just do it? They went along with it last time, didn’t they? Why work so much harder to change their minds first? Surely they’ll fall into line once they see the results of the good decision…. But they don’t. Not if you make a habit of it.

If you give in to the temptation, people may not leave, but they will stop volunteering, stop donating, stop participating. They may show up, but they’re not really part of the movement anymore. And you can tell the difference. First the energy goes away, then you have trouble getting things done, then they get sullen on you. So then you get mad at them for not going along with “the best option.” You resent them, and you do your best to make them feel that they’re bad people if they don’t get on board with whatever the worthy cause du jour happens to be. And again, it doesn’t really matter how worthy the cause is at this point. Your people may be totally wrong, or they may have well-founded objections you haven’t thought about. At this point, it makes no difference — they’re going to resent you. And they should, because you’ve quit serving and gone full church-lady on them. 

You’re no longer trying to engage their hearts and minds and persuade them; you’re just trying to club them into line. You’re abusing your power instead of serving them, and they aren’t going to stand for it forever. 

Trump’s constituency is a coalition of people who have been ignored, dictated to, and clubbed into line by the ruling class for a couple of decades. Their leaders made trade deals that made their lives objectively worse, the the ruling class simply didn’t care. Any objections were written off as so much xenophobic raving.

The same thing happened with every change. Anytime they objected to whatever the “best thinking” handed down from on high, they were mocked, vilified, called racist, sexist, xenophobic, homophobic, transphobic, and so on. It’s gotten to where there is literally no way they can even say their reservations out loud without being roasted alive for their “hurtful” language — and the substance of their reservations is simply ignored. It is simply assumed that they can have no meaningful objections to “progress,” that all their reservations arise as a result of shameful psychological disorders. That they are, in short, horrible human beings who need to just shut the hell up and do what they are told. 

And you know what? Some of them are. Many of them are not. All of them resent being denied the simple human dignity of being heard and included in the conversation — and why shouldn’t they? Do you want to be treated that way?

(And let’s face it, it’s not like Trump fans have a monopoly on being deplorable. Watch some YouTube videos of gangs of thugs beating down a guy in a Trump hat. Or vandalizing Trump’s star on the Hollywood walk of fame, and beating the homeless black woman who tried to stop them. We all have it in us to be deplorable — let’s not yield to the impulse, ok?)

So if we now respond to the election with, “OMG, I had no idea so many Americans were… [*ist, *phobic, fill in your pathologizing epithet of choice] — we are doubling down on the church-lady behavior that incited the Trump revolt to start with. There were more reasonable options for president. But if we refuse to reason with half the country, they are going to stop trying to reason with us. Trump is not a reasoned argument, he’s a bulldozer, sent to Washington by people who are tired of being bulldozed by the ruling class.

If the Trump voters think they can simply relax because their bulldozer won, they’re making the same mistake. If you’re on either side of the line, guys, half the country does not agree with you. You need to understand and appreciate them, or we just keep fighting over the reins instead of finding common ground. We can’t just keep fighting over who’s going to dictate terms, and who will be vilified, bullied, and ignored. Let me tell you, that doesn’t end well for anyone. We have to have an actual conversation. On all sides.

And we can. 

Christians have every reason to be leading the conversation. We are all united by the same Spirit, commanded to come in peace to the same Table. We are called to be of one mind. We aren’t, but we know how to get there. Sit. Tell the truth about what’s in your heart. Stay at the table to hear the response — no parting shots allowed. Expect to discover a need to repent. About what? I don’t know, but I know there will be something. There always is. When you reach a good stopping point, give everybody a hug, go home, and pray for each other. Repeat. Again. Keep repeating, until heaven comes to earth.