Which Eradicated His Doubt

8 April 2020

Once upon a time, they brought a demon-possessed boy to Jesus. Mark tells the story:

And when the boy saw Jesus, immediately the spirit convulsed him, and he fell on the ground and wallowed, foaming at the mouth. So Jesus asked his father, “How long has this been happening to him?”
And he said, “From childhood. And often he has thrown him both into the fire and into the water to destroy him, but if You can do anything, have compassion on us and help us.”
Jesus said to him, “If you can believe, all things are possible to him who believes.”
Immediately the father of the child cried out and said with tears, “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!”
When Jesus saw that the people came running together, He rebuked the unclean spirit, saying to it, “Deaf and dumb spirit, I command you, come out of him and enter him no more!” Then the spirit cried out, convulsed him greatly, and came out of him. And he became as one dead, so that many said, “He is dead.”
But Jesus took him by the hand and lifted him up, and he arose.

In the midst of trial, it is often very hard to get yourself to 100% certainty that God is going to come through. We struggle with this. So did the boy’s father. He had no plan B at all — Jesus was his last hope — and yet, he cannot bring himself to trust all the way.

But the thing to notice here is what Jesus does.

Jesus does not say, “Come back when you have no more doubts.” Jesus hears his prayer, and answers it.

Trust Jesus enough to show up. Trust Him enough to ask. And see what He will do.


The Worst of Both Worlds

2 April 2020

We live in a society where claiming victimhood can give a person enormous rhetorical and moral leverage, whether the claim is legitimate or not. The result is a whole class of people who have forgotten how to argue, whose only tool is a sense of perpetual offense. Such a thing is only possible in a society that has spent the last two millennia worshipping a crucified Messiah. Such a thing is only possible when that society rejects the Messiah, and thereby loses the ability to leaven its compassion with the knowledge of good and evil.

We have the worst of both worlds: we bear the consequences of eating the fruit, but our eyes have not been opened.


Community Participation in the Triune Life

24 March 2020

Now when [Jesus] had said these things, He cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come forth!”  And he who had died came out bound hand and foot with graveclothes, and his face was wrapped with a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Loose him, and let him go.”

Jesus could have made the graveclothes disappear, could He not?  So why didn’t He? Is He lazy? Inattentive to detail? Surely not.

Jesus involved the community in His miracle. By the power of His spoken word (“Lazarus, come forth!”), Jesus brought Lazarus to life–an impressive feat that no one else present was prepared to do. But as he shuffled forth from the grave, Lazarus was alive, but not free: he was still bound hand and foot. So Jesus spoke another word: “Loose him, and let him go.”

This word was not like the first. It did not accomplish what it signified: the graveclothes did not magically slip off. Rather, it was a word of command to those who stood by and had seen the miracle. Jesus commissioned them to set the newly alive man free. It was their job.

And so it is.

 


At a Friend’s House, On Thursday

22 March 2020

When I proposed giving up church for Lent, I had no idea that it would end up happening so literally, but here we are. In a world of virtual church services, the question of the Lord’s Table comes up. When we’re gathered around a laptop live-streaming a service in the living room, do we take communion, or don’t we?

In the Eastern and Roman communions, of course, the answer is an unequivocal “No!” The Table has to be administered by a priest, and that’s that. In Anglican praxis, the elements have to be consecrated by a priest, but can be delivered by someone else, which presents interesting logistical challenges.

But since that kind of priesthood doesn’t actually exist in the New Covenant anyway, I’m mostly interested in what everybody else should do. For many groups, it’s a tricky question. We’ve worked hard to preserve the specialness of the Table. We don’t want people to treat it casually. And so for many churches, the answer will be no. The Lord’s Table is for when we gather together, they will say; let’s wait until we can gather again.

I propose a different take. I think this is the litmus test for what we really believe constitutes the church. When we’re telling people that they will have to live-stream the service because we’re not allowed to gather in groups of more than 10, we have been very quick to tell them that the church building is just the building; the people are the church. We have been quick to say that we are just as much the church when we are assembled in praise in our respective living rooms. So my question is: do we really believe that, or don’t we? If we withhold communion, we don’t. We’re saying, “You’re the church…but not really.” We’re affirming the the whole property-owning, weekly production-manufacturing, corporate structure as the real church — and you gathered in your living room with a few friends and neighbors as something less than that.

If it’s a few believers gathered in the spare room of a private house, is it still the church? Yes! Should the church come to the Table? Well…duh. Is it okay that it’s not in a church building on a Sunday? Well…WWJD? He celebrated the Lord’s Table with a few friends in a private home, on a Thursday! Oh, the scandal!

So yes, we should do this. And also yes, we ought to train people not to take it lightly. This is serious business. We could do worse than simply follow Paul’s directions, thus:

Leader: On the night He was betrayed, Jesus took the bread after supper, and when He had given thanks, broke it, saying, “This is My body, broken for you. Do this in remembrance of Me. [prays] Lord God, thank you for the broken body of Your Son our Savior, who was  crucified for us. 

Leader breaks the bread, distributes it. All eat.

Leader: In the same way He took the cup after supper, saying “This is the new covenant in My blood. Do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of Me.” [prays] Father, thank You for the shed blood of Jesus Christ, who raises us into new life.

Leader distributes the cup (however you’re doing it)*, and all drink.

Leader: As often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes.

*There are many details that this order of service does not address. Wine or grape juice? What if you can’t get either? What if you’re out of bread? Do you use a common cup? Do you pass hand to hand around the Table, or does everyone receive directly from the leader?

You know what? We can have many lively debates about what would be best. I’ve hosted some such debates right here (and here) on this blog. But the bottom line is that it is better to obey imperfectly than to disobey because we’re paralyzed by perfectionism.

We’ve all done this before; let’s approximate the communion service we’re familiar with as best we can with the materials we have available. We can fill out the details later; today, let’s just obey, confident that our Father, while perfect, is not a perfectionist. We are already fully accepted in Christ; let’s be confident of that acceptance and draw near to God by the means that He has ordained for us.

 

 

 


A Judgment, Not A Salvation

17 March 2020

Once upon a time, David led Israel into sin. In response, God judged Israel, but He offered David a choice of which judgment he would rather have. The story is in 2 Samuel 24:11-15.

Now when David arose in the morning, the word of the LORD came to the prophet Gad, David’s seer, saying, “Go and tell David,`Thus says the LORD: ‘I offer you three things; choose one of them for yourself, that I may do it to you.'” So Gad came to David and told him; and he said to him, “Shall seven years of famine come to you in your land? Or shall you flee three months before your enemies, while they pursue you? Or shall there be three days’ plague in your land? Now consider and see what answer I should take back to Him who sent me.”
And David said to Gad, “I am in great distress. Please let us fall into the hand of the LORD, for His mercies are great; but do not let me fall into the hand of man.”
So the LORD sent a plague upon Israel from the morning till the appointed time. From Dan to Beersheba seventy thousand men of the people died.

The 2016 presidential election was just such a choice. Either major candidate would have lost if they’d had to run against anybody else. Can you imagine Trump beating Obama, or Bill Clinton, or Al Gore, or heck, even Walter Mondale? Can you imagine Hillary beating Reagan, or Bush — either one — or even Bob Dole? I can’t. They only had a chance because they were running against each other, and the vast majority of the country would have preferred neither one of them.

God offered us a choice between Jezebel and Belshazzar. It’s not like there was a good option; we were getting the candidates we deserved. 2020 is shaping up to be more of the same.

David didn’t “betray his principles” by having a preference among the bad choices available to him. Neither will we, as long as we remember that every choice we’re being offered is a judgment, not a salvation.


Changing the Sheets…and Loving it!

10 March 2020

God gave us a command to be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it. This is an essential part of what it means to be human.

The basic, straightforward meaning of the command is simple enough: have lots of babies, lead them to Jesus, baptize them, and raise them in the nurture and admonition of the Lord, so they will do the same. This is the direct meaning of the command, and it is also the middle of the bell–curve of human behavior. Across time and culture, we pair off and have kids. It’s how the species continues.

So what does that mean for those of us who — in God’s providence and the brokenness of the world — are denied children? Those of us who’d give anything to have kids, and for whatever reason, can’t?

There’s a broader meaning to the command; it’s not less than the direct, literal meaning. It’s a good and necessary consequence of it, and the broader command applies to us all.

A particular couple may not be able to have kids, but we are still required to be the sort of people who would have kids, the sort of people who love fruitfulness. We are called to love children, love other people’s children, love the raising and training of children to be more like Christ, love the institutions that shelter and grow children. Beyond that, we should love and practice fruitfulness in all its forms and varieties — art and music, daffodils and peach trees, building houses and farming fields and breeding cattle and throwing pots and writing books and baking flaky biscuits, all of it — and we should hate things that are fruitless by design.

We are in the midst of a cultural trend where forward-thinking young people don’t get married and have kids; they shack up and get dogs. (These folks think of themselves as the people of the future, although, as my friend Richard Bledsoe observes, it’s wildly unlikely that the future belongs to people who don’t reproduce.) These folks pride themselves on sliding through life with no complications — no mortgage, no kids, no need for a divorce if things go south — no mess, in other words.

Against that, we should let ourselves be taught what fruitfulness looks like by the literal fulfillment of the command. Obeying “be fruitful and multiply” is a messy business. God could have designed human reproduction so that it happened with a fist-bump. Instead, He made sex visceral, primal, messy, the sort of thing where you might need to change the sheets afterwards — and we love it, as we should. Pregnancy only gets messier, and birth messier still — even more linens to wash. And then the diapers! Toddlers are petri dishes with legs, ambulatory forces of destruction wandering the house with an illicitly gotten permanent marker in each tiny fist. As they get older, they get messy in ever more complicated ways. We’re called to love all that too…and to do all the laundry.

All fruitfulness is messy, filled with confusion, cleanup, course corrections. We should not just love the product; we must learn to love the messy process of creation. There’s an ever-present temptation to reject the necessary mess. Writer’s block, for example, is a rejection of the messiness of the process of creation, a desire for everything to be preternaturally bright and clean the first time around — and it never works out that way.

The good news is it doesn’t have to. We are the image of God; we are designed to dream and to make and to do, and then to bring our glory and honor into the New Jerusalem, which is the Church, the Bride of Christ. He made us for this, and all His ways are good. The sooner we learn to love changing the sheets afterwards, the more often we’ll create something good.


One Bad Day on a Road Trip

3 March 2020

Saul of Tarsus: a serious young Bible scholar who ditched everything he’d been taught, betrayed his mentors, and blew up his whole life based on one bad day on a road trip.

Watch out for mystical experience, kids. It’ll wreck your theology….

If we believe that God is who the Bible says He is, we will never deride the search for spiritual experience. God built us for communion with Him. Adam walked with God in the garden in the cool of the day, and from that day to this, we hunger to experience the presence of God. You don’t have to be a Christian to know this — it’s only natural to seek it out, the same way we seek out water when we’re thirsty.

The unbeliever’s problem is that he thirsts for God, and at the same time doesn’t like Him (as described in Romans 1:18ff.) That aversion leads to a search for all kinds of other spiritual experiences in the vain hope of quenching the thirst without having to deal with the One he thirsts for. In the Old Testament times, Israel struggled with idol worship for this reason. God cured them of idolatry, and by the time of Jesus, Israel faced a different set of temptations. Many Christians today are so frustrated or bewildered by this proliferation of options that they have given up on spiritual experience altogether. Rather than sift the true from the false, they deride the search for spiritual experience as itself an evil thing, and take refuge in an idolatrous quest for moral or doctrinal purity — as the Pharisees did in Jesus’ day. 

This is an utter failure of discernment. We are built for relationship with God. We are not meant to just do holy things and think holy thoughts, but to live alongside God, to experience Him. And we are meant to integrate those experiences into our doctrinal understanding. 

Jesus had the antidote to the Pharisees’ temptations: “If you won’t believe the words, believe the works.” He didn’t denigrate experience; He challenged people to take their experience seriously, and seek out the theological ramifications. Jesus provided the people around Him with many experiences that they could not integrate into their existing theology, because their theology was wrong.

What do you do then? 

Fix your theology, of course. Your theology must remain correctable—correctable by Scripture, and by experience.

If your theology cannot be corrected by your experience, then you are in the position of the Pharisees who rejected Jesus because He wasn’t what their theology told them the Messiah would be like. (Their theology was wrong, of course — but yours is wrong in places too. And that’s the point.)

Of course, everything can be done badly, and so can this. Someone can experience a personal tragedy, a business reversal, a setback of some kind, and decide that God doesn’t love him anymore. That would be a mistake — unfortunately, a very common one. When people say “Don’t make theology out of your experience,” they are trying to guard against this error. But the way they’re going about it is a mistake.

This person’s theology is woefully inadequate. He had a vending-machine view of God: ” I will live a decent, non-scandalous, red-state existence, and in return, God will shower me with personal comfort and material abundance. Since God’s not holding up His end of the bargain, He must not love me anymore.” That theology is wrong, and experience is showing just how wrong it is. This person certainly ought not cling to his theology and deny his experience. Rather, he should allow his experience to drive him back to God and the Scriptures for an explanation. He certainly should allow his experience — i.e., what God is actually doing — to correct his theology. If a literal act of God can’t correct your theology, what would it take?