The Fifth Day of Christmas: “Thank You!” 

29 December 2022

Following Jesus is a daunting prospect. The religious elite rejected Jesus; the populist street-preachers hated him too; the political realists balked at Him. Later, the philosophers would be equally scandalized. Over the objections of all the Respectable People™, Christianity asserts this promise: that you, as you are, can partake of the divine nature, as it is. That in so partaking, you will not lose your humanity, but gain all that humanity was meant to be. 

We know this is possible because it has already happened. In Jesus, we meet undiminished humanity and undiminished deity in perfect harmony. Following Jesus doesn’t mean striving to check an impossible list of boxes; it means being united to the power to act as God’s hands and feet in the world. If Jesus’ life is any indication, this will not be a popular way to live. 

So bring out your respectability and set it on the dining room table. Treat it like Marie Kondo would treat an extra jacket: thank it, then put it in the box of thrift store donations. It’s someone else’s now. For you, it has become an encumbrance, and it’s time to let go. Merry Christmas!


The Fourth Day of Christmas: Follow Me!

28 December 2022

After Jesus, it’s burned into the world’s consciousness that God might have business with you, a calling that has nothing to do with the role your family and community have assigned you. But why did Jesus change that? Wasn’t it always true? 

In a sense, yes. When Jesus came, the Hebrew Bible was already chock-full of unlikely people God had business with. Amos was (by his own famous admission) “neither a prophet nor the son of a prophet, but a sheep-breeder and a tender of figs” – and then, for one day, God called him to be a prophet anyhow. David was a shepherd, and about as far from the throne as you could get, but he ended up there anyway. Samuel wasn’t born to the right tribe for the (Levitical) work God had for him. Gideon wasn’t born to the right family either, nor Jephthah, Moses was a bad speaker, and so on. But under the Old Covenant, those people were a small minority. They were ordinary people called to extraordinary things, and we tell their stories precisely because they stepped up to the challenge.

In the New Covenant, Jesus was a human (like we are), submitted wholly to the Holy Spirit (like we’re often not), and He calls us all: “Follow Me!” Jesus destroys the expectation that extraordinary callings will remain extraordinary. We object, of course, as God’s people — Moses and Gideon among them — have always objected to extraordinary calling. In the words of C. S. Lewis, “That long way round which Dante trod was meant/for mighty saints and mystics and not for me!” But no. Jesus speaks to us all: “Follow Me!”

The Third Day of Christmas: Kiss Your Certainty Goodbye

27 December 2022

Martin Luther’s father planned for him to become a lawyer. If Martin had been born 1500 years earlier, he’d have had little choice. Born in Christendom, Martin had another option: he took orders and became an Augustinian friar. Many saints’ stories begin similarly, with a teenager avoiding an odious arranged marriage by becoming a monk or nun instead. 

In the old world, any member of your village could predict with reasonable accuracy your trade, where you would live, which family your spouse would come from. It was a world where you could plan your kids’ lives before they were ever born. Through the story of Jesus (who was supposed to be a construction worker, whose followers were supposed to be fishermen, tax collectors, etc.,) another possibility was forever burned into the consciousness of the world: God might have business with your kid. 

The church instantiated that new consciousness first in the desert hermit tradition, then in organized orders, then in blessing all lawful work, but across the centuries, the message is the same: your complacent certainty of who you are, of your role in the world, is an illusion. God might at any time call you in a different direction.

The Second Day of Christmas: Seed of Destruction

26 December 2022

For us Christmas day often turns out to be a long day. This year, it landed on a Sunday, which made it all the more glorious, but also even more complicated than usual –organization, worship, cooking and travel, cookies, ham, and egg nog, multiple houses and friends and gift exchanges, ending in a game night that lasted into the wee hours of this morning. Every last bit was worth it. It was good to revel together in the goodness of all that God has given to us. And now, with 11 days of Christmastide remaining, we settle in for a different kind of celebration: what was it all about? 

Imagine being among the sheep that night. Suddenly the air above you is alive with an army of angels, and when you recover from your terror, they send you to find the baby. It wouldn’t take much asking around. Bethlehem is small, labor is loud, and the unwed and shunned teen mom forced to give birth in a barn would be the talk of the town. You round the corner, and there they are: a frustrated construction worker unable to provide better for his bride-to-be, an exhausted girl, and a baby: tiny, bloody, bundled in rags against the cold. 

Improbable as it seems, that unremarkable sight is the root of many of your struggles and discontents today. That tiny child – the incarnation of God Himself – is the beginning of the end for the old world, and the seed of a new world that is even now being born – and birth is a messy, painful process. “Every warrior’s sandal from the noisy battle, and the garments rolled in blood will be fuel for the fire, for unto us a child is born; unto us a Son is given.” This year, let’s reckon with the costs of Christmas.

The First Day of Christmas: Learn by Doing

25 December 2022

The most important thing about the Advent wreath is the unlit candles standing in mute testimony that the object of our longing has not yet arrived. One by one, we light them, until finally, here we are. Christmas is far too important to confine to one day, but we’ll talk about that tomorrow. 

Today is a day of raucous celebration: plentiful meals, special treats of food and drink, relaxation and play, watching the delight in children’s eyes. All these things are gifts from a good God – feast on them by faith, in your hearts, with thanksgiving. Tomorrow we contemplate; today, we taste and see that the Lord is good!

She Didn’t Eat the Bark

22 December 2022

People who have command of an ideology wield a powerful tool for directing – if not possessing – the minds of other people. When the ideology is a theological system, the tool has usually been honed over generations, and whatever anomalous data the Bible presents has already been accounted for. The explanation may not be particularly compelling – especially to those not ideologically possessed by that particular theological system – but whatever the passage or objection, they’ll have an explanation already worked out, and it will work.*

*work = keep their adherents from dwelling on the problem passage

Experience, however, is another matter. It is one thing to ignore a verse that doesn’t quite make sense to you anyway. It is another thing entirely to ignore getting fired, being unable to conceive a child, losing a loved one. Major crises in life compel our attention: “God shouts in our pains” as C. S. Lewis said. 

For a leader who depends on his command of theology to order his world and his followers, reality is threatening, intrusive. A demand to base your theology on Scripture rather than experience is a way to throw pesky experiences out of court before they can be properly accounted for. 

That’s ridiculous on the face of it, since every experience you’ve ever had happens in God’s world under God’s control. The world and the Word do not contradict, and it is necessary to rightly interpret them both. But rather than exert the effort to properly interpret both, some people would rather insulate their poor interpretation of Scripture from falsification by disallowing God’s acts in the world as evidence. Jesus told people to believe the works, but some teachers would tell you otherwise. One wonders what they’re afraid of….

That’s bad, when a leader is running that game on you. But the really bad news is that a lot of us don’t need some nefarious cult leader to run that game on us; we’re busy doing it to ourselves. Having invested in learning a theological system that was supposed to make the world make sense, we refuse to consider anything that might upset the apple-cart and force us to revise our sense-making scheme, whether it’s a problem passage in Scripture or a problem event in life that falsifies our theology.

What should we do? Let’s go back to the Garden.

Eve looked at the forbidden fruit, and saw that it was good for food, that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree desirable to make one wise. Three parts to her thought process. How did she know it was good for food? She’d never had fruit from that tree before. This is induction from experience, and if she’d been looking at any other fruit, she’d have been right. It was pleasant to the eyes – straightforward sense experience. Desirable to make one wise? That one she got straight from the serpent. 

We all know the story – on the basis of those three factors, she was deceived and she ate. What did she miss? The divine revelation. God had already told her that this particular fruit would kill her. The threat was imperceptible to her senses, which should have caused her to thank God for the warning. Instead, she was deceived and forgot the warning. 

Every other time she’d made that inductive judgment about a piece of fruit, she’d been right. And with any other tree in the Garden, she’d still have been right. But this tree was deadly, and because God is good, He’d warned her about it. 

The lesson here is not that we can’t trust our senses and reason. God made us for the world and the world for us; it is comprehensible to us. We can trust our senses and our reason, but we can’t trust them alone to get us to the truth. We also have to receive what God has told us. If we ignore divine revelation and try to go it alone based on sense data and reason – the Eve mistake – our grasp of the world will be fatally flawed.

It will be equally flawed if we expect to navigate the world with God’s word alone apart from the senses He gave us. Eve ate the fruit of the trees, not the bark.

Drane, Rao, and Mabry

13 December 2022

My latest piece, “The End of Premium Mediocre Church,” is up over at Theopolis. Enjoy!

Everything But Interpretation

6 December 2022

“What is a moderate interpretation of the text? Halfway between what it really means and what you’d like it to mean?”
-Antonin Scalia

Many Bible ‘interpreters’ just don’t read the text that’s actually in front of them.

Invoking the old saw that “no passage stands alone” and an unconscionably loose application of the regula fidei, they will find meaning everywhere but the passage at hand. Confronted with a difficult passage in (say) the Gospel of Mark, they will veer off like meth-driven hummingbirds to passages in 1 Corinthians, Revelation, and James. Mark’s original audience didn’t necessarily have access to any of those books, but never mind that.

But no. If the passage at hand is in Mark, and somebody is getting it wrong, then the first place to show it wrong is right here, in the passage at hand. If it’s a misinterpretation, then it’s a misinterpretation here. Conversely, if you’re hoping to establish what this passage means, there’s no substitute for demonstrating your point from this passage right here. Hermeneutics is reading what’s in front of you, not free-associating from the text in front of you to three other–allegedly clearer–passages, taking an average of those passages, then reading that back into the text in front of you. That’s everything but interpretation.

A man who can’t be trusted to address the passage in front of him, can’t be trusted with two or three witnesses elsewhere. Bet you dollars against bent toenail clippings that when you get into those passages, he does the same thing: run to three other passages rather than deal with what’s in front of him. Again, everything but interpretation.

And this is to say nothing of the even worse case where the man free-associates from the words in the passage at hand to his favorite systematic theology. No. Pace Niles Eldridge, meaning cannot forever be going on somewhere else. Reading a tendentious interpretation of a handful of cross-references back into everything else in the Bible, and justifying it with an appeal to regula fidei, is just cowardly. Face the passage in front of you. Be corrected by the passage in front of you.

It’s true enough that no passage stands alone. If we’re working with a passage in Mark, then it is first of all contained by the other passages in the Gospel of Mark. Attend to the context it actually has, and see where that takes you.

“And such were some of you”

29 November 2022

Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived. Neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor homosexuals, nor sodomites, nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. But you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus and by the Spirit of our God.
(1 Corinthians 6:9-11)

There are two ways to abuse “…and such were some of you, but you were washed….”
1. think it’s an instant, automatic transformation
2. think that it doesn’t really happen

Both of these are mistakes. I’ve known no shortage of addicts who want to believe that #1 is their reality. God can really do that, and sometimes, He does. More often, He shows you the possibility of success, and then lets you walk it out the hard way. He doesn’t just want you off yoru substance of choice; He wants to make the non-addictive life a part of your character. He wants to teach you how to feel your feelings rather than numb them — and cast them on Him when they’re too much. Whatever the hungry darkness that waits to consume you, He wants you to know that He can walk you through it. Not theoretically; He wants you to know it in your bones. He wants to walk through it with you. In the words of C.S. Lewis, He is making you fit for the Kingdom of God, and He doesn’t care what it costs Him, or what it costs you.

The opposite error is to think that being a “Christian drunk” or a “Christian kelptomaniac” or a “Christian lesbian” is just who you are as a person, that that’s that. No, I have the worst–and best–possible news for you: you were washed. These things about you–nobody is saying they weren’t really true. But that was then; you were washed. There is nothing inevitable about your sins, not anymore.

What are we to do with this? Tell the truth, of course. If you fit the definition of a drunk, then there’s nothing wrong with copping to it, as long as you do it in a spirit of confession. “Hello, my name is Jack, and I’m an alcoholic,” may be true today, and you shouldn’t hesitate to tell the truth if it is. But when the Kingdom of God has fully come, it won’t be true anymore. Which is to say, that’s not who you are. Your identity is something else; “alcoholic” is a barnacle clinging to you. You will enter into the Kingdom; the barnacle will be scraped off in due time. You should be looking forward to it, not investing your identity in the barnacle.

If you pray “Thy Kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven,” and mean it, then you need to admit the possibility that the barnacle could be scraped off sooner than later.

So call your sins out for what they are and really confess them. Nothing wrong with that. And then, having laid your sinful desires at the foot of the cross, don’t pick them back up. Don’t identify with them, because God says you were that, but you were cleansed from it. Confession isn’t the whole process; the next step is accepting the identity God has given you.

Mediocre Coffee and Cheap Donuts

22 November 2022

In Acts 2, Peter preaches that God has made Jesus both Lord and Christ. When they ask “What do we do?” it’s because they believe what Peter said. If they didn’t believe him that Jesus is Messiah, then there’s no need to ask for instructions. Then Peter gives the instructions: “Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is to you and to your children, and to all who are afar off, as many as the Lord our God will call.”

Does this mean everybody needs to get dunked to go to heaven? Some people have thought so. Others have tried to engineer some kind of special circumstance for this audience that would no longer apply today: they were under the unique curse of blaspheming the Holy Spirit; the baptism is required because they crucified the Messiah; they were in a transitional dispensational period; baptism was for Jews, not Gentiles, etc.

But no; no special pleading is required. But you do need a robust biblical theology of baptism. If baptism is the New Covenant analog of the Flood (as Peter will later write in 1 Peter 3:21), then baptism delivers you from the judgment that is coming upon the wicked world, and delivers you into a new one, just like the Flood did with Noah. That’s not some transitional/dispensationally unique item for this moment in Acts; that’s just what baptism does.

For these specific people in Acts 2 (who were lately shouting “Give us Barabbas!”), the judgment they have coming is about crucifying the Messiah, sure. But it’s not as if (say) the Ephesian Gentiles Paul preached to didn’t have their own judgment to deal with: they “were by nature children of wrath” until God saved them. There’s always plenty judgment to go around, and the consequences of sin are always deadly (cf. James 1).

For the Acts 2 Jerusalemites, the water baptism was the Christian community in Jerusalem receiving them into itself. If they heeded the warnings of Hebrews, baptism saved their lives, because when the Jewish revolt began, the Christian community fled the city, correctly believing Jesus’ promise that it would be destroyed. If they did not heed the warnings of Hebrews and returned to Judaism, then they were swept up in the revolt and–as promised in Hebrews–suffered a fate far worse than stoning.

For the Ephesians, and for us, baptism joins us to the Christian community. For most evangelicals, that really means nothing, because most evangelicals have no community to speak of, and therefore nothing to join. It would be a mistake to read that defect in our praxis into our theology. Our sin in this matter is entirely foreign to the New Testament. The life of the Body in the NT is a thick, substantial, literally life-saving community, and that’s the backdrop for this text.

Live like the heathens outside the community, and all the judgments that fall on the heathens outside the community will fall on you: “because of these things the wrath of God is coming upon the sons of disobedience; therefore do not be partakers with them.” Join the community and come under its discipline and rule of life, and you get to skip all that. Baptism admits you to the community (just as excommunication excludes you from it.)

Take Carlos for example: when I met him, Carlos was living on the street, addicted to anything that would numb him out. He’d been badly hurt, and he’d done a lot of damage to other people too, and he was running from all of it. I led him to Christ, and then found out he was suicidal, and I’d just helped him be sure he’d go to heaven. (That’ll do something for your prayer life!) A local fellowship he was already somewhat hanging out with baptized him, and when he really joined in Christian fellowship, God’s people supported him in kicking his addictions, finding a job, finding housing, getting a vehicle. Last time he came by, I hardly recognized him, he looked so good.

Meanwhile, Jimmy OD’ed on heroin in a Burger King bathroom, another guy froze to death, another guy was murdered for a sleeping bag or something similarly stupid…you get the idea. Christian fellowship saved Carlos’ life. Real sharing of life, not standing around after church and lying to other middle-class suburbanites about your week over mediocre coffee and cheap donuts.

I know that sounds harsh. The reality is harsh. Because we refuse to share life with one another, we deprive each other of the life-giving support the Body is supposed to provide. We can’t obey the “one anothers” if we don’t really spend time together, and obeying the “one anothers” is an essential part of the Christian life. Without it, we live subchristian lives. When our fake fellowship fails to yield benefits–as of course it will–we end up with an anemic view of the community, and therefore an equally anemic view of what baptism accomplishes by bringing someone into it.