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?


Giving Up Church for Lent

25 February 2020

In America, a church is (usually) both a body and a corporation, and this brings with it certain tensions. The body and the corporation need many of the same resources, but use those resources in very different ways.

I was once a Pastor of Discipleship and Ministry Logistics (yes, all of those words were literally in my job title). This meant — on paper — that I was responsible to serve the body by helping people grow more like Jesus, and also responsible to serve the corporation by making sure bulletins got made on time, we didn’t run out of copy paper, and so on. It put me in a nearly perfect position to observe the tug-of-war between the body and the corporation.

In the two years I held that position, I got plenty of feedback and support around my duties to the corporation. If I needed a piece of information by Thursday to get it into the bulletin, someone would work hard to get it to me by Thursday. (And if the bulletin was late, boy, I’d hear about it.) There was an appropriate level of concern over whether I got the copier paper order in on time. I would get support (and accountability) in executing big events that advertised us to the community, and so on.

In that same span of time, nobody — not my boss, not a single deacon or elder, literally nobody — ever checked to see if I was discipling anyone, how it was going, if I needed support. Not once. The part of my job description that had to do with the needs of the body was simply not a priority. Obviously, this is a particularly egregious example. I wish I could say that it was unusual, but as I look at the American church, I don’t think it is.

I suspect that part of the reason we slip into this pitfall is that the life of the body is hard to quantify in ways you can talk about at board meetings, while the work of the corporation lends itself to metrics. Given the choice between chasing down local business sponsors for the community super bowl party and engaging in a messy conversation with a young mom who’s struggling with her calling as a Christ-follower, which use of your time will give you something concrete to report at the end of the day? Which one gives the organization a bigger boost?

And so we give the young mom the brush-off; after all, she’ll still be around tomorrow, and the super bowl party is coming up fast. We make 37 calls to get 3 corporate sponsors, and report our progress. Oh yeah, and we ordered copier paper too — we’re running a little low.

The young mom doesn’t make it to the super bowl party; hit hard by postpartum depression and with no support, she barely leaves the house to get groceries. Her husband does the best he can, but he’s working long hours and he doesn’t know who to ask for help. Lost sheep don’t report themselves missing, so it’s weeks before anyone even realizes that we haven’t seen them around for a while….

In many times and places, there is no corporation. When we are persecuted, they burn the church buildings, confiscate the bank accounts, and dissolve the corporations, but the church continues. We pray, baptize, preach, encourage one another, love one another, care for widows and orphans, the sick and the poor. This is the body; this is what the church actually is.

Despite how this post may sound, I am not anti-corporation. The corporation is a machine designed to extend the body’s reach and help it operate more efficiently, and at its best, it succeeds admirably. For too many, though, the corporation assumes a status at least equal to the body — and no man can serve two masters.

When the corporation has become the master, then the needs of the body take a back seat to the necessary maintenance and appurtenances of the corporation. To sustain those things requires a lot of time and attention from a slick corps of religious professionals, along with a big budget and a ton of well-organized volunteer hours. With all that going on, we are greatly tempted to cluelessness, to a feckless assumption that of course the needs of the body are being cared for — that’s what all this is (supposedly) for, after all.

Was he free? Was he happy? The question is absurd:
Had anything been wrong, we should certainly have heard.
-“The Unknown Citizen” by W. H. Auden

The reality is rather uglier. Relationships don’t build themselves. Sheep don’t shepherd themselves, or freeze in time when neglected. Lost sheep don’t report themselves lost. The work of the body is time-consuming, labor-intensive, messy. It can’t really be mass-produced. Jesus made disciples in small batches, and that’s just the best way to do it.

If we let Jesus show us the way, He will tell us what to do:

No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or else he will be loyal to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.

We serve Christ; Christ commanded us to care for and build up the Body. The corporation must be our slave — a theologically obvious fact which we are constantly tempted to forget. Why is it so hard to remember this? Because we have created a system where we are constantly catechized to treat the slave as our master. If you say “I work for Boeing,” you are naming your master. If you say, “I work for First Baptist Church,” what are you doing? We have put the slave’s name everywhere that (in our culture) we put the master’s name: the branding, the building, the paychecks.

Christ cares first for the Body. We can’t serve both Christ and the corporation. Because we cannot elevate both, we can only allow the corporation to exist in our lives if we are willing to make a serious spiritual discipline out of despising it. If we are not consciously and constantly re-catechizing ourselves to despise the corporation, we will find ourselves making it our master.

And so — and this is a first for me — I’m going to propose giving up something for Lent.  Give up some bit of service to the corporation — church bulletins, say — and devote that effort and time to serving the Body.


Missing an Important Point

18 February 2020

In last week’s post, I commended to your attention a set of Theopolis Conversations posts on Paths to Human Maturity. As you’ll have noticed if you read them, there was one very sharply dissenting voice. In a follow-up post after Dr. Field’s rejoinder, Wilson moderates his stance somewhat. Now to my eye, Wilson missed a whole slew of considerations, about which more later, perhaps.

More important, though, the entire conversation about whether to undertake projects like Dr. Field’s missed a vital point.

Even if the conversation were undesirable, it’s no longer optional. The horse has left the barn. The unbelievers we meet, and our parishioners as well, are neck-deep in depth psychology and Zen-derived mindfulness practices. Our whole culture is. They are having this conversation whether we join in or not. Many of them have found these beliefs and practices tangibly beneficial. I know addicts who testify that mindfulness practices have helped them stay clean, trauma survivors who testify that mindfulness practices have helped them recover, master their fear, embark on relationships they never could have had before. Similar claims can be rightly made for depth psychology. These people often testify that they sought aid and comfort in the church and found none, then found it elsewhere. The question, to them, is not whether these beliefs and practices highlight questions they should ask of Christianity. It’s whether Christianity has anything to offer to the conversation at all.

The truth is that Jesus will reframe the whole conversation in the most productive and glorious way possible. Unfortunately, the church is not really prepared to represent Him well.

Here is the claim we’re going to have to make: All the things that helped them, all those things exploit the way God made the world to work. Moreover, the features of the world that they have exploited without quite understanding them are more fully revealed in Jesus Christ, and what they have experienced to this point is the very least of God’s good gifts. Therefore, they should forsake these systems of thought and practice that enable them to muddle along without acknowledging God, and embrace the freedom that comes in knowing Him, and not needing to hide from His revelation.

That’s the case we need to make, and we will need to give a compelling, detailed presentation of it. Are we, their shepherds, prepared to make that case?

Very few of us are even marginally ready. Virtually none are ready to do it well.

How will we get ready? By going it alone, on the fly, caught flatfooted when someone starts talking about what meditation has done for them? Not likely. We’re Christians. We are a body. We prepare best together, in exactly the kind of public, collaborative, confessionally committed study that Wilson tried so hard to stop.


Going Literal, on Steroids

11 February 2020

A while back, Theopolis Institute hosted an online conversation on the quest for human maturity. The scholar who took the lead, one Dr. David Field, proposed a side-by-side comparison of four approaches: Protestant/Reformed, the Desert Fathers, Zen Buddhism, and Freudian/Jungian depth psychology. The initial article is a real jaw-breaker; very long, but the follow-up conversation (and the furor it caused in some quarters) is worth wading through it. While I commend the entire conversation to your attention, I want to call particular attention to this bit of commentary by the director of Theopolis, Peter Leithart:

As David explains the “prima facie case” for his proposal, his radicalism shows its face. He out-Bibles the Bible-only types, opening an expansive horizon for investigation along a Biblicist pathway….

David starts by taking the creation of Adam with what some will regard as naïve literalism: Man becomes a living soul because the breath/Spirit of God is breathed into him. Our spirits are breath because God’s Spirit is breath and we are made in His image. Our inmost self is “God’s life in us.” We are dust animated by divine breath.

For David, this isn’t a poetic flourish. It’s the truth about man, tied to the inextricably physical fact that we must breathe to live. Say what you will about the intake of oxygen and the outflow of carbon dioxide. The essence of breathing is a rhythm of sacrifice, of laying down life in order to take it up, of receiving life we do not have in ourselves; breathing is a dance of divine inspiration, deathly expiration, glorifying conspiration.

Along this line of reflection, David has, and has not, left the Bible behind. At first, it appears that Scripture serves as little more than springboard; much of what David says might be described as “natural theology,” drawn from steady observation of the simplest of human experiences. But his account of that experience is shaped at every moment by the Bible; every claim is theologically charged. Breathing is death-and-resurrection; and so it is also the radical self-denial of discipleship; and so it is also transfiguring union with God. And all the while, David is talking about breathing– not “spiritual” breathing, or breathing as a metaphor for something less gritty and earthy, but breathing. The entire paragraph aims to provide a theological account of the practical power of controlling, holding, pausing our breath. Biblical and natural realities snap together like pieces of a puzzle – provided we doggedly cling to the Bible as fundamental anthropology.

In conversations where the authority of Scripture and the sufficiency of Scripture are very much at issue, this doggedly literal approach is not just a productive way forward. It is the only productive way forward. I’m looking forward to more of it.


Just the Server, not the Chef

4 February 2020

When talking about the Lord’s Table, the first observation to make is that the command is “Take and eat,” not “Take and explain.” A life of obedient Table observance is necessary; the explanation, while theologically important, is really just something to argue about over a cold beer—very secondary by comparison.

The second observation is that it can’t possibly be wrong to simply observe the Table as we’re taught in the New Testament. When I serve someone the bread, I tell them “This is the body of Christ, broken for you.” I say this because Jesus said this. I do not explain further, because Jesus didn’t. It can’t be wrong to just do what Jesus did. (Or what Paul laid down, following Christ’s example.) Now, it’s possible that various alterations and elaborations are also ok (and note that Paul doesn’t quite do exactly what Jesus did either). But it can’t be wrong to just stick very closely to the biblical examples we’re given. (And as a practical matter when you’re celebrating the Table with people from multiple churches, sticking very closely to the biblical text avoids a lot of sticky difficulties.)

The third observation is that it’s possible to waaaaay overdo the search for an explanation. Aquinas tried to explain the realities of the Table in Aristotelian terms, which sounds a bit precious to modern ears. The contemporary equivalent would be someone setting out to explain the Table through a clever application of quantum mechanics. (“See, in the first three dimensions, it’s bread, but in the 17th dimension, it’s the body…”) Um, no. Let’s not.

So a minister is well within his rights to say what the New Testament says, stop there, and decline to comment further. In sensitive company, that’s often exactly what I do.

But since we’re all friends here, let’s crack a cold one and chat a little. I’d say we’re pretty well stuck with some kind of real presence. The alternative to believing in Christ’s real presence at the Table is believing in His real absence, and that won’t do. A Corinthian abusing the Table can’t be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord if the body and blood of the Lord are not present.

Of course the bread and wine remain bread and wine, symbols of Christ’s body and blood, but let us not forget that there is a class of symbols that accomplish what they signify. When I gave my wife a ring, in the presence of witnesses, with the words, “With this ring I thee wed…” — the ring is a symbol, all right. But it is a symbol that accomplishes what it signifies.

Likewise, in a way that I flatly decline to speculate about, I maintain that the bread and wine are symbols of the presence of Christ that accomplish what they signify. In them, Christ is truly present, and through eating and drinking, He is present in you. You are the body of Christ, because you are what you eat. You want to know how that works in detail? Way above my pay grade, man. I’m just the server, not the chef.

I’d recommend John Williamson Nevin’s work for further reading on this.


Searching for Spiritual Reality

28 January 2020

Spiritual experience is like sexual experience; it matters who it’s with. There’s more than one being out there to interact with, and not every encounter that seems to start out safe, sane and consensual ends up as advertised. It’s far easier to find something real than it is to find something good.

It’s important to pay attention to the Scriptures, in which God tells us how to lean into good spiritual experience and avoid experiences that will hurt us. From earliest days, we’ve been ready to ignore what God said and seize anything that seems good for food, pleasant to the eyes, and desirable to make us wise. And there’s always some snake ready to say, “Go on–take it. It’ll be fine.”


A Branding Problem

28 January 2020

Alistair Roberts weighs in on the way the term “biblical” has been exploited as a brand. Well worth your time.

 


The Practice of Prayer

27 January 2020

I had the opportunity to speak this week at Faith Community Church in Littleton, CO, on “The Practice of Prayer.”

 


Little Books That Matter

21 January 2020

Here are four very small books about how we interact with the world in which we find ourselves. I recommend all four highly.

Metropolitan Manifesto by Rich Bledsoe

Christendom and the Nations by James Jordan

The Theopolitan Vision by Peter J. Leithart

Theopolitan Liturgy by Peter J. Leithart

 


Children of a Troubled Marriage

14 January 2020

An orphaned spirit can manifest in rebellion or in religion. It can be the prodigal who runs away or the older brother who stays with a sense of entitlement — either one of which boils down to “Look at me, Daddy!”

In reality, Father God has never looked away, never abandoned us, but it is no accident that we think he has. Mother Church told us Papa wouldn’t talk to us directly; she said he only spoke through her. (Convenient, right?) Because we were children, we believed her, and we lost confidence in our ability to hear God. Then, far too often, Mother Church withheld her love unless we conformed to rules designed for her comfort and convenience, rather than our growth. Within Mother Church, many of us found no breathing room.

Some of us grew up into everything she wanted. Some of us stayed around, but got progressively more angry and sullen. Some of us ran away from home. We were children. Perhaps we did the best we could with whatever we understood at the time. But we have to grow up sometime, and an adult is responsible to re-evaluate.

The truth is, Mother Church lied. She said you had to check all the boxes and do all the things or Papa would ignore you. But it was never actually about performance, and Father God loves you more than you can imagine. He never stopped speaking; you can hear His voice.

Yes, you. Yes, now.

What if you took a few minutes to just listen?