Struggling with Love

“…God is love.” -the Apostle John, in his first letter, verse 4:8b

“Those who wish to succeed must ask the right preliminary questions.” -Aristotle, in Metaphysics

“…Of course language is not an infallible guide, but it contains, with all its defects, a good deal of stored insight and experience.  If you begin by flouting it, it has a way of avenging itself later on.  We had better not follow Humpty Dumpty in making words mean whatever we please.”  –C. S. Lewis in the introductory chapter of The Four Loves.

We are in the midst of a cultural crisis around love.  When it comes to those four letters joined in English, we are confounded together as a culture about what they mean, how they should employed, what they denote, and how valuable they are when they are employed.  From music to movies to print to your conversation in the neighborhood coffee shop with your friends, there is a great quandary among us about what it means to love.

In order to address the topic today, I’d therefore like to take my cue from the Aristotle quote above and begin by asking what I believe is the right starting question.  My hope for this entry is to explain the battleground over this word, and to provide my suggested way forward for my Christian brothers and sisters.  We will see if I can manage the task.

The question  I will begin with, then, is this:  What is love?  (Obligatory embarrassing link to the song from the 1990s)

We have no shortage of definitions to choose from.  Songs, poems, stories, plays, photos, the laws of the nations, annoying email forwards, viral images/messages on social media…there is a limitless stream to choose from.  I ran a Google search with the single word “love” as the search query and pulled 3.47 billion results.  Incredibly, that might be significantly less than the total number of actual definitions in existence, as there are 7 billion people in the world and it is possible that each of us has our own.

But, because I am a certain kind of Christian, I’m going to go to what I consider the definitive resource on issues like this:  the Bible.  What does the Bible say about love?  The answer to this is both more and less than you might think.  There are fewer explicit definitions than you might think.  Most of the exposition about love occurs as exemplified through key characters in specific narratives.  In other words, the characters teach us what it is, but they don’t define it for us.  This echoes much of the confusion about love that follows.  Most of us can recognize something loving when we see it.  But love is bigger than any single act which demonstrates it.  But when it comes to identification, examples are only of so much use.

The struggle doesn’t end with the stories which demonstrate what love is–it extends to the very words that the Biblical writers use to describe it.  Though too much is often made of this by preachers–the words are often used as synonyms–Biblical Greek actually has a variety of words for love.  Although it’s not as clear, the Hebrew concept for love is similarly broad as the English word “love,” though there are subtle differences between the meanings of the words used in the two languages.  The point is adequately made, but would be bolstered by study of other languages: either languages have a single broad word to describe love as a broad array of concepts, or they have multiple words to try and distinguish subtle shades of meaning between culturally described types.  In either case, the language is necessarily imprecise or functionally incomplete, or even more maddeningly, both at the same time.  How much of our struggle with love is built on this incompleteness and imprecision?

Do they love you, or not so much?

Do they love you, or not so much?

The individual examples and the languages aren’t enough to get us to our destination.  So what do we do?

Happily, the Bible, though it doesn’t give us lots of devoted philosophical discussion about love,  does actually give a definition of love, in 1 John.  While this blog doesn’t permit space to talk about the entire book, we do need to know that John is very interested in encouraging his audience to flee from the ways of the world and live according to the example of Jesus Christ, and because of him.  In Chapter 3, both parts are in full view.  In verses 1-10, there is an invocation to avoid sin.  Starting in verse 11, John begins an exposition about love that will take the rest of Chapter 3 and most of Chapter 4.  He begins by commanding his audience to love one another, and then grounds that command in the example of Jesus himself, who he tells us in verse 16 (yes, 1 John 3:16) is an example because he laid down his life for us.  At the end of chapter 3 and the beginning of chapter 4, John affirms that there are many spirits in the world that are not that of God, and that Christians have been filled with the Holy Spirit, so they have the equipping they need to live a life of love.  Beginning in 1 John 4:7, John lays it on the line with respect to this command to love one another.  He says flatly that God is love, and that anyone who loves is reflecting the nature of God to the broader world.  All love is sourced in God, and so anywhere a person in this world encounters the real deal, they are encountering the person of God.

Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love. In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. 10 In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. 11 Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. 12 No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us.

13 By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit. 14 And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son to be the Savior of the world. 15 Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him, and he in God. 16 So we have come to know and to believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him.

This is not the same as saying God has love or God does love.  He IS love.  In other words, there is no love if there is no God.  Love exists because God exists, and what we call love is really one important part of God’s fundamental nature.  For that reason, the definition of love is not a thing…it is a person.  Our first question was desperately wrong.  The right question is not, “What is love?” but rather, “WHO is love?”  And now that we have asked the right question we have our answer:  God is love.

The reason the language of humans fails to describe love is because all human language fails to describe God.  We are unable to get far enough outside of our humanity to have an accurate frame of reference to capture him.  We can make many true descriptions, but they will always only ever be part of the picture.  Our language founders on the rocks of God’s nature and sovereignty.  In the same way, while individuals acts and accounts of loving acts done by humans will show us how to love, they will never, in themselves, be an adequate description of love, because no human act will ever describe God.  People are contingent beings–our acts reflect God because we are his artisanship.

Perhaps most importantly though, because love is sourced in God’s character, the definition of it must be in accordance with the nature of God and the revelation of God in Scripture.  It is not a human construct, it is a human echo of the divine nature.  Nothing can rightly be called love which is inconsistent with God’s nature and his revealed will in the Scriptures. We are not free to define the word any more than we are free to change God because of our whims.  Our struggle with what love is, at its most basic level, is a struggle with our own understanding of the nature of God.  For this reason, no one should be surprised that our culture is (and many other world cultures are) struggling with love.  As long as sin exists, the struggle with love will exist as well.

I hope to write more about love soon, but without setting this foundation, but other piece wouldn’t have made any sense.  The next entry will focus on the obliteration of love by us, and how that is causing our entire understanding of the world and the God who made it to degenerate.  Blessings to you as you read this, and may God’s rich love (in other words, the truth of his nature) reinforce you with every good thing as you follow Jesus Christ.

Commodities Trading

34 And calling the crowd to him with his disciples, he said to them, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. 35 For whoever would save his life[a]will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it. 36 For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul? 37 For what can a man give in return for his soul? 38 For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of Man also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”  -Mark 8:34-38 (ESV)

There are some lessons that we learn as human beings that only adolescence can teach.

There is something about the outpost we call middle school… some supplies for human flourishing are always in short supply there.  Something about the chemicals coursing through the bodies of the just-barely-a-teenager causes the supply never to equal the demand for things like compassion and caring.  Hope doesn’t thrive in that environment.

Today, I’d like to talk about one lesson I learned in this forsaken outpost of sort-of-humanity,and how I am still trying to unlearn it.

I could dramatize the story and tell all the gory details, but if I’m being honest, many of the details are getting a bit fuzzy to me more than twenty years later.  Here’s the short version.  I was part of a Gifted & Talented program for kids in my town when I was in 4th and 5th grade.  We worked a year ahead of the curriculum.  After two years in that program, I elected to leave it and return to “normal” middle school.  Where they were doing the same work I’d just done.  At the same time it was uncool to be smart.  I don’t remember exactly all the components in the equation, but bullying and abuse figured prominently.  I spent a harrowing year in 6th grade trying to survive, wiping spit off my face and trying to hide in the library during lunch.  I developed an excellent radar for bullies.

I suppose I am lucky to say that it was the first time in my charmed life (and I say that without an ounce of sarcasm) that I really had to look the ugliness of humanity in the face.  I had probably been exposed before–like kids being invited to play at a house where chicken pox had been diagnosed–but somehow the disease had never afflicted me.  That made the awakening that took place during that period doubly cruel.  It was like going to bed in a fantasy and waking up in a nightmare, and wondering which one was real–had I been dreaming the entire time?  My suspicion is that it isn’t much less cruel for those who sample the brokenness of our world sooner than I did.

The essence of my pain was that one thing about me, one aspect of my being, became the only pertinent thing about me.  I was a smart kid.  That’s all I was.  A brain in a jar.  Helpful when the teacher makes you do group work, and not good for much else, unless it is as a recipient for the garden variety torture that middle schoolers subject each other to.  But when you’re on the bottom rung of the social ladder and the tortures start to be poured out, they all seem to find you on the way down. I instinctively rebelled against the idea that I was only one thing.  But I couldn’t find a way out where it felt like anyone believed me.  The box around me grew ever smaller.  I grew to hate the word ‘smart.’  As I tried to understand, it became clear to me that I had always been the smart kid–it was just that the value my peers put in that particular commodity had crashed nearly overnight.

So that we’re clear, I don’t believe that this experience of mine was unique.  And I don’t think the abuse I endured was reserved for smart kids.  I would be willing to stake my present existence that it was just as horrible and soul rending for the “dumb” kids and the “tall” kids and the “short” kids and every other kind of kid you can think of.  The essence of middle school is reduction: a bunch of almost-adults looking at each other and identifying one another by one or more things they are.  The call comes from central casting, and someone gets shoved out the door by the crowd for the part and the door is locked behind them.  They are stuck with the part they’ve just been assigned, at least for a time.  At the moment when young people are trying to discover their identity, they are put in the exact position where everyone else tells them what they think the person is.  It’s a truly cruel consequence of growing up, and I’m pretty sure that no one is immune.

To say it another way, middle school teaches us how to commodify each other–how to see other people as a sum of traits and abilities they do or do not possess.  We spend those painful years learning to evaluate people so that we can keep running balance sheets of what they are, or rather, what they do, how they look, etc.  We take whole human beings and break them down so they are far less than the sum of their parts.  During those early years, the markets for those commodities are volatile and inverted–they do not reflect the values of the real world.

Our culture trades in people, and often, its valuations are tragically inaccurate.

Our culture trades in people, and often, its valuations are tragically inaccurate.

Sadly, your local middle school may not be the only place where the commodities market is active and behaving strangely.  I’ve been asked many times about how my training as a teacher (my undergrad degree was in secondary education) has informed my work as a youth worker, sometimes pastoral figure, and denominational worker.  The answer is simple: we all have a lot more in common with middle schoolers than we think.  There may not be any better preparation for life working in a church than spending time inside the fractured experiment we call “Junior High.”

To put a finer point on it: there is much we do as Christians that reduces us and the people around us to walking balance sheets of positive and negative traits.  This behavior is camouflaged with  words like “spiritual gifts.”  To be clear, I am not denying that God gives all people talents and abilities, and I am not denying that God gives believers additional gifts which he intends to be used through the promptings of the Holy Spirit.  What I am saying is that God does not give these gifts, talents, and abilities so that we can look at one another and determine our relative worth to Him by them.

Think about how you describe the people you know.  Don’t you unconsciously default to describing people by their traits/behaviors/abilities?

“She’s a great singer.”

“He’s really wise.”

“They are a good looking couple.”

“She’s so smart!”

“He would be a much more influential pastor (bless his heart!) if he was a better public speaker!”

“She’s a lesbian.”

To the extent that this behavior represents us valuing people according to what they do, it is wrong, and one of the most unChristian viewpoints we can hold.  People are not commodities to be traded in God’s economy. They have value and worth far beyond any trait or skill they possess.  They are not the sum of their decisions. They cannot be reduced to what they’ve done on their worst day.

I want to bring you back to where I started, and ask you an important question.

I have spent much of the last twenty years of my life responding to that first market valuation of me.  For most of my high school life, I fought and lost the battle to be seen as more than one thing, my successful efforts to procure an athletic letter notwithstanding.  In college, I had well meaning friends tell me that I had to dumb myself down if I wanted to ever have relationships with normal people.  I followed their advice and completed my break with that hateful word, “smart.”  Though I’m sure they didn’t mean it this way, I interpreted their words to mean that even the one thing I had (and hated) was also not enough. In Seminary, as the walls fell down around me emotionally and spiritually, the only thing I retained that was still working correctly–my intellect, was the thing I hated most about myself.  I have spent large parts of the past two decades alternately artfully dodging some labels and doggedly pursuing others.  Every complement was a finger shoved in a bruise.  Every criticism was a syringe that extracted joy.  Until the moment when I found the right valuation.

Which leads to my question.  If I am right and we all learn to commodify each other early on, and our culture continues to promote it, are you a commodities trader?  Even more–do you view yourself as a commodity?  Do you see yourself and the people around you as properties to be collected and traded when they appreciate in value?  Do you collect friendships so that your own value increases?  Have you ever taken stock of your own life solely by the skills you possess or the results to a Myers-Briggs personality test?  Was there ever a “spiritual gifts inventory” that provided an adequate valuation of your soul?

You are more than what you can do.  You are more than what you have done.  You are more than every achievement you could possibly accomplish. In case of life, value yourself and others based on what Jesus Christ paid to save you.  Give up on the commodities trading, and see yourself and the people around as God does–as whole beings who He died to bring into relationship with himself.

16 From now on, therefore, we regard no one according to the flesh. Even though we once regarded Christ according to the flesh, we regard him thus no longer. 17 Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation.[a] The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. 18 All this is from God,who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; 19 that is, in Christ God was reconciling[b] the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. 20 Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. 21 For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. - 2 Corinthians 5:16-21 (ESV)

Junk Food, Meat, and Milk

America is in the midst of a food revolution.

Never before have so many Americans cared so much about their food.  Documentaries expose the conditions under which our mass produced food come to us.  Long form documentary pieces on news shows document the pesticide and chemicals that are used to aid in the growth of our food.  Entire talk shows are dedicated to our health, with erstwhile doctors as the hosts.  An entire industry has exploded in the area of “organically grown” foods.  In my home state of Wisconsin, there is a miniature revolution underway to earn people back the “right” to drink raw milk (milk that hasn’t been pasteurized), as state and federal law have made the behavior illegal (Yes, there is such a thing as a “black market” for milk in America’s Dairyland).  People are paying an absurd amount of attention to the circumstances under which their food is prepared, all in service of their health.  And we haven’t even touched the world of diets and dieting.  We are obsessed with our what we put in our physical bodies.

American Christians (at least the Christians I know) have not been exempt from this craze.  I have seen Scripture trotted out to justify nearly every possible position in the “food wars.”  I have friends who have devoted large sections of their lives to exposing “the truth” about our food, and many more who are advocates for their pet beliefs about their food and how it should be produced.  (These advocates seem to uniformly love Trader Joe’s.  )

But all the attention on physical food has got me thinking about another kind of thing we take into ourselves as Christians that doesn’t seem to be getting as much attention:  what we rely on as our spiritual food.  And to be honest, I have to wonder: do we care as much about what we take into our minds and spirits as we do our bodies?

I have been in youth ministry for nearly half my life now (I started working with Junior High students when I was 18, and my 35th birthday is in a couple of months.)  One of the most interesting phenomena in my life as a youth worker has been what happens in the year or two after some new believers come to faith in Jesus Christ.  They soak up the Gospel in their first few months, marveling in the simplicity and beauty of the message–that Jesus has paid the penalty for their sin, that he loves them, and that he wants them to live a new life in Him as they follow him and the work of sanctification begins.  But inevitably, the first spiritual high is followed by a crash, and the slog of everyday life closes in around the new believer.  Around this time, the questions start.  “Why don’t I feel the same way I did when I first believed…is something wrong?”  “What happened to me?”  “Why can’t I feel like I did when I first came to Jesus?”   It has been my pleasure (truly) to respond to those questions for almost half my life with the truth:  that the Christian life is filled with ebbs and flows and through these ebbs and flows, we are grown and our faith is deepened.  We need to appreciate the high times so that we have the encouragement to persevere through the lower times.

But there is one thing I nearly always caution believers about now, because I have seen a temptation take many a new believer off track.  The warning?  Be sure you don’t change your spiritual diet!

I have known many believers, new and otherwise, who suspected that the reason that they bottomed out or were going through a difficult time in their faith was because they had outgrown the first things they were taught and they were ready now for the deeper things of the faith.  They are sick of the milk, and they want the meat.  They want to talk about the things the mature people in the faith talk about.  They want to use a word like supralapsarian and know what it means!  They want to debate about predestination!  They want to probe the depths of prophecy and find out exactly when Jesus is coming back.  Surely these are the deep things of the faith?

My short answer to that final question is simple:  no, they are not.  The deepest part of the Christian faith is actually the same thing that new believers are weaned on:  the Gospel message itself.  The milk is the meat.  There is no well deeper from which a Christian can drink.   The complicated theological arguments which many believers concern themselves with, are, in the end, an argument about appetizers while the main course too often sits untouched.

Let me say it another way.

As a Christian, if you believe at any point that you have fully understood everything that Christ’s sinless life, sacrificial death, and miraculous resurrection means for you and the universe, you are sorely mistaken, and further, you probably haven’t gone much beneath the surface of it at all.  You’re wilding out in the kiddie pool and are blind to the existence of the ocean ten feet away.

If you survey Christian history, from 33AD to now, the people who best understood the faith were those who ate and drank from the table of the Gospel message and let all their thoughts, reflections and meditations circle back on that core truth.  Don’t believe me?  Think of the most mature Christian you know.  Are they spending their time talking about the doctrine of election?  Prophecy? I’ll bet not.  I’ll bet they have sunk their well in the depth of God’s revelation in Christ, and they drink regularly from those waters.  They are not interested in spiritual junk food.

Spiritual junk food is the stuff that is trendy in Christianity.  Trendy in a tradition for a time and a place.  It’s seasonal, like fashionable clothes–how are people wearing their faith this season?  Junk food is the self-help book with a thin veneer of Jesus.  Junk food is praise music that specializes in emotion but is painfully thin on who exactly is the object of the praise being offered.  Junk food is a message that tells you that your comfort and happiness is God’s highest purpose.  Junk food is the celebrity preacher that the Christian publishing industry is promoting this month.  Junk food is for hipsters, poseurs, and rubes, not devoted disciples.

It seems to me that as Christians we need to constantly be part of our own spiritual food revolution–where we are constantly evaluating what we are putting into our spiritual lives in the same way we would food.  We need to carefully check the labels of the things we are being sold by Christian marketers before we put them in the cart, or worse, into our selves.  We need to test what we hear from the people around us to make sure that it accords with the Scriptures and not just our vain conceptions of the way people are wearing their faith this season.   We need to avoid the temptation to do what everyone else is doing in favor of watching to see what God is doing and wants to do with us.  Most of all, we need to be thrilled by the simplicity and depth of the Gospel–that in a universe broken and decaying, God intervened to bring goodness back in through his own death so that we could experience one solitary thing that can never be broken, and will never fall out of fashion: eternity with Him.  In case of life, skip the spiritual junk food and stick to the milk and meat.  It is the difference between health and a heart attack of the worst kind.

The Platform Limit Principle

I have been formulating several entries for the blog in recent weeks, along the lines of identifying modern cults and idols.  Those posts may yet come, if I have the courage to post them.

2 Timothy 2:1 You then, my child, be strengthened by the grace that is in Christ Jesus, and what you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also. Share in suffering as a good soldier of Christ Jesus. No soldier gets entangled in civilian pursuits, since his aim is to please the one who enlisted him. An athlete is not crowned unless he competes according to the rules. It is the hard-working farmer who ought to have the first share of the crops. Think over what I say, for the Lord will give you understanding in everything.

But as I collected my thoughts about what I see as modern cults, one major theme kept repeating over and over and over, and so rather than recreating the wheel in a bunch of entries where I would be saying, in essence, the same thing, I want to talk about the common thread first.

Modern communication technology has made it so that anyone who is even slightly inclined can have a public platform from which to speak on any topic they desire.  The internet, cellular phones, social media, television, etc, have contributed to a world such that by combining any number of these strategies, anyone with an opinion can speak as much as they like about it.  If we were looking for a historical analog to this, I think the best analog is the printing press.  There was an enormous boom in published material after the printing press became prevalent, and many people who would not have been able to have their opinion in writing for the consumption of others before the invention did afterwards.  It is not lost on me that my job consists, at least in part, in taking care of the print work of some of those who made use of this technology who would not have been heard as widely without it, if at all.  To put a finer point on it, without the invention of the printing press, it is possible that my denomination never comes into existence.  The set of historical circumstances which led to there being Seventh Day Baptists is dependent, in part, on the circulation of minority positions in print.  Without the printing press, there is no efficient way for the dissemination of such a historically unprecedented number of perspectives.   The same is true with these new information technologies.  Some people in my world are fond of calling such things (and many other things besides) “game changers.”   I’m not for obliterating the meaning of anything through overuse, but I don’t think it is hyperbole here.

If you want to have a platform now, you can.  Whether or not anyone will pay attention is another question altogether, but you can have a platform.

And if we are going to judge on the basis of participation, it seems nearly everyone wants a platform, and of every conceivable kind.   This egalitarian approach to free speech and communication is, in some ways, a very good thing.  It is the logical end of some of our most closely held principles in the United States:  technological advances funding the project of nearly unlimited and unbounded free speech.

There are problems with this brave new world of communication at will, however.   The first is that there is now such a volume of  information being disseminated that we are buried with it.  It is everywhere, and it is inescapable.  When you use any of the contemporary communication methods (computer, smart phone, etc), you will be blasted with information in the form of a “timeline” or “newsfeed” or “push notification.”   Information stalks you.  The second is that in the midst of such a wash of data, it is very difficult to know who to trust.  How do we distinguish the ravings of the lunatic fringe on an issue (think 9/11 “truthers” or the tinfoil helmet crowd) from those trained to speak intelligently and deeply about it?   There is no warning system for idiocy on the internet. I deliberately invoked Aldous Huxley just now, because it was his thesis in his best known work that people could be washed away in a deluge of information and pleasure. Such is the nature of our times that we have gone a step further: the deluge of information is in itself a means of pleasure-seeking and self-gratification.

You can imagine where I could go from the base I’ve just built–the rant against technology and the narcissism of the age.  It’s a diatribe you’ve probably seen before.  Maybe you’ve even written one.

But that’s not my primary interest tonight.  The dangers of our world in this respect are before you.  Ignore them at your peril.

2 Timothy 2:8 Remember Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, the offspring of David, as preached in my gospel, for which I am suffering, bound with chains as a criminal. But the word of God is not bound! 10 Therefore I endure everything for the sake of the elect, that they also may obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus with eternal glory. 11 The saying is trustworthy, for:

If we have died with him, we will also live with him;
12 if we endure, we will also reign with him;
if we deny him, he also will deny us;
13 if we are faithless, he remains faithful—

for he cannot deny himself.

It’s the final, less obvious implication of all this communication that I want to address tonight:  your platform is limited by the volume and quality of the total communication being produced in your world.  Your voice, such as it is, has never been freer to articulate whatever view you can conceive of.  And the world has never been less interested in hearing what you have to say.   People are more interested in creating and consuming content than they are in engaging it and letting it interface with the deep places in them, and for that reason, everything you say is devalued from the moment you express it, and diluted by the volume of people speaking.  Your platform is secure, at least temporarily.  Your audience is not.

Another principle is at work as well.   Your platform, while secure, is very limited, and each time you speak on an different issue, it shrinks.  People are simply not willing to hear one person speak on a variety of diverse topics–they want someone who is knowledgeable about one thing or a group of related things.  For this reason, when you aren’t specializing in one thing, you are either insignificant or not taken seriously.  Most people’s “one thing” they really care about shines through on their feeds/timelines/etc.  It is the thing they are always posting about.  They can’t help it.  If you choose a random friend or contact you follow and then check their profile or what they post, what their platform is about will become immediately clear.  It is my opinion this is a function of the era in which we live–fields are very specialized and the proliferation of knowledge across all fields of inquiry has yielded so much information that it is impossible to be knowledgeable about everything.  Even the most well-read and intelligent people can’t keep up with everything happening in all the different fields that could be studied.  And, as you would expect, our hobbies have taken after our theories of knowledge–we specialize in hobbies now as well.

The sum of all of these factors could be called the Platform Limit Principle–your platform is limited both in terms of its audience and the content it can support.

If the “one thing” your platform is about (the thing that all your communication is rooted in) as a follower of Jesus Christ isn’t your Lord, then you’re doing it wrong.

2 Timothy 2:14 Remind them of these things, and charge them before God not to quarrel about words, which does no good, but only ruins the hearers. 15 Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth. 16 But avoid irreverent babble, for it will lead people into more and more ungodliness, 17 and their talk will spread like gangrene. Among them are Hymenaeus and Philetus, 18 who have swerved from the truth, saying that the resurrection has already happened. They are upsetting the faith of some. 19 But God’s firm foundation stands, bearing this seal: “The Lord knows those who are his,” and, “Let everyone who names the name of the Lord depart from iniquity.”

If you have one chance to speak and a limited (and constantly shrinking) platform from which to speak from, and you’re not engaging the broader world around you for Jesus Christ through expressing the Gospel and the implications of it, then you probably need to rethink everything.  Some Christians are fond of talking about how if they knew they only had one day left, they would spend that day preaching the Gospel.  Well guess what?  The practical outcome of a shrinking platform in a world drowning in media is not so far from being dead.  Irrelevance and death are separated only by a pulse.  And to be clear, your platform isn’t limited to your digital footprint–your “one thing” should be showing clearly in your actual human interactions as well.

If you believe that this world is in trouble and that people who don’t know Jesus are going to suffer eternal punishment, why on earth would you use your platform in our communication-saturated era to do anything but convey the most important messages?

Now, before you say that’s not practical because you can’t post a gospel tract every day, let me tell you that’s not what I’m talking about.  Obviously, our lives are part of our witness–perhaps even the most important part of it, depending on how you think about it.  So I’m not saying that you have to post a Bible verse every day on Facebook and avoid the 124th quiz telling you which character from your favorite obscure movie you are.  What I am saying is that your use of the medium should be guided and informed by your convictions.  If you think that the Gospel is important, then your feeds should reflect that in the way you talk about sin (it’s not funny, or trivial, or unimportant), culture, politics, health, entertainment, other faiths, etc.   Though it’s not a directly analogous situation, I think Paul’s words in Ephesians 5 are a good start if you want to think about this:

Ephesians 5:15 Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, 16 making the best use of the time, because the days are evil. 17 Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is. 18 And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit, 19 addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, 20 giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, 21 submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.

So, I have a challenge for you tonight.

I want you to go to your feeds.  Consider your recent phone conversations.  Consider your posts on Facebook, or Twitter, or Tumblr, or your blog, or wherever else your platform may extend.   And I want to ask you a question about what you see there:  does it point clearly and unambiguously to the hope you have in Christ?  If it doesn’t, it is time to repent.  Consider a media fast.  Devote the time you’ve been spending on all the people around you (real or virtual) to your Savior, and then prayerfully reevaluate how you should be spending your platform.

In the next couple of weeks, I’m going to be posting about idols if I have the stomach.  And nearly every idol I will name comes down to a value-neutral or good thing being exalted to a place above the God of the Universe, sometimes even in His name.   My prayer for you is that if you take the challenge and discover your platform is coming off all wrong, that you will have the strength to change your platform, starting with the ways you spend your thoughts.

2 Timothy 2:20 Now in a great house there are not only vessels of gold and silver but also of wood and clay, some for honorable use, some for dishonorable. 21 Therefore, if anyone cleanses himself from what is dishonorable, he will be a vessel for honorable use, set apart as holy, useful to the master of the house, ready for every good work.

22 So flee youthful passions and pursue righteousness, faith, love, and peace, along with those who call on the Lordfrom a pure heart. 23 Have nothing to do with foolish, ignorant controversies; you know that they breed quarrels. 24 Andthe Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, 25 correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth, 26 and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, after being captured by him to do his will.

No, Really.

4 Such is the confidence that we have through Christ toward God. 5 Not that we are sufficient in ourselves to claim anything as coming from us, but our sufficiency is from God, 6 who has made us sufficient to be ministers of a new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit. For the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life. –2 Corinthians 3:4-6

I don’t share the contemporary infatuation with self-help.

To me, it has always seemed…you know…self-helpy.  It seems to me like if it were as simple as people helping themselves with a few positive, non-sensical mantras, and it actually worked, someone would have thought of it a long time ago, and now no one would do anything else.  But there is a neverending stream of self-help nonsense, essentially regurgitating the same tired things over and over in new language or with a new spin.  But it’s the same old self-help.  One of the staples of self-help is the statement of self-affirmation, where you speak out loud what you want to affirm in your world in the belief that the act of vocalizing it will help to actualize that reality–that the act of speaking it helps make  it real.

Sadly, this brand of self-belief (and I think it might be safe in at least some of the cases to call it self-aggrandizement if not outright idolatry), has also infiltrated the Church.  God’s people have, rather than relying on God’s power in them, resorted to themselves for their help.  Modern prosperity preachers tap into this self-worship, using the same old self-help language to try and convince people that God is a blank check who will give them whatever they have the courage to speak out loud.  Of course, any God who responded in such a way would cease to be God–they would be reduced to the genie from the story of Aladdin in 1001 Nights.

With that background firmly in place, it might make what I’m about to say somewhat unexpected.

You can change the world.

No, really.  You can.  Well, not on your own, you can’t.  But God wants to use you to change your world.

The ending of my seminary experience has led me to the “what does it all mean” place.  I’ve been pondering what I believe about my calling and why I’m choosing this line of work and why I care about all this so much.  And here is the bottom line:  the reason this matters to me is because I believe with everything that is in me that God wants to work in you and through you to change your world, and that you will, if you continue to follow after him.  I believe on a level that passes certainty that God has a plan for your life, and that it involves you bringing the Kingdom to your friends and family.  To your job.  To the check-out lady at the grocery store that you see twice a week.  To the barista at your favorite coffee shop.  To…you get the idea.

Your life is critically important to the future of the world.   There is only one of you.  You are the only person who has the giftings and talents you have.  You are the only person who knows the people you know.  You are the only person who gets to live the years allotted to you.  If you don’t work to change your world, who will?

I know what you’re thinking.  He’s turned to the dark side, and he’s spouting the same self-help nonsense he just said he hated.

But here’s the key:  this world changing isn’t going to happen because of how great you are.  It is going to happen because of how great our God is.  You can be a conduit for the God of the universe to impact people in your life.  Today.  You can live in such a way that your life makes a dent in an unbelieving world.  You can live a life filled with the excitement and electricity of every moment being charged with eternal meaning.

In the passage surrounding the section I included at the top of this entry from 2 Corinthians, the Apostle Paul is talking about his ministry among the Corinthian believers.  He is reminding them that he is the one who was there to share the message of the Gospel with them when they came to faith.  He needs no introduction, no resume–they are his resume, because they heard the message first from him.  They are his credentials.  But almost as quickly as he makes this statement, he lets them know that he is fully aware of where the power in his ministry comes from:  God, as he makes clear in verses 4-6 (above).  After discussing the wonder of this ministry, which takes dead people and makes them alive, Paul delivers one of the most vivid illustrations in the Bible.  He compares the Corinthian believers to Moses after he saw God (from Exodus 34) and the people asked him to wear a veil over his face so that he didn’t blind them.  (Stop and think about that for a second!  His face was glowing because he was in God’s presence!  Wild stuff, kids.)   Paul tells the Corinthians that they don’t have to cover it up like Moses–that they can be bold, and they can help raise the veil off the hearts and minds of those who do not understand Christ.  They can change their world for the Kingdom, through the power of the Holy Spirit.

5 For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake.6 For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. –2 Corinthians 4:5-6

In 2 Corinthians 4, Paul goes on to say that this light can shine even through common, broken vessels just like common clay jars can carry important things, and that this carrying of valuable things in common containers adds to God’s glory–no one will confuse the container for being the main event!

Today, as you think about your life, are you truly living like God wants to change your world through you?  Do you really believe that God can use you to bring Kingdom change in you and the people around you?  Too many people live their lives in a fog, unable to believe that they could be someone God wants to use.  Don’t be one of those people.  Choose to believe that God is at work, and at work in your life.  Choose to believe that God has made appointments today that will impact eternity that only you can possibly keep.  And then believe that God will empower you to live that life as you depend on him to do the heavy lifting.

In case of life, live like you can change the world in and through Christ.  Because you can.  No, really.

7 But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. 8 We areafflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; 9 persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; 10 always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. 11 For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. 12 So death is at work in us, but life in you.

13 Since we have the same spirit of faith according to what has been written, “I believed, and so I spoke,” we also believe, and so we also speak, 14 knowing that he who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus and bring us with you into his presence. 15 For it is all for your sake, so that as grace extends to more and more people it may increase thanksgiving, to the glory of God.

16 So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. 17 Forthis light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, 18 as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal. –2 Corinthians 4:7-18

Approaching Tetelestai

For the last couple of years, I’ve been using an absurdly long hashtag in some of my posts on social media, #approachingtetelestai.  The words for me have taken on deep meaning as I have journeyed through the decade of my seminary odyssey, and now that I’m about done with the educational part of my journey, at least for now, I feel compelled to explain why these two little words have become so important to me.  Yes, I’m letting you in on the secret.

First things first.  The word ‘tetelestai’ is a transliteration of a New Testament Greek word (Τετέλεσται) used by Jesus on the cross in John 19:30:

28 Later, knowing that everything had now been finished, and so that Scripture would be fulfilled, Jesus said, “I am thirsty.” 29 A jar of wine vinegar was there, so they soaked a sponge in it, put the sponge on a stalk of the hyssop plant, and lifted it to Jesus’ lips. 30 When he had received the drink, Jesus said, “It is finished.” With that, he bowed his head and gave up his spirit. (John 19:28-30 NIV, emphasis mine)

These three highlighted words above translate the single word “tetelestai” in the Greek of the New Testament.  Much could be said about this word if this was that kind of blog, but there is only one thing about this I want to point out right now:  this word is in the perfect tense.  There is some debate among New Testament scholars about the exact significance of the perfect tense, but those debates only give shades of meaning to one core truth:  Jesus is pronouncing his earthly work complete, and completed for all time.  Nothing more will never need to be done to complete what Jesus completed that day on the cross.  Some translators of the Greek say that the perfect refers to a present action with ongoing results.  Others say that the verb doesn’t refer to time at all, but rather refers to the aspect from which Jesus is saying it–that he is referring to the act as timeless.  Either way, you get the drift:  nothing will ever be the same, and nothing more will ever be required to finish what He pronounced as complete on that day.  While the root form of this verb is not uncommon, this exact form of this verb appears only twice in the entire New Testament, and they are both here, in verses 28 and 30.

I have completed a few seasons in my life to this point.  There was high school graduation: the sense of achievement when “Pomp and Circumstance” was played and I walked down the aisle.  I hated middle and high school, and so finishing up my high school career felt like being released from prison:  I was finished.  But then I started all over again in college, and went through the same process again.  I enjoyed college, much more than my compulsory public school education, and so I didn’t feel like I was being set free from prison, but nevertheless when I graduated college I was relieved and was ready for the next thing:  I was finished.  But then came trying to get a job, and seminary.  By the time I was starting seminary, it occurred to me that all of these completing cycles weren’t really leading to anything actually being finished.  I would achieve one set of objectives, celebrate for a second, and then almost immediately, be pelted with another set of objectives, ad infinitum.   The thing about seasons is, completion of one season really only heralds the arrival of another.  There is no season that ends and doesn’t usher in the next.  The order of them is prescribed, and they follow logically along a set pattern.  (Unless you’re in a Monty Python movie.)

As I headed to Denver for seminary back in the late summer of 2003, I was beginning to understand that as long as we live, we never really get to be finished.  There was always, seemingly, something else.  That knowledge was just beginning to settle in for me when I started taking Greek.  The Greek of John’s New Testament work is some of the easiest, and so many beginning Greek students begin with John’s gospel or letters.  That was the case for me.  And about the time we were learning about verbs and tenses, I had a professor mention in passing that Jesus used the perfect tense in the passage I’ve described above.  As I learned more about the significance of the perfect tense (from both of the perspectives I alluded to above, first at Denver and then at TEDS), I began to view Jesus’ words in this passage as rather extraordinary.  Only God could honestly and truly make such a proclamation and actually  have it stick.  No mere human could ever say such a thing and have it be true.  The fact that Jesus was saying it as his last words (at least as described by John) made it even more significant.  Jesus reached the end of the line for his project of mercy and grace, knew it was done, and was able to look at it all, in total, and proclaim that it was well and truly finished.

“It is finished,” is truly a rare and elusive thing in this life.  Most people don’t find their way to  “it is finished” even as they are departing it.  I had the privilege and heartbreak of watching my mentor and predecessor in my current position in the last days of his life.  During my last visit to him, even as he struggled to form complete sentences through the haze of painkillers as he laid in his hospital bed, this wonderfully godly, hardworking, gentle and brilliant man could not escape from the fear that his work wasn’t done yet.  He spoke of several projects he wanted to complete, and while I suspect that if he had not been on the painkillers the situation likely would’ve been much different, in the deep places of his soul, he was clearly concerned about what wasn’t finished.  I do not think that he would be alone in that state of affairs, if we all were to be honest.

However many of our projects we find are “provisionally complete” as we move from season to season of our lives, we are never really “finished.”   As I went through the “dark night of my soul” and left Denver to move home, I started to view “finished” like mathematicians view infinity–you can approach it, but you can never actually reach it.  “Finished” is out there somewhere, but it isn’t ever really achievable.  Not being able to finish was depressing.  I had goals!  I had plans!  And as many of those goals as I achieved, they would never stop coming.  They would just be the gate between one goal and the next.  There would never be any rest.  The futility of striving nearly crushed me, and I strayed dangerously close to the Qoheleth in Ecclesiastes 3 where he coyly suggests that toil is meaningless, ultimately, and the best a person can hope for is to enjoy their toil, even as they know it is useless and fleeting.  It was a bleak picture.

Happily, I slowly found hope grown in the soil of my historical work and the ash of my seminary burnout.  As I studied the tapestry of God’s work among an enormous number of people unfolded over decades and centuries, I saw huge themes developing.  God was at work to bring completion to things that a single person could never complete on their own, no matter how skilled they were or how grandiose their vision was.  And he was using individuals banded together in the church to do it.  Enormous undertakings spanning hundreds of years were brought to “finished” as individuals obeyed His call on their lives.  Those believers who came before me had invested in a future where all things would really be finished, and now it was my turn to make the same investment.  As I continued in my work, I recovered from my crash, and saw beauty and hope spring from my former despair.  I began to understand that “not being finished” was okay.

What is the “it” Jesus is referring to in the passage I’ve noted above?  It is fine to say that Jesus knew his work was completely finished, but if we don’t know what work he is talking about, that knowledge doesn’t do us any good.  He is likely talking at least about the affectation of the plan of salvation through his perfect and sinless life and his near death, but is He talking about more than that?   I am not sure that it is explicit in the text of John, but I have started to understand the promise that is built into these words of Christ.  God’s work in me is certainly not finished, so at least one aspect of his work has not reached its full completion.  But there is a day coming when it will be finished.  The God of the universe will proclaim about my life that “it is finished.”  And on that day, I will receive the reward of that finish–eternity with God in Christ.  That finishing is the last door, and after that door, there are no more doors, just blessed rest in a place where all is as it always should’ve been.  No more seasons.  No more disappointment.  No more “provisional completion.”

Every season of my life now is an opportunity to approach that final “it is finished.” The passing of days moves us all closer to the moment when Christ returns and all the work of the universe will also be finished.  I take tremendous comfort and inspiration now from the fact that we are all approaching tetelestai.  Each day, we wake up and can embrace the day and the opportunity of life in such a way that we move closer to the one who has and will make all things complete, finished and final.  The days of our lives are limited.  But the impact of our acts of incremental finishing do not have to be.

Have you ever been crushed by the weight of your goals and dreams and callings?

Have you wondered about the significance of your life “under the sun?”

Have you ever wondered if anything you did matters?

If you answered yes to any of those questions, I implore you today in light of the Gospel to come to Jesus and ask him to free you to live in such a way that you are constantly moving closer in your approach to “it is finished.”  You will experience in your life the truth expressed in the great hymn, “Great is Thy Faithfulness”:

Pardon for sin and a peace that endureth,
Thine own great presence to cheer and to guide;
Strength for today, and bright hope for tomorrow
Blessings all mine, with ten thousand beside.

In a couple of months, the Lord willing, I will walk across a stage in Deerfield, Illinois, and I will flip my tassel from one side of a ludicrous hat to the other.  An unexpectedly long and difficult season of my life will draw to a close.  It will be finished.  And another season will be just getting started.  I’ve thought a lot about what I would say on social media to celebrate my graduation.  I think just a couple of words will do:

It is finished.  #approachingtetelestai

1 Timothy 6:11 But you, man of God, flee from all this, and pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance and gentleness.12 Fight the good fight of the faith. Take hold of the eternal life to which you were called when you made your good confession in the presence of many witnesses. 13 In the sight of God, who gives life to everything, and of Christ Jesus, who while testifying before Pontius Pilate made the good confession, I charge you 14 to keep this command without spot or blame until the appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ, 15 which God will bring about in his own time—God, the blessed and only Ruler, the King of kings and Lord of lords, 16 who alone is immortal and who lives in unapproachable light, whom no one has seen or can see. To him be honor and might forever. Amen.

Vivaldi, the Past, and the Future.

As I say in my “About Me” page on this blog, I am a historian by vocation at present.  I started in that work about eight and a half years ago.  I came to it with my own ideas, but convinced that history mattered if we ever wanted to understand our present.

I was more right than I knew.

Eight and a half years later, I can say categorically that it is impossible to have a fully-formed identity with no history.  There are a great many quotes and platitudes that tout the value of history and knowing it from the classic Baruch Spinoza quote, “those who do not learn from history are condemned to repeat it,” to a more recent quote from Winston Churchill: “…the longer you can look back, the farther you can look forward.”  These quotes have been so frequently employed to justify a knowledge of the past that they no longer have any power to incite many people to explore their history.

I am aware that we live in an era when many of our paradigms and ways of thinking are changing, and that words themselves may not have the power to incite some of us the way they once did.  So, in this brief entry, I hope to convey a similar lesson through a very different medium:  music.

I am no musician.  What I know of music I learned from careful listening to a variety of kinds and a couple of general education classes during my undergraduate years.  Mine is a layman’s knowledge.  But I well aware that the opinions of layman can be (and often are) correct.

If you want to hear how the past influences the present and the future, I suggest you listen to these three pieces of music.  They are all related, and the first sets the form for the two that follow, on a variety of fronts.

The first is part of the famous “Four Seasons” by Antonio Vivaldi, written in 1723 (291 years ago).  It remains among the most famous and beloved pieces of “classical” music ever written.

The second piece is by the contemporary musical group Bond.  They are a group of classical musicians that have reinterpreted the classical music genre through another, more modern, genre.  Careful listening to the first piece will alert you to the relationship between this piece and the first one.  Pay attention to this video and the first one–you will quickly see how the second group is using the performance itself to demonstrate how they are choosing to musically interpret Vivaldi–it is an important part of the exercise! 

The final piece is by another contemporary musical group, The Piano Guys.  This third group is similar to Bond in that they are reinterpreting classical music, but the medium they use to do it and the means by which they do it is different to Bond’s.  Again, pay attention to the visual medium of this video as a comparison to the first (and the second!)

The relationship between the second and third things with the first is clear: there would be neither the second piece, nor the third, if there had not been the first.  The first is a necessary condition for the others–they would not exist without Vivaldi.

At the same time, though, the pieces are not the same.  Each of the other pieces has taken bits and portions of Vivaldi’s piece and adapted them for their purposes.  It is likely that Vivaldi would recognize some pieces of the works he helped to inspire, but not all of the pieces.  The differences and similarities are in this case helpfully conveyed by the music videos that accompany them.  The first piece is conveyed in the traditional setting for Vivaldi–a concert hall.  The second and third both make use of a supposed nature scene, picking up on the thematic  nature of the original.  Both Bond and the Piano Guys take steps to show they appreciate the historic nature of their inspiration, though they interpret that history in very different ways.

In sum, I would say that Vivaldi haunts the later two pieces.  Portions of his work are present, but the soul of the original work is not–it has been disfigured to suit contemporary audiences.  It is possible to enjoy all three pieces, but if you have a strong feeling about one or the other, it will likely influence how you feel about the other two.  Likewise, the one you encountered first is likely to influence your opinion.  Your other experiences (read: your own history) will likewise influence you.

What themes seem to reappear in your life?  Do you have themes in your life that keep repeating and you do not know why?  It may be that you too have a past event that is influencing your current experience.

If you know what those themes are, what are you doing with that information?

Is your past making your present interpretations of the symphony that is your life more hopeful, or is it inciting you to play the same sad song over and over?

My advice to you today is that you spend some time thinking about the repeating themes in your life: they likely have more influence than you know!  Nothing in our past can keep us from having our lives play out the hopeful notes of God’s great mercy, grace, forgiveness and wholeness, but sometimes we must discover ourselves through the themes we play.  My prayer for you is that your life in Christ is increasingly empowering you to take the tragic notes of your past and present and recast them in a song of praise to His glory, and that the triumphant notes of your past and present build to a crescendo of praise to the One who made you.

Do You Validate? (Don’t Call It Persecution)

For two years early in my seminary days, I lived in the Denver, Colorado area.  I moved there when I was 23, and my roommate was  a close friend who was also going to seminary with me.  We were both relatively new out of college, and didn’t have a lot of money. But that didn’t stop us from wanting to go where the people were and mingle and have fun.  In Denver, that meant the 16th Street Mall.  There was only one problem:  parking downtown cost money, and because of our budgets, we didn’t want to spend money we could use on food on parking.  We got word from a friend in the know that there was a local establishment right on the mall that would validate parking without needing to purchase anything, and we decided to give it a try.  On our first attempt, we drove into the parking garage, parked, and then walked up through the restaurant and stood in the bar area for a minute.  The hostess gave us the once over on the way through, and as we were about to walk out, we asked her, “Do you validate?”  She handed us a token for the parking garage, and we walked out.  She never asked if we had been customers on that night, she just handed us the token and moved on.  In some of the future instances, we were customers–we’d stop and eat on our way to other venues, but not always.  But whether we were customers or not, we never had trouble being validated.   We looked the part of customers.  We asked a simple question–and not one that necessarily implied that we were customers, and for the asking, we got what we were after.

Questions of validation in broader senses are almost always interesting ones.  Seeking validation, in the most basic sense, is asking someone else to verify the realness of our experiences.  We look to another to confirm something about us.  In the case of my friend and I, we were asking the hostesses and wait staff of the restaurant to validate an assumed event–something we had not experienced, but it looked like we had.  In other words, we were asking someone to validate us on the appearance of reality, not the actual reality.

In Evangelical Christianity in America, it is my opinion that a similar thing is going on, though perhaps we do not think of it in those terms–we want someone else to validate our Christian experience on the appearance of reality, not the actuality of it.  It is wrong.  And in our need for validation, we ask for trouble from the unbelieving world.  Often we find it.

When Jesus promises his disciples that they will be persecuted for following him, he does not mince words.  In several places (in the Beatitudes, for one), Jesus seems to indicate that suffering and enduring hardship and persecution is an accepted and expected part of being one of his followers.  Many popular modern Evangelical leaders have used the rallying cry of persecution to motivate their listeners, suggesting that fearing persecution is no reason to ignore God’s calling.  In so far as that goes, I wholeheartedly agree.  We should be obedient to our Lord, even if that obedience leads us to a place of personal suffering.  Many believers outside the United States experience persecution as a real part of their everyday experience.  The experience of believers in this country is, no matter what you think about it, usually not like that.

But those realities have led to a perverseness and idolatry in the way some of us talk about persecution.  When we speak of persecution, we should be speaking of something that is happening to us which is beyond our control and is coming on account of our faith in Christ.  We are not talking about something we have sought out in any way.   Note that in the reference above in the Beatitudes, Jesus calls blessed two distinct groups with respect to persecution:  those who are persecuted on account of righteousness, and those who are persecuted on account of him.  In other words, the persecution falls on people either on account of righteousness or because of their identification with Jesus.  None of these blessed sufferers in view in the text are seeking out the persecution which is finding them.  I think we should take it as axiomatic that if you can choose to have something not happen to you, it’s not persecution.  And that’s where some of the Christians I know are making their error.

When I was in high school, new in the faith and growing with my friends in our local youth group, we often questioned whether our faith would be able to stand up in the face of persecution.  We spoke in awed, hushed tones (rightly) about those who stood up for their faith and paid the price of their convictions with their lives.  We read texts about persecution, saw that it was promised, and wondered why it had not come upon us.

Then I participated in Campus Crusade during my university days, and we wondered the same thing, only now we had the additional knowledge of the sheer numbers of believers being persecuted and the number of places in the world where it was not safe to profess faith in Christ.  And again, we wondered why it had not come upon us, only now, as we dealt with professors who belittled our faith and mocked us openly in classes, we began to wonder if THIS was the promised persecution we had coming.

Then I graduated and went to seminary, and we met people who had suffered persecution of the physically dangerous variety, and our scrawny scraps with our philosophy or biology professor shamefully paled in comparison.  And then I stayed in seminary long enough to escape my peer group and attend classes with a much younger group of individuals, who arrived at seminary and had the same experience I had.  And I couldn’t help but wonder if we were misunderstanding the whole thing, myself included, because looking at that kind of “persecution” in someone else changed (for me at least) how it appeared.

American Christians are not usually under the constant threat of physical violence for our faith.  I should say, nevertheless, that I don’t think it is by any means easy to be a Bible-believing Christian in our culture.  But I also think that a big number of Christians in this country are desperately seeking to have their “Christian Experience Card” punched in the box marked, “Persecution.”  I say this because of the enormous number of questionable things we are willing to call persecution in the name of justifying ourselves with respect to the Scriptural guarantees that we will experience it.  At least one prominent Evangelical leader seems to be using the insecurity of young Christians with respect to their lack of persecution to motivate them to go onto the mission field.   The Christian life is difficult, but difficulty, testing, and struggling with our sanctification is not the same as persecution.  Persecution is something we can’t pick.  It is something done to us because of Christ and his righteousness, not because we take adversarial positions to our culture.

This came to a head with me recently when I read a blog entry from a pastor I greatly respect who talked about his decision to get involved on the front-lines of the abortion debate.  This pastor decided to go to local abortion clinics and speak and pray for the women who were entering the clinics, entreating them not to go through with killing their unborn children.  He memorably recounts an encounter with an older woman who took a swing at him at one point, ably demonstrating the seriousness of the issue in question–an older woman was willing to walk up to a younger man and try to punch him in the face.  But then this pastor repeatedly calls this experience persecution.  That is where I take issue.  If you go somewhere of your own volition, stand in a place where you know your opinion is unpopular, and you loudly advocate for that opinion, if you encounter some pushback, that is not persecution, it is the logical consequence of something you chose.  I am not saying that I feel that this pastor was wrong to go down to the clinics.  I am saying it is wrong to call the consequences of that decision persecution.  If he can stop the thing happening by making a choice to avoid a place, then it isn’t persecution.

The presence of conflict is not the same as the presence of persecution.  Even if the conflict is around a worthy topic.

When Christians who are not experiencing real persecution call any struggle they experience persecution, they are making a mockery of Jesus’ words and the millions of believers who are actually undergoing the real kind.  If you are not being persecuted today, feeling guilty is the last thing you should feel.  You should feel blessed, and you should do everything in your power to be obedient in your season of blessing to aid those who are being persecuted.  Prepare for each day as though persecution is a possibility, because it is.  But don’t go out of your way to call your struggles with a culture who doesn’t agree with you persecution.  It isn’t.

There is one other problem with us calling this persecution: it makes it difficult for us to have productive relationships with our “persecutors.”  In a culture that is increasing post-Christian, calling someone who disagrees with you “a persecutor” only provides an obstacle in your engagement of them for kingdom purposes.  Even if someone was persecuting you, calling them that is probably not something you need to do.  Jesus didn’t spend his last hours on the cross calling his murderers out–he prayed for them to be forgiven for their ignorance.  It’s an example worth considering.

Are you looking for validation in this respect in your Christian life?  Have you made the existence of persecution proof that you are a “higher level” of believer?  Repent today and come to the Lord Jesus thanking him for his grace and his calling on your life. It is possible to be a follower of Jesus without experiencing constant persecution!  Follow the LORD in obedience, being ready for persecution if it should find you.

Reflections on Guilt

Today, I want to reflect briefly about guilt in the circles I walk in.

As part of the way my life is structured, I have the blessed opportunity to relate to both believers and non-believers in Jesus Christ.  It has been my goal for many years to try and actually understand the people around me (believer and unbeliever alike) and why they do what they do.  The primary way I’ve attempted this is by asking good questions and then (trying) to listen while people tell me what they think.  (This is an area of continued growth in my life, as I sometimes like to talk more than I listen.)  At the same time, like all of us, I watch the American culture in the way that most of us do, trying to make sense of what people in my country do and are doing, and why they are doing it.

Lately, I’ve noticed a profound disconnect along the fracture lines of my life about how people process guilt.    This fracture plays out in a variety of ways:  culturally/personally; believers/non-believers; younger/older; etc.  Guilt is obviously related to responsibility, and so that will also figure prominently in my thoughts. I want to throw this out today, and then ask for your feedback.  Have I hit this or am I missing something?  I’ve become convinced that seeing ourselves by our focus on our guilt is a telling reflection of our core issue(s) as a culture.

The first fracture that appears to be present is the way we process guilt on an individual, personal level, and the way that we process it as a culture or society.  To put it bluntly: as a culture we are comfortable taking on extreme guilt where we are not comfortable taking on any guilt personally.  When someone in our culture is confronted with a failure to achieve a responsibility, the prevailing impulse seems to be to avoid taking personal responsibility in favor of pointing to a larger societal responsibility which negates that responsibility.  The net effect of this transaction is to make the sins of every individual the responsibility of the larger culture.  A few examples…

…we blame video games and a “culture of violence” for the violent behaviors exhibited by some of our youth (not parents who allow such a culture to proliferate in their home or the kids who participate in aspects of it.)

…we blame “the church” for the sins committed by individuals.

…we blame “consumerist culture” or “unchecked population growth” for the supposed changes to our environment and climate.  (I’m not talking about the veracity of this claim, I’m talking about the nature of the claim).

…we blame “being born this way” (in essence placing blame on our parents and the genes we inherit–a function of larger cultural setting), for the evil predispositions we have (from alcoholism to serial murder).

…we blame our politicians for failings of our society, though our politicians take their cues almost exclusively from us–politicians make a life from responding to trends in their constituents.

The short version here is that when our culture is given the opportunity to choose between personal responsibility and cultural responsibility, our culture elects to place blame on the latter.  We distance ourselves personally from guilt as far as we can.  If we are right to blame the culture for our individual guilt, it seems like a curious tactic to trust in the power of culture to achieve our individual responsibilities–we have already demonized it and claimed it is evil!

The second dynamic is based on age.  I don’t have as many examples here, but if you compare my generation (people in their late 20’s and early 30’s) to my parents (now in their late 50s) and my grandparents (my last remaining grandparent is near 80), it seems to me that there is a significant difference between the way those groups handle responsibility and guilt.  In general, it seems to me that older people take more responsibility and still somehow, amazingly, feel less guilt (at least publicly).  The generation which fought World War II took enormous responsibility for the future of the world when they were my age (or younger), and stewarded it through that period before handing it to their children, who seem to have shirked that responsibility in at least some ways, though without feeling guilt for those decisions at the time.  The generation which brought us “free love,” the drug culture, hippies, protest culture, and so on made it virtuous to skirt responsibility while warring against guilt.  As I consider my generation, it seems to me that we feel tremendous guilt, even as we cannot connect our guilt to our failure to accept responsibility for our actions (or lack thereof).  Nothing is our fault.  And yet we feel profoundly guilty.   Along this fracture line, the  young blame the older and the older blame the younger for our current state of affairs.  Everyone may be on to something.

The third dynamic is based on faith in Jesus.  Ironically, the result between these two groups is the same, but the paths and reasons for the why guilt is processed in these ways are vastly different.  It seems to me that there are two ways for people to process their guilt if you don’t want to own it–attack or avoidance.  Those who do not own their guilt (they do not acknowledge they have done anything to merit guilt) tend to attack anyone or anything which they feel makes them feel guilty.  Someone disagrees with you?  They become the locus of rage and derision, the source of guilt, and they are demonized.  The guilt of the guilty is placed on the one who is supposed to have made them feel that way, and the responsibility passes (in theory) from a person.  Those who own their guilt (those who acknowledge they have done something to merit guilt) tend to distract themselves from their guilt–to avoid it.  When these people feel guilty, they look for engaging things which can overwhelm their senses and make them forget.  Unfortunately, neither of these approaches–attack or avoidance–ultimately solves the problem of guilt, and can often make the guilty feelings worse, and so the problem spirals.  The great irony of these two approaches is that they often create even more guilt.  Those who attack often find that the person who they farmed their guilt out to was themselves not culpable for their guilt.  Those who avoid their guilt by indulgence often find that the contrivances they use to ignore it cause more guilt.

Among unbelievers, attack looks like activism.  Entire schools of philosophical thought have coalesced around the idea that you can study history and thought and establish where the blame ultimately belongs for the way things are.  As an example, I suggest liberal feminism.  Feminists argue that men have misused their power to further their own privilege and therefore mess up the world.  There are a variety of ways in which this is described, but ultimately, men are responsible for the current status of women and the larger world, which is uniformly assumed to be very low.  (Hear any echoes of guilt in that transaction?)  Leaving aside for a moment the extent to which the feminists are right to do this (they may have some points), the point I am making is that the impetus for this move is inherently about guilt and responsibility.

Among unbelievers, avoidance looks like self-satisfaction.  People find as much fulfillment or pleasure as they can, under the assumption that reaching the imaginary “paradise” point where they have everything they desire will finally exterminate the emotion of guilt under a flood of pleasure and self-gratification.  People who are doing this use words like, “relief” or “escape” to describe what they are doing.  The prevalent drinking and drug culture, the culture of impulsive video gaming, and pervasive sexual promiscuity are all, in their own ways, attempts to bury guilt.  In the same vein, the effort “to be a good person” can achieve this same goal.

Among believers, attack also looks like activism,  but usually here leads to people demonizing either those in the church or those outside it.  One group thinks the church has failed and wants to achieve the prophetic role and call it to repentance (again, they may be on to something there).  The other group thinks the problem is the culture created by unbelievers, and therefore wants to subdue them by force.  The so-called “moral majority” of Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson would be an example of this second group.   Of course, either way this is a violation of the Christian’s convictions about who unbelievers are (people God loves and wants to reach) or what the church is (the bride of Jesus Christ).

Among believers, avoidance often looks like legalism.  Rather than ignoring guilt, this group so identifies with their guilt that their entire life becomes an attempt to separate themselves from it.  This group will either talk often about their sin and the extravagant efforts they are undertaking to overcome it.  For some of these people, they will attend prayer meetings or healing sessions in desperate hopes that they will be delivered in a moment from the guilt and shame of what they have done.  (Again, it seems to me that some people actually experience this, though that does not seem to be the usual way for people to achieve final victory over sin and guilt.)  Some of these people become near-Stoics, trying to be ascetic to keep themselves from temptation.  Again, avoidance of the stimulus is the ultimate goal.  Another possibility for guilt-avoidant believers is for them to do whatever they want in an attempt to demonstrate God’s forgiveness.  This still constitutes avoidance, in that you avoid God’s judgment in favor of his love so that you don’t have to feel guilty for not being perfect.

I have more to say about what I think this means, but before I go further, I’d love to hear some feedback.  Have I described this correctly?  What do you think?  How does our culture process guilt?  How do you process it?

Following (and Undermining) the Leader

Hello out there to all my friends in sanctification land.  Hope all is well with you.

Today’s dispatch from the road is all about authority.

When you read that, did you cringe just a little bit?  If you’re an American, and you’re under the age of 60, the chances are excellent that you did.  The mythology (true or not) surrounding the United States is that we are a nation of rugged individualists who fought a war of independence to achieve our own manifest destiny.  Americans self-identify as people who question authority, and tend towards self-determination.  My history textbooks throughout my secular educational life made heroes of those who refused to stand up and openly questioned and fought authority.  People who followed orders were given nearly no space at all, unless the orders they followed came from someone who WAS identified as a rebel against authority of some kind, in which case they too were heroes for acknowledging someone else’s visionary sense.  This ideology is not only prevalent in our political or military history, but also our social history.  The units in my American history classes about the 20th century did not focus on popular culture and it’s heroes–it focused on famous non-conformists, and glorified protest culture.  (More Thoreau, anyone?)

I question the font selection here.

Including this premise?

The message was clear: question everything, and more importantly, everyone.  If someone wants to be a leader, their motivations should be immediately questioned.  If they are capable and want to lead, they are not trustworthy, because they will use their gifts to take your rights from you.  If anyone says something which is personally problematic for you, don’t think, don’t blink, don’t question for a minute–just rebel, and in so doing, you will be a leader.  In other words, the lesson was: qualified leaders are those who rebel. You will know them by the fact that they don’t follow anyone else.  The credo is assumed by millions of people, spouted as self-evident.  You may even have caught yourself doing it a time or ten.

There are two problems with this model of understanding leadership for you and me as Christians.  The first problem is a logical one.  If a leader denies authority in favor of rebellion and encourages others to do the same, they provide no legitimate means people to trust their own leadership.  Their style of leadership would be, in effect, to cause those following them to refuse to do so.  This is clearly absurd.  The second problem is both logical and theological:  how do you follow Jesus yourself and simultaneously ask others to follow him while at the same time undermining his ability to make any demands on individuals because he demands to be Lord or nothing?

Ironically, the place I hear compliments and exhortations to this type of leadership is some of my fellow seminarians.  Whether it was the “emergent” movement in my early years at Denver Seminary, which habitually pilloried the status quo and leaders who were part of the “old institution,” or the generalized movement seemingly everywhere to abandon denominations in favor of independent local congregations, or those in my current circles who refuse to embrace orthodoxy because it’s 2000 years old, clinging to tradition and orthodoxy is clearly not “cool.”  There are days where it feels to me like some of my classmates are desperate to find any way to escape tradition so that they aren’t accused of being part of the “institution.” It’s like they can’t stomach representing “the man.”  The problem is especially ironic in those contexts.  How on earth can you simultaneously erode confidence in authority while you are studying to one day become an authority (or, more appropriately, a representative of the highest authority) yourself?  Is it possible to work to erode trust in all earthly authority without also eroding trust in your own words? If it is, how could you say something substantive about anything else?

What I am not trying to say is that we all ought to unquestioningly and uncritically follow anyone who stands up to lead us.  What I am saying is that we have a responsibility to respect legitimate, godly authority around us as we would Christ himself.

Much has been made about Jesus’ calling of his first disciples with the simple request that they follow him.  (Mt. 4:19, Mt. 10:38, Mk. 2:14, Lk. 9:23, Jn. 10:27, Jn. 12:26…) But with the anti-authority bend so many of us unthinkingly adopt, how can we truly follow anyone, including our Lord?  I submit as proof of our difficulty in this realm the prevalence of the distinction often mentioned in American Christianity between Jesus as savior and Jesus as Lord.  Such a distinction would be totally foreign to the readers of the New Testament, and furthermore, foreign to anyone who was not privy to the particular cultural ideals which I have described above.  How can you trust someone as savior who you do not acknowledge as Lord?  Would a “savior” who didn’t deserve to be followed be capable of affecting salvation for anyone?  Would a god who wasn’t the Lord of life be able to save through death on a cross?  The fact that such a distinction is viewed as helpful only demonstrates how far from the path we have strayed in this respect.  Our insistence that Christ must be both savior and Lord proves that a significant number of us do not understand the matter to begin with.

Another hint is wrapped up in our desperate desire to make Jesus a rebel-figure.  He is sexier and more attractive to us and to those we tell about him when he is a rebel.  Certainly, there are aspects of Jesus ministry which could be interpreted as rebellious if you were inclined to do so.  (A sampling: turning over tables in the temple, calling the religious leaders “whitewashed tombs,” eating with sinners, and on the list goes.)  The only problem with this interpretation is that it ignores the most important thing about Jesus: his authority.  At the beginning of his ministry, his authority is highlighted in all the Gospels.  Matthew, in particular, takes great pains to show Jesus’s authority over and against the teachers of the law, over diseases and unclean spirits, and over nature itself.  In other words, there is nothing rebellious about Jesus.  To see Jesus as a rebel is to miss the first and most obvious thing about him: he is God.  He did not come to earth to lead a rebellionhe came to earth to end one.  The significance of the death of Jesus Christ on the cross by the political authorities is not that it is an act of rebellion, but one of willful submission.  The blunt fact is that Jesus, at any point during his crucifixion, could have chosen to end the entire charade–the miracle is that he did not!  The entire Bible screams from its pages that Jesus is God.  For God to be a rebel is a logical impossibility.  Who would he be rebelling against?  I hope you see that while well-meaning, attempts to make Jesus a rebel again miss the point in a most devastating and total way.

My hope for this entry tonight, having explained the situation and the difficulty, is two-fold.

First, it is my hope to incite you to do one of the last truly rebellious things for a person in our times to do: totally, completely, and unquestioningly give your loyalty to Jesus Christ.  In one important sense, such an action is no rebellion at all–it is the ending of one.  But to live as a sold-out believer in our culture and in these times will require rebellion against an entire system of thinking and being, a system in which individuals have not only the right but the responsibility to question everything.  You will be rebelling against the virtue of rebellion.

Second, it is my hope that if there are any leaders in my limited audience, you will be challenged to call people to radical submission without undermining Jesus Christ’s ultimate leadership (or your subordinate leadership).  If you are a leader and you are encouraging rebellion from those who trust and follow you as you follow Christ, you are walking on dangerous ground, even if your goal is to teach people to rebel against culture.  Teaching rebellion as a virtue will not, by itself, foster devotion to Christ, but may make an idol of the act of rebellion and ultimately make people powerless to follow him.  Instead, teach radical devotion, and your followers will come to their individual acts of subterfuge against the world quite naturally and organically as they search the Scriptures and are led by the Holy Spirit.   When any person submits to Christ and gives their wholehearted devotion to him, they will be equipped by God himself indwelling them to stand against ungodly patterns above and beyond any feeble rebel ethic you could teach.  Leave the convicting on rebellion to God and teach devotion, loyalty and sacrifice instead–first through your own example as a leader.  No leader worth following is unfamiliar with being a follower themselves, and this is doubly true in the Christian faith–there is only one leader, and anyone serving him is at best only a messenger for the real leader.  Leadership in the Christian community is tied up entirely with the way in which the nominal leader is themselves following after the Master.  It is for this reason that Paul exhorts believers to “follow him as he follows Christ:” any leading which didn’t ultimately trace back to Christ himself would be no leading at all.

From the standpoint of applications, there are a couple of important takeaways here, beyond these two larger goals.

First, it is not virtuous in and of itself to rebel.  If you are the kind of person who rebels against everything, slow your roll down.  It’s not a virtue, and there are probably people God has placed in your life to lead you and to teach you how to follow him who you are ignoring.  Stop it.  (And if that command rankled you, I’m talking to you!)

Second, it is not virtuous to question everyone’s motives all the time, especially if you don’t want it to be done to you.  While it’s true that some people have bad motives, the process of selecting leaders should have enough discerning as part of it that by the time they’re asking you to follow, they’ve earned the benefit of the doubt.  Choose to trust leaders are doing the best they can, even when they make mistakes, unless you have specific evidence to the contrary.  If you’re in the Word the way you should be, if they get out of line, it will be obvious in a hurry.  Trust me. (See what I did there?)

Third, pay careful attention to your life when you start to assert  your own rights or the supremacy of your own ideas, especially as it relates to your theology.  You’re on thin ice.  We have names in the religious world for people who won’t listen to anyone else and are constantly inventing their own beliefs and then justifying them in ridiculous ways.  We call them heretics.  Not good times, bad times.

Finally, and most importantly, hand the keys to Jesus daily, and let him do the driving.  I know that’s cliche and terrible, but the reason that everyone says that is because it’s true.  If you are the kind of person who can’t trust God to direct you, then you may not know God as well as you think you do.  It’s time to build your faith.  Buckle up and get ready for a fun trip.

In case of life, follow the leader, and do it without undermining his authority or your own walk.  It is the only way to be sure that the one you’re following is really him.