Sunday, 20 April 2014


We arrived at my friend Bryn's (he is a boy) parents' house on the thankfully-warmer-than-expected Easter Sunday afternoon, ready to carpool out of state for an Easter dinner. Bryn and his wife were housesitting for his parents - and somewhere in the house there was a surprise, an Easter basket his parents had left for them. Bryn's wife, Mollie, was determined to find it. Most of the house had been searched twice, and desperate text messages back to mother-in-law had afforded a few clues. But it was nowhere to be found. As we drove to New Hampshire, a creeping pessimism lurked and we joked that maybe the basket didn't really exist; this alone would explain its complete impossibility to locate. Seeing how preoccupied Mollie especially was with finding the basket, I made it my mission to bring it up throughout the day, just to annoy them both. That is, until I began to worry that the threats to make me walk back to Massachusetts were serious.
Credit: Ronnie44052 on Flickr

I live most of my life somewhere between extreme optimism and extreme pessimism. There are surprises I look for in my life, and the longer they don't show up, my dual emotions of pessimism and optimism become more intense. I begin to doubt that the surprise will ever come, yet my longing continues to occupy my mind without fail. I fear, I hope. But the further they push, the more they they morph into nothing more than an obsessive disappointment. I keep longing for something I don't believe, deep down, I'm going to find.

But my Easter weekend was filled with lots of little surprises.

On Saturday night, I felt the emptiness of not having had the opportunity to go to any worship services throughout Holy Week. A surprising impulse overwhelmed me. Seeing as it was going to be a clear, star-filled, night, I suggested the organization of an impromptu Easter vigil under the stars with seminary classmates. I don't typically expect my whimsical ideas to become reality. I hope for them to, I long for them to, but I also realize that many of my spontaneous ideas are often unrealistic. But, to my delight, a faithful gathering of willing guitar-players, Scripture-readers, and worshipers, materialized. And we had a beautiful evening. I began to feel hope in my bones for the first time in a long time - hope for the sins, failures, burdens, I'd been carrying and had begun to feel so heavy. We celebrated the power of the resurrection breaking in the midst of darkness, and I remembered that this dead-filled life could know surprise. Surprise.

I made another spontaneous decision. I said yes to an invitation to go to a sunrise service on the beach. At 6 AM. The churches sponsoring the service were local churches I had never heard of, from denominations that are more-often-than-not quite liberal, especially in New England. But we sang simple, beautiful, hymns full of Gospel truth. The sermon was given by a woman. And despite my rather outspoken opinions in favor of full equality between men women in ministry, I often ashamed to find an old unfair bias that a woman, especially from this particular denomination, was likely to be quite liberal. But she preached forcefully and with conviction about the necessity of believing that Christ had truly risen, that the miracles of Scripture are trustworthy, and how this reality must radically transform our lives. Here in 'liberal,' 'godless,' New England, from the mouths of pastors not on the unofficial list of churches part of the Evangelical culture surrounding my school, I heard the Gospel preached. Surprise.

I don't usually have many friends to sit with at my church. The church I attend here in New England is small, and reeling from a severe split several years ago that left it pretty shook up. For a variety of reasons, it's hard to get to know people there, and only one or two friends from school go to this church, and we usually don't go to the same services. Today, my carpool buddy had to work in the nursery, so I expected a lonely Easter Sunday. To my great delight and surprise, my friend Julie on staff at the seminary (a fellow Tennessean who glows with all the southern goodness I miss from home) decided on a whim to visit my church. It was nice to have someone to share Easter service with. Surprise.

There are many surprises I'm looking for in my life, and I wonder when I'm going to find them. I wonder when Saturday will turn to Sunday. This weekend, I had a few very quiet, simple, tiny, reminders that surprises happen. Hope peeks its head around the corner from time to time, from places we don't expect. There is a God who loves to fill the world with surprises.

And because of these little surprises, my heart was softened to ponder anew the great surprise of the resurrection. The great surprise that death turned to life, that God has come to put everything to right again. And because of this surprise, I can have hope in all the surprises I'm looking for but haven't found yet.

There are so many tombs inside of me. Tombs of my own past, my own present, my fears for the future. Tombs of my desires for other people or other parts of the world - for friends who are suffering, or countries filled with war. When will anything come out of those tombs? Are there any Easter baskets to be found here? I hope for a yes, and I fear a no. But I look to the resurrection, and hope bursts up from the ground again.

I would be remiss if I did not note the fact that this is a rare occasion in which the Eastern and Western Easter days fall on the same Sunday. I hope so much for a Church more truly united. I'm pessimistic about this hope, but I desire it so badly. But I am reminded, that if God could raise a man from the dead, He can unite His Church by the power of that same resurrection. I hope and pray that our shared commitment to the resurrected Christ could lead us on side-by-side. We share one joy, one victory, one baptism, one Spirit, one Father, one Risen Son  - the world needs the Gospel we proclaim, much more than it needs our fighting and our disagreements. May the necessary humility start with me. May the Lord surprise us all. Because He is risen, I believe it can happen.

Children dying, families breaking, diseases ravaging, sins enslaving, Satan scheming, lies persuading, wars raging, wicked prospering, and the innocent losing. Truth is silenced, and enemies kick the innocent while they're down. I have hope, and fear. Optimism and pessimism. I want to find surprises, I want to find Easter baskets, I want to find resurrection in these things. In me, in others, in the world. But I lose my hope. I lose my wonder. I stop believing that the Easter basket can be found, that the dead could walk with life.

But because He lives, I can face tomorrow. And I believe that, somehow, someway, somewhere, that darned Easter basket will be found. Maybe not tomorrow, maybe not in this life. But there is reason to hope. Because He is risen. I'm ready to be surprised. I'm ready to drop these obsessive pessimisms and live with hope. To believe in miracles. To walk with the freedom of hope. To believe that I will rise out of the grave, on the other side of all my fears and failures. That the love of Christ will never let me go, and I will rise into the air with Him, and my feet will never again set foot on the cursed ground from whence sprang all our angst and pain, but walk in a new heavens and a new earth with my risen Lord.

"O Death, where is your sting? O Hell, where is your victory? Christ is risen, and you are overthrown. Christ is risen, and the demons are fallen. Christ is risen, and the angels rejoice. Christ is risen, and life reigns. Christ is risen, and not one dead remains in the grave. For Christ, being risen from the dead, is become the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep."

St. John Chrysostom - Paschal Sermon

Oh love, don't let me go
Won't you take me where the street lights glow?
I can hear rain coming like a serenade of sound
Now my feet won't touch the ground

Gravity, release me
And don't ever hold me down
Now my feet won't touch the ground

Friday, 18 April 2014


I hate conflict. I hate honesty. It hurts too much to receive someone's true feelings. And it's scary to dish it out to others: The other person might get angry. They might leave. Openness, and vulnerable honesty, in relationships frightens me. I think it frightens a lot of us. 

But relationships without honesty, openness, expression of anger and hurt, are bound to whither and spoil. 

The same is true of our relationship with God. God desires open honesty from us. And if we are honest, we will admit that there are days where we are confounded by Him, angry at Him. There are days when we want to scream at Him. 

When we bury those feelings deep down, we lock ourselves away from the open, honest, gracious presence of God and we retreat further and further from Him. The inability to tell God how we feel, even (especially) when we are angry at Him, is the first stepping stone to smothering our relationship with Him.

Of course, I don't buy the relativistic lie that whatever we feel is right is right, but there is a reality to 'subjective truth,' - that is, a truth to how we feel and perceive. God's desire for truthfulness from us requires telling Him how we really feel, even if deep down we know that our feelings may not be based in 'truth.' He wants real honesty, not forced honesty, a forced adherence to some external concept that has no reality for what we actually feel or perceive. 

That is not to say that God does wrong. When we put Him on trial, He will come out above reproach. 

But when you ignore pain, when you ignore ‘evil’ (whether objective or subjective - whether real or perceived), in a relationship - the relationship dies. Sometimes that can’t be helped. An abusive individual may not be able to accept honest accusation and the relationship must end. But when this is the case, the one who is abused must still be able to name and identify the evil, to name and identify the pain. Or else they continue to be abused internally - closed up, cut off, unable to have relationship with anyone else and susceptible to be used by others. Honesty about what we feel and have received and have experienced is necessary to be a whole, mature, human being - able to live and have freedom and relationship. But in good relationships, real or perceived misdeeds, real or perceived concerns and pains, must also be admitted, and ideally - communicated, or else true relationship withers and dies. True love wants the other person to be free, independent, whole. Someone who doesn't just see things our way because we tell them, but who can be their whole selves, honest and independent with us. That's the riskiness of love. And that's the love God wants with us. 

Christian psychologists Henry Cloud and John Townsend write in their acclaimed book Boundaries "In our deeper honesty and ownership of our true person, there is room for expressing anger at God. Many people who are cut off from God shut down emotionally because they feel that it is not safe to tell him how angry they are at him. Until they feel the anger, they cannot feel the loving feelings underneath the anger." God doesn't want a passive recipient who has no sense of self, no independence. He wants us to stand up as whole, independent, people so that we can embrace Him with all the real love and real, free, relationship that He created us for in the first place. God takes the risk of us getting mad at Him in order to have a real relationship with Him. He doesn't want us to just accept things as passive, weak, slaves, but as whole people who can relate to Him and love Him freely and authentically. 

And you know what? The bizarre and liberating thing is that God doesn't necessarily disagree. We do face injustice, His ways are confounding, there is evil that seems to have no valid explanation. When I am honest with Him, He never tells me to be quiet. Maybe He will after a while, as He did for Job, but He gives me my 30+ chapters of ranting first. 

He just suffers with me. He just walks this earth with me. He just dies for me. He just walks my journey with me, and becomes a victim right alongside of me.

I identify so well with Moses, when he stands on the mountain shouting at God: 'Take my soul but do not punish Israel!' He desperately wanted God to be merciful, and was incensed, angry, despaired, that God might not be merciful to Israel (who certainly did not deserve it!). When a tsunami kills tens of thousands of people on the other side of the world and my theology suggests that these people are all in hell, how can I be at peace? How can I not yell. How can I not plead God to be merciful: 'Break Your own rules! Be unjust! Isn't Your mercy greater?!'

Some tell me to sit down because 'God is God and He gets to do what He wants, and He is perfectly just and cannot contradict His justice, just be thankful that you get saved, because you don't deserve it.' And I guess there's something to that. God told Job that at the end of the day, He is above reproach. 

But I look at Moses on the mountain, and I know he knows what I'm feeling. And so does Job when God lets him shout 'it's not fair!' And Habakkuk reeling: 'why do the wicked prosper and the innocent suffer!?' And, Abraham when he tries to bargain with God to leave Sodom alone for the sake of the handful of good people who might be there.

That is the confounding thing about God - the more He teaches us to love, the more hurtful and the more confusing is the evil in the world, the more He confounds us. But this is the reality of the journey of faith. Indeed, I believe He wants us to be incredulous and to shout back, so that we might really feel His mercy for ourselves, to be incredulous at what seems like a lack of mercy. I imagine God looking down at Moses and smiling:  'now you get it, kid. Now you get it.' 

Until I have screamed at Him 'Break your own rules! Remember mercy!' I haven't really felt love, or desired mercy, like He does. 

Yes, that awful thing you experienced was wrong. And yes, you were horribly abused. And yes, you grew up in a terrible, underprivileged, broken, community that you didn't choose to be a part of. And And the holocaust happened. And I find myself prone to sin when I didn't choose to be a sinner, I was just born this way. But He didn't intervene into these things. And that's enraging. That's confusing. And just as the abused person cannot be whole and complete without being able to identify evil for what it is, God doesn't want us to ignore the pain or the evil we see or experience. Yes, God will come out above reproach, but He lets us scream and question and blame. We can't understand evil, we can't understand love, we can't understand mercy, until we have been free to feel these things for what they are. 

Indeed, Jesus knows too. When Martha accuses Him: 'why weren't you here to save Lazarus?' Jesus doesn't rebuke her, he just breaks down and weeps.

And on that cross, he shouts with us, as one of us: "Why have you forsaken me!?" He shares in the words of David in his fear, anger, confusion when God seemed to abandon Him.  The shouts of anger and incredulity across the centuries all get summed up in Jesus on the cross. He doesn't just say 'well this is the way things are - sucks doesn't it?' He screams NO. This is not the way things are supposed to be. Evil is evil, tragedy is tragedy, wrong is wrong. 

And as one who believes in a real Satan, a prince who ruled this world in death until he was defeated in the resurrection, God shouts a resounding NO at his rule, at his power, at his order. God doesn't just stand off disconnected as a sovereign who knows nothing of what it's like to be one of us, who toys around with us like puppets and tells us to just swallow that this is the way things are, but He comes in as the rebellious warrior against the kingdom of death, who says NO to the present order. God shouts NO with me at brothels, tsunamis, hell, judgment, sin, and abuse. I'm not told to just accept these things and get over it, but to reel, scream, condemn, and say NO. He says NO with me. 

We are so prone to shut down our own feelings in the name of 'faith.' We tell ourselves that our feelings are invalid since, after all, we have all these theories and systems and apologetic answers for the problem of evil. Yes, indeed, our perception of evil and injustice is really just a misunderstanding of God's sovereignty, etc. etc. etc. but if we just read a couple more C.S. Lewis books (see A Grief Observed for Lewis at his most honest), we can bury those feelings away and get over it. What a pathetic god. A god who needs us to fashion a theological system to justify Him. 
Credit: Don McCullough on Flickr

Our faith should not rely upon a system. Our faith does not hang upon a theodicy. I don’t believe we can ‘justify the ways of God to man,’ as Milton attempted. We can think through logical quandaries, we can play around with answers, and maybe come up with something sufficient for us in different ways and at different points in our journey, but they are not ultimately sufficient. We cannot prove God’s case for Him. To do so is to trust in a philosophical system, not the Living God. That’s a God we can predict and control and put in a test-tube. A computer program. But no. He’s wild, unpredictable, remarkable. The Judge: all reason, all answer, rests with Him. Not with us. And because of that fact, we are free to be open and vulnerable before Him. To be ready to be put in our place, indeed, but not to put Him in place for ourselves. He's got that covered. And as long as we put Him in place for Himself, we have made Him distant, disconnected, uncaring for our feelings and patronizing. 

But that's not who He is. 

As Barth put it, He is not just the Judge. He is also the ‘Judge, judged in our place.’ The One who gave up all rights to defend Himself, to take ‘responsibility' for all the evil. To take the responsibility for it all: Both our own mistakes, and for the very kingdom of Satan itself. He fulfills Satan's claim upon us. 

'God, get down off your throne and rescue the girls who are in brothels being raped!' 

He doesn't say 'get over it kid, you just don't get it. If you'd just let me explain, you'd understand that this is the best of all possible worlds. . . '

He might tell me to be quiet. He might remind me that I was not there when the world was made. I cannot tame Leviathan. There are days we need humbled. 

 But he also whispers, I know.' 

His voice wanders through the streets and somewhere in the quiet sobs of a 13 year old girl who has had all innocence stolen from her you can hear the echo throughout the ages of that first Good Friday: 

'Why have you forsaken me!!!!!?' 

And broken, weeping, with the Comforter by my side, groaning in and with and through me, I look up at the cross. I see blood and tears. I see tsunamis, and suicides, and brothels. I see a God of remarkable humility, remarkable grace, remarkable power. I don't know how it all fits together, I don't know how He's going to pull it all off, but I know He feels anger and pain and love, more painfully and more powerfully than I do. I can't justify Him, I just gaze at the cross. And after I've had it out, after I've done my part to put the nails in, I fall down and know I am forgiven. In awe. I know I am heard. I know somehow that His love will work all these things out. I can have faith. 

Somewhere in the darkness and the screaming and the forsakenness, I know that Sunday's coming. I did not know how to hope for it until I had known despair. 

Saturday, 29 March 2014

A Seminary Student's Take on 'Noah'

I saw Noah last night. I along with about 40 other seminary students were just about the only people there. 

Here are some theological, cultural, Biblical reflections of a seminary student; conveniently divided by headers representing themes in my musings, and addressing different FAQs. 

This is not a review, more of a series of cultural/theological reflections. But there are some spoilers. So, you were warned. 

How does it relate to the Bible? 

Yes, Noah adds to the Bible. Quite a bit. But before this puts us on the defensive, let's acknowledge a few things: 

1. We have a history of doing the same thing. Milton's Paradise Lost adds immense amounts of speculative, fictional, material to the creation account. C.S. Lewis's Narnia series speculatively adds to the Biblical stories. Heck, Left Behind presents a fictional depiction of the end times, based on a particular theological assumption about Biblical prophecy. Early Christian art and worship and writings do quite a bit of speculating, and playing off of legendary material to add to the Biblical stories. We've done this plenty of times. So if we critique doing so, we have to critique this whole tradition of our own. 

2. This is not just the Bible's story. The story of Noah is told and re-told in various non-canonical sources: Christian, Jewish, apocryphal, etc. The filmmaker never promised to be making a movie based strictly on the Bible. He did use the Bible as his basic outline and framework, but he did draw upon these other accounts and did some of his own speculating. 

3. The director's attempt was to create a contemporary Midrash (as he says in this interview). A Midrash was a genre of Jewish literature from the period between the Old and New Testaments, which expanded upon Old Testament stories and gave a speculative reading, trying to connect theological and narrative details throughout the Old Testament and inspire theological reflection, speculation, and worship. 

In this, Noah begs us to revisit the long lost Christian imagination, something we gained from Judaism actually. There is so much beauty in the ability to speculate, to ask theological 'what-ifs,' in art, treatises, and fiction. 

But lets look at the positive. I don't think anything blatantly contradicted Scripture, and the overall outline of the story was faithful to Genesis. I thought it followed Genesis pretty closely, actually. 

The Justice of God 
The judgment of God was not sugar-coated in 'Noah.' Human depravity was powerfully and poignantly depicted, and God's prerogative in bringing judgment was portrayed as completely legitimate. You watched the movie understanding and almost rooting for God's judgment (but with the sober realization of what it meant). 

Creationist Ken Ham wrote about the film: "Also, while the extreme wickedness of man was depicted, the real sin displayed in the film was the people’s destruction of the earth. Lost within the film’s extreme environmentalist message is that the actual sins of the pre-Flood people were a rebellion against God and also man’s inhumanity to man."

I.could.not.disagree.more. Literally. I could not disagree more. 

Yes, human 'wasting' of the world was a huge theme. BUT IT IS ALSO A HUGE THEME IN GENESIS. 

And while we're at it, let's not forget that this is a huge theme in C.S. Lewis's Narnia series. Human mistreatment of animals, including eating meat, is one of the starkest examples of human sin, in his fantasy land. 'Noah' is in good company here, in describing human assaults on the animal kingdom. And also, industrial wrecking of creation is a MAJOR theme in J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings. Saruman arguably represents industry, with his war on 'good and green things.' We've given Lewis and Tolkien free passes here. And, as an amateur Biblical scholar-in-training, I think it makes perfect sense for those who lived so close to the time of Adam and who wanted to return to Eden, to be very poignantly aware of the fact that eating/attacking animals was one of the most explicit and easily identifiable symptoms of the fall. God did not seem to be happy with animal-eating (it was forbidden until Genesis 9, see below) and those who wanted to please God (Noah) would understandably not be so either. 

But by no means were other sins ignored by the film. In fact, human treatment of creation was ultimately sidelined compared to other depictions of human depravity. You see people eating people, murdering each other, raping and pillaging, etc. A poignant montage that expands upon the Cain and Abel narrative describes the root of murder, violence, and war (you even see silhouettes of warriors wielding different weapons of history: spears, swords, guns, cannons - one of the most brilliant moments of the film, in my mind), and it is clear that this hatred and violence is stemmed from rebellion against God. The 'bad guys' are clear that they have defied God and want to defy His righteousness and become their own gods. The primary antagonist states that he desires to claim the world for his own and make it in his 'own image,' an explicit slap in the face to God. The 'good guys' are clear that human sin is, at its root, a rebellion against God. 

Besides, the war on creation is a clear and explicit theme in Genesis, one that has been ignored in contemporary theology. Human use and abuse of animals and creation, as a part of the curse, is clear in early Genesis. It is mentioned in Genesis that Noah did not eat meat (Aronofsky didn't make this up): it was God's will that it be this way, until he permitted meat-eating after the flood (Genesis 9). Judaism has a tendency toward vegetarianism, and meat-eating is treated as a Divine accommodation to a less-than-ideal circumstance, throughout the Old Testament and the New Testament. Everything in 'Noah' is operating within clear Biblical parameters and, yes, makes it relevant to contemporary questions. 

Why don't we look at our society as if we were missionaries? Instead of worrying over its apparent political agenda we could use it as a hook for drawing people to the Gospel:  You see human misuse of creation, you are disturbed by it. We've been talking about this from the beginning! This is what our Bible tells us to expect! And God wants to restore His creation! The solution is not the government, not any human king. He sent Jesus to renew the world again! Jesus is the New Adam, brought to bring peace to the creation order again! Come to the living water, come to His garden, come be the grape on His vine! Come wait with us for the time when the lion shall lie down with the lamb. 

What a much more powerful testimony that would be. 

Furthermore, humans=bad and creation=good was not the final verdict of the story. In the end, we see Noah realize that God graciously wants to make a new beginning for humanity, to come into their proper role as stewards and benevolent governors of creation. Unlike in radical, secular, environmentalism, humans are not a problem that need largely eradicated (though Noah thought so for a part of the movie, and ended up being wrong). In fact, 'Noah' shows them to be the solution - through the gracious redemption of God. We know how the story continues, with Jesus representing the fulfillment of the renewed humanity. The second Adam (a theme hinted at when one of the Nephilim looks at Noah and says 'I see Adam in your eyes, the man I once knew and loved'). Humanity can return to Eden. But, only through God's grace. 

There is only one thing, in my mind, to explain the critiques of Noah as environmentalist propaganda: Biblical illiteracy. If we knew our Bibles, we would see how this very powerfully plays upon key Biblical themes and concepts, and does so in relevant, contemporary ways. 

Ouch. That smarts. 

It looks like an atheist has read his Bible more closely than the rest of us. 

Also, there was nothing that had any connection to global warming. There were no advertisements about who to vote for. I did not walk out wanting to be a Democrat or to vote for carbon tax caps. I walked out wondering at human rebellion against God, and God's mercy in continually offering to remake the world alongside of us, and to save us. I walked out wanting to read my Bible and ponder the mercy of God. 

I wonder if Ken Ham fell asleep in the movie, because I don't think we watched the same thing. 

Noah is not Righteous
This is the topic of a book coming out from one of our professors here at Gordon-Conwell - Dr. Carol Kaminski's Was Noah Good? Mark Driscoll said the same thing in a recent blog: "Noah Was Not a Righteous Man." I agree with them both. And consistent with them, the movie shows Noah as fallen, sometimes mistaken. This is a very Protestant message. We have long echoed with Paul that the righteousness of the Old Testament patriarchs was not by their own merit, but because of their faith and God's grace. They were fallen and depraved like the rest of us, but God showed mercy to them for their faith. 

We see Noah becoming convinced that humans need to be completely eradicated. He is convicted by human depravity - a depravity he realizes exists inside of him too as he comes to recognize that it was not by personal merit, but by grace, that God elected him to build the ark. But he begins to take this to an extreme, convinced there is no hope for the human race. He claims to be told by God to murder his grandchildren to keep the human race from continuing. And the film never tells us if he heard correctly, but the movie is pretty clear that Noah was not supposed to kill them (it might be implying it was a similar situation to Abraham sacrificing Isaac). That is not what God wanted. God wanted the human race to be redeemed. To begin again. And I think the film is telling us that God wanted Noah to learn this for himself. 

Election and Free Will
The cliche Protestant conversation of sovereignty vs. free will. Calvin vs. Arminius. Grace vs human effort. The film beautifully explores these themes. Noah tries to come to grips with whether he was chosen because of his righteousness, or in spite of his righteousness. And the film never answers this question. We see a fallible Noah who God graciously raised up to do His purpose. Noah was 'elected' by God, graciously, but also was given responsibility and freedom by God to be obedient to God or not. We see a God who is sovereign, powerful, who chooses us. We also see a God who asks for obedience, who takes risks. 

The hiddenness of God.   

The God of this film is mysterious, ambiguous, unpredictable, hidden. Noah never hears Him speak directly.  And we begin to see by the end, that God had a divine purpose in His hiddenness, to pull up Noah to seek righteousness on his own impetus. This, I thought, played upon some of the most fascinating and beautiful themes of the Old Testament: the God who risks (or appears to risk, depending on your theological assumptions) - putting decisions in our own hands, trying to evoke righteousness, goodness, from us on our own free will. Even if you are a staunch Calvinist, you must see that this is an important theme in even Augustine: We become free to choose the good, when we are freed from the bondage of sin. 

I cannot help but wonder that when God gets Moses all riled up to the point that he says 'damn my soul instead of destroying Israel' (and God 'changes His mind!') or when Abraham pleads with God 'if there are just a few righteous, spare these people' (and God compromises with him) or when the prophets lament 'why are You silent in the face of injustice?' or when Job questions God's wisdom and goodness (and God lets him!) - God is playing a masterful game of teaching us to love mercy and justice, to the point that we would even dare to question Him. What if God wants this reaction from us? I think this is a clear possibility in the Old Testament literature. This speculative possibility is powerfully depicted in Noah. It's fictional/speculative, absolutely. But it presents a fascinating, imaginative, theologically provoking 'what if' that forces us to think through larger Biblical themes. A task that good Jewish and Christian art has always sought to achieve. Again, think of Milton's Paradise Lost, which features all sorts of speculative and mythological and flat-out fictional additions to the Creation account. It provokes wonder, theological questioning, wrestling, and ultimately - worship at the mystery of God. 

I have known this in my own life. The more God teaches me of His love, the more I am inclined to be angry and confused by His confounding ways. By dying children and wars between peoples. I think God desires this independence and honesty from us. I am convinced of this. He will continue to humble and put us in our place, but He also wants openness and genuine relationship with us. And that is where real faith comes into play. Faith in a God I can't always understand. Faith in a God who confounds me. 

That sounds a lot more like the faith of Abraham, of Noah, of all the patriarchs of the Old Testament, than the sentimental health and wealth 'gospel' of the West. Faith in a God that is wild, mysterious, just, merciful, dangerous.  

He is not a tame lion, as Lewis said. 

Was there anything I didn't like? 

Sure. I thought it moved too slow. There were some liberties that were over the top, in my opinion. There was a minor character who dies mid-way through and I wish she didn't die, but it turned out to be pretty key to Noah's character development and I came to appreciate its role in the story. I thought the 'watchers' (based upon the Nephilim from Genesis) were a little bit odd/over-the-top and reminded me of the Ents in the Lord of the Rings too much (but gosh, when one of them died and cried out 'forgive me, Creator,'  I teared up. Beautiful). 

Also, I am certainly bugged by the fact that people a lot of people will see the movie and never go back and read their Bible and have all sorts of mistaken ideas about what's in the Bible. This is the same problem with most people getting their history from movies. 

Let's Stop Letting the World Define The Name of the Game

When the 'world' starts delving into moral, theological, biblical, philosophical territory - we are quick to critique. We are quick to tell them why they're wrong. We need to stop pretending, though, that we live in a Christian society. We live in a post-Christian society. A society that needs re-evangelized. We need to switch to Paul's posture in Acts 17. 

What if we saw these as mission opportunities? What if we saw the positive things - a film that raises poignant questions about God and His justice and His mercy. What a beautiful, powerful, way to introduce the Gospel to people! It's not a Christian film. But it raises questions that most of our culture has not wanted to ask. This is a good thing! 

I came out of that theater thirsty to revisit the Gospel story in light of the questions raised in the film; to consider the way Jesus represent the pinnacle of God's constant refrain of giving humanity and His creation a second chance. I came out of the theater wanting to look to the people in there with me and say: look at Jesus! Look at the fulfillment of what God started! 

What if some other people who had never really heard the Gospel walked out of the theater feeling the same way? What an opportunity. 

Let's not get lost in our critiques of some political agenda or its biblical literalness to miss the opportunity this presents, and the way it may evoke good, honest, questions among people that we have an opportunity to answer. 

Our supposedly post-Christian society is going by the millions to see a movie about God, mercy, judgment, sin, and grace. It is far from a perfect movie: theologically, cinematographically, etc. 

But I see it as an opportunity. 

Jim Daly of Focus on the Family sums up my thoughts well:  

"The film expresses biblical themes of good and evil; sin and redemption; justice and mercy. It is a creative interpretation of the scriptural account that allows us to imagine the deep struggles Noah may have wrestled with as he answered God's call on his life. This cinematic vision of Noah's story gives Christians a great opportunity to engage our culture with the biblical Noah, and to have conversations with friends and family about matters of eternal significance.""

And today, I am pondering the mysterious, radical, perplexing, beautiful, mystery of God. His mercy. His justice. My wickedness. My faith. His hope. His salvation. That seems like a good result to me. 

"By faith Noah, being warned by God concerning events as yet unseen, in reverent fear constructed an ark for the saving of his household. By this he condemned the world and became an heir of the righteousness that comes by faith." Hebrews 11:7

Thursday, 27 March 2014

World Vision - Only a Brief Respite

Until recently, evangelical Christians who affirmed the traditional, conservative Church's position on homosexuality have, honestly, had it easy. The Christians who were more approving of homosexuality were liberal protestants, often nominal believers anyhow, with a lower view of Scripture and who were cloistered in mainline denominations: The Episcopal Church, the PCUSA, etc.

And so we separated. We drew lines.

That 'easy' scenario is coming to an end.

Credit: Akuppa John Wigham on Flickr

No longer is it possible to write off 'pro-homosexual' Christians as non-Bible-believers, or nominal, or even as liberal protestants. No longer is it possible to turn away and pretend these people don't exist.

In the next several decades, there will be more and more people who consider themselves Bible-believing, self-described 'Evangelicals' (or something equivalent), who are more moderate on homosexuality. They claim their beliefs are consistent with an authoritative reading of Scripture. They are active in churches and in ministries. They have conversion stories.

World Vision made a decision that, agree with it or not, is one that many denominations, para-church organizations, etc are going to face in the coming decades. No longer are we defining evangelicalism over and against a nominal liberal protestantism, but the very definition (there never was a really good one anyhow) of evangelicalism itself is being entirely redefined.

This identity crisis shows up in slightly (but barely) less controversial venues as well. More and more evangelicals are becoming outspoken about having egalitarian perspectives on gender, more 'liberal' views about evolution (which are often, actually, more consistent with the diversity of views on evolution in the early 20th century) and denominations and para-church organizations are having to choose whether to welcome this bigger tent, or draw lines. Mark Driscoll, John Piper (to some extent), and Cedarville University (which just ruled not to allow women Bible professors teach male students) have drawn lines on women. The Evangelical Presbyterian Church, the denomination I am a part of, allows a diversity of views on the role of women in ministry among their churches. Self-proclaimed-as-Bible-believing Open Theists are barred from certain denominations or Christian institutions (such as the Evangelical Theological Society), but allowed in others.

We used to say (in practice if not in words):  'just have a high view of Scripture and believe in evangelism and mission and you can be an evangelical.' But then people started proposing interpretations of Scripture that made others of us uncomfortable: maybe husbands don't have to be heads of household (egalitarianism), maybe the future doesn't exist (open theism), maybe imputed righteousness isn't Biblical (the new perspective on Paul), maybe evolution and the Bible aren't inconsistent, maybe it's not wrong to practice monogamous homosexual behavior, etc.  Christians are proposing these arguments who love evangelism and missions and claim that Scripture is their highest authority. And suddenly, we're finding ourselves having to choose either to allow this interpretive diversity as consistent with evangelicalism's basic ecumenism and Bible-centrism, or draw lines regarding which interpretations are okay. We are now faced with having a big, wide, open tent, or go back to a Catholic posture where the Church has to authoritatively draw a line against certain interpretations (which is the posture of an emerging neo-Fundamentalism that makes many of these issues, lines of orthodoxy). We used to feel this way about baptism, predestination, eschatology. But we finally learned to get along and say 'these things are just representative of different interpretations.' But now, that attitude has journeyed into more controversial territory, and many want to slam on the brakes.

The ecumenism and diversity of evangelicalism, the door that Protestantism opened, has now become threatening and the options at either extreme appear to be relativism or a Protestant version of Catholicism.

I'm not saying evolution, homosexuality, women in ministry, are all equal issues. That's another discussion. But these are all examples of a phenomenon sweeping across evangelicalism forcing us to define what evangelicalism, and what orthodox Christianity, is and means and a new tendency to cloister ourselves into different camps in the same way we used to be very territorial about our denominations.

Many people pulled their support from World Vision when the decision was announced. Many churches who support World Vision were going to have serious debates (and still might) about their relationship with World Vision. The seminary I attend has a close relationship with World Vision, and I imagine there was going to be a pretty big controversy here over it. This is just one taste of a series of controversies that is going to threaten to tear the Evangelical world apart over the coming decades. Seminaries, para-church organizations, denominations that were created to try and stand in the middle on various controversial issues, are going to be torn right down the middle and/or pressured to take sides. Whether it be homosexuality, women's ordination, open theism, Reformed/Lutheran vs. N.T. Wright's soteriology, more and more rifts and team-choosing is going on. And places like Gordon-Conwell, where I am, are right in the middle and it's going to be harder and harder to stay out of things.

This is just the beginning.

What if this same thing happens for the International Justice Mission, who does some of the best human trafficking work in the world? Or at Young Life? Or Intervarsity Fellowship? What happens when an otherwise conservative self-proclaimed-Christian gay couple ask to go as missionaries with Wycliffe? As far-fetched as those might sound, it's not outside of the realm of possibility in the coming years. And organizations are going to start taking sides. Para-Church organizations are, most likely, going to go more to the left in order to try and keep as wide a constituency as possible so they can accomplish the things they want to accomplish. That was exactly the calculation World Vision made.

And the fact of the matter is that World Vision does things that no other organizations do. It cannot be avoided that choosing to provide or deny support based on their decision or re-decision requires making, at least to some degree, choices of priorities. And you are setting a precedent that will bear certain fruit in the future, because this is just the start. And so, while possibly off-base in the short-term, in the long term, the question being posed by those who support WV's initial move is actually prescient: 'is having rules against homosexual practice [or your beliefs about Open Theism, or women in the pulpit], or helping the poor, or supporting evangelistic meetings for college students, etc., most important to you?'  At the moment, that might be a false choice. But I think we're inevitably headed to a world where it won't be and we must choose between compromising and negotiating between those difficult questions, or retreating from the rest of Christianity (and maybe the rest of the world) all together. We will have to decide if we can be in or give to churches, denominations, organizations, that contain Christians who hold beliefs that we might find reprehensible. And our solution might be to create a whole lot more relief agencies. A non-gay version of World Vision. A non-complementarian version of Young Life. And the goals of each of those endeavors will suffer. So, the choice between 'helping the poor' and 'evangelism' and doctrinal uniformity, is going to be a choice many of us will have to make.

Conservative evangelicals have not won a victory in World Vision's retraction. We/they have just put off for another year or two something none of us will be able to avoid.

We might assume that, clearly, this debate over homosexuality is different than those over baptism, or Donatism, or transubstantiation, or over women in ministry. But, gosh darn it, people once  saw (and some still see) these as the deal-breakers between the Church and not-the-Church. Wars have been fought over (at least ostensibly) these issues. It's a bit anachronistic of us to think that this is necessarily different. Maybe it is different. But let's be honest with ourselves. What were once 'hills to die on' are now just matters of opinion. We need to have very careful, historically-informed, reasons to see the homosexual debate within the Church as different than the things we now don't care as much about.  Things that we now don't let get in the way of unity or para-church cooperation. But homosexuality is clearly unbiblical - it's different. Ok. Maybe so. But the same exact thing has been said about plenty of other issues too. That needs to be seriously weighed. And I do think the historical-theological argument against condoning homosexual practice (the claim that this has never been questioned in Church history) has quite a bit of weight. But to be fair, the issues that are arising represent questions that have never really been asked in Church history.

At the very least, we need to learn to listen to one another's arguments. The vilification and name-calling and shouting gets nobody anywhere. The conservatives hate poor people! Or The liberals hate the Bible! Neither accusation was really quite fair and showed a lack of listening. It might have been fair to certain extents, or in certain specific cases, but those accusations get in the way of real dialogue. If you think the pro-homosexual group are clear apostate heretics, that doesn't change that the correct and most powerful, Christ-like, posture is still humility and an attempt at understanding. The same if you think the conservatives who pulled support are poor-hating reprobates. What are you afraid might happen if you listen, and give them a fair hearing? What are you afraid might happen if you quietly wait and try to discern the best response, waiting on the Holy Spirit? We have not been given a spirit of fear, but a spirit of courage, and of hope. Because in the midst of all these things Christ is still on the throne. God is still in heaven.

I would say the same thing whether we were talking about Arianism, Gnosticism, or any other great heresy of Christian history. There's nothing to be afraid of by listening and engaging.

(I'm not necessarily saying a pro-homosexual perspective is heretical, I'm just playing in hypotheticals here to get a point across).

And as we go through all these debates I - along with most evangelicals/post-evangelicals my age - really wonder where our priorities are. Because whether liberal or conservative, starving kids in Africa seemed to be treated pawns in a culture war, last week. And that scares us, and that angers many of us. To support or stop supporting World Vision over this issue, while I understand to an extent, was done so quickly and decisively it seemed more like personal comfort as far as being on the 'right side' took the front seat, and suffering human beings took the backseat. Jesus loves doctrinal purity, but I think He may love people more. Those aren't mutually exclusive, but sometimes they do come into conflict. We need to be darned careful what we do when those things are at odds.

Do not forget justice and mercy. Do not forget that we will give account for what we did for 'the least of these' at the pearly gates. Switching to an organization more in line with your beliefs might be the right thing to do. I don't necessarily want to judge or condemn people who feel/felt convicted to switch to a different organization. But don't think of helping the poor as 'points' you rack up before God, or treat sponsorships as 'votes' for or against right doctrine. Think about the people. Think about the kids. Don't let kids become pawns, collateral damage, to satisfy your conscience or even collateral damage to orthodoxy. I will repeat that: do not make children collateral damage, not even to orthodoxy. Take a moment and think of Marco - the Bolivian child who had a sponsor one day and not the next. That kid had nothing to do with any of this. Jesus is with that person, and you will have to explain to Jesus why you pulled His support and gave it to another organization. And, yes, other funds may be used to pick up the slack. And yes, you may still be giving the same amount of money somewhere else. But that is not enough to make your decision 'right,' it is only enough to satisfy your own conscience. In the same way, if you start supporting Isaq in Sudan because you like your favorite organization's decision to allow gay employees, remember you will have to explain to Jesus your motives. That is not enough to make your decision 'right,' it is only trying to please your conscience (though, gosh darn it, I'm thankful that Isaq gets support whatever your motives). In both cases, suffering children are objects. That is worthy of judgment, even if you have all the 'right beliefs' about everything else.

2,000 kids were dropped from World Vision before the decision was retracted. World Vision got themselves into quite a pickle, and retracting their decision was a pretty big sacrifice and an embarrassment for them. I respect that they seemed to have those 2,000 kids as their top priority in it all.

(Although it's kind of a moot point, this excellent post suggested that if you felt inclined to pull support from World Vision, the wise and most loving thing to do in terms of the kids, was to give a 3-month notice or to draw support gradually. I don't think you'd be in danger of hell-fire for that. This is an example of the right posture: being honest with yourself and your convictions, but also making sure children didn't become objects).

Those are not black and white rules I'm offering. Just considerations that I think should be reflected upon.

You thought the wars between liberal protestants and conservative evangelicals/fundamentalists were harsh? That was nothing compared to what's coming; the very splintering of evangelicalism itself.

And we need to be very careful, very creative, very nimble as we enter this new world. Pray first, speak second. Wait for the Holy Spirit, not relying first on our own judgment, or our own exegesis, or our own feelings. Wait on God. Be patient, hopeful, calm, confident in the Lord. Because the very work of the Gospel is going to be constantly at risk of being sidelined. Yes, doctrinal purity is key to the Gospel. But don't forget that the Pharisees had their doctrine, and their exegesis, technically correct and still were condemned by Christ. They still missed the point. I daresay that doing what is best for the Gospel will matter a lot more in the end, and that may mean losing fights - even fights we see as matters of heresy.

I mean, don't we worship a man, a God, who lost a whole lot of fights, at least by the world's standards, anyhow?

Thursday, 20 March 2014

Love me

Oh Lord, love me when I don't know how to be loved.

Love me when I don't know how to love You back.

Wednesday, 19 March 2014

Chivalry's Not Dead - Stealing the Third-Culture-Kid Label

My dad grew up in Hixson (yes, that's 'hick-son'), Tennessee; descended from mountain-residers and farmers, a mixture of Scandinavian, Irish, Scottish, and possibly Native American blood. A pretty typical southerner's story.

My mom grew up in upstate New York, descended from Ohoians of ambiguous descent on one side, and Welsh-Canadian on the other.

I lived most of my life in Tennessee, in a city with a unique mixture of southern charm and east-coast cosmopolitanism. I learned to open doors for girls, but I rarely listened to country music.

I remember my first cross-cultural experience, a mission trip to the Czech Republic. We were instructed of some of the cultural norms and social graces we might need to know. One stuck out: you don't offer your seat on the subway for a young woman, but you do for an elderly person. 

That was my first encounter with the idea that the way my culture 'did things,' is not the way everybody else 'did things.' And respecting and adapting and being different is okay. I began to learn from that experience that I'm actually fairly adept at adapting to different cultures. I even had a sliver of an accent when I got back.

I spent quite a bit of time with family in upstate New York over the years, and eventually went there for college. Now I live in New England. I still say 'ya'll,' but when I come home they accuse me of sounding like a Canadian.

My home culture is, and always will be, the South. But the north is a pretty important part of who I am too. I love both sweet tea, and New England fish fries. I love the warm hospitality of southern homes, and appreciate the blunt honesty of the northeastern disposition.  Give me either a Chick-fil-A or a Tim Horton's, and I'm happy.

And seriously - the passive aggressive way southerners drive is ten times more dangerous and nerve-wracking to me than the straightforward aggression of the North. I'd rather be cut-off than tailed for 20 miles.

Attending an undergraduate school with a lot of missionary children we had a name for this: 'third-culture kids.' I may never have experienced the confusion and shock of moving to America after living in southeast Asia with Dutch parents. But I think I know a tiny, tiny, taste of the phenomenon.

Growing up in the South, Rush Limbaugh was on the radio regularly. He warned me often of the evils of feminism, which were to greet me in the north. There were women out there who would try to turn me into an effeminate man-child. Upstart, independent, women wanted to de-masculate me (apparently).

I moved up north and I began to hear a different side of things. Women who really didn't care if you opened doors for them (and were happy to open doors for me). Who felt strongly about having a career, or being in ministry. I certainly see where the concerns of conservatives come from, there are extreme forms of feminism that wreak havoc on both men and women. But I was blessed by knowing 'Christian feminists' who were full of grace and respect. They did not try to de-masculate me. They wanted me to be successful and mature and the best follower of Christ I could be. They also happened to not care if I opened doors for them all the time, or whether I took the initiative in relationships, etc.

I began to become more 'egalitarian' and 'feminist' in some of my disposition and opinions. And I adapted relatively well to this northern context, and its different expectations and norms. I no longer believe that women who don't want their doors open for them are ungracious or stuck-up. It's just different. And I can see how it might be patronizing to people. At the same time, I understand the grace, respect, and tradition it represents for people in the South and would challenge my northern friends to recognize how it might not be always patronizing for those who are used to it.

I have come to realize that it is helpful to think of this contrast in terms of cultural differences. That may not be the only or even the best way of thinking of these differences - there is still plenty of room to pass moral judgment on one set of customs or another (or parts of either). But it has brought me no peace to feel the compelling need to dissect and pass judgment on one or the other. To an extent. I do have my own opinions about these things. But I also realize that these are not hills (always) worth dying on. These are largely matters of culture that need to be held in proper perspective. Lobbying bombs over the mason-dixon line, accusing the other of moral turpitude, really gets us nowhere and is such a frivolous distraction from preaching the Gospel.

The Gospel challenges culture, for sure. But... some things.... just don't matter.

Now, that's not to deny there are a lot of moral issues bound up in all this. It's not to deny that many men have suffered backlash by extreme feminism (a move that does not help women or men - though to be fair, the extreme counterreaction against feminism has, under the guise of 'defending men,' made men more wimpy and more 'demasculated,' in my opinion. The extremes on either end have tended to have results in common, ironically). It's also not to deny that many (more) women have been patronized and abused. And both of these things have happened in the opposite context that you might expect, and vice versa. There is plenty of room for comparison, critique, and judgment. These things do matter. A lot.

And, to put all my cards on the table, I have tended to think more like a northerner on my opinions about gender relations and such. I still have judgments and opinions.

Personally, I think gender-inclusive language in writing, or in translating the Bible (when it comes to humans, not God), is a good idea. But I also support it for practical, cultural, missional reasons: I will not die on a hill that is not central to the Gospel. If translating the greek word adelphoi as 'brothers and sisters' (which is  a perfectly fair translation) in the Bible will remove a stumbling block to the Gospel for those who might find exclusively masculine language off-putting because of their cultural background: I'm all for it. We need not change the culture into our image before sharing the Gospel no more than I need to make people learn Latin to worship God or read the Bible.

On the other hand, when I come home to the South, I remember that I will always be a southerner. At least to some degree. I still feel at home with saying 'yes ma'am' and 'yes sir,' and opening doors for women. I need not run from the culture that made me who I am. I need not turn the South into New England.

This is all a bit hard for me to admit. I'm a die-on-molehill kind of guy. It comes from a mixture of sincerity (I'm an idealist who likes to see things change for the better - er, what I think will be better), and arrogance.

Like I've said: I'm not un-opinionated about these things. But if I were a pastor in a traditional, southern, conservative context - what would I do? I struggle with it. Sure, my egalitarian principles would come out. I would be in favor of women pastors, and am part of a denomination that is usually in favor of female ordination anyhow - but would have to carefully balance conviction with culture if my congregation weren't on the same page.  I hope I would keep main things the main thing. I don't need every family in my congregation to agree with me, though I would want to encourage people to consider the underlying issues of the heart that led me to my egalitarian principles: in your home, do you respect and uplift one another? Do you feel free and independent and whole, together? How can we prevent the abuse of women and become more proactive about dealing with this overly-ignored issue? Men, can you learn to have the self-confidence and the strength to not be in charge from time to time - because I believe true strength and self-confidence comes in the ability to humbly step aside (without being a doormat).  I wish the John Pipers and the Mark Driscolls could join me and realize that, differences aside, we can both work together on these concerns, which are infinitely more important than who makes the decisions at home. Some things are more important than others.

I do get bugged when people accuse folks like me, who have a technically 'egalitarian' reading of the Bible of capitulating to culture. I don't think it's quite that simple. In many ways, complementarians do the same.  They read their culture of male leadership and the dichotomy of homemaker vs. breadwinner (categories entirely foreign to the cultural context of the Bible) into the way they read Scripture too. In fact, I would dare suggest that I think my reading of Scripture is actually more counter-cultural than the complementerian.

But anyhow, I digress. I'm not saying all interpretations are culturally relative. Not by a long shot. But it's tricky. Culture impacts the way all of us read Scripture. There aren't any of us who are exempt from that reality. And none of us have a whole handle on the culture of the Bible, or exhaustive comprehension of what Paul is saying about the culture he's writing in. Call me a Pentecostal, but I think interpretation must rely more on the Holy Spirit and less on parsing verbs. It requires humility, and nimbleness, and a lot of God's grace. The relationship between text and culture is not easy, and we will never be able to turn it into a formula. We must rely on something more substantial: God Himself.

I was touched this week to read Mark Driscoll's apology over the way he marketed his books and artificially pushed them to best-seller status. The sincerity and grace he expressed was refreshing to me, and I began to realize that although I vehemently disagree with him on several of his favorite pet issues, he and I aren't all that different. We are both in need of a grace that is bigger than either of our sinful personalities. And we both have a temper. I was also touched to read a similar article by Rachel Held Evans, who stands on the opposite side of Driscoll on many of these gender debates. She too wrote about the strange dynamic of a public face that has a distance from her real, vulnerable, self. And her need for humility and grace.

If these two people can start speaking the same language, maybe there's hope for this rag-tag gang known as the Church.

And so I sit here in my friend's North Carolina home. Sweet tea is in the refrigerator. Later, we'll jump in his parents' car: every station will be pre-set to either Christian radio or country music. We'll pass at least two Cracker Barrels. And I may feel compelled to let a woman step in front of me in line at the burrito place. We'll come home and, over dinner, hear stories about how his mother, an emergency room doctor, limited her career to stay at home with the kids. And while my convictions lead me to hope I can have a family where my wife and I both can balance work/ministry and family,  I'll receive with bated breath their treasure trove of marriage advice - because in the few days that I have known this family, this is one of the most loving and Christ-like families I have ever known and I want to learn everything I can from them.

And I think to myself: it's a big, crazy, wild, beautiful, world. And Christ plays in 10,000 places in it. And there's so little that I know.

Thursday, 13 March 2014

Waists, doorknobs, and the occasional dog.

A permanently downward gaze marks my journeys into the dreamscape. I always think I know who is standing next to me, but when I think back I can never know for sure.

 I see no faces, only waists and doorknobs and the occasional dog.

Lewis wrote a book about this - Till We Have Faces, right?

I always seem to know where I am. Last night it was an intersection next to the post office in my hometown. Not long later it was Park Street, downtown Boston.

But there is no sidewalk, or that traffic light there, at home. And why doesn't the car I'm driving have a windshield?

And this shop is in Beverly, not downtown Boston.

And why is Panera Bread an apartment complex?

These thoughts rumble around in the fog and don't become conscious until later. In the journey, all things seem completely the way they're supposed to be. No questions asked.

Do the people in my dreams have downward gazes too?

I don't think they do. They seem pretty confident and upright. They talk without listening very well. In fact, I rarely feel 'heard,' or at all acknowledged, by anyone in my dreams.

I wonder if that's all an illusion. Maybe their heads are down too. How could I know the difference? Maybe they aren't heard by me either.

And so we walk with purpose, down streets that are both familiar and unfamiliar.

The faux-familiarity is a security measure on my part. It lets me know that there's no need to stand up straight. There's no need to look beyond the waists or the doorknobs or the occasional dog. They are all I need.

Now, I'm sitting at a library computer translating some Hebrew from Nehemiah. This is not dreamscape. I double-checked, I just looked Ryan in the eye.

Oh Nehemiah, you silly old man. You keep sneaking up on me, still after all these years.

Nehemiah just heard the news of the break-down of Jerusalem. And he wept. He prayed. He mourned. And he 'prayed to the face of God.'

Face to face. Like Moses, really. Naked, vulnerable. Weeping and broken.

I set some valuable object down by a lamp-post, somewhere between Park Street and Panera Bread. I just leave it at a lamppost. Why in the world? It was not cheap. It'll get stolen.

I'm rather reckless in my dreams.

We get to Panera Bread. We find a table.

'I'd better go get what I left behind,'

I pass a hallway of apartments. I know because they have apartment-like doorknobs.

A dog greets me on my way down the stairs - don't ask me where the stairs came from, they weren't there before.

I tighten my belt.

I'm scared. What if it's stolen? 

I run down the street.

What's the purpose of an anchor? It's a security measure. When the tide wants to take you out to sea, you can be confident because you left insurance that you won't go anywhere.

I think that valuable object was like an anchor. An excuse to not leave my world. An excuse not to sit down with this friend over coffee. That would require sitting face to face. I would have to give up my view of waists, doorknobs, and the occasional dog.

There's always a way out.  Always an exit strategy.

 I always have to give myself something to be afraid of. I plant the seeds of my own panic, to prevent standing face to face.

I do the same with God, I'm sure. How often do I stand before Him face to face, like Nehemiah? He gets a mask, while my gaze remains downward - a gaze wrapped up in piety: prayers for others, events, things, the future. But rarely standing face to face, vulnerable.

Relationships are a dialectic of sorts. We want to have faces. We want to be seen, naked, without masks. But somehow, we find ourselves often unable to lift our gaze. We don't want to see someone else's face. We leave them waiting for faces. And so we push and pull and play this crazy war of espionage. How could they not stop and listen to us? How could they not hear our screaming?

This is where resentment grows. We want to know and be known. But we fail at both.

Waists and doorknobs and the occasional dog are so much easier to face, than an actual face. The world of waists, doorknobs, and the occasional dog may not have much to offer - but it's safe. It's so beautifully safe.

Babies go through a period in their development where they have not yet realized that things and people exist even when they aren't looking at them. Eventually we mature past that point. But maybe there's something still legitimate about that deep-seated sentiment.

We are not fully real without being known and seen. This whole creation exists only by the intentional work and gaze of God. A God who is nothing if He is not in relationship in the Trinity - knowing, seeing, gazing upon one another's faces.

Night has melded into waking day. Coffee has been drunk, a meeting conducted, 5 lines of homework completed.


Still running. Passing so many people on the street. 

So many emails need to be written.

Still running. Relief, contentment, apathy. 

I'm hungry.

'Look up, son.'

His head is bowed down, looking down from the cross. He had to go up there to get me to look up. And He found me. Here is my soul, in the world of waists, doorknobs, and the occasional dog - known, loved, gazed upon. My safe spaces weren't safe enough.

'Look up, son.'

How did you find me here?

(photo credit: Kaydbe on Flickr

I knew I'd disappoint you

If I showed to you this child

Who is crying out inside me
Lost in the wild

But how did you find me here?

(See: David Wilcox, How Did You Find Me Here?)

Sunday, 9 March 2014

Looking at water

Eh. I'll just go up to the next exit and go home that way. 

My foot remained firmly planted on the gas. 

Well, I'll drive up the interstate for a bit, then take the scenic way home. 

Still, didn't budge. 

Somewhere in my ankle, words were being spoken. Softly, reverberating along empty corridors, the voice found its way up to my head. But by then, my foot was already following those muffled orders.

 Sometimes my body is more spiritual than my soul. 

I'd 'felt' that voice before. It took my legs up mountains, it tapped 'purchase' when thinking about getting a train ticket. It takes me away from noise, into places where there were pillars of fire by night. 

'You need a vacation' 

The words of a friend from earlier in the day decide to pay a visit. It knocks on the front door and sits down on the couch. Even after a couple cups of coffee, they still won't leave. 

Okay, fine, I'll go for a walk in a town on the coast. 

I took a couple wrong turns. Which is nothing unordinary. 

Brief moments of deja vu. Probably breaks in the space-time continuum. But for whatever reason, the coast looked a little bit like Europe. And that pothole too. That gas station reminds me of a family road tri- oh wait, that did happen. I've used their bathroom and then my sister and I picked out some donuts. 

Oh, and a friend from college and I played music on that beach. 

I get out, start walking. It's beautiful. The first warmish day in a while. Seagulls are being noisy, water is lapping up against the rocks. Every now and again, a parent and child walk by. 

'So. We going to talk?' 

Oh that's why You brought me out here?

'Don't play dumb.'

Fine. Just... just give me a minute. 

'Fair enough.'

Shops, pubs, used bookstores, greet me. 

I hope no one things I'm crying. It's just the cold air. 

'Don't you have better things to think about?'

Fine. You know I'd love to talk. But I don't know where to start. 

'Just start somewhere.' 

Okay. Well, Lord, I pray for Ukraine - please-'

'Stop putting me over there. I'm not 'over there.' I'm right here.' 

Ugh. Alright. Well, I'm worried about my career. About where to do my next degree, if I'm cut out for-

'Stop putting me in the future. I'm right here.' 

That's all I know how to talk about. 

'I know. But that's what I'm here for.' 

I know. 


I just don't know how to let You get close. It scares me. 

'Which is why work, other people, other parts of the world, are so much easier to talk about.'

Yes. I know. I guess it's like that sermon I had to listen to for class the other day. 

'The one about Mary and Martha?'

Yeah, that one. It's not so much that I love to serve more than I love You. I can be pretty lazy, honestly.  It's...

'It's that being busy - especially in your thoughts, more than in real life, honestly - is safe. It keeps me in the other room.' 

Yeah. And I do that to people too. 

'Well of course you do. They're persons. Just like me. A being that is not you. It's not a safe place to be.'

So what do I do? 

'First, you stop asking those sorts of questions. You use those to make space, too. Just know that I love you. I always will. You can always be in the room with Me. There's nothing to be afraid of. Nothing I can't take. Nothing I can't hold. Nothing I can't cherish.' 

I know. It's just really hard to remember some times. 

'I know.' 

Can't you just help me let that be enough?
 Gosh, that really is a good song...


'I mean it, Kyle. Always. I'm always, always, always, here. Always.' 

Oh look, that's a pretty starfish on that building. 

'Remember those days I used to tell you to look up at the stars, to remind you that I was with you?'

How could I forget?

'Then, remember.' 

I think I'll go home and write this down. Probably put it on my blog. 

'You know you're going to put words in my mouth and embellish it to make you look all cool and holy and 'authentic,' right?' 

Yes. I know I will. 

'Okay. Go for it. Just don't forget - you're really not all that great at prose.' 

Fair enough. 

Some days you just need to drive off, and look at some water. 

Thursday, 6 March 2014

"Blessed is the nation whose God is the LORD" ?

"Blessed is the nation whose God is the LORD" 

(Photo credit: Marshall Astor, on Flickr) 

Do nations, countries, and empires rise and fall based upon their relationship to God? Does God's Word promise that America is doomed to decline because of her rapid secularization and apparent abandonment of her Christian roots?

This raises a lot of questions. The most controversial, in my mind, is: What exactly do we mean by a country with Christian roots? How does one define a 'Christian nation'?  Do we mean something different than the Holy Roman Empire? America might have put 'God' on a lot of buildings and in documents, and the Church has always been a celebrated and supported part of American life and society (until recently). But looking back over history and distinguishing vibrant Christianity from a deistic civil, nationalistic, religion is hard to do. And besides, while all this was going on, America committed many sins from the very beginning. I cringe over how kitschy it is to bring these things up, but it is true that we have in our history the deliberate and biblically-justified displacement of peoples and slavery, greed, gluttony (all sins worthy of many sharp Biblical condemnations - condemnations just as harsh as anything to do with sexuality). To claim that our contemporary sins are really the ones bringing judgment and our downfall, seems a bit historically naive (and Biblically selective) to me. I don't deny things have gotten, in many ways, worse and I think it's clear that we're in a cultural tailspin. But getting too specific seems, at best, messy and, at worse, pharisaical. 

One might say 'well, at least we used to acknowledge God, even if we made mistakes, now our society doesn't even want to acknowledge God.' Fair enough. Maybe. But if we're going to use the Bible to find parallels, we must note that in the Old Testament, God's greatest wrath was saved for those who worshiped God with their lips, but denied Him with their actions (see Micah, or the early chapters of Isaiah, as examples). The Bible doesn't give us good reason to say something like that. 

As a seminarian, I feel most strongly about the exegetical issues this all raises. And I want to propose that attempts to use passages like Psalm 33:12 to predict the decline of America, or diagnose America's (or any other country's) spiritual or political problems, or cite natural or other disasters as God's judgment, is a pretty serious misuse of Scripture. 

I will make a few exegetical points about why I think this is a bad interpretation, but then I do want to affirm some of the correct sentiments these interpretations represent. But lastly, and most importantly, I wish to show why passages such as these are meant most of all, to give us hope - not a spirit of condemnation or fear. 

First, Six exegetical problems: 

1. This interpretation ignores Scriptures that emphasize opposite truths. 

No, I don't believe Scripture contradicts itself, but Scripture must be used to help interpret Scripture. And if a particular interpretation is contrary, or chastened, by another verse - we need to rethink our interpretation. 

Consider these other verses: 

"He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous." (Matthew 5:45) 

"Righteous are You, O Lord, when I plead with You; yet let me talk with You about Your judgments. Why does the way of the wicked prosper? Why are those happy who deal so treacherously?" 

(Jeremiah 12:1)

Righteousness and success do not always go together, and the Bible attests to the fact that often, just the opposite is the case! 

The story of Job clues us into this dynamic, does it not? Job's friends keep trying to convince Job that his sins must be the cause of his suffering, but the story ultimately reveals that God's ways cannot be known. Sin and suffering on the one hand, and righteousness and success on the other, don't always go together. 

And we know this too from history. Many great empires have come and gone without recognizing God or Christ. The longest-unshaken empire is arguably the Chinese, largely Buddhist, dynasty. Rome was doing quite well before Christianity came along (its decline began around the same time). And while it is wrong to blame Christianity for Rome's decline, as Edward Gibbon did, it's pretty clear that Christianity did not save Rome (well, at least not in the West). 

So, whatever this verse means, it does not appear that it can mean that godliness and success always go together, for that contradicts a whole lot of other Scriptures. 

2. It takes the verse out of its immediate context

The second half of Psalm 33:12 is rarely quoted. The next clause reads: " the people he chose for his inheritance."

Who did God call 'his inheritance'? Israel. No one else:  "For Yehovah’s portion is His people; Jacob is the allotment of His inheritance." (Deuteronomy 32:9). 

This passage is not giving a general principle about all nations, but about the people of God - who had a unique relationship with God. 

The same goes for other passages cited along these lines: 

"If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land." (2 Chronicles 7:14)

To apply verses such as these to our own country is to blatantly rip the passage out of its context. These are promises toward Israel, part of God's unique and special relationship with Israel (and dealing with a particular period in time). For its contemporary relevance, as I will show later, we must apply it to the Church. 

3. Such verses don't necessarily promise political/economic/social success, anyhow: 

In fact, Psalm 33:12 was a prayer that reflected a promise that was true even in times of failure. It is a promise not directly about political success or prosperity. Even when Israel was chastised, they were still God's inheritance. And they were still blessed, even in their destitution and in their suffering. Even in their sinfulness. When Israel was punished by nations who did not know God, that did not mean that God's blessing had moved, been abolished, or had been traded for one people to another. His promise to Israel was still true (see Hosea 11, as an example). 

And so, it is a stretch to apply this verse to other nations. It was a statement about Israel's relationship with God, which did not directly have to do with Israel's material success. 

It is true that God prospered Israel in times of righteousness, and let her suffer in times of unrighteousness. So, for this one nation at least, there seems to be a correlation in certain ways, in Israel's history. But these were based on explicit promises God made with Israel (blessings and curses in Deuteronomy), not with all people - and God always revealed explicitly when He was casting specific judgment at a point in history. And, yes, there are nations that are judged in the Old Testament for their unrighteousness. But apart from a specific revelation from God, we cannot ultimately know when and how and why God is operating in one way or another. Scripture is clear (as I have illustrated above) that, unless God tells us exactly what He's up to, we cannot know or depend for sure on a correlation between righteousness and success. The rain falls on the just and unjust alike. The wicked prosper, and the righteous suffer. 

4. It ignores the New Testament 

Some (Dispensationalists) will disagree with me, but I maintain the traditional position of all Christian history, that the Church is the continuation of the people of God. The story of Israel is the Church's story. If we are baptized into Christ, we are Abraham's descendants. The Church is Israel. 

And thus, this promise to Israel, is ultimately (in light of the New Testament) a promise to the Church - not one that can be willy-nilly applied to any institution or country. The Church is blessed because God is her Lord. She is the nation of God. Indeed, the New Testament is filled with 'nation' and 'empire' terms used to describe the Church - using the Greek word 'ekklesia'  (which we translate as Church) which is used in the Greek version of the Old Testament for 'the assembly' of Israel.  The people of God, Israel/theChurch (one thing!) is blessed because she belongs to the Lord. The Lord chose her, formed her, made her, keeps her. When the Church humbles herself, the Lord heals her 'land' (which, in the New Testament age, I do not believe means we will become prosperous). 

5. It ignores the cross 

When God talks about punishing Israel for her unrighteousness, I believe He is setting up for the atoning death of Christ. It becomes clear, in the New Testament, that sin was a problem that no one could escape from (Romans 1). All people are under God's wrath. Jews and Babylonians, Americans and Nazis, Israelis and Al-Qaeda. God may deal in temporal judgment here and there (and He announces it in divine revelation), but on the whole, sin is judged, defeated, destroyed, and dealt with on the cross and ultimately at the final judgment. Jesus takes upon himself the curse of sin and fulfills the demands of sin, death, and justice. The clear message of the New Testament is that Jesus is, represents, and fulfills Israel - He purifies Israel from/takes on Himself, the sins God said He would punish her for. In the grand scheme of history, sin and justice have already been dealt with. 

 I do believe God disciplines His people, and those who He is drawing to Himself, in everyday affairs. And, it is clear that many sins have general consequences.  But to look for God's judgment in everyday affairs is to miss that the big picture of all the talk about judgment and purification in the Old Testament is pointing to the act of Christ and the eschatological judgment of God. America's sins, Israel's sins, are dealt with on the cross and at the final judgment, as are mine and yours - for those who accept this grace. To look for temporal judgment in history is to ignore the trajectory of Scripture pointing us to the cross. 

4. The People of God, Especially in the New Testament Age, Are Called to Suffer 

This is where, I think, the Anabaptists understand the Bible well. The people of God, in this time of waiting for our promised inheritance of righteousness to come (for the Kingdom to be established) are in diaspora. We are not in control, we have not yet inherited the earth. We will perennially suffer at the hands of the powerful. Anabaptists would be wary of any close relationship between Church and state for this reason - this side of eternity all power and dominion is the tool of evil. I don't go as far, but I am also uncomfortable with too close of a relationship - I fear that if the Church is in power, she is likely being corrupted (or at high risk of it). But whatever one thinks about all that, we are compelled to realize that the Church's power and comfort will wax and wane, and our predominant call is to suffer. But that does not mean God's promise has left us. We are still blessed, for we are the nation whose God is the Lord. What that means for a state that embraces the Church, I do not think we can easily say. If a society truly grasps the call of Christ, I'd think they'd be likely to suffer - and if they survive and proposer, it may mean that the call of Christ has not been really kept. I'm not sure it's quite that black and white, but those are categories worth considering. We must remember that the kingdoms of this earth, even if closely related to the Church, are not themselves the Church. They come and go, they rise and fall, but the Church remains - the beloved possession of God. 

We in America especially, have a tendency to associate 'blessedness' with material success. This is why we have such a problem with health & wealth gospel teachings in the West. But, in the New Testament, it is clear that the blessing of the people of God, the blessedness of the sons of Abraham whose God is the Lord, is the promise of the coming Kingdom (Ephesians 1:3). Our blessing is in heaven, it is yet to come, it is coming with Christ. And in the meantime e will definitely suffer. The blessing of the Lord does not mean wealth or success in this life. So, it is wrong to look for political or material success as a sign of God's favor or disfavor - certainly for the Church and, I would say, of a society that embraces Christianity (in some way or another). 

It is a false, and wholly unbiblical, attitude to tell anyone - a person, a family, a country, a government - that if they accept God they will suddenly be 'okay.' America could have a massive revival and still collapse. The Bible offers no guarantees about these things - and the closest it comes is to promise the exact opposite! Coming to the Lord may mean remarkable suffering, all the way to the loss of ones whole life! Complete and utter sacrifice, complete 'failure' by the world's standards, is what we celebrate every Sunday morning! To speak like this is to sell a false gospel, and a false promise, and to create a hoard of Christians (if it even works) who are not ready to follow Christ and will fall away at the first sign of trouble - like the disciples who all abandoned Jesus in Gethsemane. They were still waiting for Jesus to become the political hero they had expected - to take over society, to take over the culture, to pull it in by the reigns and make it godly, prosperous, and victorious. They were not ready to pay the price of walking to the cross with Him. They were not willing to realize that the real battle, is not against flesh and blood. That the real Kingdom is not of this earth. That the path of God's redemption plan was one of utter self-sacrifice and loss

Please, pray for our country! Serve the good of our country (and whatever country you find yourself in!) Seek revival, pray for revival! Tell everybody about Jesus and about the judgment that's coming!

 But do not sell a false Gospel. 

Countries, nations, kingdoms come and go. Material success and prosperity, and freedom and peace, will come and go. The Church will have power and influence some days and none the next. These things do not shake us. They cannot surprise us. And we may never know for sure what God is up to in all of these things. Our blessing and our inheritance is sure yet. 

But to be fair...

All that said, it is impossible to ignore the correlation between the decline of the West as a society, and the secularization of the West. Christianity has long been a crucial part of the West's roots, and the West is cutting off all its roots. Of course it is going to whither and collapse. Christianity gave the West so much of its culture and its vitality - free enterprise, hospitals, the early scientific revolution, abolition, philanthropy, the fine arts, its moral compass - all these bulwarks of Western civilization were strongly helped, if not instigated, by Christianity. And as a Christian I wear these things proudly. 

As the world changes drastically, we see Christians in the West scrambling to come to terms with the fact that there is only so much we can do, or (and I'd say) have the responsibility to do, to preserve these roots. We preach, we serve, we build, we pray, we influence, we hope - but we cannot claw to control the tides of culture of history, or we will lose our witness. That is not the attitude of a people of hope - it assumes that we are only succeeding if the culture or the kingdom is thriving, and accepting us. And this is why you hear some people say 'when America rejects God, we should go to _______ where things are better.' What ridiculousness. What a slap in the face of the Great Commission, of the call of the Church. When we abandon the 'hard places' we've really missed the whole point. We were never promised a happy, peaceful, God-honoring culture to live in and do our work. And the goal of our work is not necessarily a prosperous, godly, country (it's not wrong to hope for such things, but we can't set our hopes on them, when we are so consistently warned in Scripture that most of our call as a Church will not look like this, and the fact that times of comfort lead to times of apathy and corruption). We were called to go to all the earth, to walk like Jesus walked, into the darkest, most hell-riddden corners of this earth. 

  Yes, we must be prophetic. We can point to the depravity and futility of the world and culture around us, as the Church has always done.  And there may be times where we can point to circumstances as God's chastisement or discipline. But we must be very, very, careful about pointing to specific instances as God's judgment, or make theological predictions about the relationship between Christianity, Christian vitality, and the rise or decline of a people.  Where God has not explicitly spoken with historical specificity, these things we cannot know for sure. We can only point to the ultimate judgment, and the breaking of sin in the death and resurrection of Christ, and speak prophetically about the general judgment of God. 

In conclusion

Augustine witnessed the collapse of the Western half of the Roman Empire. Early Christian hopes that Christianized-Rome represented the Kingdom of God, were dashed in a few short years. Augustine put pen to paper and wrote one of the most important texts of theology ever constructed - Civitas Dei (City of God). The legacy of this text, and of Augustine's political thought as a whole, is complicated and wrought with contradictions (other writings of Augustine, arguably, undermined the message of the City of God).  Nonetheless, that thesis is important for us today: The kingdoms of this earth, are not the Kingdom of God. Empires, nations, countries, will rise and fall, but the City of God is not shaken. Our citizenship is to another Kingdom. 

“The Heavenly City outshines Rome beyond comparison. There, instead of victory, is truth; instead of high rank, holiness; instead of peace, felicity; instead of life, eternity,” 

― Augustine of Hippo, City of God

America might collapse, with or without embracing Christianity (just as Rome collapsed even after embracing Christianity). And the Church may suffer or prosper as she lives among righteous and unrighteous peoples. But whatever comes, her inheritance, her Kingdom, her promise, her blessing, is in heaven with Christ. And this gives us great hope. No matter kings that may fall, or kings that may rise, no matter what we suffer, our victory is secure. Indeed, as it was with Christ, our moments of greatest victory come when we let go and suffer unjustly. For that is when the glory of God is displayed against the depravity of this world. So do not be afraid of crumbling kingdoms, or of persecution, or of nations that reject the Lord and His people. God's power is as strong as ever, our inheritance, our blessing, is a sure as ever - and indeed, God's glory may be about to be displayed in new and glorious ways - just as occurred at calvary. His light shines brightest in the darkness. 

This people of God is blessed, because she is the Lord's inheritance. She is meek and she is poor, but she shall inherit the earth (Matthew 5). She is beaten down, but she is never destroyed (2 Corinthians 4). And at the last day she shall shine like the stars in the sky (Daniel 7) - the stars of Abraham's descendants (Galatians 3:29).