Fatal Death

Because I could not stop for Death —
He kindly stopped for me —
The Carriage held but just Ourselves —
And Immortality.

I like the poetry of Emily Dickinson, and not just because you can sing most of it to the tune of the Gilligan’s Island theme song. (Go ahead and try it with the lines above. I’ll wait.) She wrote fascinating things, and as someone with a taste for the macabre, I can appreciate her morbid death poetry more than most. (“Morbid Death Poetry” is a good band name.)

But I bring up Dickinson because that subject, death, has been on my mind recently. My church’s Bible study class is working our way through the gospel of John at the moment, and we hit Lazarus a few weeks back. While doing my preparatory study, I discovered something truly fascinating. The word in John 11:33 and 11:38 all English versions translate “deeply moved in spirit” . . . isn’t. It should say, “Jesus was livid.” Enraged. Furious. German translations seem to take that more literally, but English translations insist on an impassive Jesus who isn’t allowed to be human enough to get mad outside of the temple.

I believe it’s a grievous mistake in this particular instance. After all, just a few verses earlier in John 11, Jesus declares himself to be “the resurrection and the life” (v. 25). Three chapters later, he is “the way, the truth, and the life” (14:6), and five chapters earlier he is “the bread of life” (6:35). Repeatedly Jesus refers to himself as life itself. Here at Lazarus’ tomb, then, we see Life encountering Death. Life sees destruction, devastation, sorrow, pain. Life see the horrors of Death victorious, a world enslaved by its oldest enemy.

And Life. Is. Furious.

It was never supposed to be this way. Death was never intended to exist in our world. Mothers were never supposed to lose children. Sisters weren’t meant to mourn brothers. Sons weren’t born to bury fathers. But in this moment, Christ sees this playing out before his very eyes. He sees the Fall, feels anew the betrayal of our first parents, sees our continued rejection of eternal life as we prefer to wail at tombs, servants of Death who have refused Life time and time again.

And he is angry.

Angry any of this happened. Angry Death has won for thousands of years. Angry people will grieve and lament and die for thousands more.

And so, just this once, just for these beloved friends, with tears in his eyes, he thinks in his heart, “No. This will not do.”

It’s a clear call of command, raw divine authority infusing every syllable. “Lazarus! Come forth!”

Lazarus comes forth.

And Death loses the day after all.

It’s a victory repeated as Christ raises others, just as the Prophets had. And it’s a victory which will be completed on the cross and in an empty tomb, the power of Life on display, a God “born that Man no more may die.”

Jesus at the tomb of Lazarus is engaged in no less a divine showdown than Elijah at Mount Carmel as he takes on the prophets of Baal. It is a display of power, it is a show of righteousness, it is anger and truth and heaven on earth.

But it’s also a dramatic reminder of a deeper biblical truth: “The last enemy to be destroyed is death” (1 Cor 15:26). Death will one day die, cast into a lake of fire (Rev 20:14). Death is the enemy of Life; Christianity affords it no other place in the cosmos. It is never good, never a friend, never sweet release, never the will of God. It is a price to be paid, a blood debt owed for sin — the necessary consequence of a planetary rebellion.

I’m not entirely sure we see it that way, though. No one who has sat by the bed of a loved one struggling to survive has ever prayed the gasping and pain never ceases. If we’re honest with ourselves, most of us will admit we’ve begged God for people to die — not out of hate, but out of love. It’s why we turn off the machines in the end: we love them. We don’t want them to continue suffering in a body which feels nothing but agony. We want them to have rest, and death is sometimes the only escape. We love them enough to want that for them, because we all eventually stop being afraid they will die and start being afraid they won’t. It’s not cold, cruel, or callous. It’s mercy. Respect. Love.

But is it? Again, Scripture is clear: death is evil, an enemy to be destroyed. How can it ever be a welcome friend? I think we’ve always struggled with this, really. It’s why we converted the angel of death, slaughterer of the firstborn, to a guy in white in Touched by an Angel. Death, to Christians, stopped being the Grim Reaper and became a blessed escort into the afterlife, a mere psychopomp. Honestly, I feel it’s a natural progression of perception. The question remains, however: is it accurate? Are we correct to make the shift? It’s a question which keep recurring in our modern world as things like physician-assisted suicide and right to die laws become more and more commonplace. Do we force people to endure torment because death is an enemy? Do we let them kill themselves and pronounce God’s blessing upon the act? The world is asking these questions. Christians must answer them. Offhand, I’d say we’ll all devise different answers, too. It’s a complex issue, and there’s a lot at stake.

Death is a curse — the Curse. It is also a sometime blessing. How do you feel? How do we think about death? How does it matter for how we live our daily lives?

Memento mori.

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Surrogate Parent

If there’s one criticism I consistently hear being leveled at the Church, it’s that we’re irrelevant. Our message — both in our songs and our preaching — simply doesn’t matter to the daily lives of ordinary people. Someone even launched Relevant magazine as a way to combat that mindset, especially among younger folks. (Wait. Does saying “folks” make me sound old and irrelevant?) The quest for relevancy led to the rise of the seeker movement: churches discarded anything “old” to attract “seekers,” those looking for a “relevant” church (hence this is also termed the attractional church model). Hymns, neckties, organs, pulpits, and a host of other things became irrelevant — and were subsequently discarded with little to no further reflection.

The preaching in those attractional churches is designed first and foremost to be, well, attractive. That’s not a bad thing — until you think about it. It puts an emphasis on avoiding negative topics, like sin and hell. It frequently eschews exposition of the biblical text for a more topical approach. That quickly descends into un-anchored motivational speech (to be fair, expository sermons often become mere theology lectures). But, it is said, at least those topics are relevant. They engage issues in the daily lives of ordinary people. Yes, but they just don’t seem to do so by anything more than proof-texting.

At its base, the quest for relevancy changes the nature of church services. Not only its form, which is always subject to change, but its nature. Church becomes a consumer product, entertainment, instead of participatory adoration. Moreover, it shifts the primary place of discipleship from the home to the pulpit. That may not sound like it, but that’s a problem.

I firmly believe all preaching must be evangelistic in nature — and overtly so. Yes, other concerns are addressed, but a sermon must present the gospel in order to be an actual sermon (I expand on this elsewhere). That means it is of limited use for teaching us how to theologically navigate such things as Facebook, the opioid epidemic, or tattoos. These things are best considered in a small group discipleship format. Ideally, that setting is the home, as Christian parents catechize their children and equip them to reflect on their life experiences from a Christian perspective. This is one reason discipleship should begin in the home. Beyond that, small groups based out of a church are good resources, as are larger-group teaching times.

This is my ideal, but ideals often crumble when they collide with the real world. Let’s admit very few parents engage in home discipleship, and with the rise of the Nones from Millennials and Gen Z (those who list religious affiliation as “none”), it’s fairly probable the average age of conversion will increase as those not raised in Christian homes come to faith as adults. Younger people who begin to attend church for the first time will need — and indeed want — clear moral teachings, biblical principles they can apply to life. In short, they want the “relevant,” and the local congregation becomes a surrogate parent to teach them the things they never got at home.

On the one hand, it’s tragic the church is now forced to play the role of home-based disciple-maker. These truths were to be passed down to our children and our children’s children. They were not. The people should have been taught at home how to think theologically. They were not. That we now, as a Church, must alter our worship to provide basic moral education signifies the failure of the family unit and our experiment in abandoning our Sunday school classes and small groups.

On the other hand, Cyprian of Carthage once said, “He can no longer have God for his Father who has not the Church for his Mother.” The local congregation is a place for fellowship, for nourishment, and for worship. It provides nurture in many forms. That’s why she is our mother. If other mothers fail at the task of discipleship, then she will step in as a surrogate mother of sorts, adopting the orphan and instructing him/her in the paths of righteousness. That is the only way she can see her children saved.

Part of that instruction, however, is a simple truth, a basic axiom: the Christian faith is always relevant. Scripture, whether chapter and verse or underlying principles, will always apply to any situation. The realm of public theology is designed to create pathways, bridges between “real life” and the pertinent texts/traditions. We would do well to promote the discipline and help act as the surrogate parent for so many who come to our doors without knowing anything in advance.

Just not at the expense of true worship, of adoration, of praise of the One we came to learn about. God is not a thought experiment; He is a Divinity with whom one relates. May we evangelize and teach. May we baptize and catechize.

May we parent.

Wisdom of Religion

Recently I began delving into wisdom literature. The books of Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Songs occupy a unique place in the biblical canon, and sometimes they prove difficult to use in preaching. I admit I have the bad habit of using Proverbs simply as source corroboration and proof-texts: I take another passage and supplement my message with supporting proverbs. To be fair, it’s not like Proverbs offers consistent narratives throughout. It’s mostly a collection of gnomic, pithy aphorisms that occasionally sound too close to a fortune cookie for my personal comfort. (Take, for example, Proverbs 18:9: “One who is slack in work is brother to one who destroys.” *Cue gong.*)

In fact, the format of Proverbs and the overall structure of its sayings has me researching how biblical wisdom literature compares to other extant classical wisdom texts, specifically in Eastern philosophy/religion. If Proverbs reads like the Tao Te Ching, for instance, are the two related in some fashion? Are there similar themes? Is there a universal wisdom tradition they reflect? Is the syntax of the sayings a specific vessel designed for wisdom literature?  Unfortunately no one else seems to be asking the same questions. After scouring my seminary’s library, I found a single article comparing Solomon and Laozi on happiness. That’s it. Plenty of things comparing various Ancient Near East wisdom texts (Akkadian, Sumerian, Egyptian, Jewish, etc.), plenty on Chinese vs. English proverbs, but not a single study making a full analysis of biblical wisdom literature and classical Eastern wisdom teachings.

Despite the overwhelming lack of scholarship on this topic, I think it would provide great insights into comparative theology. How does the Bible’s wisdom compare to the Tao Te Ching? The Quran? The Bhagavad Gita? Surely each features a particular flavor of wisdom, and that wisdom would naturally be oriented towards living a religious life. Of course, one can go too far in the theological study of wisdom — consider Russian sophiology, for example — but on the whole it would provide a quick way to assess theologies, values, and daily practices of a given religion.

Let’s go back to Proverbs for a moment. Proverbs is primarily concerned with orthopraxy — right actions, right living. It offers insights on everything from business deals to parenting, encompassing the whole spectrum of human experience; there is little it doesn’t cover. It always speaks, however, from a uniquely Jewish perspective. In fact, it offers the following as the seventh verse of the entire book: “The fear of the LORD [YHWH] is the beginning of knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and instruction” (Proverbs 1:7). All the wisdom that follows is thus based in the fear of God, and only with this threshold condition met can wisdom be properly applied (and lived).

This tells us two things about Judaism (and subsequently Christianity). First, it is a religion concerned with the mundane, with daily life, as much as it is the divine. Second, it is a theistic and theocentric religion. God exists — only the one God — and life should find meaning in relationship to Him. A God-less life is folly, fundamentally unwise.

Other wisdom writings reveal similar things about their respective religions. Turning again to Taoism, the Tao Te Ching is silent regarding classical theism (Taoism being pantheistic, not monotheistic, with a small pantheon of minor deities), but it speaks volumes about daily life. All of this is evident strictly from the way it presents its wisdom sayings, again all in gnomic forms.

Clearly most religions aren’t simply beliefs about the divine, nor are they mere collections of rules for daily living. They are both, and this admixture is most prevalent in the wisdom writings. If wisdom itself is a staple feature of religion, then wisdom becomes a religious enterprise and a religious goal. But do we see it that way? Probably only rarely, if at all. Our view of wisdom is generally far more utilitarian than religious. Wisdom is reduced to nothing more than rules for the application of knowledge, not ways to draw closer to God or true virtue/enlightenment.

May we learn to be wise, but wise in ways which first and foremost lead us to God — the intended purpose and end of wisdom.

Just Say No

Of all the things public theology could encompass I never thought I’d feel necessary to address, marijuana is certainly one of them. I always believed it was a rather straightforward issue which would never be challenged. And yet now we live in an age where the recreational use of marijuana is legal in some states in America and some entire countries elsewhere. If culture has shifted to permit it, do Christians need to reassess our perspective?

Yes and no. Culture shifts are always good opportunities to do some theological digging. It’s far easier to engage in dialogue with those around you (and the culture at large) if you know what you’re talking about, if you actually have something to say beyond simply stating your private opinion. That’s one reason I’m writing this today. At the same time, though, I don’t believe the Christian ethic around drug use needs to change. We still say no, and I think that’s the right response, hence the other reason I’m writing: to affirm our position. But let’s consider both sides.

One of my favorite pro-marijuana arguments runs something like this: “God made it and called it good (Genesis 1:11-12). He wouldn’t ban us from using His own plant.” First of all, “Don’t touch that plant” is literally one of the first things God ever said to human beings (Genesis 2:16-17). Second, we can look at other dangerous plants (poison ivy, toxic berries, etc.) as well as those which can be misused (making opium from poppy seeds, etc.) and see that even the plant world was impacted by the Fall. All of creation groans for redemption (Romans 8:19-23). The entire cosmos is marred by sin and the power of Satan. What once was good no longer is.

Another argument is an adaptation of those used in favor of medical marijuana. Medical science has declared it to be beneficial in certain ways, or at least not as generally harmful as typically believed. If that’s true, there’s no scientific reason to prohibit it, people say. I find two key problems here. First is the limited nature of the medical studies themselves, presented by the average person with confirmation bias. Most (not all, but most) using this argument are already in favor of recreational marijuana, so they become quick to point out only those studies supporting their position. Second, and far more troubling to me as a pastor, is the obvious confusion here about the nature of morality. Unpopular Truth Time (UTT ™): morality isn’t relative. It is absolute. That means it doesn’t depend on emerging scientific knowledge to tell it right from wrong. Quite the opposite is true, in fact: morality tells science what it can and cannot do. (As the joke goes, “What do you get when you cross a spider and a duck? Suspension of your grant funding and an investigation by the Ethics Committee.”) Moral absolutes derive from the nature and character of God, which never change; science simply doesn’t get a say in right and wrong.

Next comes an argument from comparison. More people die each year from alcohol-related causes than do people from causes stemming from marijuana usage; ergo, it’s not that bad, and since we accept the greater of two evils, we should accept the lesser one as well. You know what happens when we do that, though? You suddenly have two evils instead of just one. I find that unacceptable. I’d prefer zero of them; none is better than two, but so is one. We failed once in getting rid of the one; let’s not invite in the other as well simply because of that failure.

Finally, there’s the matter of the rule of law. If it’s legal, is must be OK. Here Paul is instructive: “All things are lawful, but not all things are helpful. All things are lawful, but not all things build up” (1 Corinthians 10:23, ESV). Yes, it’s legal in some places — as are a great many many other evils. Much like science, law doesn’t set morality. As John Wesley said concerning slavery, “The grand plea is, ‘They are authorized by law.’ But can law, human law, change the nature of things? Can it turn darkness into light, evil into good? By no means. Notwithstanding ten thousand laws, right is right, and wrong is wrong still.”

What remains to be proven, then, is if in fact using recreational marijuana is morally wrong. It’s not like “Thou shalt not smoke pot” is in the Decalogue. There isn’t a chapter and verse to quote here. So what’s the Christian basis for prohibiting it?

An obvious reason is the physiological impact. “Stoner movies” sell precisely because they showcase (and exaggerate) what happens when you use — how ridiculous you become. You lose touch with a lot of mental faculties (I can personally vouch for a friend who got high and forgot which direction was clockwise). Motor skills go as well, which is why you can get a DUI for driving while stoned and why employers screen for it in drug tests. You are mentally and physically impaired. Anything that has such a deleterious affect is ruled out just by common sense. And in a religion where self-control is a virtue, evidence of God at work in one’s life, it’s unfathomable to imagine something designed to strip that away could ever be considered good.

Christians in particular need to keep a few other things in mind. As a people called to be holy as God is holy (1 Peter 1:15-16), we cannot look like the rest of the world. That means both doing things the world would never do (sacrificially loving a neighbor, believing in the authority of the Bible, etc.) and abstaining from things the world considers normal or acceptable (pre-marital sex, recreational marijuana use, etc.). Moreover, we are explicitly commanded to avoid things which might even be merely questionable (Romans 14:21; 1 Corinthians 8:9-13; 1 Thessalonians 5:22). We preserve our witness for Jesus by avoiding such things. And it’s far more important to reach a soul for Christ than to get high.

Out of love for each other and our God, let us avoid even the appearance of evil. Out of respect for our bodies and God’s absolute morality, let us refrain from recreational marijuana use. Be holy, for He is holy.

On Preaching

About five or six months after I became a senior minister with regular pulpit duties, one of the college students at my church came up to me before service and said, “I have a question. I’m in a public speaking class, and I need help. Are you any good at public speaking?”

As the deacon in the pew behind me fought valiantly not to laugh, I responded, “You tell me!”

Hopefully my preaching has made more of an impact since then; after all, public speaking is a significant part of my job. So significant, in fact, I answer these days to “Preacher” like a first name instead of a title or job function. Lately, though, I’ve been thinking quite a bit about the act of preaching itself. It’s not just delivering another speech. It’s not a motivational talk, a lecture, or any other type of oration. It’s preaching, the unique act of delivering a sermon to those assembled together in worship. And that distinction should never be lost. Therefore I personally define preaching as “the act of orally proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit.” (I tried to make that fully Trinitarian a while back, but I kept feeling like I was throwing a bone to God the Father. Father, Son, and Spirit are of course all involved in preaching.)

Let me unpack that a bit. My definition has two key elements: proclamation of Jesus, but proclamation in the Spirit. First, then, is Jesus. If I do not share the death and resurrection of Christ my Lord, I haven’t preached. If I haven’t shared the message of salvation from sin to a life of discipleship, I haven’t preached. Those things may get mentioned to varying degrees, but they must still be there. Why? Because those are the functions of the word of God, and preaching is the verbal proclamation of that word to accomplish what the word itself sets out to do: teach, rebuke, correct, and train in righteousness (2 Timothy 3:16). That means talking about sin and salvation from sin. That means mentioning heaven and hell. That means sharing encouragement for daily life and motivating people to love and serve their neighbors and their God.

All of these things must be done in the explicit name of Jesus. If Christ is not preached, don’t call it a Christian sermon. Call it one of those other things I said sermons were not. Whether you preach New Testament or Old Testament — and those are your only permissible primary texts — preach Christ and him crucified (1 Corinthians 2:2). He is the source of the new covenant (Luke 22:20) and the one whom the old covenant proclaimed (Acts 3:22-24). He is the originator of our faith (Hebrews 12:2) and the fulfillment of the Law (Matthew 5:17). No matter your text, no matter your topic, preach Jesus, and preach him by (his holy) name.

This must be done in the power of God, as the second half of our definition says. Only through the power of the Holy Spirit can one properly preach. You’ve been in enough church services, I’d wager, to know the difference, too. Think of the worst sermon you’ve ever heard. Could you feel the Holy Spirit’s presence in that message? Probably not. Now, the word of God never fails to accomplish His purposes (Isaiah 55:11), but sometimes that’s in spite of and not because of the preacher. And you can tell. What’s more, the preacher can tell, too.

The worst sermon I’ve ever given in my life was preached at the church of my former youth pastor. I had just begun preaching, and he asked me to fill in for both the morning and evening services that day. My topic that morning was the Lord’s Prayer in Matthew 6, and I wanted to hammer home the need to forgive others based on the two verses immediately following the prayer: “For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins” (Matthew 6:14-15). As I began, however, I very clearly felt God say to focus on the opening lines of the prayer instead, specifically “hallowed be Thy name.” Well, that wasn’t what I had planned, so I gave the line just a minute or two of extra attention and moved on, self-righteously ignoring the Holy Spirit so I could tell those sinners they needed to learn how to forgive.

Six people came back for the evening service.

My preaching that morning came from my own power, not the power of the Holy Spirit in me. I could tell, and the congregation could certainly tell. All preaching simply must be done in the power of the Holy Spirit or it is pointless. Why? Paul said it best: “I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God has been making it grow. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow” (1 Corinthians 3:6-7). Human words are just noises strung together to become comprehensible; they only have meaning when they point to something beyond themselves. When they point to Jesus with the backing of the presence of God, they’re enough to move mountains.

At this point, I have to confess something: my preaching is nothing like I was taught in seminary. My process for putting together those words would probably get me a failing grade in any preaching class in any school. I rarely do sermon series, and I only use the lectionary passages during Advent; my week usually begins with a prayer on Monday morning asking God what my flock will need to hear the next Sunday morning. (And even then it occasionally gets changed the morning of, much to the consternation of my tech crew.) My sermons are never a fixed length gained by rehearsal and repetition; I preach until the Spirit says, “That’s enough.” Manuscripts are reserved solely for weddings and funerals, and sometimes I don’t even use an outline or notes. Yes, I prepare throughout the week. I study, exegete, consult commentaries, etc. But my sermon is my offering, and in the moment of preaching, I give my study to God and say, “Here’s what I have, Lord. Speak through me to use it for Your people.” And you know what? He does.

If God speaks through preachers, then the people must be given a chance to respond. Again, listen to Paul: “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved. How, then, can they call on the One they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the One of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them?” (Romans 10:13-14). The point of preaching isn’t to showcase the intellectual or rhetorical prowess of the preacher; the point of all preaching is to bring people to a (deeper) relationship with God. If that’s the reason we preach, so people can be saved by believing and calling on the name of the Lord, then it is mandatory we, as preachers, give the congregation a chance to respond to the preaching. I personally point-blank refuse to preach without a period of response, which for me is the revivalistic “altar call” style of invitation. No invitation, no sermon.

There are of course many types of responses, most of which pre-date the altar call. Holy Communion is a historical time of response, as is time devoted to prayer and reflection. Whatever is effective and appropriate in your context and denomination, do it. But that gift of an opportunity to respond immediately after the proclamation can make the difference between heaven and hell for an immortal soul. It’s just that important.

One final note I want to say is addressed to all of us who have the privilege of preaching: don’t you dare step behind that pulpit unless you are called to be there. Paul continues in Romans 10 to say this: “And how can anyone preach unless they are sent? As it is written: ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!'” (v. 15). I’ve never had my feet called beautiful at any other time, but I am certainly sent to bring good news. Indeed, “Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel!” (1 Corinthians 9:16). Sadly, this is not the case for all who preach. God has called all of us to work for the kingdom, but not all of us are preachers — including more than a few who fill a pulpit every Sunday. Some may see it as an easy job, some may see it as a platform for their own voices, some may see it as a quick way to fame, and some may see it as just another career path. None of those are true, and they all betray a deep ignorance of preaching and the work of the preacher.

Unless God has called you to the fields and sent you out to the harvest as one who can orally proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit, serve God in another capacity. He will call you to service somehow; go and do, but do not preach.

I say that because preaching is the act of orally proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit. May we preach with faithfulness to God, love of our congregation, and reverence for the Holy Bible. Most of all, may we preach so someone might hear, believe, call on the name of the Lord, and be saved.

Weeding List

I recently made a list of books with which I need to part ways. In library terms, we call this “weeding,” pulling books that are no longer needed in order to make room for others. At times it feels a bit like throwing away your past, as each book has memories associated with it. Other times it’s more akin to dropping off one’s children at school and promptly moving to another state. Either way, it’s a painful process.

Yet it remains a necessary one. I’m currently running close to 800 books (having bought more just last week). My parents just donated two old bookcases to the cause, and that means I have six at home. One of the shelves on the fifth case is now full, and a second will follow shortly. If I cleaned out my office, I would need yet another full bookcase — my work library could fill over two on its own right now. I never imagined I’d say this, but that’s just too many books. Or at least too many books I’ll never pick up again. They just feel cluttered, burdened down by too much weight sitting around my home. I mean, I don’t really need two copies of an entire sci-fi series. I don’t really want an enormous collection of John Grisham novels (who actually reads those?). And all of those books in Korean and German? I can’t even read those languages anymore, and I doubt I’ll pick them back up. They’re all just dead weight, unused and, in some cases, unusable. Extra clutter. So it’s time once again to start weeding.

Other areas of life could use some weeding, too. Maybe it’s because I’m a not-so-closeted ascetic, but I constantly feel like I have too much stuff. I mean, do I really need so many pots and pans? (Probably, honestly, the way I cook.) But what about clothes? I wear the same six shirts until they disintegrate. To prove this to you, I confess I still own (and wear) the t-shirt I wore on my very first day of high school eighteen years ago. (I wore that shirt the first day of classes each school year all the way through college and seminary, too.) But why? And the two dead laptops, the Kansas license plate, the empty water bottles in the cabinet, and the neck ties — God forgive me, the number of neck ties I own . . .

There’s weeding to be done.

All of that is physical, however. It’s all stuff to be disposed of in some fashion. What about other things? What else, in my picture of a perfect life, would I discard? Anxiety, for one. Fears. I’d like to not get so angry at times. Cut out some fast food. Less caffeine. These things keep me running at less than optimal efficiency in my daily life. But what about my spiritual life? What bad habits do I have which need to be weeded out? What things do I do, what sins do I commit, which keep me from getting closer to God?

I spoke in the first person there, but ask yourself the same questions. What in your life needs to go because it keeps you from God? It could be possessions which have turned into idols. It could be regularly skipping a devotional time at home. It could be a sense of guilt, envy, anger, or another pesky emotion. It might even be a slavish devotion to the tyranny of time, a schedule that doesn’t have room for God. So what needs weeding?

Sometimes less is more, but sometimes, less is just less. Things will therefore vie to re-clutter your life, to fill the vacuum. That’s why it’s so difficult to kick a bad habit without putting a good habit in its place. Philippians 4:8 offers us those good replacements: “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is holy, whatever is admirable — if anything is excellent or praiseworthy — think about such things.” Whenever there’s a gap you just can’t live with — and most people are uncomfortable with that kind of sudden emptiness — fill it with godly things. Volunteer in your community. Read Christian books. Hang up beautiful paintings in the living room. Take up gardening. Do something which will help you think about the true and the pure.

Do this because those things point us to God. They remind us of the One who is good, holy, and praiseworthy. He will never clutter your life or give you things you don’t need. Instead He draws us all to Himself — the one need we all share.

Go make a list of things to weed. Then do it. And praise God for bringing you closer to Him.

Maximum Effort

When Dad is sick, he watches war movies. All day, every day, until he feels well enough to get off the couch. Growing up, it meant I got familiar fairly quickly with films like Tora! Tora! Tora!Sands of Iwo JimaThe Bridge at Remagen, and Torpedo Run. His favorite war flick, and the one he watched (and probably still watches) without fail, is Twelve O’Clock High.

Gregory Peck plays the commanding officer of a bomber squadron in the Army Air Corps during World War II. He dubs part of his unit “the Leper Colony”: every misfit, reject, and wash-out, everyone no one wants, everyone performing under specification, gets sent to that particular crew. Despite commanding such men, he turns his entire outfit, Leper Colony included, into one of the best in the theater. How? He doesn’t give up on them. He rides them hard — maybe too hard at times. His motto: “Maximum effort!” Anything, he declares, is possible if you work harder than anyone else, if you push yourself beyond your limits. When you absolutely can’t do it anymore, do it again anyway. That’s the meaning of “maximum effort.”

I’ve always sympathized with Peck’s general. Maybe it’s because I’m an INTJ, maybe it’s because I have a type-A personality, maybe it’s just how I interpret the “Protestant work ethic,” but I’ve always felt I could do anything that needed to be done if I’d just work hard enough — and I tend to hold others to that standard as well. The phrase “I want results, not excuses” is a mantra of mine, alongside other such gems as “Don’t bring me problems; bring me solutions” and “A failure to plan on your part does not constitute an emergency on my own.” It’s how I’ve lived my life for almost thirty-two years. Things are tough? Push through! Work harder! Maximum effort!

The problem with maximum effort is that, well, it’s the maximum. There’s nothing left to give, and if you try, you break.

I’ve been broken for a while now. I stupidly thought I had no limits, since I’d never reached them before. I thought I’d always have that bit of extra effort to call upon when I needed it. I was wrong. I stretched myself too far and broke.

Maybe you’ve been broken for a while, too.

This is frequently the precise point we fail as the Church: we have no idea how to care for those broken like this. Worse, we shame the broken who seek the help they need. Our society in general has a long history of stigmatizing mental illness, and that stigma seems to quadruple inside the walls of the church. Instead of offering support, we say stupid, demeaning things:

“Haven’t you prayed about it?”
“Worry is a sin, you know.”
“If you were closer to God, you wouldn’t have these problems.”
“You don’t need medication. You just need Jesus.”
“Other people have it worse. Have you just tried being grateful for what you have?”

These are incredibly ignorant statements — worse, they are incredibly harmful. All they do is make the person feel “less than”: less spiritual, less holy, less thankful, less Christian, than all the other “good little church people.” We pile guilt and shame on top of preexisting problems.

And after we’ve made it worse, we keep them from getting the help they need now even more than they did before they talked to us. They were vulnerable enough, trusting enough to tell us what was going on — and we insulted and mocked them, then told them they never need to tell anyone else, someone who could actually make things better. If we do decide, in our infinite grace, to permit them to seek help, we greatly qualify it. “If you have to see someone,” we say, “go to a Christian counselor only. No one secular, and no one who can prescribe medication.” But brain chemistry needs other chemistry to adjust it. Those pills can be very necessary for mental health. And while I certainly appreciate good Christian counselors, not everyone is going to feel safe seeing one, especially for issues related to addictions or sexuality. They’re afraid of being judged, of hearing more of what the Church People already told them.

We need to stop this nonsense. End the stigma. Encourage sick people to do what it takes to be made well. We don’t tell the amputee to be grateful they still have three limbs. We don’t tell the person with meningitis to just pray harder. We don’t tell a person with fibromyalgia it’s the result of their secret sin. We don’t tell the person with a broken leg to just stop thinking about it — and to take off the cast because they don’t need medical intervention. Instead we tell the person with the flu to see a doctor. We tell the one with appendicitis to go to the emergency room. Why do we treat those with sick brains differently from those with sick bodies? Why is the brain the one body part we refuse to help?

If you’re reading this today and you are broken, get the help you need: psychiatrist, therapist, Christian counselor, medication. If you’ve hit your limit and been pushed harder anyway, if you’ve moved beyond maximum effort and gotten hurt in the process, seek healing. Don’t let the ignorance of other people, even people you love, keep you hurting. Seek the Great Physician, yes, but go to those women and men on earth He uses to provide healing.

You are not alone. You are not less-than. You are not unloved by God just because you’re suffering right now. Reject the stigma others would apply to you.

Be made whole.

Never Again; or, Misplaced Priorities

After the shooting at a club in Florida a couple of years ago, I posted begging you not to politicize the deaths of your fellow human beings. I called for mourning, for grief, for respect, not an instant tirade from either side of the aisle about gun control, homosexuality, or other charged topics. Following the horrific shooting at a high school yesterday (again in Florida), my conversations and social media pages have been saturated with exactly what I tried to stave off previously. While I continue to pray for the victims, their families, and for the shooter and his family, I am afraid I must break my own silence, go against my own advice, and respond to some of the claims I’ve been seeing.

No matter your view on gun control, etc., we all agree, as a nation, something must be done to protect the lives of our children. It is obscene, it is perverse, it is unholy for even a single student to suffer and die in an environment which should be keeping them as safe as humanly possible. The thought “I could die in class today” should be the one thought furthest from the minds of those who should still be singing the songs of innocence. And yet these things happen once a week on average in the United States in recent years, with eighteen so far this year. We all agree: this is unacceptable, and it must stop.

The problem is there aren’t quick-fix solutions for broken systems, and there is an abundance of broken systems at play in this particular national horror. The American health care system is a joke. It provides very little “care” indeed. Yes, sick people are made well using some of the best and most advanced medical techniques utilized by the best-educated medical professionals on the planet — but they are made well only mechanically, mechanically. Where is the care for the minds and souls to along with the care for bodies? Trauma affects all three, but we rarely treat all of them in a clinical setting. While I believe the church, the local congregation, is best-equipped for care of souls, how are we doing so as a complement to medical care? Or are we? Mental health care, the major medical issue at stake in discussions of shooters, remains heavily stigmatized in the U.S. Why? Why are we ashamed to admit we have a sick brain that needs made well the same as a sick liver? Partly because of the church’s ground-level, lived belief Jesus means you don’t need pills or therapists. Church, how dare we keep sick people ill through guilt and shame. How dare we be so hateful and so bigoted and so ignorant as that. Perhaps if we helped people accept they need help and support their treatment we would see fewer tragedies and less violence.

(Of course, we all could use more Jesus. Always. A changed heart and a saved soul go a long way towards preventing these things.)

A second broken system is American education. Instead of providing care and seeing students as people in need of it, our education system cranks out information parrots who meet the right benchmarks on our test scores. Schools can’t provide the top-level care students need — it’s not their function, and school counselors are limited for many reasons — but they can do more than they do. For a start, and I’m delighted at our ongoing progress on this front, we can reject the idea bullying is acceptable. Will we ever eradicate bullying completely? Doubtful. But we can certainly do more to stop it, to care for victims, and to punish perpetrators. We can help students understand it’s OK to seek help when they need it. We can provide more professionals in more schools to provide that care. But we don’t, and the education system remains broken.

If the health care system and the education system are broken, so is the family system. Call me a curmudgeon, but we don’t do family like we used to. The divorce rate remains high while the marriage rate declines. Fewer people are getting married, and when they do, it’s generally as the last, very omissible, step in what used to be the “love-marriage-sex-children” progression. Many people now have multiple children with multiple partners, none of whom they marry either before or after childbirth. And we accept this horror. It’s the new normal, despite being an affront and a sin in the eyes of a holy God. Such lack of commitment, shifting members of households, etc. greatly undermine if not destroy family ties and family stability, and we’re only beginning, I fear, to to feel the effects.

And now the unavoidable: guns. Let’s just admit now, up front, no one can be shot with a bullet unless a gun is involved. Let’s also admit no one can be shot by a gun without a human being to pull the trigger. Next: let’s admit we are the only post-industrial, Western nation to see this pattern of gun violence. Finally, let’s admit these things have indeed happened before in other countries, only they took steps to prevent them from happening again, they basically stopped, and we just don’t want to do what they did because our right to own as many firearms of any kind as we want is more important to us than a first grader’s right to live. Will we ever remove guns from the hands of criminals entirely? No. But we can certainly greatly limit the number available (again, see every other major world power).

So many are currently suggesting that instead of regulating firearms more, we simply put more guns in schools, arming teachers and other staff. The solution to gun violence isn’t more guns. And, frankly, that solution stems from a morally unacceptable, morally repugnant premise. For the “armed schools” idea to work, an active shooter needs to get shot by a good guy with a gun. That’s the logic. No one is offering it as a deterrent to bringing guns to schools à la mutually assured destruction. No, they’re saying we simply need to shoot back after the shooting starts. But that still allows for — still necessitates — an active shooter. We are accepting school shootings and student death as a normal part of life in this response. Why? Why are these acceptable terms? Why are we still willing to let children die to enable our preferred solution? Why are we being reactive — responding to an existing active shooter — rather than being proactive — taking steps to ensure that potential shooter never pulls the trigger (or has a trigger to pull) in the first place? Surely it makes more sense to disarm one shooter than to give everyone else a bulletproof vest. We still may not be able to prevent all school shootings, but as the rest of the world has taught us, we can prevent most. We never have to have eighteen shootings in seven weeks again. Never again.

Except nothing will happen. No action will be taken. Not because we can’t do something, but because we won’t. We, as a nation, simply don’t value human life enough to act. We care more for our weapons, more for our instruments of death, than we do for life. We care more for sexual libertinism, test scores, and the Almighty Dollar, more for the status quo, than we do for the lives of our children.

May God have mercy on our souls.

Practicable Theology

A seminary friend and I have recently been lamenting the current state of theological education. As Paul David Tripp notes in Dangerous Calling (which I am currently reading but should have been required in seminary), the seminary has gone much the way of the university and the rest of the academy: discrete specializations all fighting for academic (and thus financial) priority. That means every professor must advertise her/his field as the most important, and that means producing increasing levels of scholarship (significant or trivial) to support that claim, and that means teaching becomes secondary, and that means bad things happen.

For my own life, it’s had both immediate and long-term repercussions. While I abandoned the thoughts of doctoral work in biblical studies coming down a mountainside in South Korea, the current trends in the field make me confident in that decision. Instead of seeking biblical truths to convey to future preachers — something now relegated to the once-defunct field of biblical theology — biblical scholars are more focused on inscriptions, dissecting tiny portions of manuscripts, and searching for anything that might subvert longstanding beliefs (note, for example, the alacrity with which the field adopted its “New Perspective on Paul”). None of those things has any bearing whatsoever on the life of the people in Pewville, as a favorite mentor likes to say. They aren’t concerned about possible textual variants in a single verse in Jude across the manuscript tradition. They’re concerned with what that verse might mean for their marriage, their salvation, their children. Quite a disconnect from the academy at present.

It seems every seminary or similar institution has a department or school of “practical theology.” It usually houses things like counseling, family studies, preaching, worship, and Christian education — you know, all those places where the theological rubber meets the ministerial road, so to speak. If you want to know what to preach, study systematic theology; if you want to know how to preach, study practical theology.

I think it’s a false dichotomy, one artificially imposed by an overly-specialized academy. You can’t do ministry without knowing the God who calls and commissions you; if you truly know that God, spent years learning about Him, you’ll have no choice but to engage in ministry in some fashion. God is both the substance and the power of preaching, for a sermon is the gospel of Jesus Christ proclaimed in the power of the Holy Spirit. If either element is missing, word or power, logos or pneuma, then it isn’t a sermon — and it isn’t preaching.

As the sermon, so every other act of Christian worship. All worship, whether song, sacrament, or sermon, requires a soul attuned to the Spirit of God enabled by a theological vocabulary to engage with the Divine. (We cannot praise Jesus if we do not know his name, after all.) For this reason, many authors are once again reminding us of two core truths: orthodoxy leads to orthopraxy, and theology must result in doxology. If our beliefs about God are right (orthodoxy), then we will do the right things based on those beliefs (orthopraxy). What forms the basis of orthopraxy, those right actions? Doxology, praise of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Our beliefs, our paradigms, our knowledge — in short, our theology — must bring us to our knees at the foot of the cross. If it does not, it is a useless mind game and nothing more.

This is why all theology must be practical. Every ounce of the finest scholarship we can muster should be used by that body of believers at worship, the Church. If it cannot be put into practice in some fashion, explicitly or implicitly, it is at best a distraction and at work a useless egotism. That’s why I advocate for “practicable theology,” theology put into use by a local congregation seeking to praise an Almighty God. We can know words about God without knowing the Word of God, and that is a grand temptation and greater tragedy for all those who inhabit academia.

We cannot let our church members fall into the same trap. We, as shepherds of the flock, must give them a practicable theology which matters in their daily lives, a theology that enables them to walk in worship, to become living sacrifices offered to our Holy God.

F.A.Q.: God of the Gaps

The universe is filled with questions we haven’t answered. Some of these are mundane; others, less so. Some are matters of opinion without an objective answer. Some are disagreements over facts. Just for a sample, here are the top five unanswered questions I’ve been pondering as of late:

  1. Theodicy and the evolution of the role of Satan in evil
  2. If environmental conditions in infancy contribute to someone being a morning person or a night owl
  3. At what point in the conception/separation of the embryos of identical siblings (twins, triplets, etc.) their individual souls are embodied, because if souls are “given” at the moment of conception, that creates problems with the correlation of body and soul (I also have questions about conjoined twins)
  4. The significance of the overlap in apologetics for various monotheistic religions (specifically, “Why does the argument for the existence of my God not work for the existence of your god?”)
  5. Why does my office phone ring every time — and some days exclusively — when I leave to use the restroom?

I’m calling those “unanswered,” not “unanswerable,” for a reason. Some of those may have answers we just haven’t found yet. (If you know one of those answers — especially the last one — please let me know.)

Of course, everyone has his or her own list of unanswered questions. Some of them we’re tempted to answer like we’re in Sunday school: “Why X?” “Jesus.” And for some of those, that’s probably the only correct response. Other times, however, God becomes a cop-out response to things we don’t know. This is what we call “the God of the gaps.” There’s a gap in human knowledge, so we insert God as the answer and then use it as proof of His existence. This is what happens frequently when you hear someone say, “Only God could do that!” about a perfectly scientific question.

Let me give you an example. A rather (in)famous conservative talk show host once declared the tides could not be explained; high and low tides occurred simply because God personally made the waters move. Of course, any schoolchild can tell you tidal forces arise because of the gravitational influence of the moon (and, to a lesser extent, the sun). God isn’t needed to directly interfere with ocean levels — but He was invoked to fill a gap in knowledge. Many of these gaps seem to center on the human origins debate, but there’s another gap at the forefront these days: cosmogony, the origin of the universe.

I watched a debate last year (obligatory New Year’s reference) between a Christian apologist/philosopher of science and an atheistic cosmologist. The scientist argued either the universe is eternal without a cause or that work on quantum gravity shows something really can come from nothing and thus the universe spontaneously arose from that nothingness. Either way, he said, there was no reason to say God had to create/cause the universe; that particular gap — the origin of everything — had been filled. And without that gap, he had no use for the God of his Christian debate opponent.

There are many things wrong about a God of the gaps. First of all, there will always be fewer gaps today than there were yesterday. Human knowledge is ever expanding; we learn new things every day. Eventually we may run out of those scientific gaps; where will God live then? What will be His purpose, His power? That leads to a second thing: if God is not God in our knowledge, then He cannot be in our ignorance. There is more to the Almighty than being an acceptable way to say “I don’t know.” If the whole point of God is to explain the inexplicable, where is salvation? The cross? The resurrection? God is not your cop-out answer; He is the Redeemer of the universe. That means there is always a role for God, always a reason and necessity for His existence, no matter how many or how few gaps there are in our knowledge.

Jesus isn’t an encyclopedia. He’s the lover of your soul.

I understand the Christian temptation to plug God into the gaps, but we needn’t and we shouldn’t. What we know, not what we don’t, is enough to prove His existence. And unless we leave those gaps open to inquiry and discovery, we will stifle the growth of human knowledge. God gave us minds with the capacity and the desire to understand His creation; I suggest we use them. After all, all truth is God’s truth, and we learn about Him as we learn about the universe.

Ask unanswered questions. Seek answers. Share them with the world. Glorify God in the process.