Unapologetic

A conversation with another pastor after a revival meeting this week gave me the title of my first book (if no one’s stolen it already): Unapologetic Apologetics. (Coming to a bookstore near you, summer 2082).  My clergy brother told me my sermon reminded him we must never apologize for the gospel, never be sorry Jesus came and that our only salvation is in him. Even when the truth is hard for others to hear, we boldly proclaim it in love.

That got me thinking. I doubt any of us have ever told a lost soul, “I’m sorry Jesus loved you enough to die for you,” but it’s possible we’ve altered our message or apologized in other ways. One of the biggest ways the contemporary church seems to soften its message is the way we don’t talk bout sin — not even specific sins, but the general concept of sinfulness. “Sin” has become a dirty word, and many ministers avoid it altogether. I’m not fully convinced replacing “sin” with “mistake” or “failure” mitigates that much emotional distress, but I’m certain it does remove any inherent moral content associated with the misdeed. I can fail a chemistry exam, after all, or mistakenly conclude 2+2=3, but neither of those things has implicitly moral/ethical/theological implications. Stealing does. Lying does. They are sinful things, and they demand proper classification and nomenclature. If we don’t use the appropriate terminology, we’re saying these things aren’t as bad as they truly are. We’re not offering the full moral truth; we’re apologizing for giving someone a guilty conscience.

We also frequently apologize for Christianity’s exclusivity claims, increasingly abandoning them altogether in favor of an inclusive or pluralistic approach to other religions. It’s offensive to declare ours is the only true religion, that the Christian God is the one true God, and that Jesus is the only way to salvation. That’s offensive, it hurts, it’s “triggering,” it’s a myriad of other similar things. So people back down and apologize. “I didn’t really mean Jesus is the only Savior. I’m sorry if I called your religion false in any way.” We say we’re sorry for speaking the truth and allow other people to live lives which will take them and the demons they worship straight to hell.

We apologize for other things, too. Minor things. The Crusades, for example. I will never apologize for those, but even I’ll admit the Spanish Inquisition, while unexpected, was too far. I’ll even say the Salem Witch Trials of 1692 and the murder of the Anabaptists during the Reformation deserve apologies.

But not exclusivity. Not the existence of sin and hell. These are realities, core parts of our faith, and I will never apologize for something the Bible says.

Christians, we must be bold. We cannot back down from the truths of our faith simply because the world disagrees with them. We knew it would: “We preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Gentiles, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Corinthians 1:23-24). The cross of Christ has always been offensive. It has always impressed upon us the reality of our sin, always pointed us to a single atonement.

Never apologize for our faith. Be a stalwart defender of Christianity. Stand in the gap and boldly, lovingly tell the world about its Savior. For without this proclamation, we have no Church, no hope, no love for our neighbors.

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Sacrée et Profane

The blog apologizes for having been gone for two months. 

I like classical music. Music of all types has long been part of life, even before taking up my first instrument at age ten. It’s part of my heritage from both sides of my family, really; practically everyone with whom I share blood has musical talent or a deep appreciation for it. I grew up in a household where one could hear practically every genre in existence: George Strait would give way to Dvorak, who in turn would take a seat as Meco, the Gaither Vocal Band, Helen Reddy, Louis Armstrong, Glenn Miller, Alabama, Queen, or one of a hundred others got their chance at being heard. It’s no real surprise, then, that I love almost any kind of music you can play. With that said, art music still has a special place in my heart, and it’s my go-to genre of choice. Claude Debussy, a French composer in the nineteenth (and early twentieth) century, composed a set of pieces known simply as Danses Sacrée et Profane — Dances Sacred and Profane. They live up to their names, on the whole, but it’s the distinction between the two in the rest of the world I’d like to address.

To be perfectly honest, this isn’t something which gets a lot of “air time” anymore. Most liberal theologians and probably a similar majority of postmoderns theologians and otherwise) see the sacred-secular divide as a false dichotomy. Nowhere in Scripture or in proper readings of the great works of the Church, they claim, is any distinction made between what is holy and what is worldly. In Christ, all things have been redeemed, and any attempt to split the two is a reversal to an Old Testament sort of legalism — or so the argument goes. Others, ignoring the concepts of original sin, the fall, and total depravity, read the creation narrative in Genesis 1, note that God has called all things good, and declares that if God called it good, who are we to disagree? Surely all things are holy. At best, trying to say otherwise is simply a poor attempt to juxtapose a sort of Platonic/Aristotelian dualism onto a Christian view of reality.

Well . . . no.

Concepts of holy and unholy, sacred and profane pervade both Testaments of Scripture. The entire book of Leviticus is dedicated towards creating a priesthood and a community of faith which is holy. Even though a portion of Leviticus, namely chapters seventeen to twenty-six (or twenty-seven depending on your perspective) is called the Holiness Code, personal holiness is truly the theme of the entire book, from the opening chapters on sacrifices onward. But the concept of holiness doesn’t start so late in the game as the third book of the Bible; it begins in the second chapter. Genesis 2:3 says, “Then God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work of creating that he had done.” The seventh day is holy: it is different, special, “other” than the first six days. It is a day which is blessed and pleasing to God. Of course, immediately following chapter two is the account of the fall, the first sin of our first parents. From Genesis 3 onward, the Bible becomes the record of a holy God seeking relationship with a sinful people and through that relationship make them holy as He is holy.

In fact, that’s an explicit command of the Holiness Code: “‘Be holy because I, the Lord your God, am holy” (Lev. 19:2).

Several times throughout the rest of the Bible, God states His holiness. It is given as the reason for specific calls to action, and it’s given as a model for us to emulate. Skipping ahead to the New Testament, Jesus in Matthew 5:48 calls us to holiness again: “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” 1 Peter 1:13-25 is all about calling Christians to live a holy life, and v. 16 is even a direct quotation of Lev. 19:2. We are to be a holy people if we are to truly be Christians. So what does the holy look like?

Defined positively, it is to bear the fruit of the Spirit listed in Galatians 5:22-23: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (bonus points if you just sang the song in your head; I know I did). Striving to be Christ-like is another way to look at it. Both of these are possible because of the presence of the Holy Spirit dwelling within every believer (I mean, come on: “Holy” is literally in his name!). To be holy is to demonstrate the qualities which makes God holy.

Defined negatively, holiness is the absence of sin, the forgoing of what is considered unholy/profane/desecrating/secular. Paul loves his lists, so just as he listed the fruit of the Spirit in his epistle to the church in Galatia, he also gives a list of things which are inherently sinful: “The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like” (Gal. 5:19-21a). The list here isn’t meant to be comprehensive, but paradigmatic; things like these would also be considered sinful and unholy. Paul’s point is that human behavior can generally be classified into one of two categories: that of the flesh (or world or devil) and that of the Holy Spirit.

Earlier in his letter to the Romans, Paul also discusses the relationship between the Christian and sin. The short version is that Christians shouldn’t have a relationship with sin other than “Yes, I used to do these things, but now I am free from their power and dominion.” Romans 6:1-14 is a key passage in this discussion, but I want to quote only a single verse directly: “Do not offer any part of yourself to sin as an instrument of wickedness, but rather offer yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life; and offer every part of yourself to him as an instrument of righteousness” (v. 13). After the great virtues of faith, hope, and love, I would say personal holiness is paramount in keeping a proper relationship with God — and I believe such holiness will flow out of faith and love (and probably hope, too). Christians can no longer act the way they did before salvation; they cannot act the same as the rest of the world. We must act in ways which are holy, ways which allow people to see the Holy Spirit who lives within us.

Okay. That part is simple enough, you may be thinking. But what about the rest of the noun categories? Can places and things be holy? Can they be profane? In short, is my toaster (which requires a whole burnt offering every time I try to use it) truly evil? (You weren’t thinking that? Just me? Oh.)

I believe Scripture also teaches about the distinction between sacred and secular space. The Temple is holy; the tabernacle is holy; the heavens and inbreaking kingdom of God on earth are holy. The question becomes whether they are holy because of the presence of God is localized in them or if everything is now holy since God resides in us. And to answer that, let me relate a story of my own experiences last summer when job hunting. One of my first in-person interviews was at a church in rural central/east-central Kentucky. As soon as my foot touched the tile floor of the narthex, I knew something was horribly wrong. Churches were supposed to feel holy; the years spent in worship and dedication to God hallowed them, made them sacred spaces wherein one can commune with Deity. None of that was true at this church. The presence of evil, of the profane, was overwhelming; I almost ran straight back out the door (and I did hop straight in the shower after returning home in an attempt to feel clean again). That space was unholy. Other places which have been explicitly used for evil — pagan temples, places of ritual sacrifice, etc. — those are unholy. And anywhere someone routinely uses for something other than the glorification of God Almighty might just be profane, too. Again, I think this is biblical. I think the whole of Scripture gives us a dichotomy between what is holy and what is not, and it is revealed to extend beyond people and behaviors to spaces, too.

Things can also be sacred or secular, I’d wager. Something tells me an issue of Playboy or the vast majority of  websites on the Internet could never be counted as something pleasing to God, never be something He would call blessed and holy. I believe things can be properly termed holy when they are consecrated to the worship of God, whether explicitly in a ritual or whether by repeated usage. I’m not going to say every pastor has a Holy Recliner dedicated to Sacred Nap-Time, but I still think things can be holy by dedication to the service of God (much like the tools and implements of the Tabernacle/Temple in the Old Testament or the communionware used by churches today).

When we fail to see the difference holiness makes, we fail to acknowledge the grander spiritual reality undergirding the very fabric of existence. To refuse to see a division between the sacred and profane is to make everything one or the other — and when everything is holy, nothing is (at least on this side of the end of the age). We worship a holy God, one who by nature can only be holy, who hates sin, and who loves His children with a holy love. May we be holy people who do holy things in holy places; may we be holy people who make places and objects holy in the name of the holy God; and may our holy lives point others to the One who is holy.

Work All Day

When we meet someone new for the first time, what’s the first question we ask after learning his/her name? Some people will inquire about family, others will ask about a possession or distinguishing feature, but the overwhelming majority of us simply say, “And what do you do?” We seem to default to asking about work, particularly in Western cultures. It’s not something a lot of us even think about; it’s something we just do. And we’re used to answering it immediately, too: “Oh, I’m a(n) _____” (with your blank being “engineer,” or “graphic design artist,” or “plumber,” or “missionary to penguins”). It doesn’t even give us pause to ask or answer the “what do you do” question.

But it’s based upon a fundamental assumption: the person asked works. He or she has a job, a career, a place of employment, and a set of duties and responsibilities designed to earned income. Work is so important to our senses of identity that persons undergoing sustained periods of unemployment (and those who lose a position they’ve held for a significant period of time) frequently have full-blown existential/identity crises. “Who am I now that I’m not an accountant?” “Do I really have a purpose now that I’m not at the factory anymore?” “It seems like everyone runs a shop around here; why couldn’t I do it?” Work and vocation are hardwired into our very sense of self, no matter how much someone might complain about the toil and labor of, well, labor.

Every Christian knows our true identity and sense of self rests in our relationship with the Triune God. We’re first and foremost children of God, and then we’re children of God gifted and graced in various ways: musical talent, passions for building and tinkering, loves for words and numbers and people. Our vocations seem to focus those identities into something more tangible, and work is a way to showcase those passions and giftings to both ourselves and to the larger world around us. For this reason, if no other, a large portion of someone’s self-conception resides in the world of work (for better or for worse).

[Sidebar: Churches and pastors should therefore have resources for the unemployed, whether it’s counseling specifically geared toward the grieving process accompanying unemployment or career resource/readiness centers to train people or otherwise help them find work.]

Is our attitude toward work healthy? Compared to the rest of the world, Americans work longer hours with fewer fringe benefits. Parts of Europe probably consider us barbaric for not having government-mandated paid sick days, vacation time, maternity leave, and other such compensation for the amount of time we devote to our jobs. I myself am horribly prone to workaholism; I’ve been known to simply forget to eat (and/or miss a date or other appointment) just because I was so focused on the task at hand. My case is by no means far from average; Americans are heavily invested in their work, and it occasionally gets in the way of other areas of life. It’s an unhealthy attitude, and, frankly, unbiblical.

But before we get that far, let’s start with developing a basic theology of work. Popular belief maintains work is a result of the Fall in Genesis 3 and arises from God’s curses upon Adam — but that’s not so. If we begin at the very beginning (which is a very good place to start), we come to what’s known as the creation mandate in Genesis 1:28: “And God blessed [the man and woman]. And God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.'” Humanity was tasked with overseeing the rest of creation as stewards, exercising authority to help it thrive and prosper. This is expanded a few verses later in Genesis 2:15: “The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it.” Here we can clearly see that work was assigned to Adam (standing in, in this instance, for all of humanity) long before any curse or sin marred the perfection of our world. Work is God’s plan for each of us to enjoy life and use the gracious gifts with which He has so richly blessed us. Adam is then tasked with the naming of the animals (Gen. 2:19-20). If that’s not a long-term project, I don’t know what is.

The point is this: God established work and assigned it to our first parents to be done in perpetuity. Work is not inherently evil or onerous, but a beautiful gift of God. But it didn’t stay that way. Those same first parents rebelled against their Creator, and then the curse hits hard: “Cursed is the ground because of you; in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground” (Gen. 3:17b-19a). Because of Adam’s sin, his work would become forevermore a burden, a labor. The ground itself would fight him every step of the way, and only through the drudgery and toil of hard work would he be able to survive. The curse still lingers, unfortunately. Brilliant minds work tedious, mindless jobs. Gifted builders and artists are forced to use skilled hands in backbreaking hard labor. 

So it seems natural that most people hate their jobs — no matter what their job may be. Even those who love their work, when asked at precisely the right (or wrong) instant, will be quick to say they would give it up in a heartbeat if a better offer came along. God’s gift to us in work has become a heavy burden to so very many, all because of the effects of sin. But what sin cannot do is totally erase the inherent value of work. It can’t destroy the sense of purpose and fulfillment a career brings to us; it can’t wipe out the feeling that we were designed and gifted to do something, to be something. And that longing, that desire is what draws us to seek the plan of our Creator in our lives and vocations.

We’re all called to a vocation. Even the word “vocation” comes from the Latin verb vocare, meaning “to call,” and the noun vocatio, “call.” Sometimes we try to limit vocations to a strictly religious sense: nuns, monks, priests, evangelists, pastor, missionaries, etc. We say “we’re called” to the ministry. Rarely do we say “we’re called” to be electricians and drivers and dentists and teachers. But we are. Everyone is called of God to work, and everyone is called into a vocation, a calling which uses the very best of the gifts and loves which make us who we are. This is why we find such fulfillment in our work: we are called to it. When we make it an idol (workaholism), we again stray into the area marked by the curse and sin. While work gives us happiness and fulfillment, it can never replace the inexpressible joy granted by a right relationship with God in Jesus Christ.

This week, as you go about your job (whether that’s selling cars or studying Greek), remember God has blessed you with a calling and the opportunity to work. The thought might even make you whistle at your desk.