Wednesday, December 21, 2011

For those who may not know

Dr. Scot McKnight is blogging on Spirituality According to Paul. Here's the link to his fourth post: Paul’s Spiritual Vision 4

I'm grateful to God for Scot's generous review of my work. And, I think he's raising some good points for discussion.

As I've mentioned before, Scot's blog, Jesus Creed, is one of the few blogs I read every day (another is by Mark Roberts:

What makes the Jesus Creed blog so unique is the gracious manner in which he engages a variety of topics--it especially shows up in the comments section. Here's a first-class NT scholar dialoguing with all kinds of posters, engaging arguments in a non-threatening way. Honestly, sometimes I marvel over his patience--especially when a poster takes advantage of Scot's graciousness by dismissing substantive dialogue with nonchalence. All kinds of voices show up at this "round table," and I've found many of Scot's posters to be very insightful. Imagine, a blog where persons don't shout past one another but actually talk to each other with respect and dignity. Is this what some people mean by "virtual Church"?

Monday, December 12, 2011

A Bloody Christmas
There are so many add-ons to the Christmas story, it's hard to tell what's real and what's make-believe. I'm not talking about Santa, Frosty, or Rudolf. Rather, I'm referring to the ways we have spiced up the story of Jesus' birth, as if it were a rather boring story without our embellishments.
Of course, there are the obvious fictive parts that everyone recognizes, like there was no drummer boy, talking donkey, or even "three kings" from the orient. Other additions sneak in without our noticing: there was no stable, no inn keeper, no angels singing (they chant), no magi visiting the baby in the manger (every year, when my wife would bring out the nativity scenes, my children would hear their father rattle on and on about how "wrong" the ideallic scene really is). But, what really bothers me are the parts we ignore, especially Matthew's version of the Christmas story, where he relates the story of how Joseph and Mary became refugees because a paranoid King ordered genocide for Bethlehem.
I've never seen that scene recreated during a Christmas play. Can you imagine? Herodian soldiers enter stage right, bearing swords, and slaughtering all the two-years on the Bethlehem stage. Parents would shriek in horror, "Don't look, Johnny. I don't know what they're trying to do up there. Never seen the like."
But, there it is in Matthew's story. In all of its glory. And, we turn our eyes away from the tragedy because everyone knows Christmas is about warm feelings, nostalgic recollections, and serenity in the midst of chaos (often a chaos of our own creation).
And yet, somehow I find myself drawn to Matthew's story. Not because I have some peculiar desire for dwelling on the macabre realities of life. No, somehow I find hope knowing that, even when Jesus was born, there were people in Bethlehem screaming, "Where is God?" Rachel mourning for her children.
Mary probably grieved over the news down in Egypt. After all, these women were a part of their little community; friends who shared stories and daily chores. Their children played together. Such news may have even compelled Mary to ask the same question in the face of such human suffering, "God, where are you?"
He's a vulnerable baby, hiding out in Egypt, waiting for a wicked king to die.
For some reason, I love that part of the story that nobody tells.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Bridging the Gap

Darryl, Ben, and Matt have asked some very good questions that all seem to revolve around one issue: the nasty problem of interpreting the Bible as God's Word. I say, "nasty" because it is not only a difficult issue, but it also creates difficulties between us.

To answer the question, let me say at the outset that this problem is not unique to the free church tradition (although you'd think that churches taking a more magisterial approach would not have to deal with such problems--hardly, members of the RCC or the Anglican communion have members who do not share the interpretation of their leaders).

At the risk of over simplification, I think the solution is recognizing that interpretation of the Bible belongs to the community of faith (both now and then, both clergy and laity). John writes that his church should "test the spirits" to see if interpretations are true. Peter writes that no Scripture/prophecy can be interpreted by one person. In other words, if the Spirit is responsible for leading us to understand the Scriptures, and since no single person (or group) controls the Spirit, then the only way we can understand the Scriptures is to interpret them together (Ben's suggestion is relevant here).

So, what happens if we disagree? Are some interpretations more important than others?

What I think would help our discussions is to categorize which doctrines are primary, secondary, tertiary, and quadriary. I know that sounds risky to some; it makes it appear that we think some Scriptures are more important than others. That's not what I'm saying. Rather, since all doctrine is of human invention, then we are merely recognizing some of our interpretations are more important than others.

Here's how I would break it down: primary doctrines are of eternal significance, secondary doctrines are of temporal significance, tertiary doctrines are of cultural significance, quadriary doctrines are of personal significance.

Honestly, most scholarly work is done on the second and third levels. Most lay people don't think beyond the first (I think that's what Matt is getting at) and the fourth levels. Therefore, a discussion that acknowledges a rubric like this I think would help us get beyond the ivory tower work of scholars and clergy, and the isolationist/obscurantist views of the laity.

What do you think?

Wednesday, October 19, 2011


I'd like to take a different direction for this blog for a while.

Honestly, I run out of ideas to talk about. I struggle over whether to post something simply because it passes through the gray matter between my ears. There's a lot of chatter going on and I'm not sure I have the time or the energy to keep up with it.

I think I'm turning into an old man.

So, since I love questions (more than answers), I'd like to open up this blog to anyone who'd like to post a question for us to consider.

Ask and you shall receive (at least one man's opinion, as well as those who weigh in with their responses).

Monday, October 10, 2011

I Need God

I know it's too simple to write about it. But, I can't help but say it, "I need God." Don't we all?

We need Him to see life.
We need Him to feel death.
We need Him to know love.
We need Him to spoil hate.
We need Him to sleep.
We need Him to stay awake.
We need Him to eat.
We need Him to share.
We need Him to hurt.
We need Him to care.
We need Him to give.
We need Him to take.
We need a merciful God who relentlessly gives grace to those of us who know we don't deserve one little crumb that falls from His table of sacrifice.

Oh how I need God.

Friday, October 07, 2011

Steve Jobs, The American Messiah

I've been fascinated by the veneration of Jobs since his recent death. But, even before he died, I began to notice how he was worshiped as divine.

It goes back to an incident at the Apple Store in Hawaii. My family and I were on vacation when some of us dropped into the Apple Store to check out the brand new invention: the iPhone. Dozens of people were huddled around the display table, trying to get their hands on the new device. We were waiting our turn, watching over the shoulders of customers playing with the iPhone and marveling over the miraculous (something as simple as shifting the position of the phone, from vertical to horizontal, to make the screen move from "portrait" to "landscape" mode was astonishing--remember?). Then, in the exuberance of collective gasps and "oh my, look at this," a young man shouted (to no one in particular), "Steve Jobs is a god!", at which point the enthusiastic crowd offered audible affirmations of approval.

Postmortem, Steve Jobs has been enshrined as an American god--much like the Caesars of old. The veneration of the technology genius continues to rise ever higher every day. And, as they recount his accomplishments, his story begins to sound more and more messianic: a fatherless boy born to a young single woman, he grows up believing he's meant to change the world. He bucks the establishment and takes on the imperial domination of the computer world (and therefore, our world): Caesar IBM and its Herodian servant, Microsoft. His loyal disciples follow his every move, longing for the times he takes the stage and performs the miraculous (remember when he pulled the first-generation Nano out of his pocket and the crowd roared with approval?). He wasn't formally educated but still spoke wisdom to this generation, challenging "dogma" and established religion. He garnered the devotion of the masses because he brought heaven to earth (no, he didn't heal anyone. But, to the American consumer, having entertainment at your fingertips--at a reasonable cost, with very little know-how required to operate the latest, greatest device--now, that is heaven on earth). He defied death--even in the face of a terrible disease (pancreatic cancer is a death sentence)--by refusing to fear it, but lived his dream and modeled for everyone what it takes to do the same: listen to the inner voice (his version of the Holy Spirit?) within all of us.

Now, of course, he didn't rise from the dead. But, at least he achieved immortality--especially if you believe what the pundits say. Steve Jobs single-handledly changed the world (well, not counting all the geniuses he hired to do the work). He made our life better (without Pixar, where would the movies be today?). He will always be with us (I have my iPod playing right now). He has devoted followers who will carry on his kingdom work regardless of what anyone says (dare to question the infallibility of Jobs and see what happens). At least he's done something tangible, something you can hold in your hands, something you can experience with your eyes (that's better than most Messiahs, especially the Jewish one who live two-thousand years ago).

So, let the accolades ring through the ages. There's never been anyone like him. He is one-of-a-kind. He is the perfect version of the American dream, from orphan boy to corporate wunderkind. We must worship him, for this is the kind of Messiah we want, we need--one who makes our lives better and only requires a little money in return.

Thursday, October 06, 2011

It's Here!

Yesterday I received complimentary copies of my new book, Spirituality According to Paul: Imitating the Apostle of Christ (IVP). So, it should be available soon via,, et al. I want to say here how much the senior academic editor for IVP, Dr. Dan Reid, helped me with this project. It was such a rewarding experience working with him and IVP. And, to be quite honest, I hope the book does well for their sake more than mine. Publishing is a far riskier business these days. Publishers like IVP have hundreds of proposals from brilliant authors to consider, not only to make a living but just as importantly to encourage the Body of Christ for Christ's kingdom.

So, if you pick up a copy, pray that God will bless publishers like IVP. And, please join me in praying that God will encourage all of us to imitate Christ like Paul did.

Wednesday, October 05, 2011

The Personified Kingdom

When Jesus tried to get his disciples to see the kingdom of God in terms that they could understand, he finally put a child in front of them and said: "This is it." I sense a little frustration in Jesus' approach. He'd tried to teach them, over and over again, that God doesn't do power like the world does. Talked a lot about becoming least, last, and lost. Told parables to change their minds about the reign of God. Even dressed like a slave once to get them to see how they were supposed to "rule" the world--by giving up rights and serving each other. To put a child before them, the most undesirable station in life, was the same as requiring downward mobility to realize the kingdom. To us, to become a child again, sounds romantic. To them, it sounded like going backwards, even a death wish (especially since most persons died as children; only one out of five made it to 30). To Jesus, a child was an ideal disciple for his kingdom.

We still don't get the message. Many of us think the way God's kingdom comes to earth is by wielding power: power politics, power action groups, power personalities, etc. But, Christ has shown us the only way to do power in his kingdom is to give it away, be vulnerable, love enemies.

I wonder what kind of person he would put before us--perhaps in frustration--to get us to see the kingdom personified? A homeless man begging for money at the intersection? A Muslim woman who is jeered whenever she wears her burqa in public?

I think he would put a boy with Downs Syndrome in front of us and say, "This is it." To him, I think, the childlike innocence of a Downs Syndrome boy would picture beautifully the same lesson--the ideal disciple for his kingdom. Indeed, I wish I had the loving heart of a boy or girl with Downs Syndrome.

Monday, October 03, 2011

Aspergers Soteriology

My wife and I are fans of the sitcom "Big Bang Theory." Our favorite character is "Sheldon," a science genius who was obviously patterned after someone who has Aspergers disease. Since my wife is a Speech Pathologist who provides therapy for children and adults with Aspergers, I enjoy the benefit of her expertise as we watch the show. She'll often say, "That's exactly what an aspie [the nickname those with the disease call themselves] would say," or "I have a patient who does the same thing as Sheldon." Then, she'll give me a private tutorial about the behavior and thought-processes of those who have Aspergers. For example, many aspies cannot make sense of metaphor. Most have a hard time putting together a narrative in order to tell a story. Many have what we would call a rather ego-centric worldview--if it doesn't pertain to them, then what difference does it make? They also have a high sense of infallibility. And on and on.

All of this got me to thinking: can someone with Aspergers "be saved"?

Now, before I explain what I mean by asking such a provocative question, let me say I'm convinced that there must be many Christians who have Aspergers disease.

What I'm getting at is this: if a person can't make sense of metaphor, if narratives are confusing to them, if a person believes they are infallible [read: they are NOT sinners]--all of which most evangelicals would think are constitutive of the gospel--then how can they come to a "saving knowledge" of Jesus Christ? Or, another way of putting the question, is our typical doctrine of salvation too narrowly defined? Have we established a soteriology that accounts only for people like us, i.e., people who think like us?

Of course, most evangelicals already have an inclusive soteriology, e.g., children, mentally handicapped, perhaps even pagans who have never heard the gospel. Yet, what we typically mean by "hearing the gospel" is based on our understanding of the gospel. So, what if someone can't "understand" the gospel like we do, does it mean they don't believe?

Friday, September 30, 2011

Life by Default

I'm a window-starer-outer. Sometimes my mind is whirling through all kinds of problems, ideas, narratives. I find myself drawn to the window in order to think, not paying attention to what I'm seeing. Then it hits me; it's like my eyes finally force my mind to take in what I'm staring at. "What a beautiful day." Whether it's raining or sunshine, trees in full leaf or hugged by snow blankets, I can't help but say to myself, "Look at what you're missing!"

This kind of suspended animation also happens when I'm driving great distances. One minute I'm leaving Springfield headed east to see my daughter in Tennessee. The next minute I'm two hours down the road. "How did I get here?"

Sleep walking through life, making our way through daily routines without noticing the sensational (and I mean that literally, sensations like goose bumps or shiny reflections or rustling leaves), we leave behind the full opportunities to take in all that there is out there. My default mode--carrying on like nothing is happening--is stealing moments of pure joy. Instead, we're made to relish every divine gift.

When I "come to my senses," it's almost as if God Himself were saying to me, "Wake Up! Wake Up! Don't you see the glory?"

"Yes, Lord. I will for a while. But then I'll return to default mode."

Now, what was I thinking about?

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Common Art

I was reminded yesterday of Jeremiah's unusual approach to discovering what God had to say. Most of the time, God simply spoke to the prophet, "Go say this . . ." But one day, God said, "Go watch a potter to hear my word." That's an amazing approach to divination that is rarely appreciated by today's prophets.

Need a word from God? Want to know what God thinks? Go watch someone make something useful, something beautiful, then you'll see what's on the very heart of God.

I love that idea. We tend to separate art as an aesthetic opportunity, something we simply stare at and take in (of course, it can be that. Don't we all love to take in the beauty of what others see?). And, to be sure, watching the artistry of throwing pots must have inspired Jeremiah. But, this potter was not making "art" for "art's" sake. Indeed, the potter's artistry was necessary for life. God's word is embedded in the every-day art of living.

So, even though God speaks reliably through "conventional methods" (thus saith the Lord), every now and then He surprises us with beautiful, practical truth.

Want to hear God's voice? Go find a potter.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Paul's Offense

Every time we work through Galatians, I marvel over my students' response to Paul's idea that the law is not an ethical standard for his gentile converts. The harder Paul pushes for a law-free gospel, the more my students push back (well, they really don't push back too hard--honestly, they're in shock). It just doesn't seem right to their ears. I think their resistance is attributable to two sources: their religious upbringing and American culture (which of course are intrinsically linked).

They've been taught their whole lives that law is the benchmark for right behavior, whether at home or in church. Sin, therefore, is defined as breaking the law. Now, that makes sense for unbelievers; but for those of us who have been set free from the law of sin and death, it should be quite apparent what (or more accurately who) sets the standard for righteousness: Jesus Christ. To obey him is right, to disobey him is sin. It's as simple as that, which is why Paul believed the only way to live righteously is to "walk" in the power of Christ's Spirit, the Holy Spirit. What the law could not do--effect righteousness--God did through Christ. Our obedience has nothing to do with law (Paul insists our obedience is based on faith).

The other mental block to Paul's law-free gospel comes from growing up in America, where righteousness/justice is defined by law. Indeed, to the ears of American Christians, law-free sounds like an invitation to anarchy. Besides, to the American way of thinking, our justice is supposed to be a God-given gift (not only to us but to the whole world). Imagine how difficult Paul's new standard of righteousness sounded to his Jewish kinsmen, who rightfully believed their law came from God.

No wonder Paul got in trouble, then and now.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Wearing out Hospitality

When it comes to Christ believers, we should never be concerned that we would ever "wear out our welcome" with one another. If Christ defines hospitality, and he always welcomes sinners and enemies, then the Body of Christ should do the same.

One of the clearest places where we should find eternal hospitality is at the Lord's table, a banquet memorial where we proclaim the Lord's death till he comes. The reason we come is that we are hungry--hungry for mercy, hungry for friendship, hungry for help, hungry for hope. There is no place for the self-righteous, the insiders who think they belong there. Jesus came to help those who are sick, and as in the days of old, there's a bunch of sick people in the world.

What is sad to me is how we've turned the table of our Lord into a exclusive club, where only certain people have the right to participate. How did this happen? It's completely backwards to what Jesus tried to do, what he intended. He was famous (or notorious) for eating with sinners. Therefore, if there were ever a time when sinners (regardless of who we are) should be welcome, it's at communion--where God dines with humanity, the ultimate act of hospitality.

When I come to his table, I imagine Christ saying to me, a sinner who holds his broken body in my hands, "Here again?" And I say, "Yes Lord. I'm sorry. I'm afraid I'm wearing out my welcome." To which he fictitiously replies, "On the contrary, I've been expecting you--and so have they."

"Oh, every who's thirsty. Come to the waters. He who has no money, come, buy and eat."

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Killer Death

As summer gives way to autumn around here, I can't help but think about death. As the earth in all its glory dies, green will turn to brown, blue will turn gray, and light will no longer rule the heavens--even the sun dies a little every day. One might get the impression (as in the days of old) that death reigns from the autumnal to the vernal equinox. Not so.

If Jesus' cross changed everything (turning shame into honor, injustice to justification, evil into good, death to life), then the "new creation" reign of God's kingdom shows up even now. It's easy to see the kingdom of God when all is life, green and blue, and the sun never seems to set. But, we believe Christ rules death, that the kingdom shows up just as well in brown and gray, and that dark skies are a sign of divine favor.

So, let the trees lose their leaves. Let the frost kill the grass. Let the night rule the day. And, we will declare the glory of Christ.

Monday, September 19, 2011

The Power of Impious Prayers

I was painting the dining room in our house over the weekend when my "trusty right hand" let me down. I was cutting in the wall and I accidentally slathered paint on the ceiling, at which point I used the Christian curse, "Dad gummit." That got me to thinking, "Does God grant our requests, even those masked in piety or delivered in outright anger? When some of us pray, 'Dad gummit' or 'God damn it,' does He answer our request and deliver a divine curse?"

If He were a fertility god, a power that was easily manipulated for our purposes, then the God of Israel would have to do what we say, bringing curses down upon a variety of persons, objects, and circumstances. Imagine how many times the God of heaven hears the prayer coming from Americans? One wonders (a la "Bruce Almighty") if the simple request, "God damn it," is the most common prayer He hears, more than "Grant us peace" or "Forgive us" or even "Help me." Indeed, if we were to believe that God is our personal Lord who answers our every prayer according to our expectations, then we might be led to infer that the damned world is a result of our impious prayers.

Then again, I'm grateful the God of Israel is not a fertility god, that He ignores our impetuous requests, and that He would rather hear the heartfelt cry of an abandoned soul who screams impiously, "My God, My God, why have You forsaken me?"

Friday, September 16, 2011

Where is the Kingdom of God?

The old arguments--is the kingdom a realm or reign?--place the issue of God's kingdom within a false dichotomy, as if we have to decide whether we are the means or the ends of the kingdom work. Those who emphasize that Jesus came to reign tend to place the locus of that reign within Christians, spiritualizing the kingdom. Those who say that Jesus was talking about the kingdom as a certain place (realm) often reduce the kingdom to societal/political efforts--as if we must establish structures (or counter-measures) to build the kingdom on earth as it is in heaven. In other words, we want to know "how" to effect the kingdom, and the methods seem to depend upon whether we argue for reign or realm.

But, I'm beginning to wonder if we're missing the reality of the kingdom because it is indivisible. That is to say, the kingdom cannot be a reign without a realm, or a realm without a reign. Or, to put it another way, the kingdom of God is relational (much like the Trinity). That 's what I see when I try to have ears to hear Jesus' parables. He was doing more than "explaining" the kingdom, he was inaugurating the kingdom (through word and deed)--through words by creating worlds of meaning, through deeds by giving meaning to the world.

So, how do we become/do the kingdom? Here are a few ideas.

1. Give power away
2. Forgive debts (yes, even economic ones)
3. Eat with sinners
4. Believe in Jesus Christ
5. Worship the God of Israel
6. Heal the sick
7. Raise the dead
8. Serve the marginalized
9. Bless the cursed
10. Listen to the Spirit

What would you add?

Whenever we do/become these things, we see the kingdom come.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

The Benefit of Doubt

If there were ever a group of people who should second guess their impulsive judgments about others it should be Christ followers. We know what forgiveness is. We know we are not enemies. We know all of us have something to learn. We know all of us are flawed. We know the "ideal self" is myth. We know none of us sees things clearly. We know everyone is a critic and everyone has a critic. We know people love to talk about everyone's failures but their own. We know pride is nothing more than an elaborate cover-up for our insecurities. We know evil runs through every single one of us. We know God will finish what He started. And, most of all, we know Christ.

Of course, it's hard to extend the benefit of the doubt when you're licking your wounds. I'd rather operate with the assurance that I know what I saw, I know what I heard, I know what I felt. It's hard to argue with me when I'm talking about myself. But, then, I think of him. And, how he said, "father forgive them, they don't know what they're doing." The ultimate benefit of the doubt.

Maybe next time I'll say to myself, "he didn't mean it, and, even if he did, I don't know." Sure will save me a lot of grief. Rummaging through past hurts and sorting out possible motives only contributes to my delusion of certainty. Instead, I should live with the benefit of doubt.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011


There's a song on Radiohead's "In Rainbows" that explores the naked vulnerability between a man and a woman--a theme as old as Adam and Eve. And, it got me to thinking: in the resurrection, we won't be wearing any clothes. Think about it: if sin and death brought shame and suffering to humanity (and clothes are desperate attempts to hide our shame), then when we share in the complete honor of Christ, all shame is erased. We'll have nothing to hide. No more pretentious fashion statements to hide our insecurities. No more beauty contests (we are lovely in Him). No more impoverished rags. No more "look at me." No more "us versus them." We will be dressed in his glory and that will be enough for eternity. We will be naked and not ashamed. In fact, after having "put on" Christ's resurrection body, we will look back at this time and consider it odd that we would have considered nakedness shameful. Heaven come to earth will be one, big nudist colony.

This thought had never occurred to me until I heard Radiohead. Who would have thought their music would be such an inspiring source of theological contemplation? I do have big ideas; they are going to happen.

Can't wait to be nude on the last day, naked before the One who clothed me in his brilliance.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Sneaky peeky

Here's a little preview (on Google) of my book on Paul's Spirituality that's coming out soon (beginning of November). Thanks for spreading the word.

Let me know what you think.

Friday, September 09, 2011

A Sermon for Grace (circa January 1997)

This evening I have a rare opportunity to speak as a pastor and a father during the dedication of our daughter to the Lord. I know that my comments tonight are no more unusual than those that would be offered by any father who could speak his thoughts before this congregation. Yet, I am compelled to speak not simply because I am your pastor, but more importantly to me, because I am Grace’s father. And, if there were ever a time that I would want to offer a sermon just for her, it would be now, before she hears too much. For the world is filled with opinions, competing voices that masquerade as friends with good advice. Since Grace is only two months old, the only voices that seem to matter to her now are her mother’s, brother’s, sister’s, and father’s. When I enter her room, she turns her head to look for me, as if I’m the only one she hears. I like it when she looks at me. But recently, the joy of her steady gaze has brought to my mind the weighty responsibility that I will be a voice that she will count on when she makes her way into the noisy world. As she grows up, I don’t expect to drown out the sound of other’s with my opinion—even when I shout in a heated argument over a boy friend, or school work, or career choices, or life decisions. But I don’t want to be ignored, either. It’s too much to expect that she will always hear the voice of God in my words; she will not always heed my advice and I will not always speak the words of God. Nevertheless, I’m hoping and praying that, tonight, as we entrust the care of our children to Our Heavenly Father, my daughter will stand one day before a congregation of believers, dedicating her daughter to the Lord with the same anxious desires, trusting that God will do for her child what He has done for my child. This sermon is for Grace.

I’ve been spending some time recently in the book of Job. Grace, I don’t want you to get the wrong idea. The timing of your arrival, the third child in our family, has nothing to do with my interest in Job’s story. Lately, I’ve been thinking about how vulnerable we are as humans—how risky life is. Many of us would like to think that life comes with a promise of satisfaction guaranteed. But that is not the case. None of us knows what will happen tomorrow. Uncertainty leads to anxiety because every day we read in the papers, hear in news reports, that someone else has fallen—knocked down by the unsuspecting blows of evil and suffering. We wonder if it will ever happen to us, if the difficulties of life will fall upon our family, robbing us of the joy of living. That’s why we are all drawn to the story of Job. As a book of Wisdom, I’ve been searching its pages looking for clues, knowing that his story could be my story, your story, our story.

Job is every man. His desire to protect his children from the result of their sin illustrates very well the paternal impulse of every father. From the moment that your mother and I were told that you would be born, I’ve had this powerful urge to do everything I can to protect you. Sometimes, I feel like its my responsibility to keep you from harm, to ward off any possibility that you could be hurt, to protect your welfare. As parents, we all fall into the trap of thinking that we can create a utopia for our children, a garden of Eden, where life will always be as pleasant as taking a walk in the coolness of a summer night, and where the effort of your hands will always produce crops without weeds. But then we remember that we don’t live in Eden, that we have welcomed you into a world filled with thorns and thistles, and (the most sobering thought of all) that we are not creators—we are creatures of God’s hand just like you, just like Job. That’s the lesson, ultimately, that Job learned: that he is not God. It sounds too simple to be profound. You would think that, as human beings, we would never get our roles mixed up with God’s. But we do. Made in His Image, we are able to protect sometimes, create sometimes, rule sometimes, will our will sometimes. We have just enough success to foster this grand idea that we can control our destinies, that we have the power to create the future, that we can protect, defend, insure our own welfare as well as the welfare of our children. But then life reminds us, just as He reminded Job, that the world is fragile, time is uncertain, and that we are not our own.
Grace, I can be your father; I cannot be your God. Many things are out of my hands, beyond my control. I have to trust God that He cares for you more than your mother and I do. That He has your best interests at heart, that He will watch over you when I cannot, that He will guide you when I am gone, that He will be your God.

To be sure, I’ve made the mistake (perhaps like Job) of trying to be all things for my family. Although God has given me the privilege of experiencing the joy of fathering children, He will not share the exclusive right of being The Provider for all children. He reminds me of that often. When we brought your brother home from the hospital, like most first-time parents, neither your mother nor I could sleep that first night. Both of us kept waking up, putting our hands on his little body to make sure that he was still breathing. After surviving a few nights at home, we began to gain the confidence that we could do this—that we could watch over our child and protect him from harm. But things got progressively worse. As Andrew grew, life got riskier. At first, he was a one-dimensional creature. We put him on the blanket, he stayed on the blanket. We could even leave the room, return, and still find him where we left him. But then, he developed into a two-dimensional creature. He starting crawling around, moving to and fro. We found that we could no longer leave him in a room for any length of time. Evidently, all those times he looked liked he was innocently entertaining himself, looking around the room unable to go anywhere, he was secretly planning his strategy, taking inventory of everything he wanted to get his hands on when he could crawl. Not to be outdone by a six-month old, your mother and I secured the premises, trying to make our home child-proof. Just when we thought we had everything under control, Andrew graduated to three-dimensional status. He joined the world of the vertical. He learned to walk. At first, I tried to go everywhere he went, anticipating every fall, removing every obstacle. But that didn’t last long. Bumps and bruises are the prices paid for experimenting with the laws of gravity. I found that I was better at damage control than creating the optimum environment where a baby could learn to walk without the risk of falling. To pick him up when he fell, to doctor a scrape on his knee, to assure him that everything would be all right, this seemed to be my predestined role as father.

It’s hard breaking the news to your child that the world can be a harsh place. That bad things happen to good people, that good people can be cruel sometimes, that we all sin and fall short of what God hopes for us. That we all die. We want to keep that part a secret as long as we can. Adults don’t like talking about death; who looks forward to telling their children the truth? Last week your sister asked your mother about death. We were all in the car, driving past a cemetery, when Emma said, “Mom, is that the place where ghosts live?” Your mother delicately tried to tell her that cemeteries are for people. She couldn’t conceive of such a thing. As your mother tried to explain to a five-year-old girl about the reality of life and death, my heart died inside. I remember the first time it happened, when Andrew asked me a question about death and dying as we were driving down the road. I didn’t want to tell him the truth. I wanted to make something up, or assure him that he didn’t need to think about such things. But I told him the truth, for his own good.

Why does birth make us think of death? Why do those at the end of their lives seem to delight more than the rest of us at the sight of a baby? Why do we recall with vivid detail the birthday of our children and the death day of our parents, and much of life in between is a vague memory? Why do flowers greet the arrival and mark the departure of human life? Why did we cry tears of joy and sorrow? Because life is unpredictably desirable. Despite the risk, the disappointments, the sadness, we dare to hope that life is good because God is. Which brings me to the verse, Grace, that I want to share with you tonight. It is an incredibly honest verse. In the middle of his search for wisdom, Job exclaims, “Though He slay me, I will hope in Him. Nevertheless, I will argue my ways before Him” (Job. 13:15). I’m sure that you will find many passages in God’s Word that will help you find your way. I offer this one to you knowing that, to many, Job 13:15 may not sound like a very appropriate verse for the dedication of a two-month old baby girl. Nevertheless, I hope that you will add it to your list of favorite verses of the Bible, because I think the entire story of Job (and our story, too) is boiled down to this one truth: when it is all said and done, from the beginning to the end, God is our hope.

It means something to me that a man like Job would say something like this. He had come to the point where he knew hope would die if he could not believe. Even though he says God had been cruel to him (30:21), Job would rather hope in a God who does not explain himself than give up hope altogether. What I like about Job’s conclusion to life’s dilemma is not just that he is unwilling to stop believing, but that he refuses to stop talking. The fact that he is willing to take his case to God, “arguing his ways before Him,” tells me more about God than it does about Job. Although Job reminds me of Jacob, who refuses to let go of God until he is blessed (and has a life of pain to show for it), the one I admire most in the story is God. God lets Job talk. He lets him work it out, to talk it out, to take his case to God. Job questions the justice of God and heaven is silent. Job claims that there is no benefit to living a pious life, and no judgment comes. Job dares God to kill him with the truth, and no fire falls from the sky. Why is God so patient, so tolerant, so merciful? Because He knows that Job doesn’t know the whole story. We know the whole story, we’ve read chapters 1 and 2. We know why Job suffers, although Job doesn’t understand. We know why God doesn’t answer, although Job can’t hear. We know why God is merciful, although Job can’t see it. We know because we’ve read the Bible.

Do you see, little one? This is good news. God will be merciful to us, too, because Job’s story is our story. There will come a time in your life when you find yourself questioning the purposes of God. You will experience heartaches that will leave you disappointed with God. You will tell Him what you really think, how you are really upset, how you are so confused, and He will listen. He will listen to every word because He loves you more than any of us do, because He knows the whole story, because He knows that He is our only hope.

Which is why we are here tonight. He is the reason your mother brought you before this congregation of believers. He is the reason your brother and sister listened patiently as they watched you being dedicated to God. He is the reason your father speaks to you now. We hope in a God who gives Grace.

Thursday, September 08, 2011

The trivial world of superlatives

Perhaps it's stating the obvious, but in a world where those who scream the loudest, behave the most bizarre, claim the most ridiculous get noticed, superlatives have lost their purpose. Take any adjective that ends in -est and you'll typically find in the midst of social discourse the most banal, irrelevant, trivial claim. It especially shows up in sports, during a game, or when two "experts" square off in a debate.

Is it possible for a sports announcer to talk about a game (A GAME!) without using expressions like, "absolutely," or "without a doubt," or "no doubt about it" after his/her partner has made some trivial point about the world of sports? Why would we talk about such subjective things--gray areas to be sure--in such absolute terms? It used to be that absolutes were rare, reserved for the sublime, life-and-death issues that pertain to everyone. Absolutes were supposed to be universal.

But, today, they're ubiquitous--everyone uses them for everything (absolutely!). As a result, superlatives have the opposite effect on me. When I hear them, I think to myself, "They're talking about nothing."

Perhaps that should give Christians a new strategy for sharing our faith. Understatement may be the most substantive way to put the things that matter most.


Wednesday, September 07, 2011

The Dialectic of Being a Disciple

Part of my frustration (expressed in yesterday's post) derives from a troubling trend. There seems to be an inverse proportion of theological education and anti-intellectualism in Baptist life. In other words, the more educated some of us become the less interested many of us are in the intellectual pursuit of our faith. The gap between clergy and laity widens despite our current age of "global information." Or, to put it bluntly, lay people seem satisfied with stupid answers (I realize such a statement is crass, elitist, arrogant, and perhaps downright unChristian).

Then I read today on Scot McKnight's blog a similar sentiment, as he reviews a new book by Mark Noll:

The premise? A free church tradition that celebrates "the bible is our creed" invites (even celebrates?) anti-intellectualism.

Then, I sift through these sentiments as I think about how Jesus thanked God that eggheads in his day didn't get what he was trying to do. Rather, he celebrated the fact that the simple, the "babes", the commoners were drawn to him and his kingdom work.

But, they still had to "learn" (the root idea in the word "disciple"). So, I guess I'm wondering: are these ideas mutually exclusive, learning and simplicity?

Tuesday, September 06, 2011

The Great Divorce

I just breezed through a recent academic catalog by one of the major publishers. Within its pages, there are descriptions of several soon-to-be-released books written by brilliant Christian men and women. As I read through the titles and the blurbs, I couldn't help but wonder, "Why so many?" Of course, new books are the result of new research, and scholars are doing more than their fair share of advancing their disciplines for the cause of Christ. Some skeptics might accuse the academy of self-promotion: the guild needs to write, publishers need to print. And, every time I work through these catalogs, my book budget grows beyond my resources. I think, "I must read this. I must have this. I must know this."

But then I think of the Church and how many Christians will never read any of these rich resources, these gold mines of knowledge, these warehouses of spiritual help. In truth, I don't meet very many non-specialists (read, "average Christians") who read much of any of this stuff that helps me so much. Oh, they'll listen to preachers. They'll watch t.v. They'll listen to radio and music. But, to read serious, deep, theological reflections on the essence of our faith? Not many takers.

But, that doesn't stop scholars from writing. Thus, the ever-widening gap between scholarship and every-day Christianity makes me wonder whether scholars are making a difference in the Church at all.

Friday, September 02, 2011

St. Paul's Cathedral?

Given what we know from Paul's letters (and even Acts--thanks for the reminder, JR!), I think the apostle would have a hard time planting a church in America. Some of you might say, "He wouldn't even try" and you would be right. Paul was a pioneer; he didn't like "building on another man's foundation," i.e., he preferred to work new territory. But even if he broke his own rule and came to America, I think Paul would be repelled by the notion of starting a church here for several reasons:

1. Paul thought weakness was a good thing.
2. Paul thought divisions were a bad thing (denominations?).
3. Paul thought the rights of individuals should be sacrificed for the church.
4. Paul didn't believe in free speech.
5. Paul thought singles were more devoted to Christ than married couples.
6. Paul thought the poor should give money to help others.
7. Paul preferred for preachers to have blue-collar jobs.

Some of these ideas probably wouldn't land him in prison (like they did in his day). Rather, I think he would be dismissed as a nut job, ignored by the masses. He wouldn't be able to start a church here; therefore there would be no churches named "St. Paul's Methodist" or "St. Paul's Episcopal." And, I think he would prefer it that way.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Would St. Paul be an evangelical?

Considering several things that Paul never mentions, would we dismiss him as "irrelevant" because he didn't preach "our gospel"?

1. He never tells his converts to evangelize or "share their faith" with outsiders.
2. He never mentions hell.
3. He never mentions the virgin birth of Jesus.
4. He never mentions heaven as a reward for believers.
5. He never tells pagans they must "repent."

Even though we got our "four spiritual laws" and the "Roman Road" from Paul, given these lacunae could we still call him an evangelical?

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

How many gospels are there?

Paul couldn't countenance a gospel different from the one he preached/lived. You can see his frustration in Galatians 1 as he takes on the problems that "another gospel" has created for his converts, "which is really not another" gospel--for he believed there was only one gospel, his.

I wonder what St. Paul would say today, what with all the different versions of the gospel we see and hear every day. Some of these gospels are familiar to us because of the labels we use to categorize them, e.g., the "health and wealth" gospel or the "social gospel." But, for all the labels, I think there are only three gospels in America:

1. the spiritual gospel, i.e., the essence of what Jesus came to do was save us from eternal death. The down side of this gospel is that Jesus is Lord only in heaven and not on earth.
2. the political gospel, i.e., the essence of what Jesus came to do was make the world a better place. The down side of this gospel is that it ignores the problem of hell.
3. the therapeutic gospel, i.e., the essence of what Jesus came to do was make me a better person. The down side of this gospel is that it is anthropocentric.

Can you think of "another gospel" other than these? And, considering the question we all assume has already been answered, what is the "real" gospel, in this case, the gospel St. Paul would recognize as the one he preached/lived?

Friday, August 26, 2011

A Messy Thing

When pride and impatience collide, it can get pretty ugly. For example, when I'm arguing over what I think is right and my "opponent" doesn't understand, I rush to the conclusion that they were being stubborn.

But then I sleep on it.

And the next day I realize that, just maybe, they weren't being stubborn. It could be that I was being impatient. Or, even worse, that my pride got in the way ("Why can't everyone think like me?").

When will I learn that listening requires patience and humility?

God help my arrogant soul.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Black-letter Christians

Sometime ago, it became rather fashionable to identify oneself as a "red-letter" Christian. The implication was that the words of Jesus should give us the clearest direction when it comes to being his disciple. (Often times the designation was used as a foil against those who mindlessly follow Paul's instructions, ["I am of Christ, You are of Paul,"] as if Paul and Jesus were not on the same page--which is another topic altogether.)

To be sure, Jesus said some amazingly challenging, provocative, and transformational things (the parables!). But, merely parroting what he said (we eventually discover) seems to do more harm than good. We can argue over the Sermon on the Mount (did he really teach that we shouldn't defend ourselves?), quoting the "red-letter words" back to one another like weapons, as if the war of words will settle the matter. Fighting over "what Jesus really meant" seems to be our holy occupation, especially in the blogsphere.

But, the more I think about it, the more I want to become a "black-letter" Christian, known by what I do more than what I say. Indeed, the way Mark saw it, the black letters (works of Jesus) were more important to his gospel story. And, I hope the "black letters" of my life are more important to the gospel story too.

In other words, pay no attention to these words.

Monday, August 22, 2011


I've been thinking a lot about the power of nonverbal communication (see? Being a speech major has helped!)--especially the way we interpret a sigh. Nonverbal communication often trumps verbal. Yet, some nonverbal responses are difficult to make sense of. When someone sighs, what does it mean? Exasperation? Weariness? Impatience?

In her debut CD, Audrey Assad lets out this big sigh at the end of one of her songs, "Everything is Yours." Every time I hear it, my heart leaps, my throat tightens, and I nearly get all choked up. In the song, she's talking about the struggle of how we claim God is the source of all things, and yet we have this propensity to act like possessors. The song also reminds me of two poignant moments in Mark's gospel when Jesus sighs: just before he heals the deaf man (7:34) and after the Pharisees ask him for a sign (8:11).

I've always wondered why Mark included (uniquely!) these nonverbal cues and why Jesus sighed. Both instances certainly are filled with drama; the fact that Jesus sighs speaks volumes. And yet, I don't know what they mean (*sigh*). Nevertheless, the fact that Jesus sighed inspires me somehow.

What do you think? Why did Jesus sigh? What does his nonverbal response indicate? And, why did Mark include this detail in two stories that nearly butt up against each other?

Friday, August 19, 2011

Corporate Temptations/Tests

In my new book on Paul's Spirituality (published by IVP, coming out soon), I was struck by Paul's application of his theology of the cross, especially when it came to the things Paul sacrificed as a demonstration of his faith. For example, Paul sacrificed his ethnicity/nationality for the sake of following Christ. Now, at this point I don't want to get into why Paul felt it necessary to do so (I cover that in the book--it can be a rather lengthy topic to banter about). Rather, for the purposes of this blog, I'd like to ask us the simple question: have we sacrificed our ethnicity/nationality for the sake of knowing Christ, especially as it relates to being "crucified with Christ"? What American privileges have you given up in order to share in the "sufferings of Christ."

Or, to turn the question the other way around, to what extent have we given into American obsessions (what I would call a corporate temptation/test) rather than discover the loss that comes by Jesus' cross?

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

What happens when we fail the test/temptation?

The temptation/test of Christ by Satan in the wilderness gives us great insight into how to overcome the enemy. Countless lessons can be learned by his example. Indeed, especially according to Luke's version, Jesus (the second Adam) succeeded where the first Adam failed every test: the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life. Many times I have tried to learn from the Master, refusing to give in to my fleshly desires (life is more than eating!), to the delight of my eyes ("can't buy me love, no"), and to the pride of life (God plays no favorites).

But, here's the strange part: when I say "not my will but thine" and refuse to give into temptation, nothing sensational happens. I don't have a sense of accomplishment, I don't feel proud of myself. There's no euphoria, "Wow. I showed the enemy!" In fact, oftentimes these "victories" are accompanied by a sense of loss, of emptiness, indeed, as if God is not present at all--like I've missed out on something.

And yet, what happens when I fail the test, give into temptation, let God down, is an altogether different experience.

First, I beat myself up. "Come on, Rodney, you know better than this. How many times are you going to go down the same path?"

Next, I turn to God in frustration, "What's wrong with me, God?"

Sometimes I make the futile promise, "I'll never sin again!"

Then, I confess (one more time; really? One more time?) that I have sinned, that I need God's forgiveness, that I need the Spirit's power, that I'm tired of this, that I need healing.

Sometimes I remember that Jesus overcame Satan--not only in the desert, but also in the Garden. And, because he overcame the test/temptation, we have the cleansing, the forgiveness, the hope, the power, the salvation of our Lord.

Then, I sense the presence of the Lord, what I've gained through Christ (He's saved me!), that God won't give up on me, or any one of us.

In other words, I'm beginning to see more and more that God loves to "show up" in the midst of our failures. The cross of Jesus Christ proves it. So, how can Satan win, when the cross was supposed to be his final blow against humanity, the ultimate test, the last temptation of Christ?

Monday, August 15, 2011

Lead us not into testing

This always surprises Greek students. A word often translated as "temptation" can also be translated as "test." The word is peirosmos, and it shows up in some famous passages (Lord's Prayer, James' teaching about "pure joy," promise to the Philadelphia church). The difficulty, of course, is sorting out the difference. When does peirosmos mean "temptation" and when does it mean "testing"?

Imagine how strange some familiar verses would sound if we inverted the conventional translations:

"Lead us not into testing, but deliver us from the evil one." "Count it all joy when you fall into various temptations." "Let no one say, 'I am being tested by God,' for God cannot be tested by evil and he himself tests no one." "No testing has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your strength."

How can these things be? How could one word carry both connotations? Perhaps the answer is found in the role of Satan. He started out as a divine servant, charged with the job of testing the faithfulness of humanity. But, Adam couldn't handle the challenge; testing resulted in temptation. Maybe Satan went too far in his zeal for "proof." (After all, the "bad cop" always lies to catch the accused in their guilt.) Indeed, this is Satan's modus operandi: The father of lies tries to turn every test into a temptation--the opportunity for sin.

So, this is our lot. Embedded in every test is a temptation; and every temptation is a test. But, sorting out who's to blame (is this a test from God or a temptation from Satan?) is a difficult as translating peirosmos. Maybe it's our response that reveals the difference.

Tuesday, August 09, 2011

The Devil is in the details

One of the shocking discoveries for biblical studies majors is the ever-changing role of Satan in the Bible. In Job, he appears as one of God's helpers. In the royal histories, he convinces king David to levy taxes against Israel. In Zechariah he stands ready to do his work, accusing the priest of his sins before God. Then, by the time we get to the New Testament, he appears as God's opponent, ready to "tempt/test" Jesus in the desert, eventually "falling from heaven" as Jesus expands the kingdom of God on earth via the exorcising work of the twelve.

To what extent do you think our view of evil and suffering is informed by our demonology?

I think most Christians operate with a rather static view of Satan--what he is now is what he has always been. But, a more careful reading of the biblical narrative reveals that is not the case. Satan has changed over the years. At first, he did God's work (Job); now he's out to spoil God's work (Jesus). Could that dialectic help us make sense of the problem of evil?

What do you think?

Monday, August 08, 2011

Does God test us with bad things?

Too often we'll hear someone say (after going through a horrific ordeal): "Well, I guess the Lord was testing me." The more sensitive types will respond, "There's no way God would want you to go through (fill in the blank: bankruptcy, rape, divorce, disease). Doesn't James say God doesn't tempt anyone with evil?" Then the God-is-sovereign types will speak of Job and the Akedah (Gen. 22) and then say, "God doesn't cause evil. But He certainly allows it."

Of course, I'm not expecting us to solve the problem of evil and suffering, but I would like to change the way we talk about it. Shouldn't our theology of the cross help us make sense of this dilemma? Should we blame God for "allowing" evil things to happen to us? How do you talk about God's role in the testing of our faith?

Thursday, August 04, 2011

Does God get Angry?

Okay, so I'll try this again. The reason Ro. 2:2 leaped out at me (and I winced) was the surprising thought, "Wait. Did Paul mean that?" In other words, in light of his comments about the wrath of God in Rom. 1 as well as his propitiatory language in Rom. 3:25, did Paul believe that God actively punishes sinners in this life (setting aside the implications for hell).

Do you believe that God actively punishes sinners in this life? And, if you do, how does that square with the death of Jesus as a "wrath averting" (one meaning of "propitiation") sacrifice?

Wednesday, August 03, 2011

Did Paul say this?

"We know that the judgment of God rightly falls upon those who practice such things" (Ro. 2:2).

According to the NASB, it looks like Paul said it. According to the NRSV, it looks like Paul's imaginary opponent said it.

What do you think? Does this represent Paul's position on the "righteousness/justification" of God?

Tuesday, August 02, 2011


All of us are snobs about something. Coffee. Art. Theology. Cars. Philosophy. Animals. Wine. Fashion. Music. Fitness. Film.

Of course, what makes us a snob is insider information. We know more about this or that, join forces with the like-minded, and sneer at the ignorance of the masses. These exclusive clubs claim members but no membership, barriers without walls, an identity without prejudice, a cause but no agenda.

The pretense of our snobbery sanctions ridicule--yet holds in contempt any who would disagree. I see this as self-help therapy; acting like snobs makes us feel better ourselves--at least we are right about something.

I can't help but wonder if the ever-rising need to be a snob is partly due to the lack of moorings--what, for lack of a better word, is commonly called "tradition." If I know who I am (and whose I am), then I've got very little to prove.

So, here I go: I drink canned coffee. We have one picture of Thomas Kincade's "art" in our home. I listen to pop music. And, wait for it . . . (here's my cardinal sin) I don't care for most indy films.

I'm ready to take your abuse, you snobs.

Monday, August 01, 2011


Many of us brainy types enjoy sarcasm. In fact, it could be said it comes easy to our tribe. Indeed, it comes so easy many of us see it as a gift; but, I'm beginning to think sarcasm is another form of laziness. Rather than work hard at dealing with an issue--trying to be clearer, more patient--we flippantly throw out a sarcastic zinger and call it a victory. It may make us feel better, but does little good.

Sarcasm comes from a Greek word, sarx. NT students immediately recognize the danger. "Sarx" is a loaded term used by Paul; literally it means "flesh," but Paul also used sarx to characterize a way of life that works against the Spirit. So, sarcasm is of the flesh. Literally, "sarcasm" is a saying that tears the flesh, bites the victim, rips at the meat of a wo/man. In Paul's day, sarcasm wouldn't be seen as something desirable, especially for a Christ believer.

Contrast our culture, where sarcasm is a virtue. Our "pop" philosophers (a.k.a. comedians) use these fleshly sayings with great skill. But, I'm beginning to think sarcasm works against my desire to "walk in the Spirit." A sarcastic word may be funny, but I wonder whether it helps at all.

This is going to be a hard habit to break. I love sarcasm--maybe too much. And, that should be a warning too.

"This I say: walk in the Spirit and you will not fulfill the desires of the flesh."

Friday, July 29, 2011


Jesus knew what he was doing when he referred to God as "Father," the best description for his (and our) relationship.

This post by Mark Roberts is a touching memorial to the power of God as Father as seen through the eyes of a grateful son.

In a world where male-bashing is common (and, sadly enough, sometimes deserved), I need to hear words like this. Thanks, Mark, for sharing your heart.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

One Problem

At times I think much of our problem as Christians derives from one, simple issue: we take ourselves way too seriously. Perhaps that says more about me than the rest of us. But, I think I see why Christians have lost our voice in the public square. We think every idea of ours will save the world.

Could we ever preface our opinion with the phrase "I could be wrong" and really mean it? That might be a refreshing change in the midst of heated battles over ideologies.

Then again, I could be wrong.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Where have all the prophets gone?

I need a prophetic voice to wake me up from my comfortable slumber. But, where can I go to hear it?

With so many voices competing for our attention, I wonder about our ability to hear the clarion call of God despite the cacophony. There are so many people talking about so many things. The noise is deafening. And yet, despite all the chatter, I think it's getting easier to surround ourselves within the cocoon of our preferences, finding voices that are merely parroting our prejudices.

For example, it's amazing to me how quickly people line up on this or that question simply because of their political allegiances. Or, how a "theological hero" makes a claim about this or that book and all their devoted followers fall in line to bash the author.

Given the rancor that dominates social discourse, I can't help but wonder if we'll ever hear a prophet say, "Thus saith the Lord," and we'll have ears to hear it. To me, it seems like the days of John the Baptizer all over again.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011


I'm finally at peace with the idea that has been troubling me for quite some time. I'm Baptist because I was raised Baptist.

I used to like to think that I'm Baptist by choice. And, I guess, it still holds true: I continue in the Baptist tradition by choice. But, then again, I don't think I could ever leave the Baptist tradition--for a variety of reasons: comfort of familiarity, job security, theological identity.

At the same time, there are many things about other Christian traditions that are attractive to me, like the exuberance of the Pentecostals, the mystery of Catholicism, the community of Anglicanism, the confidence of Calvinism, etc. In other words, I think I would be Catholic if I were raised Catholic. I would be Anglican if I were brought up by Anglican parents. I would be Presbyterian if my parents had belonged to a Presbyterian Church.

Of course, this doesn't necessarily apply to all people; there are many Christians who grew up in a nonChristian home. Which makes me wonder: if I had been born to atheists, would I be an atheist? I don't think so because the sacred heart of Christ draws me to him, regardless of my tradition.

Monday, July 25, 2011

I need Beauty

The older I get the more I'm driven outside to take in the beauty of what God has made. I simply need to sit and soak in the glory of God. Thus, to a certain extent, I can see why some people would rather worship God "in nature" than go to "church" on Sundays.

I'm reminded of something Brother Lawrence wrote in "Practicing the Presence of Christ"": something to the effect that "I find it difficult to think about God when I pray; but when I wash dishes I think about Him all the time." Indeed, I find myself thinking about God far more often when I'm outside fishing than when I'm inside a building singing.

Why do these observations ring true?

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Make up your minds

Since Christians seem to support nearly every kind of political option in America, what does that say about our faith?

You would think that, since we share the same faith, live the same gospel, operate with the same symbolic universe ("kingdom of God"), then we'd all line up under one political movement. But we don't.

Does that say more about us or about politics?

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

What ever happened to Avarice?

Greed is hard to recognize. I'm not sure we see it anymore. I can't remember the last time I heard someone give a talk about the pitfalls of avarice. Why? Because it is the grand assumption of our culture. Wanting more is always better. Indeed, our economy couldn't survive without it. Think of what would happen if all of us decided to confess our sin of avarice and not live greedy lives.

I rarely think about my greedy problem. How about you? What do you do to keep from being greedy?

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Social Justice versus Moral Purity

Why is it that those who emphasize the importance of social justice tend to downplay the necessity of moral purity? And, why is it that those who emphasize moral purity tend to absolve themselves of being involved in social justice?

In the evangelical world, Christians who preach "no sex" tend to find little use for helping the poor. And, Christians who rally support for the marginalized often set aside strict requirements for sexual behavior.

Have you seen the same tendencies? And, if so, why do these approaches to "what's important" in our faith appear to be mutually exclusive?

Monday, July 18, 2011

Romance and Christ

The more I think about it, the more I realize we've been sold a bill of goods. There's much money to be made by propping up the elusive idea of romantic love. Will I ever find "the one." When will love call my name? How will I know when I'm in love?

And, I think the Church has been just as guilty dangling this elusive idol in front of our eyes as our American culture.

Don't take this as "romance bashing." I think I can be as romantic as the next guy. But, when will we learn that the ultimate love, the perfect love, the love that eclipses all love is Christ?

And, when we will believe that the Body of Christ is where we should experience that true love.

Sorry. No questions today. Except, why can't we see this?

Friday, July 15, 2011

Who's sub?

I'm beginning to grow weary of the presumption that new "communities" (the word preferred these days rather than "church") are absent of cultural proclivities. That is, we easily spot the barriers of a certain Christian "sub-culture," decide to jettison the distinctions, then form a community that supposedly is raked clean of such weeds. In other words, despite all the efforts of the emergents (you know who they are) and the post-emergents (you may know who they are), we're still creating "sub-cultures" within our Christian faith.

Rather than deny the distinctives of our particular community, shouldn't we celebrate them? And, if so, how do we do that NOT at the expense of the "other"?

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Time for a change

I really haven't figured out the purpose of blogging (even though I read somewhat regularly a few blogs).

So, I'm going to switch things up here. Rather than try to hammer out an idea every once in a while, I'd like to throw out some random observations (daily?) and see what happens.

Here goes: why does it seem to happen so often that when a romantic relationship sours the victim(s) appears to question his/her faith in God? "My girlfriend broke off the engagement, now I don't believe in God anymore." Over the years, I've seen this happen over and over again.

At the risk of sounding unsympathetic, why?

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Boys and Girls

In his magnum opus--a twenty-five minute song!--Sufjan Stevens ends his musical apocalypse with a vision of the end: the quest of the impossible soul. After wrestling with the failure of love, the sinfulness of humanity, the prison of loneliness, the sickness of pain, the sorrow of misunderstanding, the last song takes on the problem of evil and suffering. In the end, the only claim Stevens can make is this: we can't do life without each other. With all of its messy, incongruous lines of us/them, evil/good, hope/despair, truth/lies, life affords a realism that defies any silly, utopian ideas of pure beauty. Everything and everyone is marred. Hints of the way things should be lie latent in the most difficult things. We talk about love, about truth, about righteousness, about meaning, about purpose, about direction, about resolution, about being whole. But, then life compels us to look in the mirror and say, "I can't lie to you. I can't tell you everything's going to be all right. You know better."

But wait. Someone's standing right beside me. She's looking in the mirror too. She's saying "it's okay. It's just the way life is. We're not meant to do this all by ourselves. We can do this together." This is no temptress. No serpent whispering in my ear. She is the second Eve, the new woman, the helpmate God intended all along. There is no feigned romanticism in her voice. She admits life is messy. She knows love goes wrong. This is no Eden. The ground yields thorns. Fig leaves must be sewn. Hide and seek will never end. She lives with an impossible soul too.

But that doesn't mean we can't dance. Hear the music? It's inviting us to find rhythm in the midst of chaos, to recover movement in spite of the static, to recover a lyrical life while death reigns, to find rest in the restless night, to believe the impossible.

Whenever I hear Sufjan's apocalyptic vision of the end of the world, I want to get up and dance.

Eve, where are you?

Wednesday, June 01, 2011

“I want to be well” says the Volcano

Evil. It’s hard to pin down, difficult to figure out.

We know it when we see it, especially in others. We say, “he’s the devil” or “she’s wicked.” Locating evil is the only way to comprehend the incomprehensible, take in the unimaginable. “Why would he do something like that? How could she do such a thing?” Sometimes we attribute such atrocity, such horrific behavior to madness. Crazy people do crazy things. But, that doesn’t settle the issue; we know he was “normal.” She was “fine.” But then, everything changed. He’s not the same guy; she’s not acting like she used to. We know we haven’t changed; we’re the same person. We saw things clearly. We know what’s right and what’s not. But what about them? How do we make sense of their bizarre behavior, their destructive bent, their calloused heart? Evil. We blame evil. Evil took control. Poisoned their soul. Ruined a perfectly good human being. Evil showed up and spoiled everything. Evil becomes our scapegoat.

But what happens when we discover that evil lies within us, too? That our fiery passion can erupt and destroy others? When the molten lava of our selfish inclinations explodes and reveals what was inside us all along? What do we do when evil is no longer “other” but “us”?

This seems to be Sufjan’s struggle. Accepting that evil is our fault (not “his” or “her”) makes the landscape of our souls seem so much more messy, the terrain of our social world more chaotic. Broken relationships are sickness; death is a social disease. Why does life have to be so hard, especially when all of us want to be well? The default mode, the pseudo-response to this broken down world is to say “it’s your fault.” But, the truth of the matter is: the murdering ghost lives in all of us. Islands are formed from volcanoes. “I want it all for myself” is such a lonely life.

“Oh, wretched man that I am, who will save me from this impossible soul?”

Friday, April 01, 2011

Get Real, Get Right with Me

Everyone is looking for authenticity. The presumption of our quest is we want to know what is real (isn't that telling? Nobody takes things at "face value" anymore--hey, what's really going on here?). We will not suffer from illusions. We will not tolerate lies. We need to see what is real to know what is right, what is true, what is genuine. The problem is we're all troubled by what we see. One man's trouble is another woman's misperception. One woman's reality is another man's nightmare. What is evident to one is obscure to another. What passes for humor is tragic to someone else. So, we'll argue over what is right, what is real, what is wrong, what is false--all the while assuming perceptions are universally shared.

In this social tug-of-war, the underlying assumption of all arguments is to get the "other" to see things like you do. In fact, that is the immediate reaction of those who are perpetually frustrated by "bad communication." When they don't get it, we can't help but wonder: what's wrong with them? Why don't they understand? Why are they being so stubborn? Getting your opponent to see things like you do is half the battle for truth. Deciding who is right, however, is a completely different war.

We all want to believe God is on our side. Even more than that, we all want to believe God agrees with us, thinks like us, sees the world like we do. After all, God is always on the side of right. Yet, Sufjan seems to have a sneaky suspicion that such a divine perspective fools no one but the fool who believes it. A prophet may shout: "it's time to get real and get right with the Lord." But, no one listens to him. What he says may be true--don't we all need to get real and get right? The problem is we can't stand hearing the message, knowing it comes from a mad man whose volcanic eruptions look more like evil than good.

But, are we fooling ourselves just the same? "That can't be the voice of God because I know He wouldn't sound like that." Then, we erupt with our own frustrations of a world gone mad, an injustice that knows no bounds, a love that grows cold, a faithfulness that never endures. The fires that burn within our souls may even lead to paths of destruction, where we win the war of words but still have this aching doubt: who is right? Maybe it's not as simple as "who's right and who's wrong," who wins and who loses.

In the war of truth, maybe we're our worst enemy.


Tuesday, March 15, 2011

I walked with regrets

There's no such thing as closure--even though we know we can't bear to live with regrets. It's the constant dialectic, the endless dilemma of having to live with our mistakes even as we find ways to blame others. This is especially true when love is spurned, when lovers part, when two who were supposed to be one flesh have been torn apart. The end of love makes everyone question beginnings: were we really in love? Did she care only for herself? Didn't he cherish me once? Who's right and who's wrong? Did we fail love or did love fail us?

Love is not singular; it only exists when it is shared. So, the lover says, "I loved because I was loved." But, should it be that way? When a lover walks away, does love perish with him/her? Doesn't true love persist even when love is spurned? Who is the one who gets to decide when love is dead? The departed or the spurned?

Looking back on it all, Sufjan Stevens struggles with the failure of love "now that he's older." Youthful exuberance must give way to mature reflection. Time is supposed to be the gift that makes love stronger. Instead, it makes things worse. The more we try to sort out the past, the harder it is to make sense of what happened, to find closure, to put away regrets. Seems like we don't get very far; the older we get the more things remain the same.

So, what do we do when we realize time doesn't heal all wounds--especially the stigmata of love? What happens next, especially when time marches on, even though the end of love feels like the end of the world?

It's time to get real and get right.

Monday, February 14, 2011

The age of confusion

How do you get a prophet to take his own advice? You can't use words; those are the weapons of his craft. Just try to shout down a prophet and all you get are more words--two persons shouting past each other. Even in that battle, the person with the biggest weapons doesn't win: hurtful words shouted through a megaphone are no more effective than whispers of apathy. Indeed, when it comes to a prophet, words are futile devices.

And yet, prophets can be so annoying, what with all their talk about the wrath of God and the end of the world. So, how do you warn a prophet? How do you say, "you've gone too far" or "you're simply a madman"--especially when all prophets (even those whose prophecies came true) are mad. Even that word is fascinating to me: "mad" used to mean "crazy" but now it means "angry." In fact, that's the picture most of us have of prophets: angry men who say crazy words. It is madness that drives some men insane.

But, what is sanity? One man's madness is another man's passion. In fact, even prophets speak of love and faithfulness and truth. Sometimes we hear sane people talk about love, but its quite apparent even they don't know what they're talking about: to them love is twisted, selfish, destructive, myopic, painful, vain. Love under the guise of encomium leaves us confused and dazed, wondering where truth can be found.

This is what I hear in Sufjan Steven's apocalyptic world of Adz. The dualism of the age is not between love and hate, faithfulness and betrayal, truth and lies, life and death. All of these things overlap in the age of Adz. Instead, the constant struggle, the eternal dialectic, is between clarity and confusion. We're all looking for moments of clarity, even from a madman. And, those who say "they understand" often admit they're troubled and confused. So, in a world where perspective is reality, does anyone have eyes to see and ears to hear?

It depends upon not what you say but where you walk.

Friday, January 14, 2011

There's too much riding on love

In a simplified version of biblical apocalypticism, there is a thoroughgoing dualism--a struggle, a conflict, a fight--between two forces. Typically, it is the final battle between good and evil, between God and Satan, between order and chaos. Apocalyptic prophets see the battle in vivid panoramic terms, most often visualized as war. In this cosmic fight, the world is a mess because evil seems to run amok. The determinism of a world filled with death and injustice robs humanity of the dignity of hope. Nothing ever seems to change. But, the seer knows it won't always be this way. The warning goes forth (even though no one seems to want to hear it): God is going to invade the cosmos, riding in like a man on a white horse--guns blazing. Then evil will finally be put down. The wicked will get their just desserts. It will take a lot of death to pull it off, a lot of violent conflict, a lot of chaotic warfare to bring order. But, this is the way it must be: it must get worse before it gets better. In the meantime, in the face of such pessimistic determinism, the weapon of the righteous is faithfulness. The prophet's message is: hold on, grit your apocalyptic teeth, and warn the world with words.

In the face of this apocalypticism, the prophet Sufjan challenges the idea of faithfulness as the only recourse of the righteous. Instead, he wants to believe in the power of love. Indeed, the open-endedness of love is our only chance of overcoming such a mechanical view of the world. Rather than give in to the machinery--the pretense of pessimism--the Seer claims that love conquers all. But, there is a problem. What is true love? Mere words will never suffice. Intimate knowledge is an illusion. We all are screwed up people. How can we love without truth, without a prophet to tell us what is true? So, A new dualism of perpetual struggle is born: the final conflict is not between good and evil, love and hatred, order and chaos.

It is the age of Adz.