Wednesday, November 29, 2023

Paul, Pain, and Me

For two years I've been working on a commentary on 2 Corinthians, trying to make sense of Paul's most personal letter, where he bears his soul so openly and, in the eyes of his converts in Corinth, shamefully.  After all, the Corinthians held Paul in contempt, dismissing him as the "least of the apostles" for all kinds of reasons, but especially because he endured so much pain.  For, if Paul was God's appointed servant, why did He make it so hard on the apostle to the Gentiles?  And yet, rather than hide from his pain or try to put a positive spin on such suffering, Paul embraced it as the work of Christ, what he called "carrying around in the body the dying of Jesus."

I think I understand.

Over the last few years, I've been carrying around in my body a lot of pain.

In 2016, my mom died of cancer.  In 2018 I became a persona non grata, a national target of vicious attacks by crusaders who questioned my commitment to Christ--even some of my former students joined in the smear campaign.  In 2019 I left my "dream" job of 19 years and moved to Jonesboro.  In 2020 our house in Bolivar was burglarized.  In 2021 my eldest daughter broke off all communication with me and Sheri.  That same year both Sheri and I faced some scary health problems.  In 2022 my son entered rehab.  In January of 2023 my dad died under horrible circumstances.  Recently, our youngest daughter's husband abandoned her, leading her to move to another state to start a new chapter of life.  All of this grief, all of the sorrow I feel deeply in my bones, sometimes weighing me down, a burden strapped to my body.

Of course, throughout all of this, I've seen the help of our God:  due to his sobriety, it feels like we got our son back; I love my job, ministering in a wonderful church; our return to Jonesboro has been a balm of healing; we found a beautiful home to live in; God healed both Sheri and me; our youngest daughter is moving on with courage and dignity.  Even though the scars remain, I believe God is still on my side.  The betrayal, the sense of abandonment, the loneliness, the fear, the confusion, constantly asking God, "why?"--these are the very things Paul wrestled with, albeit under different circumstances than mine.  And yet, I have found solidarity with him in ways I never would have imagined.  His experience, his words, his example, his advice have helped me more than I can say.  Because of him, I'm finding resurrection where death and suffering seemed so regnant.

Sharing these things is difficult, especially since many believers have experienced far more devastating tragedies.  Still, we seek the wisdom of those who have gone before, even a man like Paul who confidently claimed we "always carry around in our body the dying of Jesus so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body" (2 Cor. 4:10).  Not sometimes.  Not when it's convenient.  But always.  We always carry in our body the necrotic effect of Jesus' life-giving death.

This isn't pain management.  It is resurrection power.

Wednesday, November 30, 2022

Millennials & "Good Samaritans"

 As I was driving to my office this morning, I heard a song on the "oldies" radio station, "Living Years" by Mike & the Mechanics.  This time, the first line of the song jumped out at me, "Every generation, blames the one before."  As I turned that line over and over in my head, I thought about the recent conversations I had with my daughter and son over the thanksgiving holiday.  Andrew and I talked about his sobriety, how much freedom he has found in being honest:  with himself, with his addiction, with his family, with God.  Grace and I talked about the generation gap between boomers and millennials.  She wanted to know why my generation is so quick to dismiss millennials as lazy, entitled, disrespectful complainers and yet how quickly we take our "this-is-lousy-service frustrations" out on the millennials who are working thankless, minimum-wage jobs.  Our different conversations took several twists and turns, but I came away with greater appreciation for millennials--not only because they are the generation of my son and daughters, but also because they ended up being my "Good Samaritans" when I was suffering on the side of the road.

Just before thanksgiving, I attended the annual conference for biblical scholars in Denver, Colorado.  Sheri went with me, and one day we decided to have lunch downtown.  Along the way, I noticed several men passed out on the sidewalk.  Like most urban areas, the homeless population in Denver continues to grow.  After lunch, having visited a few shops, we walked back to the Air B&B.  It was a sunny and cold afternoon.  We were walking past a church that Grace had told us feeds the homeless--taking in the beauty of the old building--when Sheri tripped over a two-inch lip of marble slab protruding out of the sidewalk--a treacherous obstacle for pedestrians.  Reflexively, I reached out with my arm thinking I could save her from face-planting on the sidewalk.  Instead, my efforts caused her to land on her side, while at the same time propelled me toward the stone wall surrounding the church.  I nearly fell on top of her, legs coming dangerously close to her head as I flew by, the momentum hurling me towards the wall.  Instinctively, I lifted my left arm to save my noggin.  When I hit the wall, I heard that familiar sound--the one my knees made when I screwed them up playing sports years ago.  You know, the cracking/grinding sound when you're separating chicken bones to eat the last bite of meat?  That sound.  Then, horrific pain shot through my shoulder.  My arm went limp.  I knew I had separated my shoulder, perhaps even broken some bones.  I tried to get up.  Nearly passed out.  So, Sheri decided she would leave me on the sidewalk to get the car and eventually take me to the hospital.  That's when I learned what it feels like to experience one of Jesus' parables.

Before she left, Sheri noticed a man my age sitting in his parked truck next to us.  He saw the whole thing.  Never tried to help.  After Sheri left, I crawled to the same wall of my misery, trying to lean my body against it, hoping I wouldn't pass out in the meantime.  A few boomers passed by.  Never broke their stride.  I'm writhing in pain and they probably dismissed me as another homeless bum laid out on the sidewalk.  Then, a couple of millennials came from their apartment to check on me.  They asked me if I was alright, wondered what they could do for me.  I reassured them, "My wife is coming to get me. " The next thing I remember, my face is pressed against the cold marble sidewalk.  Having passed out, I heard the young woman yelling at me, "Sir, are you okay?  Sir, are you okay?  I'm going to call 911!"  At that moment, Sheri pulled up with the car, the young lady helped me in, and off we went to the house and eventually the ER.

Good news came in two forms that day:  1) moderate shoulder separation, no broken bones, and 2) millennials are a kind, emphatic generation--the Good Samaritans we boomers will eventually need when we can't take care of ourselves.  

Honestly, "every generation, should thank the ones before . . . and after."

Tuesday, October 20, 2020

A Lover of Wisdom

My philosophy professor died yesterday.  

He was the first Christian intellectual I had ever met, and as I think about him now, I can't imagine what my faith in Christ would have been like without him.  

He taught me how to love God with all of my mind.  

He inspired me to embrace questions as a gift from God.

He showed me what it looks like to consider an opposing idea with charity and grace.

He modeled for me the relentless pursuit of the truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

He was such a kind mind, such a noble man, such a humble man--helping me see that "becoming" a Christian requires a lifetime of devotion to God.

He was my first college professor.

I was a first-generation college student.  I had no one in my family to tell me what college was like.  So, when I walked into my very first college class--"Introduction to Philosophy"by Dr. Dan Cochran--I had no idea what to expect.  

The class met in the basement of an old church building.  About twenty students were packed into the little room, old desk chairs lined up facing the teacher's desk at the front of the classroom, a small rectangular window letting in a little light, the boiler in the back corner hissing and sputtering.  

Then he entered the room.  After offering a brief introduction of himself and the requirements of the course, he stepped in front of the little desk, lifted his eyes to the ceiling with a pensive look and a big smile on his face, he looked down at us (his little group of bright-eyed freshman), knowing he was about to take us on an unforgettable journey, and said slowly, deliberately, "What . . . is . . . real?"

Metaphysics.  I had never heard the term before.  But, the way he puzzled over the question, making us think through the reality of all things--is it what we experience or what we think?--I walked away from my first college lecture with my head buzzing. It was such a heady experience.  Walking back to the dorm, my mind racing a hundred miles an hour, I must have had a big grin on my face as I muttered to myself, "This is college."

He led me to the well of wisdom, offered me a drink, and I've thirsted for The Truth ever since.  And for that, I shall be eternally grateful.

"Ho!  Every one who thirsts, come to the waters; and you who have no money come, buy and eat."

Wednesday, October 14, 2020

Academic Orphan

A couple of years ago during the national gathering of "The Society of Biblical Literature," my friends and I were having dinner when I mused:  "Southwestern doesn't have a reception for us.  Have you ever wondered why?  Duke, Harvard, Princeton, Fuller--they all have receptions for their alumni, wanting to celebrate their achievements, to stay connected.  That's not the case for us."  Then one of my friends (he teaches at a Baptist university and has written several "best sellers" in biblical studies) said, "You're right.  I never thought of that before."  To which I replied, "you'd think that they would want to celebrate your success, make it evident to everyone how proud they are of you and the rest of us.  But they don't.  It's as if we are academic orphans."

That observation has become evermore evident to me as my alma mater, Southwest Baptist University, is about to be taken over by forces within the Missouri Baptist Convention.  If the convention goes their way in a few weeks, new board members will bring a majority vote to implement their agenda:  to turn SBU into something it's never been--a fundamentalist/calvinistic college.

It's an odd thing to me:  the Baptist institutions of higher education that produced me back then find me undesirable today.  What my professors taught me--the value of higher education I received from them--is now considered a threat to theological education.  It just feels so strange.  These "mothering institutions" that had such a profound impact on me--the way I read the Scriptures, fostering my desire to obey Christ and serve His Church, helping me sort out what it means to make a difference for the kingdom of God--they don't want to have anything to do with "their children" born at a certain time.  I entered their doors in 1975, left their buildings eleven years later (BA, Mdiv, PhD), ready to embrace the calling of God on my life, believing I had received the best education Baptist money can buy.  

I believe I have fulfilled that calling as a pastor and a professor.  And, I thank God that I have found a place to serve Him with a loving Baptist congregation who takes seriously their calling to be the Body of Christ.  But, when I think about where I came from, the college and seminary that birthed me, I have this strange feeling that I don't belong.  There will be no homecomings.  I have no place to rest my "theological" head.  I have no alma mater, no "mother" who will always root for me, will say she is proud of me, will claim, "he's mine."

It's a hard thing to admit, but it's finally dawning on me:  I'm an academic orphan without a home.

Wednesday, August 26, 2020

Young Calvinists are leaving the Church and I think I know why

They were stuck in the Romans 7 loop.

Lately, I've had several conversations with a variety of people who are concerned about calvinists who have left the faith.  How could someone who so staunchly defended the gospel turn their back on their election?  Of course, there are also young wesleyans, baptists, and pentecostals who have walked away from the church.  But, since I've returned to the pastorate, I can't count the number of times different people have asked me about their friends (and some well-known Christian "celebrities")--the "young, restless, and reformed" who are de-converting.  These one-time staunch calvinists don't believe anymore.  Why?  There are several reasons.  But, I'm seeing a trend in evangelical churches that I think contributes to the problem:  we promote the Romans 7 loop.  It goes like this.

You're a horrible sinner.  Your righteousness is like filthy rags.  You can do no good.  The very thing you want to do, you don't.  And, the very thing you don't want to do, you do.  You're hopelessly caught in the vortex of sin.  But, God sent his Son to pay for your sin.  What you couldn't do for yourself, Jesus did.  He died on the cross for you.  So, praise him for his sacrifice.  Thank him for saving you from your sins.  You are no longer under condemnation.  You have been set free.

The worshipper leaves church with gratitude for Christ's cross.  She relishes the feeling of finding cleansing once again.  He lingers in the presence of a worship experience that feels like water to his thirsty soul.  But, the spiritual high doesn't last long.  The week brings several occasions for worldly passions, lustful behavior, secret sins.  But, good news!  He can return Sunday to hear "the gospel" once again; she can sing the songs that remind her that, 

"You're a horrible sinner.  Your righteousness is like filthy rags.  You can do no good.  The very thing you want to do, you don't.  And, the very thing you don't want to do, you do.  You're hopelessly caught in the vortex of sin.  But, God sent his Son to pay for your sin.  What you couldn't do for yourself, Jesus did.  He died on the cross for you.  So, praise him for his sacrifice.  Thank him for saving you from your sins.  You are no longer under condemnation.  You have been set free."

And nothing ever changes.  

If you dare to suggest that there must be more to the Christian life, some pious watchdogs may accuse you of perverting the gospel.  (To them, protecting the Romans 7 loop is defending the gospel.)  And so, after a while, some evangelicals get tired of the ferris wheel and jump off.  They're sick of the ups and downs, tired of repeating the same old story.  They've been told so often that they're "lousy sinners," they decide to live up to the self-proclaimed prophecy.

It's so sad and so unnecessary.

How do we break the vicious cycle?  

Here's a good place to start:  read the verses after Romans 8:3.  The "good news" is so much more than the Romans 7 loop.

Thursday, March 05, 2020

Manly Strength

At first I thought it was a joke.

I received an invitation to attend a "Stronger Men" conference at a church in another state, where the Friday night entertainment will be a professional boxing match.

"Surely this can't be right," I mumbled to myself.  "Maybe I've misunderstood."  I checked the flyer they had sent in the mail.  I recognized the featured guest speaker--a famous retired professional boxer.  "Maybe they covered the brochure with pictures of professional boxing because of him."  But, as I read the details, it soon dawned on me that, yes, the highlight of the weekend--right there in the church building?--they're going to sponsor a professional boxing match.  At that moment, my imagination got the best of me, envisioning two fighters going at each other, blood splattered all over the ring, men roaring with approval as they take in the testosterone-driven spectacle, with Jesus standing in the corner saying to no one in particular, "So, this is what it's come to."

I have to tell you I'm sick and tired of this nonsense, where churches are trying to feed the worldly, macho-man narrative that's supposed to help salve our male insecurities.  Jesus--the true man--has shown us a better way.

The world says, "a real man beats up his opponents."  Jesus told his disciples, "Turn the other cheek."

The world says, "a strong man believes in vigilante justice."  Jesus taught his disciples, "Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you."

The world says, "a man's strength is muscular."  Jesus told Paul, "Power is perfectly revealed in weakness."

The world says, "boast in your strength."  Paul said he'd rather boast in his weakness because of the cross of Jesus--where the weakness of God is stronger than any man.

Indeed, it takes a really strong man and woman to pick up a cross and follow Jesus--something the world will never understand.

Thursday, November 07, 2019

The Truth of the Gospel

For several years, there's been a lot of talk about "the truth of the gospel."  Calvinists (Piper, Chandler, et al.) have written several best-sellers defending "justification by faith" as the truth of the gospel.  So, they spend a lot of time in their sermons reminding us of our sins and how God has forgiven us through faith in Jesus Christ.  We didn't do anything to "earn" our salvation.  It is the work of our sovereign God.  He saved us, and that should inspire us to worship Him.  In fact, many of the praise songs we sing emphasize the divine transaction of salvation.  We were lost.  God reached down to save us.  That is the truth of the gospel.  That is what we sing; that is what we hear.  Over and over again the mantra is repeated:  we were once lousy sinners.  We couldn't do anything to save ourselves.  God sent his Son to do for us what we couldn't do for ourselves.  And, since Calvinists believe God chose us individually, sending His Spirit to enable us to believe the gospel, even our faith is a gift from God.  Not even trusting in Christ is something that we do.  It's all God.  Therefore, the truth of the gospel centers exclusively on what God has done for us:  justification by faith.  As long as we get that right (the vertical), we're defending the gospel.

But Paul argued that "the truth of the gospel" was more than getting the "vertical" relationship with God right.  He claimed there is a horizontal dimension to the gospel.  How we treat one another matters when it comes to the "truth of the gospel"--something he tried to get the Galatians to see (Gal. 2:1-14).  When "false brothers sneaked in to spy out our liberty in Christ," Paul said he didn't yield to them "for even an hour so that the truth of the gospel might remain with you" (v. 5).  Later, Paul accused Cephas (Peter), Barnabas, and the rest of the Jewish Christians who refused to eat with Gentile believers of hypocrisy because they were "not walking straight concerning the truth of the gospel" (v. 14).  Notice, the argument wasn't over some theological wrangling about "justification by faith."  The issue was a social problem:  who eats with whom.  As far as Paul was concerned, the truth of the gospel had as much to do with how we treat one another at the table as our personal relationship with God.  Indeed, for Paul, the truth of the gospel is a social reality grounded in theological truth.  Justification by faith not only happens vertically (our relationship with God) but also horizontally (our relationship with each other).  In fact, when Paul gets in Peter's face, he argues that "superior" Christians can't claim they are justified by faith when they separate themselves from the "sinners" (vv. 15-21).  For them, the cross is merely a divine transaction, the place where sin is cancelled--something done for them.  For Paul, the cross also requires our participation, the divine way of death that leads to life--something we do.  The cross was not only done for us; it is also done to us and through us.  That is the truth of the gospel.

So, listen up crusaders, zealots, loyal members of self-sequestered theological clubs and secret societies:  you're not defending the "truth of the gospel" when you alienate your brother and sister in Christ.  In fact, according to Paul (the one you call your "beloved brother"), you prove you're not even justified by faith.