No Graven Images?

For me.

A couple Sundays ago, I preached a sermon on the ten commandments. When I got to the second commandment, I asked, “Anybody tempted to carve an image of God and worship it?” No one was, so I moved on.

But as I was driving to church the next week, I was wrestling with doubt, as I often do, and this commandment popped into my head again.

What if the god I don’t believe in is a graven image? Something I made a long time ago in my heart and in my head so when I visited it or prayed to it, I felt better, but now I’ve grown out of it?

That’s the problem with graven images: They’re static. They don’t change.

Worshiping the golden calf

We think God looks like a bull, but then Moses comes down with the ten commandments…

God doesn’t change either, of course, but our understanding of God changes.

We think God wants sacrifices, but God lets us know better.

We think God is obsessed with rules, but Jesus comes and reveals God to us.

We think God loves us and hates them, but God turns out to care for everyone.

We think God looks like a bull, or a white dude with a beard, or an angry man in the sky. We make our pictures of God, but God keeps breaking them, smashing them to pieces. That’s what happens when you try to lay down metal on top of something that’s alive.

It’s like that poem about the blind men and the elephant. Imagine if they had each carved an image of the elephant and announced that THIS was what the elephant REALLY looked like.

But the elephant moves. The elephant is alive. And they haven’t seen all there is to see of it.

That’s God.

God is alive. God moves. And we have not seen all there is to see of God.

Maybe that’s why the second commandment said not to make images. Maybe it was about not locking God down, because when you lock God down in one image, what happens when you hit a spiritual growth spurt and all of a sudden you outgrow that god?

The name of the Israelite God in Hebrew, of course, is “I AM,” or “I WILL BE WHAT I WILL BE,” which is a really great way of saying, “Your image is invalid.”

Which isn’t to say we can’t know anything about God.

It isn’t to say when God found us and we felt God with us, that wasn’t actually God.

It’s just to say that when we felt God’s presence with us back then, the image we carved of God based on what we thought we knew might turn out to be a little… off.

Or a lot off.

So break your graven images,
crush them into powder.
Fall in love with God
Realize what you don’t know
Hold tight to what you do.

And follow along with this
one who loves you
Who will be

Is There a Place for Male Professors at Seminary?

Megachurch pastor and author John Piper has recently tweeted a blog post / podcast(?) in which he asks whether there is a place for female professors at Seminary.

Truly, I could not believe what I was reading. Perhaps it’s because I’ve been out of The Dark World of Nonsense for such a long time. Or perhaps it’s because I attend a seminary where (a few) women serve as professors – and some of them as truly excellent professors. (Some of my male professors are also truly excellent).

With a barely-started and completely unrelated final paper due in less than two weeks, I knew there was only one thing to do: Buckle down and write the response that post deserved.

The argument Mr. Piper uses is important to consider. What follows is my (I believe accurate) caricature:

If we allow women to teach men who are going to be pastors, people will start to wonder why their pastors’ teachers can’t also be pastors.

Which is an excellent point. Women should be allowed to teach pastors if they are so qualified, and women should be allowed to be pastors.

But should men?

For an answer, I turn to scripture. And not just scripture – complementarian scripture. The (Male-oriented) English Standard Version, to be exact.

And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.” (Genesis 2:16-17)

Now the serpent was more crafty than any other beast of the field that the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden’?” And the woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden, but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die.’” (Genesis 3:1-3)

See how the man is already lying to the woman about what God said? By the time it gets to the woman, God’s command has been twisted and stretched.

If you can’t trust the first man, in the GARDEN OF EDEN, BEFORE THE FALL EVEN HAPPENED, to accurately relay God’s word spoken directly to him, to only ONE woman, how the heck can you trust future, fallen men, to accurately relay God’s word transferred via the Bible, to other men and then have them relay it? It’s like telephone. Gosh.

Pop quiz: Who committed the Bible’s first murder?

Answer: Cain. A man.

Then you get to Lamech (Genesis 4:23-24), who threatens sevenfold revenge to anyone who hurts him. Violent people, men.

Genesis 6:5, ESV: The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.

Not woman. Man. The flood happens because of man.

Now consider the man of faith, Abraham. He goes to Egypt and he’s such a coward that he tells his wife to lie to the Egyptians because he’s afraid. Does this sound like qualifications of a spiritual leader? No, no it does not. But she’s submissive to her husband, and next thing ya know, she’s about to be Pharaoh’s wife.

Also, the thing he’s afraid of is that the Egyptians will kill him if they find out she’s his wife. He’s wrong. So basically the man of faith has (a) told his wife to lie because (b) he has bad judgment.

Then take Sodom and Gamorrah. The Bible says (Genesis 13:13) that “the men of Sodom were wicked, great sinners against the Lord.” Nothing about the women; just the men. God destroys the whole city because of the men of Sodom.

Moses, a man disobeys God, and his wife has to circumcise their boys.

We’re gonna have to move a little faster now. All but one of Israel’s apostate idol-worshiping heads of state? Men. (Jezebel was under Ahab, you’ll recall, so Ahab was still the head of state in that case, leaving only Athaliah).

Who’s responsible for nearly all the sexual assaults and rapes in the Bible? Men.

Who’s responsible for nearly all the violence recorded in the Bible? Men.

Denier of Christ? Peter. A man.

Betrayer of Christ? Judas. A man.

Don’t forget Apollos, a man, who had to be set straight by a woman, Priscilla, whose name appears in 2/3 of mentions of the couple ahead of her husband’s name, emphasizing her significance over him.

Who discovered Christ was risen first? Women.
Who didn’t believe them? Men.
Who was right? The women. Naturally.

So when the divinely-inspired author of I Timothy says Paul doesn’t allow women to teach or exercise authority over men on the basis of the woman eating of the forbidden fruit first, he’s standing on some pretty shaky exegetical ground.

Men are inconsistent, they often fail to convey God’s word rightly, they strike rocks when God tells them to speak to rocks, they are occasionally incapable of doing anything useful unless women go with them (Judges 4:8), and regularly give other men terrible advice (see Job’s friends, for example).

So it turns out, John Piper is asking the wrong question. He shouldn’t be asking whether women should be teaching in seminary.

He should be asking whether men should. That’s a much more relevant question, I think.

NOTE: This post is satire. It is satire just like I wish to God John Piper’s post was satire. I believe women and men both have a place at seminary. And in pulpits. Because male sex organs are not God’s necessary qualification for ministry, and I am having a hard time believing I actually still have to say that.

Should the Heathen Be Converted?

I’m the student pastor at a small church north of Pittsburgh at the moment. Last Sunday, my supervisor pastor gave something of an invitation at the end of his sermon, with a prayer to pray along with. Afterward, he invited anyone who wanted to deepen their relationship with Christ to talk to him or one of the elders… or me.

I was terrified – and relieved that I had to leave immediately after worship for another commitment.

I asked him about it at our weekly meeting a few days later. He said he figured I would know what to do: “Be pastoral, listen…” I was a chaplain for a summer; I can definitely do that… “And if someone wants to deepen their relationship with God, I’m sure you’d be able to tell them how.”

I acknowledged that last sentence. I understood the words he was saying, but they were wrong. I definitely would not have been able to tell them how. And that bothered me.

I know the right answer – or at least the answers I grew up with: ♫ “Read your Bible, pray every day, and you’ll grow, grow, grow.” ♫ But the very idea of telling lay people that “right” answer scares me.

The notion of isolated believers reading the Bible and praying without instruction from righteous, wise, and educated people within the church is horrifying – especially when these days anyone can have an internet or radio ministry and nobody bothers to check, or even require any ecclesiastical credentials, and new (and older) Christians are often tempted to treat all religious teachers (at least who agree with them) as equally trustworthy. All that gets checked by Christian radio stations, it seems, is whether the check is good.

See, I’m just reaching the point where I think a relationship with Christ can be safe and good for me. I still have the notion that Christianity – especially a “deepened relationship” with Christ is dangerous for lay people. That’s fairly deeply embedded in my psyche. I think it makes people self-righteous bibliolaters who will do any sort of evil and/or stupid thing if they come to believe God wants them to do it, and they’ll encourage others to do likewise. I certainly did my share of both.

Diana Butler Bass laments that the options for Christians seem to be between knowledge on ice and ignorance on fire, and as a member of the frozen chosen, to be perfectly honest, I will take knowledge on ice every single time. Continue reading

Why I Do/n’t Believe in the Resurrection*

I have read the rational arguments for and against the resurrection of Jesus, and for and against a general resurrection. And I have to say that I find the arguments against both to be much more compelling.

I want to briefly discuss a few reasons why I don’t believe in the resurrection, and then tell a few stories about why I do.

I locked my copy of Josh McDowell’s More Than a Carpenter in our storage unit in the basement, if I didn’t give it away, so you’ll have to bear with my remembrance of the arguments:

Lord, Liar, Lunatic – the notion that either Jesus was who he said he was, that he was lying, or that he was nuts. This option precludes the idea that Jesus might’ve just been a good teacher. There’s another option, though: the people who wrote the gospels got Jesus wrong, or “Misquoted Jesus,” as Bart Ehrman’s book suggests.

500 Witnesses: The Bible says that there were 500 witnesses to the risen Christ and if you want them to talk about it, all you have to do is ask. The problem is, at the time this was written, the population of Jerusalem was in the hundreds of thousands, and good luck finding these alleged 500 witnesses.

I’m from Pittsburgh, so it’s essentially as though I said I was raised from the dead, and if you wanted proof, you had only to find the 500 witnesses in Pittsburgh – except Jerusalem’s population circa the 60s CE was roughly double that of Pittsburgh. Continue reading

Who I Am Is Learning to Love Who I’ve Been

Last week I wrote a story for my Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) group about “The Day My Heart Was Broken” about the day my first girlfriend broke up with me. When I wrote that story, I was very unkind about the things I did that I thought made her do it. I listed out the decisions I’d made that I thought were poor, and my overall tone toward the person who did those things was very judgmental.

But that the person I hated – the person I used to be – isn’t just the person I used to be.

That person is a part of me. That person is a part of who I am today.

So when I read that story in group, I felt physically ill. My eyes started twitching. But I read it. I read every goddamn word. And I felt worse when it was done. As one does when one is particularly unkind to oneself.

This week, the story is about my most pivotal relationship.

I wrote about my relationship with Kristen, who is now my wife. I have evidence from my journal that even though I didn’t make the same foolish decisions that time, my decisions weren’t the brightest then, either.

But while I was typing up the story, I was smiling. Yes, me before I married Kristen was a little goofy, a little whack, but I liked him. I was an idiot, but I was my idiot – the kind where you muss their hair and shake your head at them, but you still like them.

The me from my first relationship and before… he was somebody I would debate and devalue online. The head-shaking is still there, but it’s hostile head-shaking. He’s somebody I might try to fix.

I’ve heard that we don’t just tell our stories; our stories tell us. I think that’s true, because I wrote a story based on the life of the prodigal son shortly after that break-up, and my character avatar was the runaway.

And while I was writing the part where, in the words of the King James Version, “he wasted his substance with riotous living,” I hated him. Like a lot. I knew while I was writing the story that I didn’t like him.

What I didn’t know was that it meant that I didn’t like me.

The (Christian) band Reliant K wrote a song a while back called “Who I Am Hates Who I’ve Been” and it’s a quintessential Christian song that aligns with the sort of general Christianish narrative of “I was bad –> I met Jesus –> now I’m good.”

I’ve lived by that narrative for a long time now – I think over ten years – since my spiritual awakening when I started making value judgments about my decisions.

I also started accepting value judgments that others put on my decisions and actions.

Not only were they bad decisions and actions, but they were decisions and actions that made me bad.

So last night as I lay in bed, I revisited that person I wrote about in the story of the day my heart broke. I stopped at every bad decision he made and I found a way to be kind to him. Not necessarily to affirm his bad choices, but to say “I still love you anyway,” and “It’s not your fault, or if it is, you made the best decision you could’ve with the information you had.”

I forgave myself, but it was more than forgiveness. It was forgiveness with an attitude of kindness.

I imagine it will take time to overcome a decade of unkindness, but I’m working on it. And I’m trying not to be unkind to the me that was unkind, because that wouldn’t help anything.

Romans 5:8: But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.

God did not wait for us to shape up before God loved us.

God did not wait until we were sufficiently sorry or felt sufficiently guilty to get busy loving us.

God loved us as we were on our worst days, on the days we most wish we could take back or get a do-over for.

And I think that means we have permission to love ourselves on those days, in case we weren’t sure.

Scripture teaches us to love our neighbors like we love ourselves, and if I’ve been loving some of my neighbors the way I loved my past self, I’d hate to be them, because I said lots of unkind things about my past self.

I wasn’t patient or kind with myself; I was pretty boastful and arrogant and more than a little rude. I insisted on my own way, and was irritable and resentful. I didn’t bear well what I thought were the consequences of what I had done; I didn’t believe that I had good intentions, or at least not malicious ones; and I didn’t hope or endure very well either.

So now I’m trying to love myself, and take those skills and love others, too.

This morning, I found that I am already better able to look people in the face, and my smile comes a little easier.

Side effect of grace.


Stop Mocking Trigger Warnings; you look like a jerk

Content Warning: Abuse.

I was sitting in a class with my laptop open, trying to save some links and close some tabs while a classmate was reading a handout the professor distributed.

The professor peered over the lid to see what I was doing since I obviously wasn’t paying attention to the poetry reading.

I gave a sheepish grin, but instantly felt ashamed. I spent the rest of that class period trying to decide what to do, wishing I was somewhere else, and trying to remain as small as possible. I couldn’t pay attention at all.

Well that’s strange.

Yeah, it is. It doesn’t make sense as a reaction. “Normal people” would just shrug and go back to paying attention. I am a grown man and all it took was a peek over my screen from a professor to throw me into a vortex of bad thoughts. Continue reading

How To Make Your Favorite Doctrine Essential

(or, “How ECO* made a secondary issue, marriage between one man and one woman, a central tenet of the Christian faith, and you can too!”)

Note that if you’re in a non-denominational or independent church that doesn’t have any historic confessions other than scripture, you can skip this entire post and just

  1. find the thing you want to condemn anywhere in scripture,
  2. proclaim from the pulpit that it is a central tenet, and 
  3. it will be one.

So I was looking for the “essential tenets of the Reformed faith” because if I’m going to be an ordained PC(USA)* minister one day, I have to

sincerely receive and adopt the essential tenets of the Reformed faith as expressed in the confessions of our church as authentic and reliable expositions of what Scripture leads us to believe and do,

and I was trying to find a document that explains what counts for the PC(USA) as “essential tenets.” Fun fact: Such a document doesn’t exist. We have a Book of Confessions, but I couldn’t find any documents that delineated which tenets in those confessions count as essential. ECO and the EPC* have one, but the PC(USA) does not.

This aroused my curiosity.

I know ECO was (in part) formed and filled as a reaction to the PC(USA)’s allowing non-celibate but otherwise-qualified LGBTQ people to be ministers, and later permitting (not requiring) marriage equality.

The ECO website pretends it was about concerns around declining denominational membership and disputes of theology and bureaucracy, but the seven founding pastors met for the first time to “find new ways to encourage each other in faith, ministry, and mission” in summer 2010.

I’m sure it was just a coincidence that the General Assembly approved Amendment 10-A, which allowed for non-celibate gay and lesbian ministers, that exact same summer. Continue reading

Anointing Eliab (David’s Older Brother)

Our scripture this morning is I Samuel 16:1-13. I grew up in Sunday School, so of course I heard this story more times than I can count. Ever since I was a kid, I’ve known the story, and I’ve known the moral: “Humans look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” It’s right there in verse 7.

But I didn’t just have that answer, I had all the answers – at least, all the important ones. I could have given people a run-down of all God’s opinions on every important issue, and I often did. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

I’m reading from the Common English Bible because the NRSV, your pew Bible, is really good with accuracy but really bad at story-telling. Listen for the word of the Lord in the story of the anointing of King David.

The Lord said to Samuel, “How long are you going to grieve over Saul? I have rejected him as king over Israel. Fill your horn with oil and get going. I’m sending you to Jesse of Bethlehem because I have found my next king among his sons.”

“How can I do that?” Samuel asked. “When Saul hears of it he’ll kill me!”

“Take a heifer with you,” the Lord replied, “and say, ‘I have come to make a sacrifice to the Lord.’ Invite Jesse to the sacrifice, and I will make clear to you what you should do. You will anoint for me the person I point out to you.”

Samuel did what the Lord instructed. When he came to Bethlehem, the city elders came to meet him. They were shaking with fear. “Do you come in peace?” they asked.

“Yes,” Samuel answered. “I’ve come to make a sacrifice to the Lord. Now make yourselves holy, then come with me to the sacrifice.” Samuel made Jesse and his sons holy and invited them to the sacrifice as well.

When they arrived, Samuel looked at David, Jesse’s youngest. He was reddish brown, had beautiful eyes, and was good-looking. Samuel thought, That must be the Lord’s anointed right there.

But the Lord said to Samuel, “Have no regard for his appearance or stature, because I haven’t chosen him. God doesn’t look at things like humans do. Humans see only what is visible to the eyes, but the Lord sees into the heart.”

Next Jesse called for Abinadab, who presented himself to Samuel, but he said, “The Lord hasn’t chosen this one either.” So Jesse presented Shammah, but Samuel said, “No, the Lord hasn’t chosen this one.”Jesse presented seven of his sons to Samuel, but Samuel said to Jesse, “The Lord hasn’t picked any of these.” Then Samuel asked Jesse, “Is that all of your boys?”

“There is still the oldest one,” Jesse answered, “but he’s out keeping the sheep.”

“Send for him,” Samuel told Jesse, “because we can’t proceed until he gets here.”

So Jesse sent and brought him in. Eliab was tall and good-looking, and reminded Samuel a little of Saul. He was exactly what Samuel thought a king should look like. The Lord told Samuel, “That’s the one. Go anoint him.” So Samuel took the horn of oil and anointed him right there in front of his brothers. The Lord’s spirit came over Eliab from that point forward.

Then Samuel left and went to Ramah.

The word of the Lord?

Thanks be to God.

No it’s not. Come on, this is the story of the anointing of David and I just said God rejected David and Samuel anointed Eliab instead! Continue reading

The Danger of Confusing Yourself with God

The people quarreled with Moses, and said, “Give us water to drink.”

Moses said to them, “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the Lord?”

-Exodus 17:2, NRSV, emphasis mine.

Notice what happens in this verse. The people quarrel with Moses, and Moses asks them why they’re testing God. Incidentally, when Moses complains to God about this, God gives Moses a commonsense answer: Give them water.

Moses in this story has a problem that is shared by a frightening number of American Christian leaders: confusing themselves with God. Not in the sense that they’re encountering God and becoming confused, which would be good, but in the sense that people are challenging them, and they think people are challenging God.

I could give oodles of examples, but I’m sure you’ve seen them too. The most recent example I’ve seen is this post from Owen Strachan on The Gospel Coalition. Responding to a line in a book by William Paul Young, author of The Shack, Strachan says,

Don’t miss this: The most popular Christian writer in our time labels the biblical God a “cosmic abuser.” Ancient false teaching returns.

No, Owen. Young didn’t label God a cosmic abuser. He labelled your ideas about God cosmic abuse. There is a critical difference between the two – and a painfully underappreciated one.

The best example, I think, comes from a particularly dogmatic Bible professor who, as recently as winter 2015-2016, is known to have said, in so many words, on several occasions,

You can disagree with me on this, but if you do, know that you’re disagreeing with Paul, you’re disagreeing with Jesus, and you’re disagreeing with God.

The person who heard this dropped the class shortly thereafter. Learning is always a challenge, but it’s a special kind of difficulty to learn from someone who thinks their opinion is identical with God’s.

Some Christians have a painfully difficult time distinguishing God from their ideas about God. Many think the two are one and the same – that God is identical with what they think God is like. This leads to those same Christians assuming that an attack on what they think about God is identical with an attack on God.

On the contrary, many such “attacks” are not attacks on God at all. They are attacks on dangerous false ideas about God, and as such are defenses of God’s character, not attacks on it.

Let those with ears, hear.

Ash Wednesday Meditation

The lectionary passages for Ash Wednesday are about repentance, and for me as a recovering fundamentalist, especially reading Psalm 51, repentance is all about wallowing in guilt and what Brennan Manning called cultivating ingrown eyeballs, where you try to imagine all the ways you might have offended God and debate whether you’re sufficiently penitent.

I went to a thing called a Prayer Advance once, because Christians don’t retreat, they advance, get it? So at the Prayer Advance, they have this time called “Sweet Hour of Prayer” where you go off into the woods and work your way through this list of things that are… well, I’m pretty sure many of them aren’t actually sins.

“Am I really concerned about revival?” I used to be, back when the problem was other people.

“Am I willing to pay the price for personal revival?” I don’t know. What are personal revivals going for these days?

“Am I sinning the sin of prayerlessness?” Prayerlessness is a sin?

“Do I get angry?” Especially when I read lists like this.

“Have I paid all my debts to others?” You try owing the cost of a college education to Great Lakes Student Loan Servicing, Prayer Advance People.

“Is my home a testimony for Jesus?” Well, we do have that sign that says “No matter who you are, you’re welcome here,” so… yes?”

“Does my pastor KNOW that he can count on me?” Well, first, you misspelled “she,” and second, judging by her helpful reminder emails, I think she knows she can count on me when I reply.

You get the picture. You can’t read through that and take it seriously without starting to think, “You know, I kind of suck.” And that’s the point of it. It’s to make you feel bad so you come back to your home church with this testimony of how you repented and did a soul cleanse and you’re basically sinless. When I came back, I was pretty much perfect by fundamentalist standards for, oh, a good three days at least! Continue reading