A Word About Love

I’ve been following closely (probably too closely) the United Methodist Church’s 2019 General Conference about human sexuality for the past few days. I went in with low expectations, and came out sadder.

One of the less-appreciated casualties of recent debates about sexuality, and of debates within the Christian church in general, has been the beauty and sanctity of the word “love.”

Love is a great word, maybe the best word. It tells us about God’s intentions for us, and for the world. We use it to describe romantic emotions we can barely contain or even describe. “Love” describes how parents feel about tiny humans we’ve created.

But in more recent debates about human sexuality, or theological doctrinal debates in the church, it’s come to mean something else.

It’s gotten so bad that in a note I made to myself when I was serving as a chaplain in a hospital, I didn’t say “love people.” I said, “Give a shit,” because “love people” has too much baggage for me.

“Give a shit” means that the person lying in that hospital bed means something to me; they’re not just another body in a room, filling out the time until I can go home. Or, as my CPE supervisor put it, “I care about what happens to you.”

And maybe that’s what love used to mean, but it doesn’t feel like that any more when it extends past my wife and kid and a few close friends.

“Love,” that beautiful, wonderful word, has come to mean “meanness.”

How did this happen? Through the addition of one word: “Tough.”

Continue reading

Brother John: Purpose, Again

As some of you may know, I am signed up for a cool program that gives me free books in exchange for my honest review. Free books make me happy, but I’ve been pretty busy lately, what with getting ordained and starting a job as a full-time pastor.

But when Mike Morrell sent me an email about Brother John, promising, “This book can be read in a single sitting, and is suitable for readers of all ages – including kids,” I thought I’d request it. A few days later, it showed up in the mail.

First off, the paintings were lovely. Just beautiful. I would keep it for the illustrations alone.

However, I should’ve understood that the book was suitable for readers of all ages, including kids. Non-reading kids wouldn’t enjoy it as much, or at least nine-month-olds like mine. My kid wanted to chew on it. Ah well. Such is life.

When I opened the book, the first thing I saw was an endorsement by Rick Warren. This made me a little anxious because I read The Purpose-Driven Life in my early 20s and got very little out of it, least of all a purpose-driven life. It wasn’t until years later that I felt out a sense of calling.

In fact, I wrote a blog post called “The Purpose-Driven Boatwright” about how the Bible says Noah lived for 480 years before he “found his purpose” building an ark, and then lived for another 350 after the flood. I wrote another post in which I contested the idea that everyone has a specific, knowable purpose, suggesting that purpose is a pipe dream.

I am not the “purpose-driven life” target audience. 

So I rolled my eyes a little when I read the first words of the introduction. Between Rick Warren’s endorsement, and learning that this was an essay first submitted to a “Power of Purpose Essay Contest,” I was not warming to the book. But I stumbled on anyway, hoping the rest of it might be better.

As I read the first page, I realized my nine-month-old’s attention span for the lovely painting was not going to survive the long block of text on the opposite page. But I carried on, in places wondering where exactly all this was going, if anywhere.

Then August started talking about Brother John, on page 20. (The previous pages weren’t bad; they just… weren’t all that compelling yet, aside from the images).

By page 26, I began recognizing myself in August’s anxieties. A few pages later I had lost track of my boredom and become fully engrossed in what I was reading.

I can’t tell you what happened in those pages, or even find a single salient quote that would explain what happened there. The best way I can explain it is the old maxim that you read some books, and other books read you. Brother John read me.

I think it was maybe a book less about “purpose” than integrity – integration, loving from deep within your heart, as a blessing I like says.

Maybe purpose doesn’t mean having a specific, knowable thing that you’re supposed to do. In fact, I’m starting to wonder if I misread Warren all those years ago in hoping he would tell me what my career should be.

Maybe purpose isn’t an outer sign flashing arrows where you should go, but an inward sense of who you are and are called to be that builds over time and acts as a voice behind you, saying, “This is the way. Walk in it.” Maybe it’s a bunch of different things aligning.

Maybe purpose is when you don’t even need that voice because you feel the assurance in your bones. Maybe purpose and calling go together, and maybe calling is just that slow realization that you’ve always wanted to do this and you don’t suck at it. (Which may have been delayed by my understanding of what it means to be “called” in my particular calling).

This video is the trailer of the book.

I liked Brother John and when I went back and skimmed it again so I could write this review it still grabbed me, in ways that I still can’t put into words. It moved me. Not all books do. Thumbs up.

If you want a copy for yourself, you’ll have to pay for it, probably. You can do that by following my Amazon affiliate link: https://amzn.to/2Lp9Fxr

Finding God in Psalm 137

Content warning: This Psalm is about people killing babies, and I am going to talk about that a lot.

Psalm 137 is one of my favorite psalms in the whole Bible. This is unusual, I think, because unlike most people’s favorite psalms, 137 ends with a wish for the death of the children of the psalmist’s enemies:

[God] bless those who take your babies
and shatter them against the rock.

I like it partly because of the impossible challenge it poses to the silliness of “taking the Bible literally,” but since I wrote a paper on it for an exegesis class in seminary, I came to love it even more. (A version of that paper is attached for your reading pleasure; a synopsis follows).

In Christiamericanity, there’s a strong emphasis on only focusing on the positive. One of the most popular Christian music stations, K-Love, has “Positive and Encouraging” as its tagline. It seems like the writers of most Christian songs, even those that start sad and depressing, feel morally obligated to end on a high note.

Psalm 137 doesn’t do that.

Psalm 137 starts sad, gets more depressing, and centers with commitment to never forget the sad thing that happened. Then, where a modern Christian song would start blathering about how Jesus is going to make everything okay, Psalm 137 gets angry. It ends with a middle finger to the people responsible: “I hope somebody rips your children from your arms and kills them.”

I love that.

I love that because precisely as inspired scripture it kiboshes the idea that there’s only a certain range of emotion the people of God are allowed to feel. It crushes the nonsense that in every situation Christians are supposed to be Pollyanna and feel like everything’s fine within a ridiculously short period of time.

And that’s only the beginning of why I like Psalm 137. Continue reading

Why the Nones Left

A friend of mine shared a link from Crossway titled “The Dying Away of Cultural Christianity.” In it, the author proposed (as evangelical authors so often do) that the rise of the Nones* happened because the Nones weren’t real Christians to begin with. Nope, they were just members of that boogeyman religion Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.

They weren’t really Christians; they just faking it, because of Reasons. Maybe because Christian = American, or something. It couldn’t have anything to do with the actual reasons people who left Christianity said they left. (Click the “actual reasons” link; that’s Pew’s research on reasons why they left).

Reasons like learning about evolution and realizing it wasn’t compatible with the faith they had been taught, because they (like me) were taught that if Genesis 1-3 aren’t literal history the way we think of history now, we can’t possibly believe in the resurrection.

It couldn’t have anything to do with “Christians doing unchristian things,” like the 81% of evangelicals (the ones who voted) voting for a serial liar and self-bragged sexual assaulter. It couldn’t be because evangelicals are the group least likely to believe the United States has an obligation to accept refugees. Continue reading

Has Hell Bent Your Moral Compass?

I’ve been following the stories about ICE lately, separating parents from children, and recently in the city where I live, an unarmed Black teenager was shot by a police officer.

There have been the usual displays of awfulness from Christians trying to put the teenager on trial after the fact, and of course the general remarks that “If they didn’t want to be separated from their children, they shouldn’t have crossed the border illegally.”

Pause for a minute.

Since when was failure to follow instructions from a police officer a capital crime, punishable by death?

Since when was having your children ripped from your arms a reasonable consequence for crossing a national border illegally?

As I thought about this, it occurred to me that these defenses sounded familiar. They were essentially,

You didn’t obey, therefore you deserve whatever punishment you get.

I think this idea comes straight from hell.

Literally. For two reasons:

  1. Getting used to hell has made us comfortable with draconian punishments, like eternal torment for finite sins.
  2. Defending the doctrine has trained us to justify draconian punishments as appropriate.

Following are a few examples of ways people try to defend hell, and their parallels as defenses of the US’s evil actions against people who are either caught here illegally or caught trying to enter illegally.

“They chose it.”

This is popular. Hell isn’t so bad, and also the people who are there, are there because they didn’t want to be with God.

In the same way, being separated from your kids isn’t so bad – after all, we do it to other kinds of criminals (as if this was a defense!), and the people who are there, are there because they tried to cross the border illegally. Continue reading

The Limits of Growth as a Measure of Orthodoxy

I’m here because I read the most recent iteration of the nonsensical triumphalist “growth=orthodoxy” blog post. Mark Tooley at Juicy Ecumenism wrote this screed against a post by Roger Wolsey. Wolsey’s post was titled “It’s Time for Progressive Christianity.

Tooley rejects much of what Wolsey says, and on some counts I agree, but as he’s describing the “death” of protestant liberalism, he describes John Shelby Spong’s diocese losing half its members while he was bishop because Spong wanted to save the faith for some. (I have at least one friend for whom Spong did save the faith.) Then Tooley describes the Jesus seminar, like Spong’s earlier seminars, as having been attended mostly by old people.

He says postmodern progressive Christians are unlikely to gain many converts. This is probably true because we’re not as obsessed with evangelism now that we stopped believing anyone who doesn’t agree with us about everything and pray the right prayer is going to hell.

The other thing I notice throughout is that he keeps calling Roger Wolsey a “campus minister,” which is an interesting choice because Wolsey also runs a Facebook page called “Kissing Fish: Christianity for People who Don’t Like Christianity.” This lowly campus minister has a teeny little audience of over 200,000 followers.

Mark Tooley doesn’t mention that, because it goes against the narrative.


The narrative, of course, is that progressive churches are dying out, and this is a sign of God’s judgment. Progressive Christianity is dying out, because it doesn’t have the light of God in it.

This ignores the counter-reality that the Southern Baptist Convention, one of the most conservative (“orthodox”?) Protestant denominations there is, is also in decline, because Christianity is in decline. Continue reading

I’m David, You’re Goliath

Then the word of the Lord came to him, saying, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” He answered, “I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.”

I Kings 19:9b-10, emphasis mine.

Yesterday two of my friends shared stories on Facebook about conservatives feeling oppressed by liberals. The first was this post by Dennis Prager, titled “Fear of the Left: The Most Powerful Force in America Today.” The second was titled “‘Fundamentalism’ and ‘Dialogue’“. Both argued that powerful liberals were oppressing conservatives in various ways.

In the comment section of the latter, someone pointed out that liberal Christians are (improbably) persecuting conservative Christians, ostensibly because when conservative churches leave the Episcopal Church for the ACNA, they lose their properties (which is a real thing).

And which is also a weird thing.

Because in my narratives, liberals aren’t mean, powerful oppressors. We’re scrappy heroes just trying to get the church to accept us as we are. My most popular blog post of all time was about what it’s like being an outsider now in the churches I grew up in.

It was a sad post to write, but it also felt really vindicating and righteous, and a lot of people read it and thought, “Yes! This is my life! This guy gets it.”

So when I saw those posts from my friends, I was really confused. The lone person or small group standing up for truth amid a group of powerful elites in a world gone mad was my narrative, not theirs!

As it turned out, we were both laying claim to the same thing: Nothing less than

The Western Narrative

Continue reading

No Graven Images?

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
What
God
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