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.”
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).
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
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 →
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.
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 →
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.
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.
But the elephant moves. The elephant is alive. And they haven’t seen all there is to see of it.
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
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 →
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 →
(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
find the thing you want to condemn anywhere in scripture,
proclaim from the pulpit that it is a central tenet, and
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 →
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 onwhat 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.
I grew up on Left Behind, among lots of other books. One of my uncles found out I was an avid reader and made it his business to send me books. That’s how I ended up in a Walmart one night just before midnight when one of the books was coming out. I had finished it by the next afternoon. Nothing was more disappointing than when, at the end of Glorious Appearing, Jesus finally returned – and quoted Paul. I thought after 2,000 years he might have developed some new material. Gosh.
Then I took a class on the book of Revelation at Huntington University, where I discovered, to my disappointment, that the theology in the Left Behind series was complete nonsense. In Surprised by Hope, N.T. Wright called Left Behind “pseudotheological fiction.”
After I watched Left Behind II: Tribulation Force in the light of that class, it seemed Tim LaHaye must have acquired his theology of the end times by tacking a few chapters of Ezekiel, Daniel, and Revelation to a wall and throwing darts at them to determine the attributes of the Anti-Christ.
…Which is why I was delighted to find in my inbox an invitation to read and review a book by Monte Wolverton called The Remnant, a title it shares with Left Behind book 10. I trust the people who sent me the offer, so I knew it was going to be decent. Plus, I needed a little more fiction in my life.
Wolverton’s The Remnant is not about the rapture, though. Not even a little bit. Like the Left Behind books, however, The Remnant is about a post-apocalyptic world. In this one, though, Jesus didn’t come back. The world has ended because of World War III and been rebuilt without religion, as much as possible.
The prologue is set in Tunisia in 2063. The second sentence of The Remnant reads this way: “In the year 2062, a cataclysmic global war prompted the World Federation to ban all religion.” The banning process is cartoonish. While I was reading it, I kept telling myself, “Willing suspension of disbelief. Willing suspension of disbelief. Just let it happen.”
In chapter 1, we are introduced to Grant Cochrin, his wife Dana, and their son and daughter Tadd and Lissa. Also featured are Sara Davenport, Owen Fenbert and Bryan Hantwick. To be honest, I got them mixed up sometimes.
Anyway, the world is divided up into three areas:
Safe Zones, cities where moral atheists live protected by drones and zappers from anyone and anything dangerous.
Work camps for anyone religious, where we find our heroes.
The Wilderness, which is mysterious, unknown, and lawless.
Our little group isn’t particularly persecuted. They live in crappy one-bedroom apartments, and they can’t leave the camp, but they’re otherwise generally well-taken-care-of. They work long hours, apparently doing some kind of manual labor.
The book opens as they escape their work camp, under cover of darkness, in danger of being zapped to death by Federation drones. They leave because they are looking for a faith community they’ve heard exists somewhere in the Wilderness. Continue reading →