Monday, February 28, 2011

Jesus > Heaven

If you're a Jesus Nerd like me, you know that there was a huge blow up this past weekend in theological circles. (Yes, there are theological circles.) HarperOne released the promotional material for Rob Bell's latest book, Love Wins, and speculation quickly grew that Rob had become a Universalist. It started at Justin Taylor's blog at The Gospel Coalition, and then John Piper tweeted "Farewell, Rob Bell" with a link to the blog post. There has been a veritable firestorm of bloggers and tweeters since then, with many condemning Bell and many supporting him.

My first response, which I left on two friends' Facebook posts, was "I'm disappointed, but not surprised." All I had to go on was the HarperOne promotional blurb and a short video of Rob speaking. I have not, of course, read the book yet. I was foolish to pass judgment so quickly, and wish that I hadn't done so. Perhaps Rob Bell has become a Universalist, and perhaps he hasn't. I'll have to wait for the book. (By the way, bravo HarperOne for your marketing strategy. I'm not sure you intended to do it this way, but you've just generated A TON of interest.)

If you don't know, a Universalist is someone who believes that God welcomes every person into heaven. Hell is either empty or it does not exist at all. One of the toughest questions that faces Christians is this: "How could a loving God send anyone to hell?" The Universalist's answer is, "He doesn't".

This little dust up got me thinking about Universalism, heaven, hell, and the afterlife. Whether or not Rob Bell is a Universalist is beside the point. Universalism seems to be a reaction against a strict fundamentalism which places a great amount of emphasis on the afterlife, escaping hell, and getting into heaven. Gandhi is often the Universalist's prime example of justification for their view. If Gandhi is in hell, they might say, then God truly is unjust. The Fundamentalist's retort would be, of course, "Unless Gandhi placed his faith in Christ, he's burning in hell."

The trouble with Universalism and these strict forms of Fundamentalism is that they get things all backwards. Heaven is not the grand prize; Jesus is. Heaven is just the parting gift. The only reason heaven is great is because that's where Jesus reigns. Jesus makes heaven great. Universalists are wrong because you can't reject the grand prize and then demand the parting gift. If a potential employer clears the company account and rolls out the red carpet for you, and you turn down the job, don't expect them to validate your parking.

Fundamentalists and Evangelicals get it wrong when we say that Jesus is the way to heaven. He's not. He's what makes heaven worth pursuing. Heaven is nothing without Jesus. In fact, without Jesus (and the Father and the Holy Spirit) there is no heaven, because wherever they are, that is heaven! Let's make sure we're getting these in the right order. Jesus > heaven.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Snowball Fight!

It's been a really cold winter here in central Ohio. My wife and I have been wanting to get the kids out into the snow, but it's just been too bitter for them to stay out for any extended period of time, and most of the snow we've gotten has been accompanied by a very large amount of ice. But today the weather is nice, and we've got a shade more than a dusting of snow on the ground, so I took the older two out for a snowball fight after lunch.

They especially enjoyed throwing snowballs at the house...and daddy. I told them daddy was off limits once I got the camera out.

We had a lot of fun, and the snow was perfect for making snowballs. If only we had gotten a few more inches of snow, we could have made the greatest snow fort ever!

Check out this video I shot of Cyrus terrorizing his sister. (Don't worry, Eisley got in plenty of good hits of her own.)

Friday, February 25, 2011

Waking Up God

I've been reading the NIV 2011, which is the latest revision to the NIV, and I've really liked it so far. You can find it online at biblegateway or youversion. Printed versions will be released later this year.

Today I was reading in Luke 11 and came across a phrase I hadn't seen in the Bible before. See if you can pick it out:
Then Jesus said to them, "Suppose you have a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say, 'Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; a friend of mine on a journey has come to me, and I have no food to offer him.' And suppose the one inside answers, 'Don't bother me. The door is already locked, and my children and I are in bed. I can't get up and give you anything.' I tell you, even though he will not get up and give you the bread because of friendship, yet because of your shameless audacity he will surely get up and give you as much as you need.
That phrase shameless audacity really caught my eye. Jesus is telling his disciples how to pray, and after teaching them the Lord's Prayer, he tells them this little parable. After telling them what to pray, he tells them how to pray: with shameless audacity.

Is that how you pray to God? Are you banging on his door in the middle of the night? Are you trying to wake up God with your prayers? Notice why the guy goes to his friend's house: Not because there is some life-threatening emergency, but because he needs some bread so that he can be a good host to his friend.

God's not necessarily going to answer your prayers because he loves you (which he does); he's going to answer your prayers because you're banging on his door at midnight. Don't be afraid to pray BIG. Don't be cautious in your requests to God. Knock down his door if you have to. Be shamelessly audacious in how you pray.

You don't have to preemptively edit your prayers. You don't have to apologize for praying for God to move in big ways. Let him determine how he's going to answer you. You ought to go ahead and ask for everything in the kitchen because you love this person who showed up at your door at midnight so much. Let God decide how much he's going to bring out to you. Don't be ashamed of your audacious prayers.

And, oh by the way, don't forget to be humble and thankful when God graciously answers the door.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

God of the Small Things

Last night, at life group, we talked about the fifth chapter of Dick Staub's book The Culturally-Savvy Christian. I blogged through this book at the end of last year, as it very profoundly impacted me--especially this chapter, which is called "God's Transforming Presence".

In my blog entry on that chapter, I wrote:
The first thing that was ever true of you is that you were created in God’s image. Your being created in the image of God predates, and runs deeper, than your sin. This is why God is committed to your restoration, not your destruction. He wants to make you again what he made you before; and we know what that looks like because he sent his son into the world to show us not simply himself, but also ourselves.
Jesus is the only human to ever perfectly bear the image of God. In him, we see who we were always meant to be. The Bible says, in Romans, "For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters." Don't get distracted by the words "foreknew" and "predestined" (as a good Arminian, I'm trying not to). The point is that God's purpose for you is to be conformed to the image of Jesus. That is, God is at work in you, transforming you into the image of the one who perfectly bore the image of God.

All the crap in your life, all the stupid decisions you make and all the ridiculous things you say and do happen because you let something less true of you define you. You are not defined by your sin; you are defined by the God in whose image you are made and who is committed to restoring that image in you, transforming you to become who he originally intended you to be.

God is with you, if you place your eternal hope in Jesus Christ. God wants to transform you, and he invites you to participate in your own transformation. I believe that this happens, not in the big areas of life, but in the small ones.
  • You come home from work and turn on the TV. But maybe, instead, you stop and ask God what you should do, and he tells you to talk to your spouse, or open your Bible, or play with your kids. And you do that.
  • Somebody cuts you off on the road and you curse them out and give them the one-fingered salute. But maybe, instead, you assume the best--that they genuinely didn't see you. Maybe you pray for them.
  • You're working on a project that you can't fix. There's one thing that you just can't figure out, so you throw it against the wall and curse until the air is blue. But maybe, instead, you take a deep breath and ask God to give you patience and wisdom.
This list could be infinitely long. But it's in these small areas where our character is most clearly demonstrated and where we are most lastingly transformed. This is where we learn patience, selflessness, humility, and how to love well. If we can't beat the small things, we'll never accomplish the big things. Where do you need to experience God's transforming presence today? He's there, with you, waiting on you to stop fighting against him and give him enough space to work a true miracle.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The Bible's Mixed Message on Sexuality (?) Part 4

I don't want to beat a dead horse, but I thought I should finish my critique of Jennifer Wright Knust's article on called The Bible's Surprisingly Mixed Message about Sexuality. In this article, Knust presents a fairly typical, liberal argument on what the Bible says about homosexuality. So far we've covered the supposed dual creation account, the bizarre theory of original human androgyny, and the sexuality of David and Jonathan. Today we'll look at the way in which Knust explains away the several clear passages of Scripture in which homosexual sex is expressly forbidden.
It’s true that same-sex intimacy is condemned in a few biblical passages. But these passages, which I can count on one hand, are addressed to specific sex acts and specific persons, not to all humanity forever, and they can be interpreted in any number of ways.

The book of Leviticus, for example, is directed at Israelite men, offering instructions regarding legitimate sexual partners so long as they are living in Israel. Biblical patriarchs and kings violate nearly every one of these commandments.
Leviticus, part of the Torah, contains a record of the covenant entered into by YHWH and his people Israel, the newly-freed slaves from Israel. This covenant takes the form of a typical Ancient Near Eastern covenant and contains certain stipulations by which the people of Israel must abide. If they fail to keep these stipulations (also called "commands"), then they will experience certain curses, which are also outlined in the covenant. Knust rightly points out that "biblical patriarchs and kings violate nearly every one of these commandments", which of course is why Israel was finally sent into exile in Babylon in 587-6 BC.

Knust is half-right when she says Leviticus is directed at Israelite men. It is also directed at Israelite women, and anyone who would like to join the Israelite community. In fact, the covenant lays out the distinctive nature of what it means to be a member of the people of the one true God. It's not simply "the law of the land", as Knust seems to indicate; instead, it outlines how one gets into, and stays within, the people of God. In other words, it defines the people, not the land.
Paul’s letters urge followers of Christ to remain celibate and blame all Gentiles in general for their poor sexual standards. Jesus, meanwhile, says nothing at all about same-sex pairing, and when he discusses marriage, he discourages it.
For Paul's full treatment on the topic of marriage, you should read 1 Corinthians 7. When you consider Paul's background as a Pharisaical Jew and his respect for Torah and belief in the strict sexual standards found there, it's no wonder he thought of the Gentiles, with their temple prostitution (particularly in Corinth), rampant adultery, pedophilia and homosexuality as having poor sexual standards. Similarly, the reason we don't have a record of Jesus mentioning anything about same-sex intimacy is because his most vocal opponents were those who held a very high view of Torah and Tradition, and who strived to keep both with every fiber of their being.
Only a little more than a century ago, many of the very same passages now being invoked to argue that the scriptures label homosexuality a sin or that God cannot countenance gay marriage were used to justify not “biblical marriage” but slavery.

Yes, the apostle Paul selected same-sex pairings as one among many possible examples of human sin, but he also assumed that slavery was acceptable and then did nothing to protect slaves from sexual use by their masters, a common practice at the time. Letters attributed to him go so far as to command slaves to obey their masters and women to obey their husbands as if they were obeying Christ.

These passages served as fundamental proof texts to those who were arguing that slavery was God’s will and accusing abolitionists of failing to obey biblical mandates.
Anybody who supported African slavery was a total fool who had no understanding of either history or Scripture. Roman slavery was not at all like American slavery. Tim Keller addresses this in his excellent book The Reason for God. The slavery argument is a dead-end for the Bible's perspective on homosexuality.

Knust relies on questionable sources and bad exegesis to build her argument that the Bible supports homosexual practice. The simpler, clearer perspective is that the Bible means what it plainly says about same-sex intimacy; that is, it is one of many sexual practices that are out of bounds for those who want to be a part of God's people.

There is one reason, however, that Christians don't need to condemn homosexual practice. Paul writes, in 1 Corinthians 5:
I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people—not at all meaning the people of this world who are immoral, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters. In that case you would have to leave this world. But now I am writing to you that you must not associate with anyone who claims to be a brother or sister but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or slanderer, a drunkard or swindler. Do not even eat with such people.

What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside? God will judge those outside. “Expel the wicked person from among you.”
Indeed, it is not the place of the Christian to judge or condemn those outside of the church. It is when sin is brought inside the doors of the church that we must judge it. We are not to judge, nor disassociate from, "the world". God, who judges everyone, will be the one to judge those outside. Our task is to tell them that he has lovingly offered a way out of the condemnation that comes from his judgment--that is, through faith in Jesus Christ. Christians must confront homosexuality and all sin within the church, but we need not condemn it in the world.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

The Bible's Mixed Message on Sexuality (?) Part 3

After a long weekend off and my traumatic Cabela's socks episode, I wanted to get back to this post from called The Bible's Surprisingly Mixed Message about Sexuality by Jennifer Wright Knust. The first two posts can be found here (1) and here (2).

Based on the writings of one Rabbi and one verse from a Gnostic gospel, as well as a passage from Paul taken wildly out of context, Knust concludes,
God’s original plan was sexual unity in one body, not two. The Genesis creation stories can support the notion that sexual intercourse is designed to reunite male and female into one body, but they can also suggest that God’s blessing was first placed on an undifferentiated body that didn’t have sex at all.

Heterosexual sex was therefore an afterthought designed to give back the man what he had lost.
As I've already written, this is highly suspect. But, of course, if heterosexual sex is just an afterthought (disregard that little bit about "Be fruitful and multiply"), then homosexual sex could be an equally valid afterthought. Now if only there was a place in the Bible where we could see God blessing two men engaging in a homosexual relationship...
Despite common misperceptions, biblical writers could also imagine same-sex intimacy as a source of blessing. For example, the seemingly intimate relationship between the Old Testament's David and Jonathan, in which Jonathan loved David more than he loved women, may have been intended to justify David’s rise as king.

Jonathan, not David, was a king’s son. David was only a shepherd. Yet by becoming David’s “woman,” Jonathan voluntarily gave up his place for his beloved friend.

Thus, Jonathan “took great delight in David,” foiling King Saul’s attempts to arrange for David’s death (1 Samuel 19:1). Choosing David over his father, Jonathan makes a formal covenant with his friend, asking David to remain faithful to him and his descendants.

Sealing the covenant, David swears his devotion to Jonathan, “for he loved him as he loved his own life” (1 Samuel 20:17). When Jonathan is killed, King David composes a eulogy for him, praising his devotion: “greatly beloved were you to me; your love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women” (2 Samuel 1:26).
Yes, that's right, David and Jonathan were gay. Because they loved each other. Which, as every knows, means they were having gay sex. Sorry to be sarcastic, but seriously, the jump from love to sex says more about the sexualization of relationships in our own culture than it does about the nature of the relationship between David and Jonathan. We are, after all, the culture that thinks Frodo and Sam were gay.

The Hebrew word found in this passage (ahobah) has a wide spectrum of meaning, much like our own English word "love". According to Holliday's Lexicon, the word can mean the love between a husband and wife, the love between friends or people in general, or God's love for his people. In fact, when the Bible wants to talk about sex, it does so unabashedly, and usually with the language of "lying with".

Sex often has very little to do with love, both in our own culture and in the culture in which the Bible was written. Though we like to talk about sex and love as though they are the same thing, they are not. Knust's view here is a grasp at straws, and she anachronistically reads the views of our culture back into the pages of Scripture.

If David and Jonathan were gay, and if God had wanted us to know that they were and he approved of their homosexual relationship, then he would have made that clear. But the fact is, there is nothing about their story or the language that is used to lead us to believe any of what Knust postulates. The Bible does not use language that sexualizes their relationship. That liberal scholars like Knust sexualize their relationship says more about the liberal perspective of sexuality and relationships than it does about Jonathan and David.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Cabela's Socks: A Eulogy

I bought you in the Spring of 2004 as I was preparing for a summer in Yosemite. I needed something warm for my feet when I was to go trekking through the mountains. I wore you on so many hikes through the most beautiful part of the country. You were on my feet when I took some of the best photos I've ever taken.

I took you back to Boston with me for two years of seminary. You were with me for that winter in Ipswich, when Breena & I, newlyweds, froze our butts off in that rickety old beach house. You came with me to Columbus, and I had you on the first time I shoveled snow off the sidewalk of my very own house.

But now you are gone, too holey for this world. I have worn you out. Goodbye, sweet, sweet Cabela's socks. Gone...but not forgotten.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

The Bible's Mixed Message on Sexuality (?) Part 2

I posted earlier today the beginning of my response to an article on CNN's religion blog by Jennifer Wright Knust (who claims to be "a Bible scholar and pastor) called "The Bible's Surprisingly Mixed Messages on Sexuality". I imagine, because I'm so incredibly long-winded and full of myself, that this response will be in at least 3 parts. This is the second.

Knust goes on to write:
Ancient Christians and Jews explained this two-step creation by imagining that the first human person possessed the genitalia of both sexes. Then, when the androgynous, dually-sexed person was placed in the garden, s/he was divided in two.

According to this account, the man “clings to the woman” in an attempt to regain half his flesh, which God took from him once he was placed in Eden. As third century Rabbi Samuel bar Nahman explained, when God created the first man, God created him with two faces. “Then he split the androgyne and made two bodies, one on each side, and turned them about.”

When the apostle Paul envisioned the bodies that would be given to humanity at the end of time, he imagined that they would be androgynous, “not male and female.” The third-century non-canonical Gospel of Philip, meanwhile, lamented that sexual difference had been created at all: “If the female had not separated from the male, she and the male would not die. That being’s separation became the source of death.”
Rabbi Samuel bar Nahman's quote comes from a document called Midrash Beresihit. Here is the full quote (from
Rabbi Jeremiah ben Eleazar said: When the Holy One created Adam, He created him hermaphrodite [bisexual], as is said, "Male and female created He them . . . and called their name Adam."(Bereishit 5:2)

Rabbi Samuel bar Nachman said: When the Holy One created Adam, He made him with two fronts; then He sawed him in half and thus gave him two backs, a back for one part and a back for the other part.
I find it difficult to believe that Rabbi Samuel speaks for all ancient Judaism when he says these things. This is, after all, the same text in which we find the following statement:
Rabbi Eleazar further stated: What is meant by the Scriptural text, "This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh?"

This teaches that Adam had intercourse with every beast and animal but found no satisfaction until he cohabited with Chavah [Eve].
So not only do we find in this Midrash the claim that Adam & Eve were a single person until God sawed them in half, but now we come to find out that Adam committed bestiality with every living creature on the face of the earth! (I wonder what Eve was thinking when he did this, since she was obviously still connected to the back of him.) I find it hard to believe that this teaching would gain a firm hearing in the 3rd or 4th century after Christ, much less in the Judaism of his time. Knust implies that all ancient Jews believed this way, which I find very hard to believe.

She also claims that ancient Christians believed this, as well. Paul, she says, imagined that humans would, at the end of all things, be androgynous, and she quotes a text: "not male or female". This is a snippet from Galatians 3. Here is the full verse: "There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus." Of course you can see from reading the text plainly that Knust takes this passage wildly out of context. Paul is not talking about the way things will be at the resurrection; he is talking about the way things are now because of what Christ has done.

Knust then goes on to quote from "the third-century non-canonical Gospel of Philip" as though it represented a fairly typical Christian perspective. What she fails to disclose is that this is a Gnostic Gospel. In other words, it is heretical, and does not coincide with orthodox church teaching nor represent the beliefs of "ancient Christians".

Well, I've been droning on and on for long enough now. I suppose I'll have to continue this in another post.

The Bible's Mixed Message on Sexuality (?) Part 1

Last week, Mark Driscoll, Pastor of Mars Hill Church in Seattle, tweeted an article from about homosexuality. The title of the article is The Bible's Surprisingly Mixed Message On Sexuality. Knowing what I do about Mark Driscoll, he was not endorsing the article, but, I assume, posting it so that some might give it some response. I intend to do that here.

Jennifer Wright Knust is the author of the article and a book called Unprotected Texts: The Bible's Surprising Contradictions about Sex and Desire. I haven't read the book, but the subtitle gives away her perspective. I can only hope that the scholarship displayed in her book is far greater than what she displayed in this article.

Let's start with this:
In Genesis, for example, it would seem that God’s original intention for humanity was androgyny, not sexual differentiation and heterosexuality.

Genesis includes two versions of the story of God’s creation of the human person. First, God creates humanity male and female and then God forms the human person again, this time in the Garden of Eden. The second human person is given the name Adam and the female is formed from his rib.
This is a fascinating misreading of the text, but a favorite one of liberal scholars. There are not two versions of the creation story, but rather two perspectives: one macro, one micro. Genesis 1 is the cosmological and theological perspective of Creation. Genesis 2 is the localized and anthropological perspective. Approaching it from a literary point of view, anyone who has ever read a great book will instantly see that Genesis 1 is an introduction, or prologue, of sorts. Or, thinking about it from a filmmaker's perspective, Genesis 1 is the narration over the opening credits.

Genesis 1 is more song than story, and in it we see Creation from the perspective of God's throne. Genesis 2 brings us from heaven to earth, giving us the perspective of God's footstool. These are not two competing stories of Creation. They are complimentary.

It fascinates me that liberals love to read Genesis this way because this is such an overly literalistic way to read the text. They're reading the Bible so literally that puts the literalism of the Young Earth Creationists to shame! Knust is saying that God created one person with both sexes in Genesis 1, and then he created two people--one male and one female--in Genesis 2. I can't help but wonder if liberals read the Bible this way to try to make it sound as ridiculous as possible.

Knust also claims that God's original intention for humanity was androgyny. By this she means that God originally created one person containing both genders. Unfortunately, this position cannot be supported by the Hebrew text, which clearly states in 1:27-28, that God created a plurality of persons "male and female". To put it simply, a plural pronoun is used. There is more than one person in Genesis 1.

Furthermore, if God's original intention is androgyny, how might the command of verse 28 be explained? "Be fruitful and multiply." Clearly, based on the text of Genesis 1, God's original intention was, in fact, sexual differentiation and heterosexuality resulting in procreation.

This post is already getting long, and there is much more to say in response to Knust's article, but that will have to be saved for later.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

From Foreigner To Friend

Jesus had a unique way of communicating. He spoke deep, cosmic truth by telling short, earthy stories. These were called parables, and they were designed to speak the truth of God's kingdom from unexpected angles. We've titled one of these stories "The Parable of the Sower".
"A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants. Still other seed fell on good soil, where it produced a crop—a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown. Whoever has ears, let them hear."


"Listen then to what the parable of the sower means: When anyone hears the message about the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what was sown in their heart. This is the seed sown along the path. The seed falling on rocky ground refers to someone who hears the word and at once receives it with joy. But since they have no root, they last only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, they quickly fall away. The seed falling among the thorns refers to someone who hears the word, but the worries of this life and the deceitfulness of wealth choke the word, making it unfruitful. But the seed falling on good soil refers to someone who hears the word and understands it. This is the one who produces a crop, yielding a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown."
This parable has always puzzled me because it seems to teach that every person is either one type of soil or the other, and they don't have any choice in the matter. A bit too Calvinistic for my Armenian bent. But what if it's a spectrum instead of a grid, and Jesus isn't speaking definitively, but rather generally?

One way to think about this parable is viewing it as a spectrum of how we relate to Jesus:

Foreigner ----> Fan ----> Follower ----> Friend

The foreigner is the one who is far from Jesus, who doesn't know him at all, doesn't believe in him and doesn't care about him. This is the person who represents the seed sown along the path.

The fan is the one who has heard the good news and accepted it. They have experienced that moment of salvation, and have possibly even been baptized. But their excitement and emotion soon dissipate when they realize just what is being demanded of them. This is the person who represents the seed sown in the rocky ground.

The follower is the one who has moved past the "fan" stage. They have counted the cost, so to speak, but their faith has been stalled by the worries and troubles of life. They've gotten to a certain point in their faith but find it impossible to move forward. This is the person who represents the seed sown among thorns.

The friend is the one who has gone through all the stages to experience what Jesus said to his first disciples: "I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master's business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you." This is the person who represents the seed sown in the good soil.

These, I believe, are stages along a journey rather than pre-ordained destinies. When we look at the parable through this lens, we see how Jesus is explaining the reality of our lives. We are not born as good soil, but rather must grow into that reality. Because of our sin, we are all born into that first stage of being a foreigner to Jesus, of being the seed along the path.

We move from foreigner to fan when we first receive the gospel and repent of our sins. This is the moment of salvation. Many people find themselves immediately ready to make this transition, while others need to hear the gospel and see it in action for many years. Sadly, the vast majority of people never move out of the sad stage of being a foreigner to Jesus.

We move from fan to follower as we pursue the path of discipleship. In this time the reality of following Jesus will strike us, and he will demand that we make certain sacrifices to keep pace. Many, many Christians do not successfully make the transition from fan to follower.

We move from follower to friend when we experience deep soul-intimacy with Jesus. This often happens when we go through great times of pain in life. As we come through these times we can say, from first-hand experience, with the Psalmist, "God is close to the brokenhearted." But as with the other stages, very few people move to the stage of being a friend of Jesus. Too many turn away from God when they experience pain. Rather than drawing closer to him in the midst of it, we so often blame him for the pain.

God's will for you is to be the good soil. He wants you to move from foreigner, or fan, or follower, to that last stage of friend. Where do you find yourself on this spectrum? I find myself moving backwards and forwards along it through the different stages of my life; right now I see myself somewhere between fan and follower. I have a road to walk, as do you, but my heart is comforted because I know that Jesus walks it with me.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Book Review: Run with the Horses

Eugene Peterson’s book Run with the Horses has been around for a long time, but I didn’t pick it up until I was so powerfully struck by Jeremiah 12:5, the verse from which the book’s title is derived.
If you have raced with men on foot
and they have worn you out,

how can you compete with horses?

If you stumble in safe country,
how will you manage in the thickets by the Jordan?
Run with the Horses is a pastoral commentary on the book of Jeremiah. It is not exhaustive, though it covers the most significant events of Jeremiah’s life and ministry. The book is subtitled “The Quest for Life at Its Best”, which is subversive because few of us would like at Jeremiah’s life with envy. He was a melancholy outcast who struggled mightily with the weight of his calling and the resistance with which it was met. He lived through the most trying period in his nation’s history, and ultimately died an ignoble death in a foreign land.

Peterson opens with an exploration of chapter 12, where Jeremiah bitterly complains about the resistance his message has met and the unfairness of life in general. God’s response is what we find in verse 5: “If you have raced with men on foot and they have worn you out, how can you compete with horses?”
Life is difficult, Jeremiah. Are you going to quit at the first wave of opposition? Are you going to retreat when you find that there is more to life than finding three meals a day and a dry place to sleep at night? Are you going to run home the minute you find that the mass of men and women are more interested in keeping their feet warm than in living at risk to the glory of God? Are you going to live cautiously or courageously? I called you to live at your best, to pursue righteousness, to sustain a drive toward excellence. It is easier, I know, to be neurotic. It is easier to be parasitic. It is easier to relax in the embracing arms of The Average. Easier, but not better. Easier, but not more significant. Easier, but not more fulfilling. I called you to a life of purpose far beyond what you think yourself capable of living and promised you adequate strength to fulfill your destiny. Now at the first sign of difficulty you are ready to quit. If you are fatigued by this run-of-the-mill crowd of apathetic mediocrities, what will you do when the real race starts, the race with the swift and determined horses of excellence? What is it you really want, Jeremiah? Do you want to shuffle along with this crowd, or run with the horses? (21-22)
That is the question, as Peterson sees it, that God posed to Jeremiah. It is the same question he now poses to us. We can get worn out by this life, bitterly devolving into a grumbling mass; or we can step outside the rat race to where the thoroughbreds run and test our legs there. “Some people as they grow up become less. …Other people as they grow up become more. Life is not an inevitable decline into dullness; for some it is an ascent into excellence.” (25) Such was the path of Jeremiah.

Peterson sketches Jeremiah’s faithfulness to God through all the horrors of his life: mockery, rejection, famine, siege, desolation, and exile. Through it all he chose to run with the horses, to not be sidetracked by bitterness or disappointment. He was melancholy, but still he hoped in God.

This is an excellent book for everyone, but especially for those pursuing full-time vocational ministry. There is much to be learned from Jeremiah’s life and ministry, particularly for those of us who would dare to speak God’s message.

I’ll leave you with some of the most provocative words I’ve ever read: “It is easier to define oneself minimally (“a featherless biped”) and live securely within that definition than to be defined maximally (“little less than God”) and live adventurously in that reality.” (22)

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Hope in Babylon

I recently finished Eugene Peterson's wonderful book, Run with the Horses. I started reading it several months ago and got sidetracked, as often happens in the busy seasons of life. I'll post a full review of the book tomorrow, but today I'd like to share some thoughts from the book that are relevant to what I posted on Monday, Born for Babylon.

Chapter 12 deals with Jeremiah 29, in which the prophet delivers a message to his fellow Hebrews who have been taken into exile in Babylon. His message is this: "Get used to life there. Settle down. Get married. Plant a garden. Pray for Babylon, because you're going to be there for 70 years." Not exactly what you want to hear if you're the displaced Israelites. Peterson describes exile this way:
The essential meaning of exile is that we are where we don't want to be. We are separated from home. We are not permitted to reside in the place where we comprehend and appreciate our surroundings. We are forced to be away from that which is most congenial to us.
Exile is where life doesn't make sense. The familiar rhythms have been drowned in the thunderclaps of that which is foreign.

Jeremiah taught the Israelites to embrace the foreign and unfamiliar. There were other prophets, however, who were preaching a message of false hope. They said the horror would be over in less than 2 years. A far cry from the 70 predicted by Jeremiah.
These three [false] prophets made a good living fomenting discontent and merchandising nostalgia. But their messages and dreams, besides being false, were destructive. False dreams interfere with honest living. As long as the people thought that they might be going home at any time, it made no sense to engage in committed, faithful work in Babylon. If there was a good chance that they would soon get back all they had lost, there was no need to develop a life of richness, texture and depth where they were. ...The people, glad for a religious reason to be lazy, lived hand to mouth, parasites on society, irresponsible in their relationships, indifferent to the reality of their actual lives.
You may not like where you're at, but that's the only place you are, and it's the only place you can live for Jesus. Exile, in all its forms, sucks. No doubt about it. But you have to come to terms with the reality that this may be where you're always going to be.
The only place you have to be human is where you are right now. The only opportunity you will ever have to live by faith is in the circumstances you are provided this very day: this house you live in, this family you find yourself in, this job you have been given, the weather conditions that prevail at this moment. ...The aim of the person of faith is not to be as comfortable as possible but to live as deeply and thoroughly as possible--to deal with the reality of life, discover truth, create beauty, act out love.
Peterson goes on to write that exile forces us to make a decision between feeling sorry for ourselves or making the best of our circumstances.
We can say: "I don't like it; I want to be where I was ten years ago. How can you expect me to throw myself into what I don't like--that would be sheer hypocrisy. What sense is there in taking risks and tiring myself out among people I don't even like in a place where I have no future?"
Eugene Peterson, get out of my head! I'm guilty of saying these exact words, and for years! But, he says, we have a choice. And that is only the first path we could choose. The second is far better.
Or we can say: "I will do my best with what is here. Far more important than the climate of this place, the economics of this place, the neighbors in this place, is the God of this place. God is here with me. What I am experiencing right now is on ground that was created by him and with people whom he loves. It is just as possible to live out the will of God here as any place else. I am full of fear. I don't know my way around. I have much to learn. I'm not sure I can make it. But I had feelings like that back in Jerusalem. Change is hard. Developing intimacy among strangers is always a risk. Building relationships in unfamiliar and hostile surroundings is difficult. But if that is what it means to be alive and human, I will do it."
I wish I had been living like this for the past several years, rather than wallowing in self-pity and flying the flag of entitlement. This is how we live with hope in Babylon.

Peterson concludes the chapter with these wise words:
Exile is the worst that reveals the best. ...Exile reveals what really matters and frees us to pursue what really matters, which is to seek the Lord with all our hearts.
I know you don't feel it, but God is in your exile. He is with you, but the only way to find him there is to quit trying to get back to Jerusalem. Stop longing for the good old days, and live with hope in this foreign land. There is hope in Babylon because God is with you there.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

People Versus Mission

I came across a passage of Scripture this morning that has really struck me. It's Romans 12:10.
Be devoted to one another in love.
I wrote, yesterday, about the nature of the Gospel--it was a critique of a post from Steven Furtick, pastor of Elevation Church in Charlotte, NC. Part of the DNA of their church is "to be more focused on the people we’re trying to reach than on the people we’re trying to keep." While I appreciate the ministry of that church, and have been blessed by it, I worry about this part of their DNA.

In fact, this is part of the DNA of many Evangelical churches in America. It's the Willow Creek Model; all that matters is the number of people who become Christians. Pastor Furtick says it with audacity:
Focus on the people you want to reach and you’ll keep the people you want to keep. Let the rest walk. They’ll find a church elsewhere to graze.

The way I see it is they’re just occupying the space of a person who needs to hear the gospel. You’ll fill their seat.
And it will be with the person who needs it the most.
How do you reconcile this with Paul's command to "be devoted to one another in love"? Furtick's approach places the mission ahead of the people, and anyone who doesn't get on board with the mission can "find a church elsewhere to graze". So much for devotion.

It is not like God to write people off, to dismiss them to another pasture, for having spiritual needs after they've embraced the Gospel. The most important lesson I've learned in the last year is that my life is not about the mission, it's about the people. Jesus has called us not to climb a mighty mountain or calm a raging sea, but to "make disciples", to "be devoted to one another in love", and to "carry each other's burdens".

Again and again, the Bible tells us that this life is about the people, and that each person is magnificently loved by God no matter where they stand on the spectrum of salvation. Our calling, as ministers of the Gospel, is to be shepherds of the sheep, and we will be held accountable for each one in our flock.

Is there a mission? Of course there is, but the people come first. Missions are temporal, but people live forever. Therefore, "be devoted to one another in love".

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

A Moment Or A Movement

I don't normally write a post like this, critiquing the work of others, but I came across something yesterday that I thought deserved some commentary. Steven Furtick, lead pastor of Elevation Church in Charlotte, NC, wrote a post called Fishers of Men, Not Keepers of the Aquarium on his blog that, I believe, creates a false dichotomy between evangelism and discipleship.

I should say, from the outset, that I have a lot of respect for Pastor Furtick. I've visited his church once and listened to him online several times, and I've been impressed and encouraged each time. The ministry of Elevation Church is fantastic, and the way they're reaching people who are far from God is exemplary. But I think that drawing distinctions between being "fishers of men" and "keepers of the aquarium" is unhelpful and, perhaps, unbiblical.

We Evangelicals talk a lot about "being saved". What we mean by this is that there is a point in time at which we believed the gospel, which means that we confessed Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, repented of our sins, and received the forgiveness he offers at the cross. This moment in time actualizes God's forgiveness in our lives, invites the Holy Spirit to fill us and empower us for service to God, and guarantees our place in heaven. This is how we understand salvation to work, and why we believe that "moment" is so vitally important, and why so much of our ministry efforts are exerted to bring people to that point of decision.

The trouble we have, and the trouble that I see Pastor Furtick leading his church into, is that this moment becomes all-important, to the detriment of the days and years which follow. It's like a film director who pours all of his energy into the opening scene of his movie. Sure, that opening scene is great, but the rest of the movie is a sloppy snooze-fest. It's no wonder people walk out before the end! This approach to ministry--the emphasis on the point of decision--creates a false dichotomy between evangelism and discipleship, inevitably elevating the former over the latter.

Evangelism literally means "Gospeling"; it is the announcement of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Discipleship is the living out of that Gospel--that is, walking as Jesus walked. The two go together; in fact, perhaps the best way to think of the relationship between the two is that evangelism is the means for which discipleship is the end.

When we look at the Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20), we see that Jesus' final command was not to evangelize, but rather to "make disciples".
"All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age."
In other words, Jesus is saying, "While you're going on your way, while you're living this new life, do unto others as I have done unto you these past few years. As I have made you my disciples, so you must make them my disciples." (Incidentally, the only imperative verb in this section is the one we translate "make disciples".)

Part of Elevation Church's code is "to be more focused on the people we’re trying to reach than on the people we’re trying to keep." But the task of Christian ministry--of being an undershepherd of the Good Shepherd--is to keep everyone we reach and continually reach everyone we've kept. The Gospel is never done with you. Salvation is not a moment, it is a life. As Paul says in Philippians, "continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling." The Gospel is doing far more than saving individuals from hell or even announcing the forgiveness of sins. In the Gospel, God is making all things new. This is not a moment; it is a sweeping, unstoppable, wholly consistent movement of the Spirit of God that began at the cross of Jesus Christ in Jerusalem and has now spread to every corner of the globe.

Pastor Furtick writes, "the people you’re trying to reach aren’t interested in the church that has been created by the people you’re trying to keep." If that's true, then you've utterly failed at living the Gospel and, in fact, being saved. The Gospel never stops working on you. You never stop being saved. There is no "in" here, there is only "getting there". God is not out to make converts; he is out to make disciples. We must be careful to not confuse the two.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Born For Babylon

Jeremiah prophesied that God's people would be in exile in Babylon for 70 years. That means a lot of Hebrews lived and died only in Babylon; they never spent a day of their life in the Promised Land. They never saw the temple or traversed the topography of Zion. They were born across the great river, and there they died. Exiles, through and through.

We hear a lot of talk these days about finding God's best life for you. We talk a lot about destiny and calling, always with the thought in mind that we are meant for something great. God has a great plan for your life that will exceed all your wildest expectations. It sounds so breathtaking and exhilarating--the spiritual equivalent of climbing El Capitan every day for the rest of your life.

But what if you're meant for only exile? What if you're one of those people who are born and who die in Babylon? What if God isn't that interested in making all of your wildest dreams come true? What if he doesn't care about how satisfying your life is?

Jesus talked a lot about losing your life, and how losing your life for his sake is the only way to really find it. We've hijacked that statement, and we've dressed up all of our egotistical insecurities about significance and success and greatness and accomplishment into Jesus-clothes. We lay down certain delusions of grandeur only to take up certain others that have been spiritualized and "sanctified". We become counselors and pastors and professors and public servants; we start non-profits and plant churches because we want our lives to have some kind of significance, and we claim that these vocations, and these tasks, are how we "find significance in Christ".

But what if finding your life really means losing your life and abandoning all hope of ever finding it again? What if Jesus really meant it when he said that we have to lose our lives for his sake, or that the last shall be first, and the first last? What if following Jesus means never being significant, or successful, or great? What if it means that you will accomplish very little in this lifetime?

Maybe you were born for Babylon. Others may go to Jerusalem, and even call you to follow them there, singing the songs of Zion. But you're meant for Babylon. You're one of the folks who has to lose his life, hoping not in unveiled significance later on in this life, but in redemption and resurrection in the life to come. You're the one who has to throw yourself completely on Jesus and live with him in Babylon. Can you accept it?

Friday, February 4, 2011

It's Eisley!

Today is a very special day in the Holt household: Our daughter Eisley turns 3! She is such a sweet little girl, and if you've ever met her, you understand why I've called her "honey bear" her whole life. She's loving, cuddly, and absolutely hilarious. I love you, my little princess!

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Ancient Voices

Perhaps you’ve seen the Planned Parenthood “sting” video on youtube. If you haven’t, you should watch it now. It’s horribly disturbing.

Abortion is quite a telling element of our society. Approximately a quarter of all American pregnancies are prematurely and willfully terminated in an abortion clinic. Pregnancy in America has become, in many ways, the most unwanted “side-effect” of sexual activity. Our own president, Barack Obama, once infamously said that he wouldn’t want his daughters “punished with a baby” for having premarital sex.

Clearly we live in a culture where we desperately want sex without pregnancy. We have even created sociological constructs about sexual orientation that define us, at our very core, based on who we most enjoy having sex with. In fact, I would argue that this concept of orientation has become the definitive measure of sex rather than the natural purpose of sex, which is to propagate the human race. For many Americans, sex is about pleasure (and possibly love), but not about procreation. This seems like a rather bizarre, even anti-scientific belief. But it is pervasive.

I wonder what other cultures might have to say about this. I wonder, even, how the women of the Bible would respond to our culture’s pregnancy-phobia. What would women like Sarah, Rachel, and Hannah—all of whom knew intimately the heartbreak of barrenness—say to our 25% abortion rate? For so many today, pregnancy is a curse; it is a problem easily solved with a “medical procedure”. But these women considered themselves cursed because of their barrenness. We seek to avoid pregnancy at all costs, but they considered it their greatest joy and highest honor.

Perhaps these ancient women have something to teach us: That pregnancy is an honor and a privilege, not an unwanted side-effect of sexual pleasure or, Mr. President, a “punishment”. You may criticize me because I’m a man and have no right to speak about such things. Perhaps you’re right. But I’m trying to give voice to ancient women of great faith and hope in God, and I believe their voices are vital for today, not only to renew the soul of our culture, but also to save the lives of humans that might otherwise be discarded.