Saturday, January 30, 2021

On Conspiracy Theories

On Friday, I wrote about how often, someone who is disfellowshiped with you if guilty of projecting onto you the things that they are guilty of themselves. 

For example, someone who constantly complains that you think you are better than they are is possibly someone who has a reputation for thinking they are better than others. Someone who complains that you speak with a harsh tongue probably speaks with a harsh tongue. Someone who complains that you don't remember things correctly (and thus, misrepresent them) probably doesn't remember things correctly and is misrepresenting you. 

It's just human nature- we're full of more grace for ourselves than we are for others, but at the same time, the things that bother us most about others are the things that we have been unable to redeem in ourselves. We're more likely to see those things that bother us about ourselves because we're looking for them. 

Now, I want to pivot on that thought a little bit. Because in the past few months, we've heard a lot about conspiracy theories - about the pandemic, about politics, about stock markets, about whatever. And the question has come out: 

Why is it so hard to get 'people' to just believe the truth? Why do they hold so tightly to their 'conspiracy theories'? 

And the answer's kind of the same principle at work here. 

Not to get political, but let's take the election as an example. A lot of my friends, fellow pastors, voices that I listen to on a regular basis were weary of all the talk around election fraud. Why can't we just admit that the election wasn't stolen? Why can't we say that it was fair?

The answer is that because for years, we've been talking about how fair our elections have been, even though most Americans also understood that they were not. We were talking about how fair our elections were when women were not allowed to vote, and we were talking about how fair our elections were when non-white persons were not allowed to vote. And here we are now, talking about how fair our elections were. And the voices that were most trying to tell us that our elections were fair this time were the voices of those previously disenfranchised by our so-called 'fair' elections - women and persons of color. 

And the initial gut reaction to this, from those who have known all along that our elections are not fair, is...wait a minute. You can't say our elections were fair. We know our elections were not fair, and we know that they have historically been not fair to you. We made up that line about them being fair. That's our line. So you must be lying to us the same way that we've been lying to you. 

Thus, the conspiracy theory is born. It simply cannot be true if it's a lie that we've been telling for years. Something has to be amiss. 

And then these voices come back and they insist - they insist - that those who are struggling most with this election have not been disenfranchised. The roughly half of Americans who voted for the losing candidate have not been disenfranchised. But here again, they recognize this line - because they're the ones who have been spewing it for generations, knowing full well that they were disenfranchising those who were being told they were not being disenfranchised. And then they hear those words that spark in their hearts their sense of their own evil - you are not being disenfranchised - and it doesn't set well with them. 

Spoiler alert: it didn't set well with those you've been saying it to for generations, either. That's kind of how we got to where we are. 

And that's why truth isn't possible without grace. Or without love. Because we're just unwilling to give the kind of grace we've depended upon in our own lives, and we can never extend truth or grace without real love - the kind of love that doesn't separate us into an 'us' and a 'them.' The kind of love that doesn't manipulate community for its own gains. 

That's why it's easier to just love one another. To stop worrying about who's right and who's wrong, who's left and who's right, who's Democrat and who's Republican, who's gay and who's straight, who's black and who's white, who's reasonable and who's unreasonable. Just love one another. 

The only way we move past our conspiracy theories is to stop lying to each other. About anything. Because the moment you know that you're lying to someone, to anyone, it takes almost nothing at all to convince you that they're lying to you.

Thursday, January 28, 2021

On Sanctification

One of the most challenging things about living in community is, well, other persons. Not everyone has the same approach to fellowship as you do, and not everyone is willing to be honest about the ways that we sometimes get under each other's skin. 

It can be tempting when you live in a world with someone who just doesn't like you to think that you're going to change things, that you're going to fix the situation. But the truth is that sometimes, you just can't. Sometimes, it doesn't matter what you do or how you change yourself or how honest, righteous, and upstanding you are - someone who just plain doesn't like you is unlikely to change his or her mind, no matter who you are or who you become for them. (And the danger, of course, is that you lose yourself for trying to be who they want you to be.) 

Now, the truth is that often, those who are so antagonistic toward others are struggling in their own lives. There's something about themselves that they don't like, and they're projecting that on you. How many of us have realized, when we have come under unjust attack, that the things we are being falsely accused of are the very things the other party is guilty of and unwilling to confess? 

That doesn't make them bad persons; it makes them human, just like us. And as much as it hurts to the core of our souls to be in disfellowship with anyone, particularly when the grounds of the disfellowship are untrue, we cannot let ourselves forget what our human nature does to us. To all of us. And we cannot let ourselves forget who we are.

You've probably heard it said that how you react to a situation will always say more about who you are than who someone else is. 

And that's true. The challenge is when we want to use our reaction to show that we are who we are and who we have been all along and that we were not wrong to begin with. We think that the solution to our problems is to demonstrate somehow that we were never the person that we were accused of being. 

But what's also true is that we don't get to change someone's impression of us in a moment that has already passed. It never works to say, "That's not what happened" because that is how someone else remembers it, and if that's how they remember it, that's how it happened. For them. You could find security footage and play it back and play an audio recording word for word and tone for tone, and it's still rare that anyone would say, "Gosh, wow, you are right. I was totally wrong about that." 

(Most of us simply lack the humility to do so. Myself included, at times, but I'm working on it.)

This is the human drive for justification. We want the facts to show that we were not guilty of what we were accused of. We want the tapes to exonerate us. We want to declare, unswervingly, that we've been wrongfully accused and that it was never true to begin with. 

We want that, but that never fixes the disfellowship. And some disfellowships can simply never be fixed, no matter how much you try; both parties have to be willing, and sometimes, they simply aren't. 

What's better than justification, however, is sanctification. Sanctification chooses how to act moving forward. Sanctification realizes that you can never have that moment back, but you have a thousand moments moving forward in which to live out of the peace, righteousness, honesty, and integrity that you wish someone had seen yesterday. Sanctification accepts the possibility that maybe you did fail; it takes responsibility for a shared brokenness, however it happened. Then, sanctification chooses to live the kind of witness that doesn't seem to be helping you right now because it understands that what is said is true - how you react to a situation will always say more about who you are than who someone else is. 

Truthfully, you may never be able to prove someone was wrong about you. Ironically, the more you try, the more you prove them right. Usually. But what you can do is choose who you really are. You can choose whose voice gets to call you out, and if you choose God's voice, then you live into the reality of who you are. Maybe the world will see that; maybe they won't. But at the end of the day, when you lay your head on your pillow and ask God how you did today, you can know that you did well. For you let Him determine who you are. 

It might not change their hearts or minds, but it will change yours. 

It may never justify you in the eyes of the world. You may live a consistent witness your whole life and still be marked by one moment when someone with a louder voice or a bigger audience than you mistook you for his or her own insecurities and threw you under the bus. You may live your whole life with tire marks across your face that you can never erase. You may simply never be justified. 

But you can be sanctified, and I think that's better. Because at the end of the day, you answer to God. And if your answer can be, Lord, I took every opportunity to live forward into a new moment of faith, of righteousness, of integrity, of honesty, of love, then I think that's better in the end than having even one moment of ever getting to say, "I told you so." 

How about, "I showed you so." I showed you that I am who I say that I am, even if I fail sometimes and have a fallen moment. I showed you that I value the things that I value, even if I forget sometimes in the heat of the moment. I showed you that I am always trying to live and love better, even if I got it wrong before. I showed you with every moment after the broken one that I can answer the call to something higher. I showed you so. 

That's sanctification.  

Wednesday, January 27, 2021

The Cost of Discipleship

The trouble with letting culture define our sacred words for us goes beyond just losing the essence of the heart of God, although that would be enough. We are losing the foundation of what it means to be a people of God, as well. 

Take, for example, this question: what is a Christian?

When we let the culture define our words for us, then a Christian is simply someone who goes to church. Someone who has professed allegiance to the church. Perhaps, in the best of circumstances, someone who has been baptized. But rarely, if ever, are we talking about the heart of a man to determine whether or not he is a Christian. Rather, all we're talking about is where he spends his Sunday mornings and maybe, just maybe, where he gives his charitable donations. 

And maybe you're thinking, what does it matter what the culture thinks? True Christians, you say, know better. 

But do we?

Look at the metrics that the church is using to determine her 'success' in the world. She has firmly taken her cues from culture. The measure of a church today is not the number of disciples she produces, but the number of attenders she attracts. We measure our churches by likes and follows, by attendance, by budget. We look at the size of our sanctuaries and auditoriums (or, as my church has come to say, 'worship centers'). We look at the number of programs that we offer, rather than the quality or type of those programs. The main metric is how many we can get involved and not how many we can involve ourselves with. We say that we are followers of Jesus, but He's often far away from the things that we engage in - little more than the name or emblem on the sign or emblazoned on the lapel of our matching polo shirts. 

We don't measure the Christian faith any more by righteousness. We don't measure it by justice. We don't measure it by peace. We certainly aren't measuring it by love. And sadly, when we are, we're often using the world's definition of love and not Christ's - we're using something more like tolerance than true embrace. We're reaching out to certain demographics so that anyone who looks in our windows can see how 'welcoming' we are, but we're not making structural changes to our offerings to honor the demographics we're trying to draw in; rather, we're just hoping they'll tolerate us, as well, and maybe come to value the things we already value (which, too often, isn't them). 

We're doing everything the world tells us to do in order to show them that Christianity is real and vital and relevant and yet...our faith is missing something, isn't it? 

It's missing the very essence of the Christian faith. It's missing the very things that God created us for and that Christ has called us to. It's missing the kind of love and righteousness and hope and confident assurance and grace and mercy and justice and humility that are supposed to mark the lives of a Christian. It's missing discipleship. The sad truth is that most churches don't care any more if you're coming to be more long as you're coming on Sunday morning. We don't even have metrics for Christlikeness. We don't have metrics for faithfulness. We don't have measures for how your life has changed in the past five months, five years, five decades. It doesn't matter who you were or who you are or who you're becoming, as long as we can call you a 'Christian' and hold you up to the world as one more person who 'believes' what we believe. Because, hey, three billion persons can't be wrong...even when they are getting it hopelessly wrong.

That's why we have to be careful about what we're letting the world define for us. Because in just a short breath, the world goes from defining our sacred words to defining our Christian character and let's be honest - this world expects so much less from us than God does. This world doesn't have our best interest at heart. To this world, a 'Christian' is nothing more than an idea. It takes so very little to be a 'Christian' in the world's mind.

Yet, we cannot forget that we have a Christ that has called us to leave everything, pick up our cross, and follow Him.  

Tuesday, January 26, 2021

Sacred Words

As we continue to look at the language of the Bible and the choices that some translators make in choosing to make the Scriptures 'accessible' to the masses in the common language, you might be asking - what exactly is the problem? Isn't it a good thing if more persons understand the Bible? Wouldn't God want us to have the text in our own language?

Yes...and no. Certainly, God's Word was not meant to be a mystery to His people. As many times as He tells us how life-giving His Word is, we could not say that He doesn't desire for us to have it within our reach.

The problem is that when we try to cram the concepts of God into a language of common usage, we completely lose the essence of so many of our sacred words. We lose them to a culture who has defined for us the words and allowed us to use them for our religious texts. This is a far cry from having a sacred word with the power to shape our culture. 

For example, let's take a word like 'love.' God is love. Jesus loves you. Love one another. But...what is love?

If we listen to our culture, love is tolerance. Love is blanket affirmation of anything and everything. Love is supporting someone no matter what, even if you disagree with what they're doing. Love means making no judgments and requiring no morality and having nothing solid on which to plant your feet. In fact, our culture has even told us that the love of Jesus is even this way - Jesus loves you just the way you are, expects nothing out of you, and does not dream of better things for you. Jesus's love means He believes you're living your best life already and that He's just come alongside of you to offer you eternity for all the good things that you already are. 

We now find ourselves in a battle over the very nature of Jesus, and it's because we have let culture define the word before God does. It's because we have let culture tell us what 'love' is and squeeze our God into its narrow concept of a word that God intended to be so much richer. 

Want to look at some other words? Try 'grace.' Or 'forgiveness.' Or even 'faithful.' What's happened with all of these words - and many more - is that we let culture create a concept for them, and then when we see them in our Scriptures, we think they must mean the same thing. After all, if the Scriptures are written in our common language, then these words must share our common meaning. 

It is the very thing the translators I've been talking about this week were worried about - that someone would read 'staff' and think of it as a roster of employees of a person or organization. Except what's really happening is that we're talking about words far more important to the heart of God and His people - truly sacred words. 

And it may seem like such a small thing to say, hey, let's use the footnote to explain the nature of the shepherd's staff instead of dumbing it down into the common language of 'walking stick,' which vastly misses the meaning - but all of a sudden, it's a much bigger thing when we start to say, hey, let's make a footnote here to explain what biblical grace really is. Or love. Or forgiveness. Or faith. 

It says a lot about how much we've already lost our language to realize that we're already at a point where such footnotes would be extremely helpful to the average reader. That such footnotes would already dramatically change the way the Scriptures are being read in our culture, in our so-called 'common' language. 

And that's why we have to be careful about what we're willing to translate and how. Because it may look like it doesn't matter, but we're just a breath away from changing the entire Gospel. And if you don't believe that, just ask our culture - in its common language - what it thinks the love of Jesus means. 

Monday, January 25, 2021

Learning the Language

Yesterday, we introduced the concept of biblical language by looking at the way that translators sometimes make their decisions about what words to include in our English bibles. We used the example of one group of translators deciding on 'walking stick' instead of 'staff' because of their fear that the reader might think that a 'staff' is a roster of employees of a person or organization, rather than the kind of staff that a shepherd uses. 

On one hand, no one can argue against making the Bible accessible to as many as possible, and if such a translation helps one person to understand, wouldn't it be worth it? But on the other hand, if that translation loses something of the original intent or beauty of the Bible, it cannot possibly be worth it. As we said yesterday, we know that the shepherd's staff was much more than a mere walking stick, and so we have a case where in an effort to clear things up, we've actually muddied the waters. 

The trouble is that we have a certain language that we speak. We have words that we use every day that come to mean one thing or another to us, and so our natural reflex is to interpret words through the lens of our own language. Where this causes a problem is where our English doesn't capture the same essence of things as the Hebrew or the Greek (or really, any language - this difficulty is not limited to biblical translation alone). Hebrew, especially, has this really deep concept of language where words not only express ideas or objects, but also interactions and emotions. The levels of meaning in the Hebrew language are simply astounding, and the English does not even come close. We often need a whole sentence or two in English to say what the Hebrew says in just a word. 

Because of this, it is vitally important that we get this act of translation right. If we fail, we miss out on the heart of God that is contained in the text. 

As we have seen, one solution to this challenge is to simply choose the English word that is relatively closest in meaning and easiest for the reader to understand, but this approach has left us wanting in terms of truly understanding the heart of the Bible. 

Is there another way?

Certainly, there is. And that way is to teach the English reader the Hebrew heart. That is, to teach the English reader to speak a new language, rather than using the one he already knows. 

This seems harder. It seems heavier, like we're going to just be weighing the Bible down with a bunch of instructions on what certain things mean, but let's just take the case of the current translation that I am reading - the NET. The NET has used a footnote to explain why they have chosen to use 'walking stick' instead of 'staff.' Now, imagine a world where the Bible translation team used a footnote in exactly the same place to define for the reader the significance of the biblical 'staff.' 

Revolutionary, right? 

Imagine a world where our Bible taught us to speak the language of God instead of pretending that the highest goal was to present a God who speaks our language. Imagine a Bible that challenged us to expand our vocabulary instead of trying to stuff God into the relatively small number of words that we already know. Imagine a Bible study where, when you read the Bible, what you discover about God doesn't rest on concepts that you already understand, but depends entirely upon your willingness to learn something new. 

That is one of the major problems that I have with this kind of biblical translation, this kind of translation work that depends upon the 'common usage' of language and the limitations of English - it proposes a God that is as small as our vocabulary. And simply put, I'm not interested in a God that small. 

But there's something else at stake here, too, and we're already seeing it take its toll on our sacred language. More on that, tomorrow.  

Saturday, January 23, 2021

A Matter of Words

This year, I am reading through the NET Full Notes version of the Bible. If you haven't heard of this translation, it is a work by a team of scholars in which they explain nearly every translation decision they made in a footnote. Some pages of this Bible contain just a handful of verses of the actual text, while the rest of the page is filled with 30 or so footnotes about Hebrew roots, Greek words, ancient manuscripts, and modern language. 

The aim of the translators, as is the aim of most translators, is to create a version of the Bible that is as close to the original reading as we can get but also readable for today's Christian. In other words, they want to stay true to what the Bible says, but they want you to understand it. And of course, for a theology nerd who loves footnotes in general, the work from the original languages is particularly fascinating to me. 

That said, I am just a few weeks into this Bible translation, barely into Exodus, and I already find myself rolling my eyes at some of the decisions that these translators have made in favor of 'readability.' For example, when reading through the patriarch stories and early into Moses, there is a note that explains that they have chosen to say "walking stick" instead of "staff," even when the Hebrew word indicates "staff," because to the modern reader, a "staff" is a roster of employees of a particular person or organization and not, well, a stick in the hand of a shepherd. 

This is just one example of extreme nitpickiness of words that they have noted so far. 

And on one hand, it strikes me that they don't give the biblical reader enough credit. But then on the other hand, I wonder if perhaps I take my own familiarity with words too naturally. After all, I know what a biblical staff is, so doesn't everyone? 

So I catch myself, and I pull back and I wonder if perhaps this isn't a better way. If perhaps these translators actually do have it right and that this sort of clarification is necessary for many readers. Maybe there are a bunch of Christians out there who read 'staff' and think about a roster of employees and so, they need to see 'walking stick' instead. 

And then I find myself wondering if I still agree with the decision if it is only one person who reads the Bible more correctly because of this change of words. If this substitution helps one person better understand the Word of God, then I'm all for that...aren't I?

Then again, am I really? 

Because I also understand that when we're talking about the patriarchs, we're talking about a shepherding people. We're talking about a people for whom the staff was not just a walking stick; it was a tool of their trade. When we read later in Psalm 23, we read that the Lord's rod and staff comfort us, as they would in the hands of any good shepherd. And then, I wonder if the Lord's 'walking stick' is a much a comfort to me as His 'staff,' the tool of His trade. 

Now, I could go off on a tangent here about how if the staff of a shepherd is a mere walking stick, then of course, it's a comfort that God has a means to steady Himself. It means He is trustworthy and stable, that I can lean on and rely on Him.

But that's insufficient, because we know that the shepherd's staff was not just for his own use; it was for the good of his flocks, as well. 'Walking stick' gives the impression that it's just for the man, and not for the flocks, so this doesn't capture the essence of the biblical text. Another note would be needed to explain the use of the walking stick for the benefit of the flock, and, well, if you're going to put in a note to explain the use of the walking stick, why not just keep 'staff' and use the note to explain that? 

It seems like such a simple thing, but it's raised a deeper issue for me in terms of biblical translation and reading. In terms of the ways that we engage God's Word for the masses. 

More on that, tomorrow.  

Thursday, January 21, 2021

What Happens in America

So the question becomes: how, then, does a Christian interact with politics in a faithful manner? How do we live as Christians and Americans? One friend asked me recently, very pointedly, "Do you vote?" 

And the answer is, yes. Yes, we vote. We vote our conscience and our morals and our heart. We vote with our vision for what America is and what she should become. We vote because we know that our founding fathers understood that America would be guided by the faith and the morals of the leaders that she elects, and certainly, there is value to ensuring our voices are in the conversation. We vote because God told us to live in the world that He gave us, to be active participants in this life that He has called us to. 

But we have to vote knowing that our vote, and the outcome of any election, is not the most important thing. It's not even in the top twenty. If we were to make a list of things that matter in our lives, things that we value, things that influence the way that we actually live, politics isn't the top of the list for any of us. We start closer to home, with our family, our friends, our neighbors, our communities, our ministries, our service. When we start to list off what we value in life, donkeys and elephants just aren't up there. And yet, in times like these, we all pretend it's the most important thing in the whole world. 

More important, even, than our faith. 

And some have asked, how can we even keep being Christians, though, if we don't have a government that supports our religious freedoms, let alone our religious views? How are we supposed to keep living a life of faith if the American culture doesn't at the very least support our right to do so? We need Christian politicians, they say, because Christian politicians make our Christian worship possible. 

I think Daniel would have something to say about that. 

Daniel was living in a Babylon that not only didn't support his Christian faith, but they made it punishable by death. What did he do? He went into his room, positioned himself by his window, and he prayed anyway. He refused to bow down to the statute that Babylon worshiped (to the culture of the land where he lived), and he put his life on the line. 

American Christians have gotten so comfortable. We think that our faith ought to be protected from persecution, that we ought to have a pass somehow against the kind of real trouble from the world that God's people have always faced. Read the Bible. Every page is filled with persons choosing faith over all else, choosing God when it's not convenient or easy, putting their lives actually on the line for what they believe is the highest thing. 

And here we are, fighting over politics because we think that somehow, politics threatens our faith. No, my friends. Our entitlement threatens our faith. Our notion that our faith ought to be safe and clean and protected threatens our faith. There is no special provision anywhere for the American church, that she should never face persecution. 

What we have to decide is whether or not we're going to continue to be a people of faith when we do face it. 

The truth is, when it comes to politics, it matters what happens to America, but it doesn't matter that much. It's not the highest thing. It's not the biggest thing. Nations live and die all the time. Boundaries shift and cultures change and human stuff happens, but God remains. And if we have our lives wrapped up first and foremost in Him, then we can let go of politics. We can let go of our fear about what happens if X or Y person gets into power or if this or that party starts making our decisions. Not because its impact on our lives isn't real but because, in the face of faith, its impact on our lives doesn't matter. 

God has called us to be in this world, not of this world. When we take that seriously, we put our feet down on Solid Rock and live with our hands open. Whatever happens, happens. Because Jesus already lived, already died, and yet, still lives again and that doesn't change with the winds. The center of the Christian faith has never been Washington, D.C., and it's never going to be. (Although, let's be honest, how terribly close we are to believing that it is.) The center of the Christian faith is an empty tomb in the shadow of a Cross. 

And if we could all live a little more like that, then we'd start to get a true godly perspective on everything else - politics included. And then maybe, just maybe, we'd understand what He's been trying to tell us about them all along. 

Wednesday, January 20, 2021

Biblical Politics

The Bible actually has quite a bit to say to us about politics, about how to be a people in a foreign land. We looked at some of these ideas on Monday when we introduced the topic - pray for your leadership, submit yourself to the authorities because God has put them in place, and pray for the peace and prosperity of the land where you live, for their good is your good. (Not, we must note, "your good is their good," but their good is your good.) 

But it's not just that. 

We also have a witness of the entire history of God's people in which they completely misunderstood what Jesus meant when He said He was coming to be their king. We have the history of Israel under the kings she appointed for herself because she was tired of waiting on God, and we have the passion of the Jews during the lifetime of Jesus Himself. 

It's no secret that they wanted to make Him their king. It's no secret that they thought He came so that they could overthrow Rome, put their Lord on the power seat, and really start changing the world into a more faithful, more just, more righteous society because finally, finally, the Jewish ethic would be in charge. 

Then, of course, Jesus dies and the whole thing collapses and everyone's pretty much sure it is over - and it is, at least for those who were waiting around with a robe and a crown to put the living God incarnate on the throne of the nation-state. Jesus says plainly, in His death, that's not what He's about. He makes it clear again and again in His life that He's no political figure. 

And yet, here we are, two thousand years later, trying to make Jesus our king (President) and, short of that, trying to elect Presidents that we think will rule us well because we're tired of waiting on God to give us the kind of world that we've been praying for (even though, of course, that world can never fully exist on this side of eternity). 

And yet, here we are, thinking that this time, it's going to work. That this time, we're going to get it done. That now, for sure, we'll get the right guy in office and finally have Jesus running our country for us. 

And yet, here we are, pretty sure that God is finally going to do this for us, that He's going to redeem America and make her a righteous nation by her politics, which would be, we have to confess, the first time He has ever done that for a nation-state. Ever. 

And yet, here we are, talking like the nation-state of America is God's prize possession, His chosen nation, His preferred structure for living. 

You know what the only thing God had to say to His people about the nation-state was in all of Scripture? The nation-state will take from you the allegiance that you owe to God. The nation-state will exact from you the devotion that you once reserved for God. The nation-state will rule your life in ways that God is supposed to rule your life. Everything that you set aside for God will end up going to the nation-state because that's how nation-states work. 

And He was right. 

And then, generations later, He sends Jesus, and the people, we've got it. Now, we've got the nation-state that we always hoped for. Now, we're bringing our worship back in proper alignment. Jesus is going to be our King. 

Then Jesus says, I don't want to be your King. I don't want to be the leader of your nation-state. I will not accept a royal enthroning. I want to be your Lord. I want be the leader of your life. I want to be the guider of your heart. 

And He was right, too. 

Yet here we are, still getting it wrong. Will the people of God ever learn? 

The only thing the Bible has ever had to teach us about politics is that they aren't nearly as great nor as important as we make them and that we're setting aside so many good things of God out of hearts to make room for the broken systems we think we're finally going to fix when God Himself said that's not what He's interested in fixing. He's not out to change our world; He's out to change our hearts. He doesn't work in the nation-state; He works in the neighborhoods. He works in our homes. 

Imagine how much it would change - about our lives and our politics - if we could take Him seriously on that. 

Tuesday, January 19, 2021

A Christian Nation

One of the arguments that we often hear from Christians when they believe that America is suffering from her own affliction is that America has simply turned her back on God and needs to turn back to Him. If America was the Christian nation that God called her to be, then we wouldn't be where we are right now. 

There are a couple of very serious problems with this thinking. 

First, America is not a Christian nation. America was founded on the idea of religious freedom, and while she was grounded in the Christian (or semi-Christian) understandings of her fathers, the idea was never to make America a Christian nation. The idea was to make America a nation that didn't force her religion down the throats of her people, as was happening in Britain at the time. The idea that the early Americans had any idea of establishing a Christian nation is plainly historically false, even though they understood that their Christian morality was the only thing that would guide them correctly into creating the kind of nation they were hoping for. (We can talk about that later, if you're interested. Here, it's just basically an aside.) 

But second, and the most serious problem that we have with this thinking, is that it's simply not biblical. Not in the slightest. 

There is only one nation of God in the Bible, and it is the nation of Israel. But when the Bible talks about Israel as a nation, it is not talking about a nation-state the way that America is a nation-state; it is talking about a people as a nation of people. It is talking about the collective of individuals who are established on the faith. Even when Israel settles into the Promised Land and becomes a people with a distinct land to call her own, even when they appoint a king over themselves, even when they go to war with other nation-states, the Bible still doesn't talk about them as a nation-state; it talks about them as a people. 

(This is important, too, when we talk about the nature of the nation-state of modern Israel, but again, that's a discussion for another time, if you're interested.) 

So this notion that we somehow restore and redeem America and make her into all the things she was always supposed to be by electing Christians and legislating a Christian morality and humbling ourselves and getting our country to turn itself around and re-commit itself to, plainly, terrible theology. It's really, really wrong theology. God has never had in mind a "Christian" nation-state - not for His people Israel, and not for His Gentiles today. 

And we should also note that not once when God's people have been foreigners living in strange territories has God told them that what they need to do is make the nation where they're living a Christian nation. Not once has He told them to upheave the entire political structure order to make it into a nation that lives by the rules they want to live by. Rather, God has always called His people to make righteousness the priority in their own lives. 

Which is what we should still be doing today. 

God's will for this world is never accomplished by having a Christian nation-state. We can't legislate our way into morality or righteousness, and if you don't understand that, look no further than the Bible itself. Israel had the law and couldn't even keep it. And the New Testament tells us that is precisely what a law is for - for people who can't keep it. The law can only do so much. It is the heart - in the New Testament, a covenant of grace - that makes a people into a Christian people. God's heart for this world has always and will always only be lived out in the love for neighbor that His people embrace. 

In other words, if you want America to be a "Christian" nation, you have to focus on getting her people, not her politics, to turn to God. Not in some faraway place where legislation is enacted, but on the street where you live. 

And it starts...with you. 

It starts with you not being the kind of Christian we've been talking about so far this week, the kind of Christian who does nothing but grumble about the state of politics in America and argues for a more "Christian" politic while living in a broken, self-righteous spirit that is antithetical to the entirety of the Christian heart. It starts with you loving your neighbor, even the one who voted differently than you did. It starts with you reaching a hand across your own aisle and declaring that no matter what happens in Washington, you are going to live the kind of life that God has called you to live. Whatever is happening in America doesn't keep you from doing that, unless you're just looking for an excuse. 

So let's stop talking about having a Christian "nation" when we know that that was never what God, or America, had in mind. Instead, let's focus on being a Christian people, real followers of God whose faithfulness starts and ends on our own streets and not simply at the ballot box.  

Monday, January 18, 2021

A Theology of Opposition

As we watch the ways in which American politics and American Christianity have become far too entangled, there are those who seem to be ready and willing to call out Christians for their deeply political affiliations. The problem is, this isn't happening out of a concern for Christian theology (though it is often masked as such), but rather, out of a concern for American politics. 

And that is, well, concerning.

There are a number of Christians right now claiming the moral high ground for calling out - and condemning - other Christians for their Christian support of a particular political figure. They throw out commentary on things like personal character and public demeanor, and they declare, self-righteously, how can you claim to be a Christian and support someone like this, no matter what his policies are? 

They claim some kind of righteousness in this, as though they are 'more' Christian or 'better' Christians for hating this man and condemning everything about him. As if the Christian thing to do is to denounce our duly elected leader and throw all of his supporters (everyone who voted for him, no matter how active or inactive their ongoing support) into one caricaturized category and dismiss - and denigrate - all of them. They claim they are standing up for the church and for her witness in the world, wanting to show the world that this man, this support, this politic isn't what Christianity is all about and begging the world not to do the very thing that they're doing - not to lump all of Christianity into a conservative politic that leans toward this particular candidate. 

Where do we even begin?

Let's start with the fact that these Christians are using hate as a justification for righteousness. Hey, we hate him, too. Hey, we hate everything he stands for and everyone who stands with him. Look at us, the church, calling someone out because we can't stand him. Uhm, I'm not sure what Bible these folks are reading, but the defense of Christianity can never be hate and condemnation. It can't. For too many years, the church was known for what it objected to, and here we are with a bunch of Christians claiming a new righteousness for political objections, which is a double error - the error that we are what we object to and the error that Christianity is somehow deeply entertwined with politics. 

They ask how you could have voted for and supported a man with such poor character, even when the policies of the other candidate were clearly antithetical to the Christian morality, and they can't believe you haven't condemned him yourself yet. They can't believe you continue to see him as anything but complete and total evil. 

And yet, we have a theology that believes in brokenness and redemption. Do we not? We have a theology that sees all of us as flawed human beings, doing our best to navigate through a broken world. We all have our things that make us distasteful, at times, to others. Should we all be written off? Or should we look for something redemption-worthy in everyone? Are some sins so great that we should never forgive them, especially when the Bible tells us there is only one unforgivable sin (and spoiler alert: this isn't it)? 

We've got this whole sect of Christianity that is ready to stand with culture and try to put the church on the 'right' side of politics (or rather, the 'correct' side, since their trouble seems to be that American Christianity has too firmly associated itself with the political right), and to them, this is a correction to the error of politics and theology becoming too enmeshed. 

But here's the truth: this is the enmeshing of politics and theology, too. Those who are voicing this movement are guilty of exactly the same things that they are decrying and condemning. Exactly the same things. They are claiming that there is a real "Christian" politic and that what it seems to be isn't it. They aren't telling the church that they've got politics wrong; they're telling the church they've got the wrong politics. Yet still, we have to come back to a Bible that tells us how politics and faith truly live together - and neither side is getting it right. 

There's no righteousness in being on 'correct' side of culture. There's no righteousness in being on the side of popular opinion (which, by the way, is a misnomer, since our information channels are skewed by the ways that we filter them). You don't get to claim that "Christians" are getting it wrong and misrepresenting the faith by doing exactly the same thing you're condemning them for, and you don't get to claim that 'real' Christianity would do two of the things that Christ Himself was never known for - hate and condemn a man that you're currently scapegoating for all of the problems of a broken system. 

And listen, because I know this is going to come up: this is not a defense of that man. This is not one of 'his' people blindly following and blah blah blah and all the stuff you hear thrown out at someone who tries to take a middle road and who doesn't wholeheartedly condemn him as thoroughly wicked. Humans are complicated. We're complex. We're broken in ways that others sometimes don't understand, and we do things that seem...inconceivable. All of us. Some of us have bigger platforms than others, so the lights shine brighter, but we're all guilty of this kind of stuff. And you think, yeah, but I'm not a racist, bigoted, arrogant son-of-a, and yet, the minute you think become one. The minute you put a label on someone else and make an 'us' and a 'them,' you're just as guilty of the very thing you claim to hate. You've caricaturized someone else and lost the essence of what it means to be human. 

I get that that's not a popular view, but it doesn't make it any less true. And we can condemn acts and attitudes without condemning persons. No one is saying we should let racism, where it truly exists, get a pass. No one is saying we condone the things that are antithetical to the kind of righteousness that God calls us to. But there's a big difference between condemning a behavior and condemning a human being, who, by the way, is made in the image of God. See, grace is a complex thing, too. It's complicated. It's hard. But it's beautiful. And if you find yourself in a position where you're feeling defensive about all of the things that others assume of you because of the way that certain others act, then you, of all persons, ought to be in a position of grace. For you stand begging for it yourself, do you not? 

Praying for America

This week, America makes another shift in her political landscape as we inaugurate the 46th President of the United States. And the rhetoric has been heated for quite some time over this one. And while I don't want to turn this blog into a political debate, we, as Christians, need to talk about American politics. Specifically, we need to talk about the intersection of American politics and our Christianity. 

Because what inevitably happens, and what we've been seeing again, is that Christians start coming out of the woodwork to encourage one another to "pray for America." We have to be praying for America, they say. America has lost her way. America needs to be a nation that turns back to God. And so on and so forth. And of course, in this particular political climate, American Christians have become extremely closely connected with their political candidate or persuasion of choice. 

There is, right now, a giant backlash against the American church, and the Christian faith in general, because of the proudly-professed Christian beliefs entangled with the just-as-proudly-professed politics of those believers. And quite honestly, we just need to stop it. 

That's right. We need to stop it.

It's not biblical. (And thus, it's not Christian.)

There's a lot to say on this mess that we have gotten ourselves into, but let's start here: by and large when we issue a call to 'pray for America,' we aren't doing so in the way that the Bible tells us to pray for our nation. 

There is, most certainly, a biblical mandate to pray for our nation. God says clearly to pray for our leaders, that they would have the wisdom and the moral character to make righteous decisions on behalf of their people, that they would govern justly and well. God says to submit ourselves to the authorities of our nations, for He has put them into place. And God says to pray for the peace and prosperity of the nation where we live, for their peace and prosperity is our peace and prosperity. Yes, my friends, we are supposed to pray for our country. 

But the calls that we see coming out, and the times when we see them coming, indicate that what we're doing is not really praying for our country; we're praying against our country. 

We're being called by other Christians to pray against our leaders as illegitimate, to pray for some sort of change in the winds that would undo what the election has done and put 'better' choices into power for us. Because we didn't vote for the guy, and we don't like him. We're being called by other Christians to pray against the decisions that our leaders are making. Because they aren't the decisions we would make, and we don't agree with them. We're being called by other Christians to pray against things going well for us because we want, for some reason, America to feel the full weight of her sinfulness in electing the guy we don't agree with, who is inevitably going to do things we don't agree with, in order that they might know that we were right all along. 

That's what we're really praying for. We're praying for America, and her leaders, to completely collapse and fail so that our friends, families, and neighbors will for some reason come to the conclusion that we were right and they were wrong. We think that this is the way to get them to vote differently next time, or...I don't even know what we're thinking. 

The point is that all these calls we see to "Pray for America" often encourage us to do exactly the opposite. They encourage us to pray against America because she doesn't look the way that we think that she should look. 

Then, we call it righteous because, hey, we're praying. But this is not the prayer that God has called us to. This is not how Christians are supposed to live in the lands where God has placed them. 

Today, we remember a man named Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He was a pastor, a man of deep faith, and he took the hard road toward the America that he wanted to see. He embodied the way that we are supposed to live as citizens of a foreign land (and all land is foreign to us this side of eternity). He fought against the things that he saw were broken in our society, but he did so with eyes - and prayer - toward what America could be. He always had a vision for where we were going and how we were going to get there. He prayed for things like reconciliation and justice, not vindication and justification. He prayed not that he would be found to be right, but that America would be found righteous by embracing the call to something higher. King never once prayed for a change in America that he wasn't willing to make himself, that he wasn't willing to put his own life on the line for. And he never once prayed for America, even in her broken state, to fail; he didn't believe her failure was necessary for her to choose a better way. He believed the Christian witness, the real Christian witness, was enough to call America to something better. And he didn't use politics to do it. He didn't waste his breath campaigning for or against anyone; he spent his life fighting for and with his brothers and sisters, his neighbors. 

That's what we have to do. We simply cannot be a people praying against America. It's not what God has called us to. We have to be a people praying for our country, with a vision for who we can be and who we can become. Not wasting our time campaigning for the politician of our choice, but waging war in the streets against all the things we find broken here - waging war with and for our brothers and sisters, our neighbors. 

We'll continue this discussion tomorrow. 

Thursday, January 14, 2021

The Third Person

So where does this all lead us? It leads us back to where we started, with a discussion of the Holy Spirit as the third person of the Trinity. 

It leads us to a place where we have to understand the Holy Spirit as a being with the very heart and character of God, and not just the will of Him. That is, He is not merely some angelic spirit being dispatched to do what God desires, carrying some kind of marching orders to pull the world's strings like a holy puppeteer, sneakily working His way throughout the world to make sure that God's desires for humankind get fulfilled. As such, we should not expect some sort of 'secret' knowledge from Him; the Holy Spirit is as plain and conspicuous and transparent as God has always been. 

Nor should we believe He is in any way "just" "a" spirit, somehow engaged in the same realm as the evil spirits that we hear about in the Bible or perhaps encounter from time to time in our real living. We have seen the kind of errors that this sort of thinking can lead us into. 

And it comes, perhaps, from our misreading of the word 'spirit.' This word just as easily means, "heart, nature, character, fundamental foundational structure of" something as it does "phantom, ghost." And therein lies yet another confusion, whereby we know that in Christian language, there are some who refer to the Holy Spirit as the Holy Ghost. And doesn't this, at least, imply that He is a spirit in the way that we understand spirits? 

Still no. For what is a ghost? It is the phantom sense we get of a once-living being who is no longer with us, but yet, is still somehow present. Which means that the Holy Ghost is every taste we have of Jesus, who once walked among us and currently does not. He is the wisp in the wind that reminds us of the Lord who lived with us, who occupied the same spaces that we do. He is a reminder of the Christ who lived, died, and lived again for us - every time we smell that smell we can't quite place, every time we have that feeling of wanting to talk to Him and turning around to see if He's there. That's the Holy 'Ghost.' Still not an actual spirit in the sense that we think of spirits, but the experience that this person of God gives us of the Trinity. 

 He is the person of God and no mere apparition. He waits for the same invitation into our lives that God does, rather than just lurking in our closet or being here all the time. There's nothing in Scripture that says the Holy Spirit just roams around and fills the whole earth, whether it wants Him or not; rather, He is a gift for believers, for all believers, from the moment they accept Him. And then, He does not - He cannot - simply roam around our lives like some kind of roomba that we set on autopilot and expect to keep our lives clean without our investment or engagement. Again, that's not how the Holy Spirit works. That's not how the person of God works. 

What we have to do, as Christians, is to start developing the kind of relationship with the Holy Spirit that we have developed over the years with God, through the Old Testament, and Jesus, through the New Testament, by just steeping ourselves in His story and finding out what He's doing in the world, how He's doing it, and how He intends for us to join Him. 

In many ways, I wish the Bible were more clear about this, but the truth is that it can't be. It can't be because the story of the presence of the person of the Holy Spirit is an ongoing, developing story that is happening in all of us in the 'already, but not yet.' We're living it. We're writing that story right now, and so it's not something that's revelatory for us in its history, but in its present. It's not from the beginning of time, but right now. It's not merely at one point in time, but at every point in time. At least, in our time. 

We often wonder sometimes - at least, I do - what it might have been like to live in a time when God Himself was seemingly so active in His world. In the Old Testament, when He spoke to His people and led them in battle and called them to greater things. What it might have been like to live in a time when Jesus was alive, in flesh and bone, and walking the same streets with us, as in the Gospels. But we live in such a time. Our time is marked by the presence of the Holy Spirit, just as near as God or Christ have ever been. The third person of the Trinity, given to us for these chapters of His story, these chapters we're writing right now. 

Let us never forget that we are living the story we so often wonder about. And let us never stop wondering about the story we're living. 

Wednesday, January 13, 2021

The Trouble with Spirits

As we continue to talk about the Holy Spirit, the third person of the Trinity, it's important to look at another fallacy that our failure to understand this Spirit leads us into. Namely, that what we're engaged in is a battle of the 'spirit world.' 

When we think that the Holy Spirit is "just" "a" spirit that God has sent into the world, the way that He has sent angels into the world or other heavenly beings, then we tend to want to break everything down by what 'kind' of spirit is controlling it, what 'heavenly battle' is going on behind it. 

Let's be clear: Spiritual warfare is real. The Scriptures attest to that much. But let's continue to be clear: most of us don't need any help sinning. Our fallen human nature is enough to keep us turning away from God in shame; we don't need demons to do that.

What I'm trying to point to here is the error by which Christians point to spiritual warfare for everything, and there does seem to be a correlation between Christians who have a misunderstanding of the Holy Spirit as a mere spirit being dispatched by God and those deeply engaged in what they believe is spiritual warfare. 

So let's clear some things up about demons. Shall we?

First, demons are real. Jesus spent a portion of His time casting demons out of the afflicted, and this work continues into the New Testament through the apostles, so there is clearly a basis for saying that demons, and demon possession, are real. 

But second, demons have absolutely no interest in you at all. None. There is not a single demon in all of Scripture whose goal is anything other than to attack the name and the glory of God. That's it. Now, those who accept a doctrine of severe spiritual warfare will say that getting anyone to sin is an attack on the name and glory of God, since we are all created in His image and our sin keeps us from glorifying Him (whether we want to or not - they are equally concerned about spiritual warfare in believers as in unbelievers), but that's a severe overstretch of the Scriptures' revelation about demons. 

Because third, there is zero - zero - testimony in God's word that all sinners are demon-possessed and thus only sin because of an evil spirit that controls them somehow. Rather, the Scriptures are full of humans sinning all on their own and are very explicit about telling us where demons are involved and where they are not. And surprisingly? The activities of demons are never identified as sins. "My son is possessed by a demon that throws him on the ground and makes him go into trances." "The demons in the man enabled him to break his chains and roam freely about the cemetery, drooling on himself." "The evil spirit in the girl enabled her to tell the future." Not one demon that led someone to drinking, to abusing, to murdering, to raping, to...the list goes on. Whatever you want to put here. There is, of course, the serpent, but that's an entirely different story than what we're talking about. Entirely different. 

But this is where we end up when we think that the Spirit is just a spirit like any other spirit and therefore, must be in conflict with other spirits. No. Evil spirits are in conflict with God, but not because the Holy Spirit is like them - rather, because the Holy Spirit is so unlike them. He is, indeed, a person of God and no mere spirit being. 

And so, we have to get rid of this notion of spiritual warfare that makes everything into demonology by nature of so little more than our misunderstanding of the Holy Spirit. Hate to tell you, but the demons just aren't that interested in you. They aren't. 

But God...God can't get His mind off you. 

Tuesday, January 12, 2021

An Unholy Spirit

One of the things that confuses our understanding of the Holy Spirit as Christians is the way that those who are not shy about claiming the Holy Spirit's presence often claim a weird sort of knowledge given to them by the Holy Spirit that leaves the rest of us going, "Wait. What?" 

In the book I'm reading, the author claims that the Holy Spirit keeps giving him visions of other persons when he encounters them, visions like seeing a sword sticking out of their side or a word scrawled across their face or whatever. Secret sorts of knowledge that he claims only the Spirit could have, and only the Spirit could share with him. And then, when he inquires with these persons what it might mean (because of course, such visions are metaphorical, although he claims the vision itself is as real as reading a newspaper), they usually reveal some sort of worry or concern or infirmity or disease that he then heals by such actions as pulling the sword out or erasing, somehow, the word. He even says you can develop this gift yourself and even practice it, by asking the Spirit for small, inconsequential facts about your friends and checking them out with them (facts like, "Did you have a favorite teddy bear in your bedroom when you were little?"). 

If you're squirming a little right now, that's okay. Me, too. And the trouble is that when we start to squirm, these persons who claim this kind of gifting and power of the Holy Spirit tell us that it's because we don't have enough faith. Or the right kind of faith. Or whatever.

But here's the thing: any one of us who has read the Bible has never seen this kind of Holy Spirit. Ever. This is simply not the Holy Spirit that we see in the pages of Scripture, the One who was promised by Jesus and came upon believers at their baptism. 

There is not one story in the Bible where a believer, or even Jesus, walks up to an individual and claims to know something that hasn't been plainly revealed by itself (that man has a crippled hand) or revealed by the individual (my child has a spirit tormenting him). Peter never walks up to someone and says, "Hey, the Lord has given me a vision for your affliction, and I'd like to cure it!" No. Jesus Himself, and the disciples, and the prophets, and everyone else in the Scriptures who has ever done a miraculous work in the power of the Holy Spirit has done it upon the revelation of the affliction by itself, not by some secret knowledge. 

There are no promptings to interpersonal action in the Scriptures by 'visions' of someone's affliction with metaphorical swords or words scrawled across their heads or anything of the sort. There are no records of any believer ever having to 'develop' the gift of the Spirit in them by exercising it and practicing on one another. 

And that whole thing about knowing, by divine inspiration, that your friend had a favorite teddy bear as a child? That falls into the same sort of fallacy that secular psychics play on all the time - the idea that if you make a statement common and generic enough, anyone and everyone can see themselves in it and wonder how you know that. (We could talk about this more later if you want to; for now, it's just a side note.) 

The thing is, there is nothing in the Scriptures or the revelation of God to say that the Holy Spirit works the way that these persons claim that He does. Nothing. But they claim it nonetheless and then shame other believers for not having the same 'faith.' A 'faith that moves mountains,' although we should also point out that none of these Holy Spirit-claiming believers has ever used this gift to move a mountain, so there's that. 

And the way they present this raises another sticky theological question, one we must answer right now in plain and clear language: no. No, God is not talking about you to other believers. Or unbelievers. God is not whispering your secrets throughout the universe. God is not revealing your secret shame and affliction to random individuals who have the power to pull fake swords out of your stomach. It's not happening. That's not how God works. (We might say He is revealing things for your good to those with whom you are in relationship or soon will be, as He did with Ananias when a blinded Saul was on the way, but this whole thing where someone is walking into a grocery store and is suddenly overwhelmed with a sense of your's not happening. That's not how God works. You don't have to worry about God taking out bulletin boards with your affliction on them.) 

So we're left with this uneasy feeling about the Holy Spirit, and it's because the claims of some of these Christians simply don't line up with what we know about Him and what is consistent with the heart and character of God (who, by the way, the Holy Spirit is a person of, not an agent of). And it just muddies things for us. But if we dare ask, we're told it's our problem. It's not our problem. It's not a problem of our faith if we will not take hold of a promise that is not in Scripture, if we refuse to believe something of God that has not been revealed and does not line up with His character or His heart or His story. 

But neither can we ignore the Spirit altogether. We can't let these misunderstandings and misteachings that run rampant in our world, and even in our churches, keep us from connecting with the Spirit in our lives. He is, still, the promised gift of Jesus, given to all believers. And that means us. 

Monday, January 11, 2021

A Gift for Every Believer

One of the first things that we have to set straight when we start to talk about the Holy Spirit is that the Holy Spirit is a gift for every believer, not a special gifting for some set apart by the Lord. 

This gets a little muddied, particularly when we see those with gifts that we consider phenomenological (that is, extremely out of the ordinary or requiring some sort of special interruption to the laws of physics). These persons, when they perform their works of faith, often claim the Spirit as the source of it all. And He is, but it's not because they have the Spirit and you don't; it's because that's the particular gift that the Spirit has given to them. 

The truth is that none of us works out of our gifting without the help of the Holy Spirit. The encouragers that we talked about a few weeks ago? They encourage out of the enabling of the Holy Spirit. Those with insight into the Scriptures or into the world or into the human condition? That insight is given to them by the Holy Spirit. Those with generous spirits? That is the manifestation of the Holy Spirit living in them. It's hard for us to recognize the Holy Spirit in these quieter gifts because it's tempting for us to think, oh, that's just who Nancy is or that's just the kind of guy Bill is. No, that is who Nancy and Bill are because of the work that the Holy Spirit is doing inside of them. Because of what the Holy Spirit enables them to do. 

For this reason, we need to stop thinking of the Spirit Himself as phenomenological. We have to stop thinking of Him as something akin to what we in the church call 'charismatic.' He's full of charisma, sure, in the same way that Jesus and the Father are full of charisma, but the Holy Spirit's role is not confined to breaking the laws of physics and reworking creation at every turn in order to do the miraculous signs and wonders that God wants to do, through the hands of the few. 

Rather, the Holy Spirit's role is to give every believer an extra set of eyes according to his or her gifting, eyes that allow him or her to see the workings of God in the world that he or she is being invited to join. To understand things that he or she might miss in the limitations of a human mind. To encourage and inspire, to support and uplift, to embolden and invite every believer into the ongoing work of God that is happening all around us with every breath. 

When Jael drove the tent spike through the opposing commander's head, that wasn't because Jael was sitting in her tent in her human mind, thinking about what she would do if she ever got the opportunity to be involved in Israel's battle. It's because the Holy Spirit gave her the vision of how she could intervene in His story, right now, and build it more toward His glory. When the widow walked into the Temple and gave her last two cents, it wasn't because she was just a gentle old widow with a generous heart; it was because the Holy Spirit had given her that heart. When Daniel prayed in an upper room in Babylon, it wasn't because he had committed his human flesh to devotion; it was because the Holy Spirit had given Him a steadfastness in devotion. 

This might, then, seem like the Holy Spirit gets credit for, well, everything, but that's not the case. There is still a creation that is done by God's hand and a salvation that comes only through Christ. 

In fact, one of the major troubles that we run into when we talk about the Holy Spirit is that there are some who want to make Him out to be too capable, too present, too involved in everything. We'll look closer at that trouble tomorrow.  

Saturday, January 9, 2021

The Holy Spirit

This week, I want to talk with you about the lesser-known member of the Godhead: the Holy Spirit. Right there in the midst of this Trinity is this person of God that Jesus promised to us and God delivered, but what, exactly, is the Holy Spirit and what does that mean for us? 

One of the more unfortunate misunderstandings of the Holy Spirit is that He is somehow a Spirit in the same sense that we think the Devil or Satan is a spirit. We relegate the Holy Spirit to the angelic realm, as if He is some completely different entity than what we know of God and Jesus, both of whom we have seen in the flesh (God in the Garden and perhaps beyond; Jesus, of course, in Galilee and the surrounding areas). It's almost as though we believe that God and Jesus are holding their hands out to introduce us to their invisible cousin, whom no one can see except for them. Invisible cousin or, perhaps, imaginary friend. 

And that's sort of the impression that we get when someone talks about the Holy Spirit. If you're not a member of a charismatic church, it's easy to get uncomfortable. If you're outside the church altogether, it's easy to think this so-called Spirit of God is just an imaginary friend that Christians have that justifies what they want to say/do/believe so that they don't have to take responsibility for it. And that just muddies it even more. 

If we cannot identify or explain the Holy Spirit, especially in His personhood, then that's what it sounds like - like this is just some idea we have so that we don't have to be responsible for our ideas. "The Spirit" made us do it. And, of course, some Christians have used Him just this way. 

On the other hand, we have Christians who believe that the Spirit is a special gift to them, that His presence in their life is something special that God has done just for them. To these Christians, the Spirit is a unique gifting, not a universal one - I have the Spirit, but you don't. They take this as a sign of God's special favor upon them. God loves them, specifically, so much that He gave them the Spirit, which is not for everyone. 

This kind of understanding comes likely out of Paul's listing of spiritual gifts, which seems to establish certain sets of gifting and it's not too difficult, if you want to do such a thing, to read the Spirit into that listing as one of the gifts. But it ignores, of course, the entirety of the New Testament witness, which was that the Holy Spirit came upon all believers at the time of their belief and therefore, it is a gift for all of us. We all have access to the person of the Holy Spirit (who is, in case we haven't mentioned it yet, a person and not some kind of phantom). 

But then, you get Christians who 'live in the Spirit' and believe everyone should be 'living in the Spirit' and believe that there's all this supernatural phenomena associated with being a 'Spirit-filled believer' and just can't give the Holy Spirit enough credit...or chastise you enough for not having more of Him in your life. Oh, ye, of little faith. 

It's complicated. Are you getting that yet? The Holy Spirit is one of those things that we just don't seem to understand well, which is perhaps because we don't see Him in the Scriptures as readily or as often as we see the persons of God and Jesus, but He's there. And that's why I want to talk about Him this week. 

(Also, okay, I am reading this book, and it's not a bad book, but it's become a touchpoint for some of the things that I want to say this week because, like anything else, the theology that we adopt about the Holy Spirit can be sound or unsound, and it can lead us to clearer or more distorted understandings of God.)

Thursday, January 7, 2021

Theology of the Heart

All of the discussion this week has been about theology proper - the academic sort of theology that academic theologians want to convince you is completely indispensable to your understanding of God as a 'layperson.' But I've said all that to say this, and I hope it is an encouragement to you:

You don't need anything special to interpret the Bible. You don't need any kind of formal education to understand how God is speaking to you. In fact, the most beautiful things we've ever learned about faith have come from the un-educated.

The Bible is full of stories of men and women who were never 'educated' in theology, except what they learned by actually encountering the living God. It is full of men and women who faced questions about who their God was or what this or that thing about Him meant and who were able to stand there and say nothing but, "I know what I know by having been loved by Him." That's it. In fact, the only 'learned' persons we find in the Bible either condemned their own learning (Paul) or were condemned by Christ (the Pharisees) because of the arrogance their learning gave them.

The Pharisees spent thousands of hours and many generations perfecting their teachings about sacrifice and giving. They knew down to the letter what they required of the faithful, what would be pleasing to God. Then Jesus comes along and says, "See this poor widow giving her last two cents? That's what sacrifice and giving are about." The Pharisees never learned that, never could learn that, in all their schooling.

Furthermore, we know that God Himself said that even those who don't know the name of the Lord still live by the heart of Him because it is written on everything in creation. Anyone who is living with open eyes can't miss the kind of God that He is because His creation reflects His glory with every cell of it. And we, who would call ourselves faithful, are simply one step beyond this, for we know the name of the Lord our God. And we have His very story to tell us more about Him. 

The most beautiful things you are ever going to learn about God are the things you will learn by loving Him and being loved by Him. Plain and simple. And you don't need any kind of academics to teach you that. In fact, it can't. Theology proper can never give you the experience of being loved by God or of loving Him. All it can give you is ideas that may be beautiful, but they pale in comparison to the glory of God in a single flower. Theology can tell you about mercy, but it can't give you shade on a sunny day. It can tell you about grace, but it will never water the dry ground with rain. 

And that's the thing that theology proper will never tell you. As much as it claims to be the authority on God, it will always, always, keep you at a distance from Him, wrapped up in ideas and dissertations and theories about theology when the very design of God, from the very beginning, was that we simply walk with Him. 

There is no theology that will lead you to carry your son up a mountain, trusting another sacrifice to be there when you need it. There is no theology that can teach you how to fall to your knees and cry out. There is no theology that can bring you to the foot of the Cross. It may show you a video tape of what it looks like to die by crucifixion, but it won't show you what love looks like falling to the ground in beads of sweat and blood. You only get that by going to the Cross yourself. And theology just never lets you do things yourself. It always keeps you an arm's length away. 

That's why you don't need it. It can be good and beautiful sometimes, but it isn't necessary. If you want to know God, all you have to do is follow Him. If you want to love God, let yourself be loved by Him. If you want to be a good and faithful follower of Christ, get to know Him. Walk with Him in the Garden, all the way to the foot of the Cross. That's how you come to know God. No formal education required. 

We started this week by saying how easy it is to think that 'theology' is only for the learned, but the truth is much, much more beautiful: theology is for the learning. It's for every one of us who would lay down our life, pick up our cross, and follow Him. 

Wednesday, January 6, 2021

Theology's Dirty Little Secret

As we continue to talk about the ways that 'professional' theology has distorted our ability to draw near to God, I'm going to let you in on a little secret. This probably won't be popular with the learned who set up these sorts of institutions to benefit or protect their held doctrines, but I'm going to say it anyway:

As someone who undertook a course of academic theology and now holds a Master's degree in divinity, all that educated theology isn't necessary. 

What I mean by that is: none of it has changed the heart of God. None of it has revealed to me that God is something other than I ever thought He was just by reading the Bible, being in fellowship with other Christians, and worshiping Him. 

Certainly, it changes some of my understandings. It deepens some of the connections that I have been able to make between God and His Word and God and His world (and mine), but diving deeper into the ocean doesn't change the saltwater that comprises it. Certainly, there are times when this theology helps me understand that God is even more loving, forgiving, compassionate, passionate, near, whatever than I could ever have imagined, but none of it has ever made me say, "Wow. Without this theology, I would have been wrong about God on that forever." 

See, the dirty little secret is that as much as we say that a formal education somehow changes our understanding of God, it really doesn't. If three guys wrote Isaiah instead of one guy, or if it wasn't the prophet Isaiah at all who wrote it, it doesn't change the things that are written there or what they reveal about God. If Moses didn't write the Moses story, that doesn't change the Moses story that God's given us.

The truth of God is not changed by our parsing it down to the every syllable. The heart of God is not changed by the tense of the Hebrew verb or the type of Greek participle. That's the great thing, that's always been the great thing, about the Word of God - it's not academic. It never has been. It's only academic now because we've made it that way, and as much as we want to say that that somehow matters, it just...doesn't. God still is who He says He is, and no matter how deep we dive in our academic study of Him, we just find the same truths we always knew. The story of God, the goodness of God, the Word of God is just not academic.

In fact, so many of the authors and professors and preachers that we know and love and love to listen to and read eventually come back to a place in their lives where they confess, they knew it all along. God is as they found Him in the very beginning, before they put a scalpel to everything about the faith. The further they go, the more they come back to the place where they started, which is where the rest of us are without academics at all. 

Some of the things that theology proper can teach us are beautiful, and it's a blessing to learn them. But the most beautiful truths about God don't need theology proper. They're already written on our hearts and on every speck of creation, right there for the taking. So never let theology proper convince you that you can't know God on your own because the truth is, that theology is just taking the long road right back around to where you already are. 

Tuesday, January 5, 2021

Theology and Diversity

Something else terrible is happening with our formalization of theology as an academic discipline - we are losing true diversity. 

We have determined what 'theology' means and what is acceptable as 'theology' and we have even spread out into the world to teach acceptable theology to those who would not otherwise have access to it and might - gasp - have to rely something so untamable as the Holy Spirit. And then, we approve only what lines up with what we're already teaching. 

Then, we go out and get voices from all of these places around the world and all of these other people groups - persons of every race, tribe, color, ethnicity, gender, culture, whatever - and we get only the voices that we've educated in our own theology, and we give them a platform. And we call it diversity, but it's not diversity. The fact that these persons look different doesn't make them theologically different. It doesn't give us a different perspective if they all came out of the same seminary and have been taught and trained to think and believe and interpret in the same way. They might put a different social context around it from the nature of being a pastor in Cincinnati versus South Africa, but the theology is safe - it's fundamentally the same and already authorized and approved because it's not their theology; it's our theology. We just put it in the mouths of those who look externally different from us, and then we called it diversity. What a sham. 

We are seeing this happen over and over again, as we are witnessing a shift in global Christianity to have its locus in the southern hemisphere. But those voices that we previously weren't listening to aren't really experiencing some kind of tremendous explosion of the Christian faith - what they are experiencing is something that we can probably relate to our concept of 'church growth.' 

What's happened is that, over the past several decades, we have expanded our seminary educations. We have broadened our outreach to other nations. We have established better and more opportunities for persons from other countries to come and learn from our theology (or, in some cases, for us to go to their countries to teach them). And then, we send these newly-educated leaders back into their communities to preach our gospel - our understanding of the Christian faith. And now that our Jesus is being preached around the world, we're taking notice.

But these peoples have always been spiritually hungry. They have always been seeking the Lord. Our current Pope is from South America - the faith has been established there for a long time. And what's been happening is that the peoples of these nations have been discovering and worshiping the Lord in their own context, far before we ever got there to teach them anything. They have been figuring out God the same way so many of our heroes of the Bible did - by living with Him. By learning something new every day about His mercies. 

And instead of listening to what they might have to teach us, we got scared that they weren't using our words for things and embarked on a campaign to give them the words...when we were oh, so close to them giving us the heart. It's been more important to us for them to know the name Jesus than to witness the heart of Him, but now that they're calling Him Jesus, we're ready to listen.

We're ready to listen to our theology come out of their mouths and then to declare how beautiful it is, when in fact, what we have done is actually to squash out so many of their truly beautiful things. 

But then, we call it diversity anyway. Because their skin is a different color than ours, even though we are not interested in their voice. Because their gender is different than ours, even though they are using our voice. Because they speak in a different language than we do, even though we've determined their words. This isn't diversity. It's not. 

We had our chance at diversity, at a real opportunity to learn from one another. And we 'educated' it away in the name of 'theology.' No wonder we never learn anything new about God. Or, for that matter, about each other. 

Monday, January 4, 2021

Nothing New Under the Sun

Every now and then, the question arises: why hasn't there been anything 'new' in Christianity since Revelation? Why does it seem like nothing is happening, like God is no longer active in the world? Is God really done speaking?

The traditional Christian answer is to say something like: well, God said everything He needed to say with the birth, death, and resurrection of Christ, and He will speak again, but only when it's time for Christ to come again. 

This answer not only rejects the notion that God is still present with His people, which He always has been and promised that He always will be; it flies in the face of the biblical witness itself, which does not end with the resurrection of Jesus but goes on into the story of the development of the church. And the story of the early church doesn't include just the apostles who were with Jesus, but even Paul - a convert to Christianity. A guy who was late to the party. 

So the traditional Christian answer leaves a lot lacking and actually creates more problems than it solves. We simply cannot accept a doctrine that says that God is now done with us until He decides to send us all to judgment. That is not how God has ever worked, and it's not how He's working now. 

But this answer allows us to cloud our own sin by wrapping it in holy language, by making it seem like it is God's doing instead of ours. Then, we don't have to answer for some of the choices that we've made and some of the ways that we've allowed our human nature to control our theology. 

Quite simply, the reason that nothing new seems to be happening in Christianity is because we educated a bunch of men (and more recently, women) in something that we called 'theology,' and now, we force everything to run through them. We take whatever God seems to be doing, and we have made a standard that it has to fit into the mold of something He's already done. And if it doesn't, we call it bunk and move on. Never mind that whole, "Behold! I am doing a new thing!" thing that He said. 

This started actually relatively early on, just a few centuries into Christian history. There were a bunch of sects developing and a bunch of persons claiming this or that of God, and it was muddying up the fundamentals of what believers needed to believe. There was a whole period in church history where council after council met to determine what was real theology and what was false prophecy, and this culminated in a meeting where the top Christians in the field (what we would call 'educated theologians' or at least, respected names among the field) determined that the canon - the story of God - was closed. In the centuries that have passed since, we have not figured out how to reopen it. 

We have not figured out how to let the story of God be developing. We have not figured out how to let God be active in our world. And it's for the same reasons that they closed the canon, except that they did it out of reaction and we do it out of fear - we're afraid that someone is going to challenge our understanding of Jesus. And we're afraid that our understanding won't hold up. 

This has been a problem forever. It's even mentioned in the New Testament. When the Pharisees are trying to figure out what to do with these Christians, they reference other movements that have come up and died out. They die out when their leaders die because there's not enough substance to them to hold them up. The Christian message didn't die out like they thought it would because, well, Jesus is like that. 

And yet, we're still afraid, two thousand years later, that it will. 

It seems, looking at our world, like the Gospel really might be in danger, like we really do have to protect it. There are so many caricatures out there of Jesus, so many false teachings that our culture not only believes, but propagates. We feel like we have to be defenders of the faith. But could it be that it's our own theology, not the world's, that is most keeping us from the Gospel itself? 

Could it be that our unwillingness to let theology develop outside of academia's walls, that our insistence that all things pass through our educated men and women, that our formalization of something that we call 'theology' is more detrimental to our faith as believers than any caricature that the world can come up with? After all, shouldn't it stand that the caricatures will fall and only the true God remain? 

How can the true God remain if we never allow Him to be present with us? How can He be our God if we're living in a period in which He is not doing anything, except preparing judgment for us? It doesn't make sense. 

Yet, that's what our 'theology' gets us. 

Saturday, January 2, 2021

Theology Proper

There's something in us that wants to believe that we can understand the Bible, that God really is speaking to us through its pages. But something terrible has happened to Christianity (and, sadly, it is spreading to too many parts of the world) that has convinced us that yes, the Bible is speaking to us, but we need someone more educated than we are to understand what it is saying. 

Or to put it in other terms, God is speaking in tongues, and we need an interpreter. 

The notion of Christian interpretation has become a huge cultural phenomenon within the church. We invest big money in our experts, attempting to train our pastors and professors and turn them into what we call 'theologians,' or, basically, interpreters for God. We then endow them with the authority to tell us what God has to say for our lives as though they are some kind of prophets when, in fact, we do not expect them at all any longer to be led by the Spirit, but by their academic foundations. 

And they, in turn, feed this right back to us, using the jargon and the information that they've learned through 'higher education' to create a sort of barrier between us and our God, to justify the walls that we're building between us. They tell us things that we never knew about the Bible, and they say them in such a way that it sounds like it's supposed to matter. Like it's supposed to change something fundamental about the Word of God. 

Things like...the book of Isaiah probably wasn't written just by the prophet; there might be as many as three authors of Isaiah floating around. Or things like...the Pentateuch (a fancy word for the first five books of the Bible - again, a mark of education meant to make us feel like we need someone's help understanding the Scriptures) may not have been written by Moses. Or things like...have you ever seen the similarities between Genesis 1-3 and the creation myths from other religions?

It's stuff like this that keeps most Christians afraid to even open the Bible. It makes them feel intimidated just looking at the words of it. Throw into that all of these authorities that try to tell us which version of the Bible we should be reading, which for so long was the KJV or even the NKJV - translations that are usually written in a kind of language nobody actually speaks - and we're left wondering if God is really speaking to us at all. 

He's speaking to them, sure. But can we build a faith on a word that God has given to someone else?

And so, we come to believe that as 'regular' human beings, as 'average' Christians, the Bible isn't really for us. We can't possibly understand it. We cannot know, reasonably, what it means. And we turn over our faith into the hands of others who cloud it in so many other things that we don't understand (Greek, Hebrew, chiasms, parallel constructions, myths and metaphors and so on) that we're thankful that someone speaks God because honestly, we never could. 

It keeps us distanced from our own faith, and it convinces us to stay there. It keeps us dependent upon our pastors and professors, who are supposed to be making disciples of Christ but cannot help but make disciples of themselves because we are so desperate for their learnedness. And it makes us question anything that we come up with on our own, anything that the Spirit Himself whispers into our hearts. We read a passage, get an inspired understanding of it that could change our entire lives, and then we go seeking the expert opinion because, hey, we can't do theology and find out, no. It doesn't mean that. And then we get a history lesson and a semantics lesson and all of these other thoughts as to why something that struck so deeply into our heart...was a lie. 

Not only was it a lie, it was a human construction. It was us lying to ourselves. It was us being too desperate, they say. Too needy. Too 'undiscerning,' to put it in church language. And then the church just sort of shakes its head at us, and we shake our head at ourselves. Oh, how frail we are. How foolish! 

And then, here we are again, with a faith dependent upon a translator and a Word of God that is clearly not spoken to us, trying to hold onto what we know and what we want to believe but what far out of reach. At least, for most of us. 

But it's not really. 

All of the academics that we've put around theology proper, it's just a show. It's smoke and mirrors. It's our culture crept in upon our souls, and it's damning. I want to talk this week about some of the ways that this thinking about theology - that it is an academic discipline reserved for the learned and not for regular yokels like most of us - has a dramatic impact on our faith and our culture and then, hopefully, end the week on an encouraging note for those of us who want to believe that we can understand the Bible, that God really is speaking to us through its pages. (Spoiler alert: we can, and He is.)