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The Missional Jackass

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The Missional Church: I love you and I hate you! Ever since I read Darrell L. Guder’s book in 2004, I’ve been undone. It ruined me forever. It’s nearly on par with the night I read the story of the rich young ruler in my college dorm room and knew I had to leave behind my visions of worldly riches and esteem to follow Jesus into the unknown venture of vocational ministry.

In college, God radically flipped my paradigms. I went from attending church to being trained up to lead, teach, and share my faith with others. I went from consuming church offerings to being the church. It was thrilling, scary, invigorating—the Holy Spirit was palpable. Leaving college I knew that was the dynamic movement I was called to bring to the church. Every believer a priest. Every saint sent to bring Jesus to the world around them.

I left my time in college on fire to train others to do what I did. Then I worked for an institutional church in Southern California. Church wasn’t a movement designed to equip people to be the church where they lived, worked, and played. Sometimes it felt like the overall goal was simply to exist, or to be better than last year.

I was on staff at seven churches between between age 20 and 30. Each church was different; the people were beautiful. God used each environment to grow and challenge me, but I was always frustrated by the overall goal of the church. It was like nobody believed the average person could make disciples or even tell their neighbors about Jesus. It seemed like the church was only interested in providing religious services. And the people were only interested in attending them.

Eventually I landed where I am now: a small-to-mid-sized church in the suburbs. This time I was the Lead Pastor, so I could make the changes I longed to see. We eliminated programs and redeveloped systems. We called people to higher expectations of disciplemaking and missional living. We changed a lot. We are still changing a lot.

In all the change, through all the prayers, we saw a lot of fruit. Leadership stepping into their call as disciplemakers, people hosting parties and dinners in their homes for the community, the gospel being shared by “average” church people. There have been many highlights over the last decade.

There are many who caught the vision, but there are many more who didn’t. Those who didn’t ended up leaving and going to other churches because the preaching was better, the children’s ministry more dynamic, the youth group larger, the expectation less, the worship more powerful, etc. Many people drifted to the mega churches and the institutional churches: the thing I was fighting so hard to be distinct from.

Here comes the jackassery. When people reject your leadership, when they don’t want to go where you are going, and you need to continue to lead, it is tremendously difficult not to vilify everyone else.

When people reject your leadership, when they don’t want to go where you are going, and you need to continue to lead, it is tremendously difficult not to vilify everyone else.

In order to lead, you have to fight for something. Leadership requires the sacrifice of untold hours, heartache, tears, and prayers. You absolutely need to believe that the sacrifice is worth it. So you create the enemy, you create in your mind who the problem people are. My enemies became mega churches and everyone willing to settle for church as usual. I thought—and often still think—very jackassy things about them. It’s not right.

The bad guys were everyone who was satisfied with sermons and youth programs and rock n roll over disciple-making. The enemy was all the churches and the places that provided these consumer services. They produced programs I didn’t care about, with resources I could never ever imagine having. But the people I ministered to cared about these things. Often, they chose them over me.

For some, you are fighting for doctrinal integrity, Reformed Theology, reaching lost people, or miraculous signs. Anyone who is not fighting with you is settling for something lesser.

Honestly, it’s hard to fight for something that matters without becoming a jackass.

I’ve dedicated 15 years of blood, sweat and tears to developing a missional ministry, and I feel only mildly successful at it. I still believe in it with the same tenacity I felt the first day I read Guder’s book. But I’m more jaded now. I used to believe that the idea itself was so compelling that if we only tried it, the masses would flock to join. Not the case.

Much as I believe in missional church, I’m tired of vilifying and scoffing and rolling my eyes at people who don’t.

If I can’t be missional without being an ass, then something is seriously wrong. I’m not better because I’m convicted to do church a certain way. I’m just a guy serving Jesus in a mission field packed with a radically diverse methods. Honestly, I throw up a little bit in my mouth every time I see a mega church raffle off a car at Easter. But it doesn’t mean they are bad or that they are not key players in God’s plan and kingdom.

God has spoken through asses, he has used prophets and burning bushes. He has used house churches, institutional churches, Orthodox, Catholic, Protestant, Augustine, Calvin, Luther, Luther King Jr., Whitfield, Evans, and Bell. He has drawn thousands to himself through tent revivals and crusades, miraculous healings, and intellectual ivory towers. He has used simple preachers like Billy Graham and philosophical scholars like Soren Kierkegaard. He uses all of these people. Their methods are so different. Their ways all unique, but something tells me their methods where never the point.

In Hebrews 11, so many different people are highlighted, and in every case what mattered was simply their faith to hear and respond. What mattered was their courage to act on the Holy Spirit’s conviction for them in that place and at that time.

Can you say this with me: I’m not the only one doing ministry the right way. If I have even a modicum of success it isn’t because I figured out the perfect formula, it is because the Holy Spirit decided this time to do something special.

The method is never the answer. God is.

Being missional is my method. Often I’m a missional jackass. What’s yours?

The Weary Jackass

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When God at first made man,
Having a glass of blessings standing by,
Let us (said he) pour on him all we can:
Let the world’s riches, which dispersed lie,
Contract into a span.

So strength first made a way;
Then beauty flowed, then wisdom, honour, pleasure:
When almost all was out, God made a stay,
Perceiving that alone of all his treasure
Rest in the bottom lay.

For if I should (said he)
Bestow this jewel also on my creature,
He would adore my gifts instead of me,
And rest in Nature, not the God of Nature:
So both should losers be.

Yet let him keep the rest,
But keep them with repining restlessness:
Let him be rich and weary, that at least,
If goodness lead him not, yet weariness
May toss him to my breast.


– “The Pulley,” George Herbert, 1633

I was recently struck by this little poem from the 17th century English poet George Herbert, pointed in its direction by the modern American poet Christian Wiman (whose work you have to read).

It’s the concept of weariness that stands out to me.

“We’re all wearily doing the best we can. We are all falling short of someone’s expectations, including our own. We can choose then to be a jackass to someone else, or to let that weariness lead us to find Rest.”

I have had the sense for some time now that we’re all wearily doing the best we can. Every one of us is falling short of what we want for ourselves, what others want and demand of us, and what God seems to be calling us to. I regularly fall into a space where I’m not necessarily depressed, not necessarily sinning, but definitely feeling as though I’m letting everyone down. I’m never doing enough for my family, for my congregation, for my friends, my neighbors, myself. It’s not always despair, but it’s an awful feeling.

I don’t believe I’m wrong in these situations. Certainly I’m choosing not to see the mountain of blessings and victories that stand all around me and in my not-so-distant past. But I can always point to many failings.

I feel so dang tired in these moments. And it’s here, in this space, that Herbert’s poem speaks to me. I don’t think he’s angling for theological precision (we shouldn’t need this reminder regarding poetry, but…). I think he’s making a profound point about the human experience. And saying something vital about God.

This echoes truth found throughout the Bible and throughout Christian history. It sounds an awful lot like Solomon in Ecclesiastes:

“All things are full of weariness;
a man cannot utter it;
the eye is not satisfied with seeing,
nor the ear filled with hearing.”

– Ecclesiastes 1:8

It also nods to the appropriateness of the promise in Hebrews that “there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God, for whoever has entered God’s rest has also rested from his works as God did from his” (Heb. 4:9–10). And Augustine’s famous statement in his Confessions: “You have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.”

“You have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.” -Augustine

We are tired. In our exhaustion, we bite and devour one another. This is not okay. But it’s certainly comprehensible. I wonder how much of our jackassery could be eased if we found true rest? All of the judgment we receive and are afraid to receive. All of the preemptive lashing out we perpetrate in pursuit of at least partial self-protection. All of the insecurity and distrust and bad faith. How much of this stems from our weary striving? From feeling hard-done-by? From feeling pulled apart and harassed?

“Let him be rich and weary, that at least,
If goodness lead him not, yet weariness
May toss him to my breast.”

What if we could reclaim our weariness? Lead us not into jackassery but deliver us from evil. If God’s good gifts are not always enough to lead us to his presence, to lead us to enjoy his world and the people he has made, then perhaps weariness will toss us back to Jesus, the true source of rest. The one who stands content in Christ does not need to prove himself. The one who sees in her weariness a need that only Jesus can fulfill will not try to deny, diminish, or deflect the pain of weariness by lashing out.

Exhaustion may be the impulse we need to return to the place we belong. And this seems to be by design. Why else would God have established a rhythm of work and Sabbath rest? Why else would he create bodies that require sleep? Why else would he continually call us to find rest in him?

“Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”

– Matthew 11:28

Have Fewer Opinions

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You have too many. That’s just my opinion, of course. But I’m serious about it. I know because I have too many opinions. I actually feel obligated to have more opinions than I do.

Do you ever feel this pull to be more opinionated about more topics?

In their dated but insightful book How to Watch TV News, Neil Postman and Steve Powers landed a thought that felt so freeing to read:

“Reduce by one third the number of opinions you feel obligated to have. One of the reasons many people are addicted to watching TV news is that they feel under pressure to have an opinion about almost everything.”

– Neil Postman & Steve Powers, How to Watch TV News, 1993

Depending on your age, you may need to swap out “social media” for “TV news,” but the point works either way.

I have read so many stinking articles on the Mueller report: what he’s trying to say in it, why he said what he did and why he left out what he left out, whether or not Barr was accurate in his summary, and why every single writer’s take on it is the most important thing in the world. I keep feeling this pressure like I need to know! But I don’t.

The problem is bigger than social media. As a pastor, whenever I’m talking to someone in a struggling marriage or in a difficult parenting situation, or even when I’m talking to a recent high school or college graduate, I warn them: Listen, you’re going to have to figure out what God is calling you to do here. But you should also know that a lot of people are going to share their opinions with you about what you should do. Most of them mean well, but most of these opinions will not be helpful.

What is it that makes us feel like we have to have an opinion about what other people should be doing? What do you think about the Mueller report? What’s your cap for how much a pastor should spend on shoes? Who should be watching Game of Thrones? And coming soon to everything you’ll see, hear, read, and watch for an entire year: who should become (or stay) the next President?

“Can I ask you to give up the opinions you’ve done almost zero research on or to stop posting on the issues you think you know about just because someone ranted about it on Facebook?”

It’s not uncommon for me to scroll through Twitter and see several statements like, “If you’re a pastor and you don’t speak out on ______ this week, then you’re part of the problem.” Or some variation thereof. It’s hard to read that and not think, Oh shoot, yeah, maybe I should say something about that. But I don’t know a ton about that thing. I’d better learn about it real quick so I can share my opinion.

What if we really did try to hold 33% fewer opinions? Honestly, think of how many opinions you find yourself expressing that you’ve done almost zero research on. Think of the issues you think you know about just because someone ranted about it on Facebook. Think of the people you don’t know very well but about whom you have a pretty strong opinion. Maybe we could let all of those opinions go.

Wouldn’t it be amazing if the only opinions we held were hard-earned? If we tried to use phrases like “I’m not sure” or “I haven’t looked into that” or “I could be wrong here” when speaking about issues where we haven’t sought out multiple voices and read multiple articles and done some real soul-searching and engaged in some respectful dialogue? You’ll all be fine—better, actually—without my lazy, ill-informed take on the Mueller report. What opinions could you spare your friends, family, and the online community?

I fully acknowledge that there is such a thing as a Silent Jackass, and I am often that guy. Sometimes we need to roll up our sleeves and learn about someone else’s struggle so we can help. Don’t let some vague pressure force you into these opinions, let love for real people pull you in. Loving your neighbor will mean understanding what her experience is like. And that takes time. But if it’s time you’re invested in loving someone, it’s worth it.

Can we give this a try? It might help with how awful and heated and shallowly divisive things have been lately. But truly, that’s just my opinion.

Watchdog Theology

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Be careful who you associate with. Stay away from those people—and teachers in particular—who are spreading dangerous doctrine. It would be great if everyone stuck to biblical truth, but that’s not the case, so we have to be ready to break company with those who are outside the bounds of orthodoxy.

It’s clearly good advice—it’s biblical after all—and we all believe it.

But Jesus didn’t. 

In his day, Jesus was accused of being morally loose. Why? Because he hung out with people who were morally loose (Matt. 11:19). He “associated with” them. Jesus was pretty strong against the Pharisees for being false teachers, but he didn’t shun them. We see Jesus eating in their homes (Luke 14) and meeting with them for theological discussion (John 3).

“Jesus didn’t divide the way we do. He wasn’t afraid of who he was seen with or who others would assume he was partnering with. Yet this drives much of Evangelicalism.”

Bottom line: Jesus didn’t do the kind of dividing we tend to feel is our biblical obligation. He said strong things to people, but he wasn’t afraid of who he was seen with or who other people would assume he was forging partnerships and sharing a lifestyle with. Yet this drives much of Evangelicalism.

I’ve seen Romans 16:17 flying around recently as a warning against associating with people who teach false doctrine:

I appeal to you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught; avoid them. For such persons do not serve our Lord Christ, but their own appetites, and by smooth talk and flattery they deceive the hearts of the naive. For your obedience is known to all, so that I rejoice over you, but I want you to be wise as to what is good and innocent as to what is evil.

Pretty straightforward, right? But read it again. It doesn’t at all say what I’ve always assumed it says. Paul isn’t telling us to divide from people who disagree with us theologically. What does he say? He tells us to avoid people who cause divisions and create obstacles! I don’t see how to take this other than as a warning against the very people who are constantly warning usabout people who teach different doctrine. Am I missing something? Or is that just what it says?

Some of the watchdog theologians I have read seem to be experts in identifying dangerous doctrine or doctrine that may not seem terrible in itself but that leads down a dangerous path. I wonder what this means in connection to Paul’s statement to “be wise as to what is good and innocent as to what is evil.” Is this just Paul’s way of saying focus on the positive?

The truth is, I have been this watchdog theologian. If you had mentioned Rick Warren in my presence several years ago, I would have given you several reasons why his ministry was deficient. Dangerous even. Guess how many of Rick Warren’s sermons I had heard or how many of his books I had read? Zero. I literally knew nothing about him firsthand, but I was in this watchdog culture that taught me that he was dangerous. 

So I barked along. 

I’ve been devastated when friends turned charismatic. I no longer considered them ministry partners. I’ve prayed for friends who identified themselves as—dare I say it?—Arminian. 

I followed many in my watchdog crowd in taking shots at the “Emerging Church”—even years after it stopped existing in recognizable form. I can’t tell you how many books I’ve read just because I knew I would disagree with themand wanted to be able to warn people about the dangers therein. 

I am the watchdog theologian. I still have this knee-jerk impulse to bark at certain groups.

“In my former life, warnings against false teaching were infinitely more important than calls to unity. But I completely missed how much the New Testament emphasizes unity.”

But I’m beginning to see that some of the passages I’ve used to justify this approach don’t say what I thought they said. I’m beginning to see that unity is a FAR bigger deal in the New Testament than I ever would have imagined. In my former life, the warnings against false teaching were infinitely more important than admonitions to be unified. I’d make statements like, “There can’t be any unity without the truth.” I was being a jackass. 

I don’t know how it all works. I’m still learning, processing, and discussing. But I know unity is worth working toward. And for the first time in my life I’m trying to take seriously Paul’s warning to avoid those who cause divisions.  

Rachel Held Evans & the Fight Against Jackassery

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Most of you know that Rachel Held Evans died late last week. Tragedy is not a strong enough word. If you’re not familiar with Rachel and her work, just go to Twitter and search for #becauseofRHE. It’ll tell you everything you need to know. Actually, that’s really all you need to know, you don’t need to waste your time reading this post. I’m not qualified to say anything about what her life and work meant. I’ve read one of her books (I started a second today), several of her blog posts, and I’ve followed her on Twitter for several years. That’s it. But I’ve seen enough to know that aside from the fact that we’re all jackasses, Rachel Held Evans was about as un-jackass as they come. And so much of her ministry was devoted to fighting jackassery. We have a lot to learn from what she spent her short life embodying.

Rachel took a lot of crap on Twitter. A LOT. She brought it on herself, but not at all in the way we usually use that phrase. I just mean that she was not afraid to make herself a target for angry, hateful people. In my experience, gracious, patient, loving people don’t intentionally step into intense conflict. Rachel was unique in that as far as I can tell. Brian Zahnd said it well when he tweeted, “It’s going to be weird coming to Twitter and not see[ing] what bear Rachel Held Evans is poking next” (@BrianZahnd). He meant that with so much respect. The day she passed he had tweeted, “Christianity has a long history of vigorous debate. But at the end of the day we belong to the body of Christ. Rachel Held Evans was an important interlocutor in our ongoing debate. Today she finished her race.”

There are exactly zero people with whom I agree on everything (which I’m sure is a type of jackass—I’ll have to start writing that post!). Rachel was one of the all people with whom I had disagreements. But I learned a lot from her writing; I was constantly challenged to think and rethink. And my grief at the loss of Rachel and my massive admiration for her are bigger than the way she made me think. I think I’ve been most inspired by the way she loved in the midst of debate.

I’ve seen Rachel take on some of the biggest bullies on Twitter. I can’t imagine how terrifying it must have been to stand up to people who called her horrible things and used Bible verses to shout hate at her. And these are people with thousands of followers eager to do the same. Yet she set what God put on her heart in a gracious but firm way and didn’t allow herself to be pushed around. In doing this, she earned the respect of people across the theological spectrum. For example, she would push back on Russell Moore from time to time (btw, NOT one of the bullies I just mentioned), but the interactions were constructive. After her death, one of his expressions of respect for Rachel was, “Let’s not conform to the pattern of this vicious social—Darwinian age. Let’s kindle kindness, even (especially!) for those outside our tribal silos” (@drmoore). Beth Moore (another conservative Moore), tweeted out, “Thinking what it was about @rachelheldevans that could cause many on other sides of issues to take their hats off to her in her death. People are run rife with grief for her babies, yes. But also I think part of it is that, in an era of gross hypocrisy, she was alarmingly honest” (@BethMooreLPM).

Shane Claiborne (@ShaneClaiborne) tweeted this quote from Rachel, and it seems an excellent summary of what she embodied for so many people from so many different traditions: “Imagine if every church became a place where everyone is safe, but no one is comfortable.” She kept people from making loud but lazy assertions and pushed us all to think more carefully and love more sacrificially.

So much of Rachel’s fight was for the dignity of marginalized people. She was tireless in fighting to see women, the LGBT community, and people of color empowered, treated with respect, given space for their voices to be heard, etc. To many people, Rachel became a sort of online pastor. She gave them so much love, encouragement, and truth through her public voice, but I’ve also heard so many stories of her reaching out personally to encourage and assist and strengthen. That’s a pastor in the truest sense, and it’s all the more impressive because she was able to do it through an online platform that most find impersonal and dehumanizing. She brought love and humanity to debates that had become dehumanized, to platforms that had become loveless, and to people who had been dismissed and mistreated their entire lives.

“Rachel Held Evans was a pastor in the truest sense, and it’s all the more impressive because she was a pastor through an online platform that most find impersonal and dehumanizing.”

Audrey Assad gave one of the most powerful statements I’ve read yet about Rachel’s impact: “I find myself praying and hoping that @rachelheldevans’ severest critics will read #becauseofRHE and see the garden she tended, the fruit it has borne, the way it has flowered in the world” (@audreyassad). I literally tear up at the thought of someone saying something like that about me when I’m gone. Her impact, ultimately, was “the garden she tended.” She was a generative person (in the rich sense of Makoto Fujimura’s Culture Care concept). She was a culture maker (in the rich sense of Andy Crouch’s Culture Making concept). She loved persistently and modeled inspiring debate on important issues, even while aggressively loving the people affected by those debates. She’s an amazing model for me of what it looks like to fight jackassery. It’s tragic that she’s gone. We’ll all have to carry the work forward in as Rachel-like a manner as we can muster.

When Can I Be A Jackass?

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Since we launched Jackass Theology, the question has come in many different forms: When is it okay to argue with someone over theology? Should we ever confront people with heretical views?

It’s an important question. Here are 5 quick things to consider:

1. Diversity and Disagreement Are Wonderful

Diversity is wonderful. Diversity is necessary. Diversity inherently means that we will passionately disagree. Disagreement is not the problem. No matter how much we try to get others to see from our perspective, many won’t. So disagreement is ALWAYS ALLOWED. In fact, I will say: disagreement should be celebrated. It means that we are exactly as God intended us to be: DIVERSE. Disagreeing with someone doesn’t make us jackasses, it’s how we treat people when we disagree.

2. The Holy Spirit Is Better than Jesus

Those are Jesus’ words. He said that it was better for the Holy Spirit to lead his disciples than for him to continue to lead the disciples (John 16:7). That’s kind of important. If I give you a rule or law about when it is okay to argue and when it is not, without a doubt there will be a million little exceptions to the rule. (Just look in the English language: I before E, EXCEPT after C…) So the minute we make a rule, we then need to talk about all the exceptions, which shows us the shortcoming of law in general. The New Testament is all about how the living Spirit is better than the law, and even better than Jesus being our homeboy. Law is limited. Law can protect. Law can be a tutor, but law is not life.

So when must I confront, wrong thinking? Bottom line: There is no rule. We must come to trust the Holy Spirit in doing our best to be like Jesus in each and every situation.

Turn to Galatians 5 and look at the works of the flesh (jealousy, division, strife, etc.). Compare those to the fruit of the Spirit (love, joy, peace, etc.). If love, peace, and joy demand that you carefully and lovingly speak up, and the Holy Spirit is prompting you to say something, by all means, DO IT (Paul did; so did Jesus). But make certain it is because you love the person, and not because they are offensive to you, or because you are putting yourself in a place of superiority. LOVE LISTENS—A LOT. 

3. Jesus Confronted Religious Hypocrisy

Most of Jesus’ confrontations dealt with the fact that dead religion had failed to bring life to the people of God. Jesus confronted all the things that get in the way of our absolute surrender to him and the Kingdom.

A guiding metaphor in the Gospels is that of a tree. Israel was like a tree, once alive, but so much of their religious systems and practices caused them to miss the heart of God, and ultimately the Messiah. Jesus came to prune the dead religion. When he confronted religious leaders, he was bringing new life by tearing down what was dead.

“When you see RELIGION taking the place of SPIRITUAL LIFE, I believe we have a mandate to lovingly challenge the dead things we have allowed to take the place of a vital, passionate, dynamic relationship with God.”

So when you see RELIGION taking the place of SPIRITUAL LIFE, I believe we have a mandate to lovingly challenge the dead things we have allowed to take the place of a vital, passionate, dynamic relationship with God.  (Bruxy Cavey (@bruxy) has a tremendous book on this subject, called The End of Religion. Read it!)

4. Paul Wrote to Churches that Were Losing the Gospel

Paul regularly wrote to churches at risk of losing the Gospel. This is a great model of when to speak up. But the call is to protect the simple heart of the Gospel. Jesus died for your sin. Everyone who believes is included. DO NOT ADD YOUR CULTURAL PREFERENCES TO IT! This is what the Jews and Gentiles did and it created unnecessary rifts. Paul called churches back to the Gospel as a means of restoring unity rather than creating more factions. 

5. “Who Is My Neighbor” Is a Jackass Question

In Luke 10, when a lawyer was trying to weasel his way out of Jesus’ command to love his neighbor, he asked: “Who is my Neighbor?” He wanted there to be an exception. 

“We often ask questions like ‘Who is my neighbor’ or ‘When am I allowed to confront people’ to get out of the high call to love EVERYBODY, prodigal and Pharisee alike.”

The better question is: “What does love demand of me?” Sometimes love demands some difficult conversations. Sometimes love demands confrontation. But in every single situation love demands patience, kindness, and self-control. In every case, love means always hoping, always trusting, always persevering. If you’re tempted to think of this route as a copout, consider Paul’s statement: “love never fails” (1 Cor. 13:8).

Even Trump Has the Spirit

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According to John Calvin, even Donald Trump has the Spirit. And that goes for Mussolini, Mueller, and Ronald McDonald.

If you’re thinking, “I thought only Christians have the Spirit,” keep reading. Calvin doesn’t completely disagree with that sentence, but he has an important clarification.

The problem we’re trying to address here is that we can all be jackasses. This leads us to dismiss and demean other human beings. We have this hard-wired tendency to equate the Spirit with ourselves and the people who are very similar to us. It’s easy to see the Spirit of God working in someone who is all about the things you’re all about. But what happens when the Spirit is working outside of the boundaries you carefully maintain?

John Calvin insisted that we ought to learn from and appreciate the insights and skills of everyone around us. This goes for those you admire and those you don’t. It goes for Christians and non-Christians. This is a bit surprising, perhaps, given Calvin’s emphasis on human depravity. But he insists that the knowledge and abilities of human beings—including unbelievers—are gifts they received from the Spirit:

“Whenever we come upon these matters [skill and understanding] in secular writers, let that admirable light of truth shining in them teach us that the mind of man, though fallen and perverted from its wholeness, is nevertheless clothed and ornamented with God’s excellent gifts. If we regard the Spirit of God as the sole fountain of truth, we shall neither reject the truth itself, nor despise it wherever it shall appear, unless we wish to dishonor the Spirit of God. For by holding the gifts of the Spirit in slight esteem, we contemn [deride, demean, blaspheme] and reproach the Spirit himself.”

– John Calvin
“If the Spirit is the sole fountain of truth, we shall not despise the truth wherever it appears, unless we wish to dishonor the Spirit. For by holding his gifts in slight esteem, we blaspheme the Spirit.” – John Calvin

Did you catch that? Not only do we need to acknowledge that everyone—including non-Christians—have “that admirable light of truth shining in them,” but we had better be careful to heed and appreciate their insights lest we blaspheme the Spirit. Jesus told us that anyone who speaks against him will be forgiven, but the unforgivable sin is “blaspheming against the Holy Spirit” (Luke 12:10). There’s debate about what that means, but let’s agree it’s a strong warning. John Calvin isn’t Jesus, but in this passage, he’s connecting the demeaning of another person’s gifts with the unforgivable sin.

“We cannot read the writings of the ancients on these subjects [law, philosophy, medicine, and math] without great admiration. We marvel at them because we are compelled to recognize how preeminent they are. But shall we count anything praiseworthy or noble without recognizing at the same time that it comes from God? Let us be ashamed of such ingratitude, into which not even the pagan poets fell, for they confessed that the gods had invented philosophy, laws, and all useful arts.”

– John Calvin
“Shall we count anything praiseworthy or noble without recognizing at the same time that it comes from God? Let us be ashamed of such ingratitude.” – John Calvin

The word “ingratitude” is important. Calvin is saying that the Spirit of God has placed many gifts all around you. He is trying to show something to you, to give something to you. So when you look at what another person has to offer and refuse it (often in the name of being “spiritual” or “biblical”), you are being a g*sh d@rn ingrate.

If the Spirit is the source of the engineer’s knowledge and skill, the artist’s aesthetic sensibilities and prophetic voice, and the philosopher’s quest for the truth, then we had better admire what we see, receive, and learn. Regardless of whether or not you agree with that person theologically. Regardless of the degree of heresy or paganism you associate with them.

We’ll all have to apply this to whatever people we have a hard time with. As an example and a confession, I have a hard time with Donald Trump (hence the title). It’s okay for me to disagree with many of his policies and be grieved by many of his tweets. But if I treat him as less than human and dismiss everything about him, I’m the one resisting the Spirit. And I don’t want to be that kind of jackass. Who do you need to apply Calvin’s quote to?

If we fail to rejoice in the beauty and truth created and taught by the people around us, then Calvin tells us to be ashamed of our ungrateful selves. The “pagans” don’t even demean the Spirit in this way because they see a divine source behind these good things.

When you talk to a person who is very different than you—even someone you might be tempted to view as an enemy on some front—can you still hear the voice of the Spirit? If not, you demean the Spirit of God, from whom all of God’s good and perfect gifts flow. Don’t be an ingrate. Glorify God for all of the truth and beauty that his Spirit has brought into this world from all sides.

The Feast

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Scripture says it in many ways, but basically, God is calling you to join him at the table for a meal. After all the heartbreak and rebellion and doubts and struggle, the Bible ends with a picture of God’s people joining him for a marriage feast. But even now, the table is open. God’s work in this world consists of drawing us in to sit and eat.

In Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:22–32), one son runs off to spend his portion of his inheritance while the other son stays at home with their father. When the young prodigal returns home in shame, the father runs to embrace and restore him, while the older brother pouts outside and refuses to join the party his father throws to celebrate the son’s return.

We tend to focus on the sons in this story, but we should ask: What is the father’s goal for each of his sons? To get them to sit down together with him at the table. What are each of the sons resisting in their own way? Sitting down for the family meal.

Why the table?

It’s a place of celebration. A place of relationship. A place of healing. Of mutuality. Of equality. Grace. Blessing.

The two sons are invited to join their father at a table. Not a classroom. Not a temple. What the father was after was not education or ritual. He was after relationship. It wasn’t about what they could offer. It was about them.

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When we are able to get past the madness that drives us to the far country in search of pleasure or significance or autonomy, we can set aside all of our shame and come back to the father just as we are. In these moments, we know we simply belong. As is. We can stop trying to live large or make a name for ourselves. Stop running from the relationship we know deep down will be the purest and most meaningful we will ever experience.

The father is calling: “Come home. Join me at the table. It’s time to celebrate.”

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When we are able to release our outrage that the prodigal has returned, to stop demanding penance or some positive contribution from our brothers who have failed, we can set aside all of our self-righteousness and come back to the father just as we are. In these moments, we know that we and all of our siblings belong at the table. There is no one we want to see excluded. We acknowledge that the table was made for this. We let go of our longing to celebrate accomplishments and we long to celebrate people. We see beyond the costumes and affectations and affiliations of our brothers and we simply see them. And our love for them leads us to first accept the father’s invitation to the table, and then to stand beside him as he invites the prodigal.

The father is calling: “Come home. Join me at the table. It’s time to celebrate.”

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Jesus ate his way through the Gospels. We often find him at a table. With people who are celebrating life (John 2), with all sorts of “sinners” (Luke 5, 19), and with his followers (Luke 22, 24). Jesus even ate with Pharisees (Luke 11, 14), which means he did not bar anyone from the table, though some meals were more awkward than others.

“God’s work in this world consists of drawing us in to sit and eat. You’re invited. But eating means celebrating that everyone is at the table again.”

The table is vital because a meal is more than a meal. It’s a celebration of the relationship. The meal is the relationship—the relationship takes place around the table.

You’re invited. But eating means celebrating. And actually, the feast is a celebration that everyone is at the table again. You don’t get to celebrate only yourself or only your favorites. The feast flows out of the father’s joy—we get to share in his joy. And his joy is over the gathering of all his children, including the ones who have not cleaned themselves up and those who nearly refused to come because of their disgust over the guest list. They all belong at this table. Celebrating means eating and drinking together. As equals. It’s more than a handshake or contract. It’s a party. The point is to enjoy being together.

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The meal continues at our tables. There we meet with Jesus still as we join with older and younger brothers to celebrate the relationship. How different would the Church look today if instead of whispered gossipy exchanges we actually sat down at a table, looked each other in the eyes, and enjoyed the relationship? Celebrated it?

The feast will happen with or without us. The question is whether our disapproval of the guest list will keep us from joining our brothers. And our father.

Jackass by Association

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Being a pastor in a denominational church has great benefits. It also offers unique opportunities for jackassery. My favorite thing about our denomination right now is pastoral cohorts that Ryan and I are a part of. A few times each year we’ve been flying across the country to join other pastors in our denomination for training, encouragement, and support. These times have been rich and ministry-shaping.

But it struck me on one of our trips that in order to meet with these pastors, we were driving past hundreds of churches in our immediate area, then flying over thousands upon thousands more. We have a connection with a handful of pastors across the country through our denomination. And that’s great.

But I wonder: Does it make sense that we partner with churches who share a doctrinal statement rather than churches that share a mission field?

“Does it make sense that we partner with churches who share a doctrinal statement rather than churches that share a mission field?”

I’m not talking about smoothing over real differences or pretending like theology doesn’t matter. The mission of the church I’m part of will be very different than the mission of a church that worships Zeus, for example. Differences make partnership difficult. And partnership can only happen if each party avoids selling out what they’re passionately committed to.

But associating only with churches in my denomination, I’m skipping over several churches whose doctrinal statements are virtually identical to mine. To the unchurched, our churches would be indistinguishable except perhaps for the size of the congregation.

I don’t have a great answer for this, but I’d love to see churches join together around a common mission and “mission field” to AT LEAST the same degree we partner with denominations, associations, and coalitions.

I actually feel blessed in this area right now. I meet monthly with a few of my counterparts in nearby churches. Ryan does the same. We share ideas, problems, and resources. We pray for each other. Our churches aren’t doing a ton of events together, but it’s clear we’re on the same team, clear that we’re rooting for each other.

To be clear, I’m NOT saying that denominations or associations are bad. I find real benefit in ours. I’m NOT saying that individual churches shouldn’t be distinct. Each church must pursue its unique calling. I’m also NOT arguing against valuing doctrinal agreement. I wish we had more. And here’s the big one: I’m NOT saying I have any of this figured out.

What I AM saying is that prioritizing an association over a mission is dangerous. At best, it misses the point. At worst, it compromises the purpose of the Church’s existence. Choosing to work with people who formulate their theology exactly as we do rather than with people who are actively loving the same people we are seems wrong. It seems like a jackass move.

“Prioritizing an association over a mission is dangerous. At best, it misses the point. At worst, it compromises the purpose of the Church’s existence.”

It’s easy to get along with people who think like you do. It’s easy to be “unified” when your only contact is gathering to talk about the things you already agree on. It’s not bad, but it’s not full-fledged unity. It’s not an all-out pursuit of the mission. At least, not if that’s all it is.

It’s often harder to love someone living in your town than someone across the country. But which matters more? Should I feel accomplished because I’m able to love the pastor in Texas who believes what I believe, teaches the way I teach, and reads all the same books I read? That’s easy. How much better to love the pastor down the street who has different emphases, different style, but is trying to bless the same neighborhood I’m trying to bless? (When I type it out, it all seems so obvious. Should I be embarrassed to be writing this like it’s some kind of realization? Has it been obvious to everyone but me this entire time?)

It’s not the associations that makes us jackasses. It’s the tendency to hide in echo chambers rather than partnering with the people who are around us. I’m not going to stop learning from and encouraging people from around the world. But I want to keep doing the same with people around the block.

The Party

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Think of how much jackassery would be either healed or bypassed if instead of taking shots at one another and making false assumptions about one another we instead invested the relational energy of sitting down to enjoy one another. This is the beauty of the table. It brings people together. The table also has a celebratory element. By sharing a meal together, you are celebrating the goodness of life. And ideally, you are celebrating the people there.

In Luke 14, Jesus told a parable about a party as he sat around a table with the Pharisees. They had invited him to dinner, but Jesus could see that these Pharisees were using their table like jackasses: they were trying to establish their own importance.

A party is meant to be a celebration. When you throw a party, what do you tend to celebrate? Is this a chance to curate everything in such a way that everyone sees how put together you are? What good taste you have? What a gracious host you are? Or are you genuinely celebrating something other than yourself?

And who do you want to have there?

The people you like. The people who are like you. The people you’re wanting to get to know better. Maybe the people who are just a little cooler than you but that you’re hoping will lend your event a little more credibility, make everyone else a little happier that they came. The people who will ensure your party is fun and perceived as successful.

Jesus’ approach is different: Invite those who could use a celebration. Those who aren’t on the top of everyone’s social list. The table is about bringing people together. Not lifting yourself above. The table is about celebrating relationships and the gifts God gives.

Søren Kierkegaard offers a challenge based on this parable. He asks: What if a man threw a party, but instead of inviting his friends he invited the poor and marginalized? How would he describe this event later on to his friends? Kierkegaard says this man is likely to describe the meal as a charitable gesture, but not as a party:

“However good the food which they received may have been, even if it had not merely been, like the food in the poor house, ‘substantial and edible,’ but really choice and costly, yes, even if they had had ten kinds of wine—the company itself, the organization of the whole, a certain lack, I know not what, would prevent calling such a thing a party.”

In other words, maybe you’re not above feeding the poor. But would you consider it a party? Is it charity or celebration? Kierkegaard is confident about what Jesus would call it:

“So scrupulous is Christian equality and its use of language that it demands not only that you shall feed the poor—it requires that you shall call it a party.”

Kierkegaard: “He who feeds the poor but will not call this feeding A PARTY sees in the poor and unimportant only the poor and unimportant. He who gives a party sees in them his neighbors.”

Feeding the poor is important. But what you’d call an event like this reveals your heart. A jackass is perfectly fine feeding the poor if it makes him look like a charitable person. That’s the kind of thing that raises a person’s status. But to call it a party is too much for a jackass. If it’s a party, then you’re celebrating these people, not just condescending to them. That’s the kind of thing that lowers a person’s status.

“He who feeds the poor but yet is not victorious over his own mind in such a way that he calls this feeding a party sees in the poor and unimportant only the poor and unimportant. He who gives a party sees in the poor and unimportant his neighbors—however ridiculous this may seem in the eyes of the world.”

So what is your table for? How do you use it? Is it an opportunity to bless others and bring people together? Or a chance to lift yourself up? Is it about your enjoyment of your own status? Or your enjoyment of the specific people God has placed around you?

Jackasses have tables too. But Jesus calls us to use our tables for something greater.

*My Kierkegaard quotations here are from the Hong translation of Works of Love (New York: Harper Perennial, 1962). Definitely read the whole thing, but this argument comes from pages 90-92. The Hongs use the word “feast,” but I have chosen to substitute “party” to better convey in today’s English the celebratory component Kierkegaard is addressing.