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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.

Kierkegaard: Love Believes All Things

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In his brilliant book Works of Love, Søren Kierkegaard lays out a concept that would absolutely revolutionize our lives, our churches, and our society. It’s simple, but the impact would be profound. And it’s simply this:

LOVE BELIEVES ALL THINGS

That’s it, just a phrase from 1 Corinthians 13:7. But if we actually took it seriously, life would never be the same.

It’s common for us to be afraid of getting someone wrong. We hesitate with our love. It takes us a while to warm up to someone, we try not to really invest in a person until we know they’re not going to let us down. I know this reality very well. I’m pretty gregarious in general, but I’m suspicious of a lot of people. I’m afraid to think too highly of a person until I have a reason to raise my view of him or her.

Kierkegaard affirms that we’re right to be afraid of getting someone wrong, but he says we’re fearful in the wrong direction. We shouldn’t be afraid of thinking too highly of a person. We should be terrified of thinking too little of them. If you think too highly of a person and treat them well, then you find out they’re actually a jerk, then you’re likely to get hurt. But if you think too little of someone, then find out they’re an amazing, loving person—what then? You’ve sidelined someone unnecessarily. You’ve limited their potential. You’ve robbed yourself of an opportunity and you’ve diminished that person.

Maybe you’re not convinced yet. If this doesn’t sound right to you, it’s probably because you, like me, have a jacked up view of love.

“We should be more afraid of thinking too little than of thinking too highly of a person. If I think too highly of them I might get hurt. If I think too little of them, I demean their humanity and am not loving.”

Kierkegaard urges us to see it like this: It’s impossible for someone to steal something you’re trying to gift to them. If you’re trying to put money in someone’s pocket, and that person grabs the money and walks away with it, have you been robbed? They may feel like they’re making off with your money, but you’ve accomplished your purpose. You wanted to give them something, and they took it.

This is not how we tend to think about love.

We often love because we want to be loved in return. When we love someone and that love is not reciprocated, we feel like it was a waste, or that we’ve been taken advantage of, or that we made a mistake. But for Kierkegaard, love is something we owe to the people around us (Rom. 13:8). It’s something we are called to give at every opportunity, and the goal of love is blessing the neighbor standing before us, not receiving back what is being given away.

So if you love someone, and they take your love and only hurt you in return, has your love not done what it set out to do? You can’t be robbed if you’re trying to give it away. You can only be duped in loving someone if you were expecting something in return.

This is easy enough to do with the people we are naturally inclined to love. Kierkegaard calls this preferential love, and at its worst, it’s just a form of self-love (meaning that we’re doing it for the benefit we receive). It’s much more difficult to love a stranger or enemy without expecting anything in return. But is this not Jesus’ message in the parable of the Good Samaritan? Don’t forget that Jesus told this parable in response to the question: “And who is my neighbor?” And don’t forget that would-be Jesus-followers asked him THAT question in response to his command to “love your neighbor as yourself.”

If your goal is to love the person who stands before you, then you won’t stop loving them because they mistreat you in return.

“Love does not assume the worst. It simply believes that each person is worthy of love. It believes that each person is capable of love. It’s not afraid of being duped, because its only goal is to give itself away.”

That’s powerful. And it would change everything. Think of that in terms of the people living in your own house. But don’t stop there. Think of in terms of the people living on your street.

Now think of it in terms of the people you meet in the midst of theology debates, Facebook quarrels, and Twitter threads. Think of it with regard to the people you consider theological off base. (Do you love someone because you think you can convince them to change their view, or do you love them regardless of their theological views?) Think of it with regard to people living in the U.S. illegally. Think of it in terms of people you dislike. Do you love liberals AND conservatives? Calvinists AND Arminians? Baptists AND Methodists? Evangelicals AND Atheists? Donald Trump AND Barak Obama? The conservative community AND the LGBT community?

Love believes all things. It’s not suspicious of everyone. It’s not assuming the worst of everyone. It’s not looking for ways that everyone else can serve its interests. It simply believes that each person is worthy of love. And it believes that each person is capable of love. It’s not afraid of being duped, because its only goal is to give itself away.

Imagine how this one simple concept could transform all of our interactions.

Why Jesus Is the Cure for Jackass

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Here’s our problem: we’re entrenched in our own opinions and we often fail to treat other people with dignity. It’s not because we’re cantankerous or hateful (at least, not in most cases), it’s because we are fully convinced of the correctness of our own views. If my view is right—and I know it is, because I’ve put in the time to think these things through—then why would I allow you to continue in the delusion that your incorrect view is perfectly fine? It’s not. And when I take the time to correct your misunderstandings and you persist in your ignorance, then what am I to conclude but that you’re a dummy and incapable of rational dialogue?

That’s putting it all pretty crassly. But I’m not convinced it’s overly dramatic. In the nicest possible scenario, we are so convicted of the truth that we believe it would be unfaithful to let an untruth go unchallenged. Truth is truth, and therefore it must be fought for.

I don’t disagree with that nicer scenario. But as we’ve been insisting, the final assessment is not simply “are all of our views correct?” There’s a higher standard. Truth is nonnegotiable, but Jesus is the ultimate standard. So it’s not just a question of “am I right?” It’s also a question of “Do I hold that truth in such a way that I look like Jesus?” Because if my theology (or politics, or whatever) makes me less like Jesus, then it’s wrong. Regardless of how many verses I can cite. Regardless of how boldly I believe I can “own” my opponent. Jesus is the way, THE TRUTH, and the life. So if my truth doesn’t look like THE TRUTH, then it’s not true.

“If my theology (or politics) makes me less like Jesus, it’s wrong. Regardless of the verses I cite. Jesus is the way, THE TRUTH, and the life. So if my truth doesn’t look like THE TRUTH, it’s not true.”

And here is where the powerful reminder of Christmas is helpful. It’s not difficult to imagine that God has some strong disagreements with human beings. And when this happens, we can safely assume that God is right and we are wrong. Read the Old Testament prophets and you’ll find God calling out all sorts of untruths and horrible behaviors. God is not exactly an agree-to-disagree kind of guy. He’s right and he knows it. And his plan is ultimately to lead us into actual Truth.

And yet, how did God choose to lead humanity into that Truth? He didn’t send us a perfect argument from on high. He didn’t send a meme to own the libs or dunk on conservatives.

He joined us.

It’s as simple and earth-shattering as that.

God led us to truth and life by becoming human and living amongst us. Think about what Christmas actually means. There was a time when God himself actually became human. And not just a well-admired adult. He first became a baby. There was a time when Jesus, who was also named Immanuel (God with us), couldn’t control his arms or legs. He drooled and pooped his pants. If his feeble human parents (who held plenty of wrong views and lived sinful lives, by the way) hadn’t fed him and cared for him, he would have died an infant. And yet Jesus was willing to live with them. Not because he didn’t care about truth. But because he did.

“Christmas reminds us that THE TRUTH came as a baby. Jesus made himself dependent on his flawed and theologically imperfect parents. Not because he didn’t care about truth. But because he did.”

He lived a solid thirty years as a Jew in Roman-dominated first century Palestine. That culture was marred by sin and untruth and blasphemous dictators and self-righteous religious leaders. And yet Jesus lived amongst all of that for thirty years. He participated even as he graciously pursued his divine purposes.

And when he launched his three year ministry that would culminate in his death, he said some hard words to people who considered themselves religiously superior to everyone else, and he fearlessly spoke truth and life to everyone he could, but he was also gentle and gracious and patient and loving. Ultimately, he wasn’t concerned with condemning everyone around him for being wrong, his whole life was a statement of love that culminated in the greatest act of love the world has ever seen: “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8).

We have a tendency to be jackasses. But the little baby Jesus lying in a manger is a perfect picture of the alternative. It’s not about caring about truth less. It’s about caring for people more. It’s not about compromising on your convictions, it’s about allowing your life to overlap with people you believe are in error. It’s not about being a theological pansy, it’s about holding your convictions so deeply that you’re willing to lay yourself down for the betterment of someone else. The goal is not to win an argument, it’s to love God, and that requires loving flawed human beings with all of your flawed heart and flawed life. Let Jesus’ embodiment of God-with-us set the course away from jackassery. He came to be with us so we could be with him and be like him.

Merry Christmas.

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

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).

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.

Why We’re So Prone to Exclude

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“Us” and “them” isn’t just a problem to fight against, it’s a universal human experience. In fact, you could argue that this is necessary to belonging: you can’t be part of a group without drawing a line around it. Exclusion is inevitable, and demonization follows on its heels.

I’ve been reading Tim Keller’s Making Sense of God, which is resonating with me on this topic. Keller presents a summary from the philosopher Miroslav Volf on “four ways that we can assert and bolster our self-worth by excluding others” (from Volf’s book Exclusion and Embrace). These are wonderfully descriptive and convicting.

(1) The most blunt and effective means of bolstering self-worth by excluding is either killing or forcing someone out of our living space. It seems barbaric, but American history and politics show we’re not above this. On a personal level, this might look like moving to a new neighborhood or joining a different church to avoid interactions with someone.

(2) Volf also lists assimilation as a means of exclusion. In this approach, you can have your arms wide open to newcomers, but the price of entry is complete assimilation. I’ll love you as long as you become just like me, adopting my values, culture, beliefs, and enemies. Keller quotes Volf: “We will refrain from vomiting you out…if you let us swallow you up.” This one stings, both as an American and as a Christian.

(3) Next is dominance. We will accept people who are different than us as long as they remain consciously inferior, allowing us to be dominant. You can belong, but only if you play your role. Keller’s examples include: only working certain jobs, only receiving certain levels of pay, and only living in certain neighborhoods. We’ve definitely seen this at work inside and outside of the Church. This makes me think of some of the crap Beth Moore has had to deal with, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

(4) The last approach to exclusion that Volf identifies is demeaning and ignoring people who are different. You can tolerate them, but you’re still disgusted by them. You ignore their opinions, needs, and contributions. Volf says we like this approach because it gives us “the illusion of sinlessness and strength.” As a Christian, are you ever proud of the way you “tolerate” weak or sinful Christians, or do you find yourself grieved that many aren’t making the same choices you do? If so, this one is yours.

I find this list convicting because it accounts for those who consciously exclude and demean, but it also leaves room for people who do this with subtlety, perhaps even unconsciously. But it’s not just the WAY in which we exclude. Some suggest that exclusion is NECESSARY for the formation of a personal identity. That honestly terrifies me! Are Ryan and I just the biggest jackasses of all (probably) for calling attention to something we just need to accept and move on with as politely as possible?

Is there no solution for this? Can we really not have an US without a THEM?

Volf (with Keller’s elaboration) explains that there is, of course, one solution to this. It’s Jesus. It’s the gospel.

Think about the absolutely game-changing power of the gospel. If it’s about finding the US who share something fundamental in common and excluding the THEM who aren’t like us, then all that binds us together is our similarity. It’s what Kierkegaard calls a PREFERENTIAL LOVE—we love the people we prefer, the people who bring us joy.

But Jesus offers us something different. He offers us humility, whereby we are freed from the compulsion to believe that we are better than everyone else. He offers us self-sacrificing love, whereby one person can put another’s best interests above their own, even incurring pain so that someone else doesn’t have to. He offers us forgiveness, whereby when an offense enters the relationship, peace and wholeness can be restored. He offers us God’s very Spirit, who transforms us from the inside so that we become a conduit of God’s love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, and self-control.

“Just as Christians spent decades copying ‘secular’ music and adding a Christian veneer, so we seem to be appropriating the vitriol around us and adding Bible verses to give it a Christian twist.”

Don’t underestimate this. Human beings are wired for “othering” in a fallen world. As Christians, we are not exempt from this. But as Christians, we claim to be transformed by the very thing the world needs in this regard. As society around us “bites and devours one another” to the point that they are “consumed by one another” (Gal. 5:15), we don’t have to play along.

I’m not convinced that we realize this. Just as Christians spent decades appropriating the musical styles of the best “secular” bands, adding a Christian veneer, so we seem to be taking the vitriol, the polarization, and the arrogant superiority that flies all around us and adding a Christian twist. We fight the way everyone else does, but we attack each other with Bible verses!

It’s gross, and it needs to change. Thank God he has given us a path forward. May we stop with all of the exclusion and lean into Jesus. He is the only hope we have.

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.

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.  

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.