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If We Cared More, We’d Fight Less

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You might think we fight so much because we all care too much. But I’m convinced it’s the opposite. And it’s a Kierkegaard quote that makes me think this. In one of his journals, he wrote:

“What I really need is to be clear about what I am to do, not about what I must know… It is a question of understanding my destiny, of seeing what God really wants me to do; the thing is to find a truth which is for me, to find the idea for which I am willing to live and die. And what use here would it be if I were to discover a so-called objective truth, or if I worked my way through the philosophers’ systems and were able to call them all to account on request, point out inconsistencies in every single circle? …What use would it be if truth were to stand there before me, cold and naked, not caring whether I acknowledged it or not, and inducing an anxious shudder rather than trusting devotion? Certainly I won’t deny that I still accept an imperative of knowledge and that one can also be influenced by it, but then it must be taken up alive in me, and this is what I now see as the main point. It is this my soul thirsts for as the African deserts thirst for water.”

Kierkegaard: “What I really need is to be clear about what I am to do, not about what I must know…to find a truth which is for me, to find the idea for which I am willing to live and die.”

Kierkegaard makes me wonder if a major problem in our discourteous theological debates is that we don’t care enough. Maybe that sounds crazy. Our debates seem passionate. The level of disagreement and our unwillingness to budge or consider where someone else is coming from seem to be symptoms of caring too much. But I wonder…

Maybe our problem is that we treat the truth as a thing that “stands there before us, cold and naked.” In this paradigm, the truth is something purely external, something set off to the side. It can be seen, acknowledged, assented to, but it’s not within us, doing the difficult work of transforming us. If the truth is like a list of rules printed out and displayed on a wall, then it can be applied and wielded legalistically. Weaponistically. In this model, we look at the truth externally as we sit around referencing “common sense” and criticizing everyone because “only an idiot could see things differently.”

Here is precisely where Kierkegaard’s pursuit could help us so much. Because truth is not meant merely to produce an “anxious shudder” within us. It’s meant to produce “trusting devotion.” It’s not about finding the cold, dead list of words that we will judge everyone by. It’s about finding a truth that so shapes our internal lives that it is true objectively, and also subjectively. It is true in reality, but—significantly—it is also true FOR ME. That’s not relativism, that’s heart-appropriated, deep-seated ownership of the truth. It’s the refusal to be a “hearer of the Word” only, but rather a “doer of the Word” (see James 1:22).

What if we stopped policing comments and diving into debates over matters where the truth has not so purchased our souls that we are being shaped by it at the deepest level? What if we disciplined ourselves to have fewer opinions and instead threw ourselves into growing more passionate for the realities of Jesus and his gospel?

“I suspect that much of the vitriol we spew and encounter over theological debates comes from a deep-seated insecurity.”

I honestly think this would change the Church. I suspect that much of the vitriol we spew and encounter over theological debates comes from a deep-seated insecurity. We’re not confident in our view of the truth, we’re worried that someone else is going to see things differently or devalue our perspective, so we lash out because we’re afraid a simple explanation of our beliefs won’t be enough. But so what if it’s not enough? Why do we need everyone to agree with us? The answer is that we don’t. If the truth matters so much to us in a certain area that it has changed and is changing us, we can share that truth winsomely without the desperation and aggression that characterizes the fearful.

I have always loved a certain line in Francis Schaeffer’s book Art and the Bible. After detailing the biblical case for making art that doesn’t need to be overtly religious, he says “When you begin to understand this sort of thing, suddenly you can begin to breathe, and all the terrible pressure that has been put on us by making art something less than spiritual suddenly begins to disappear. And with this truth comes beauty and with this beauty a freedom before God.” He’s talking to artists, but I think it fits here as well. When we begin to see the ways a certain truth is true not just in general, but specifically in me, then there comes the freedom of confidence and security.

We need to start caring more so we can start fighting less.

What Is Jackass Theology?

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What is jackass theology? The concept may sound funny or edgy or irreverent or descriptive, depending on where you’re coming from. But we assure you, jackass theology is exceedingly common. We’ve all participated, though most of us are unaware of it. Simply put, jackass theology is what happens when we hold our theological convictions in such a way that we act like, well, jackasses. And that’s shockingly easy to do. Jackass theology happens when ideas, rules, and “being right” supplant love, joy, peace, and basic human dignity.

Theology itself is not the problem. Theology means “the study of God,” and God doesn’t make people into jackasses. The problem is the way we hold our theology. It’s the way we explain it, the way we use it to divide from others, the way we use it to beat other people up. For those of us who claim to be followers of Jesus, this is inexcusable. Jesus, if you recall, said that the two greatest commandments—the two statements that summarized all of the Old Testament—were love the Lord your God and love your neighbor as yourself.

How do we go from Jesus insisting that loving other people is the most important thing to using Jesus’ teaching to ostracize and exclude?

Not many of us are doing this on purpose, but we’re all doing it. Making jerk moves in the name of Jesus. Saying hurtful things on God’s behalf. We don’t get a pass just because this is the church culture we’ve been raised in. Flannery O’Connor said, “Ignorance is excusable when it is borne like a cross, but when it is wielded like an ax, and with moral indignation, then it becomes something else indeed.” She was talking about people who have never put any energy into understanding how art works, and yet do not hesitate to criticize artists. The point works equally well when we co-opt the words of God to fight against other people without taking the time to understand the heart of God.

Let’s be clear: if your theology is making you less like Jesus, then something has gone catastrophically wrong.

“How do we go from Jesus insisting that loving other people is the most important thing to using Jesus’ teaching to ostracize and exclude? When our theology makes us less like Jesus, that’s a problem.”

So what are we doing calling this site Jackass Theology? We’re just a couple of pastors trying to help people get closer to the heart of Jesus. We’re using the concept of jackass theology in three ways: as a lament, as a confession, and as a way forward.

LAMENT

As we look at evangelical Christianity today, we see a ton of jackassery. It’s seriously everywhere. Stick with us and you’ll recognize it too. But don’t get too excited, once you start to notice jackass theology, you’ll see it mainly in your own past and present. We just want to help you weed it out of your future. We also want to note that it’s not just in evangelicalism. As I said, it’s seriously everywhere. Republicans, democrats, liberals, conservatives, upper class people, lower class people, etc. etc. etc. Jackassery is part of the human condition, but Jesus shows us what it means to be more.

CONFESSION

This part is key. We talk about jackass theology as a means of confession. Ryan and I are bigger jackasses than most, and we will often share our own jackassery. It’s important that we do this. The moment you point a finger as someone else’s jackassery, you’re guilty of it yourself. The theme passage for all jackass theology is Luke 18:9–14:

He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”

Fill in the blank however you want, as soon as you find yourself saying, “God, I thank you that I am not like _________,” you’re being a jackass. We confess our jackassery so we can turn from there and pursue the ways, works, and words of Jesus.

A WAY FORWARD

Ultimately, we’re trying to find and show a way forward. We all start as jackasses, but it doesn’t need to be like this. Jesus is the anti-jackass. Really, all we want to say is that we want to be more like Jesus. The problem is, we all assume that Jesus would do the things we tend to do, even when we’re actually being jackasses. The way forward is the way of Jesus. He invites us to join him, and that’s our heart with Jackass Theology. We want to be more like Jesus. And we’re hoping you’re interested in joining us as well.

Benny Hinn Changed: Do We Celebrate or Scoff?

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What was your first reaction to the news that Benny Hinn changed his theology regarding the prosperity gospel? If you need a little context, there is a video in which Hinn denounces the teaching that made him famous: that if we have enough faith (and give enough money), we can gain health, wealth, and prosperity.

In the video, Hinn acknowledged that in many circles all you hear is a “feel good message” about “how to build the flesh.” He said, “I’m sorry to say that prosperity has gone a little crazy, and I’m correcting my own theology. And you need to all know it. Because when I read the Bible now, I don’t see it in the same eyes I saw the Bible 20 years ago.”

Anyone familiar with Benny Hinn and his reputation will be shocked by that news. It’s something we never thought we’d hear. But you can watch the video. He says it.

A friend asked him if he was ready to make this shift public, and Hinn said, “Well, not totally. Because I don’t want to hurt my friends, whom I love, who believe things I don’t believe anymore.”

To me, that’s understandable. Many of us are under enormous pressure to stay in line with our theological camps. This is true in my experience as a pastor, and I can imagine it must be 1,000 times more true for pastors who are well known. As a matter of fact, Francis Chan recently got raked over the coals by some in his own camp because they were SUSPICIOUS that he might be inwardly endorsing the theology of Benny Hinn, despite his explicit and repeated words to the contrary. I actually want to say more about that episode in a minute because of its obvious relevance here, but let that stand for a moment. There is tremendous pressure to never betray your camp or never even to be perceived as doing so. Take a picture in the wrong place or preach to the wrong audience and receive your “Farewell!” So Hinn’s words here resonate with me. I can see why he didn’t want to say anything.

AND YET, HE DID! He knew it would be hard, but he felt compelled by the force of the truth and decided he had to speak against a theological system he had previously endorsed. A system that had made him famous and successful. I respect that.

Here’s the substance of it: “I will tell you something now that’s going to shock you. I think it’s an offense to the Lord, it’s an offense to say ‘Give $1,000.’ I think it’s an offense to the Holy Spirit to place a price on the gospel. I’m done with it…I think that hurts the gospel…If I hear one more time ‘Break the back of poverty with $1,000,’ I’m going to rebuke them. I think that’s buying the gospel, that’s buying the blessing, that’s grieving the Holy Spirit…If you’re not giving because you love Jesus, don’t bother giving. I think giving has become such a gimmick it’s making me sick to my stomach. And I’ve been sick for a while, too; I just couldn’t say it. And now the lid is off. I’ve had it. Do you know why? I don’t want to get to heaven and be rebuked. I think it’s time we say it like it is: the gospel is not for sale. And the blessings of God are not for sale. And miracles are not for sale. And prosperity is not for sale.”

It’s a surreal experience for me to hear Benny Hinn utter these words. And I’ll be honest, my first reaction was not joy. I was skeptical. I sat there thinking, “Okay, sure. We’ll see how this goes.”

Why?

Here’s what my response should have been. I should have spent the last few decades praying for Benny Hinn. Asking God to give him a clear understanding of Scripture and a heart that burns with love for Jesus. I don’t think I was wrong to disagree with his theology. I think it’s likely the indignation I felt was righteous when I saw him doing what I took to be selling the gospel for personal gain. I still feel that way about the prosperity gospel. Actually, I now agree with Benny Hinn: I think it’s an offense to the Lord to place a price on the gospel. But I should have been praying for his wellbeing and the wellbeing of his followers, which would undoubtedly include a correction in his theology. I don’t recall doing this once.

“Benny Hinn has renounced the prosperity gospel. I’d be a jackass to refuse to celebrate with him. I want to celebrate that God seems to have done something I didn’t think he would.”

But now that I was watching the miracle I should have been praying for, with Benny Hinn publicly correctly his theology and denouncing the prosperity gospel, I wasn’t celebrating. I wasn’t thanking the Lord. My initial reaction was skepticism, mocking, and criticism. I’ve seen a couple responses like this online: He can say whatever he wants, that’s not true repentance. We’ll see what happens from here. Etc.

Here’s the thing: I doubt Benny Hinn now has perfect theology. I know I don’t. He won’t do everything perfect from here. I definitely won’t. And maybe it’s all a sham and he’s just trying to get attention or something. It’s possible, but I’d be a jackass to refuse to celebrate with and for him at this point. My initial response was full of jackassery. I’m sorry for that. I want to celebrate that God seems to have done something I didn’t think he would. Praise God for Benny Hinn!

And back to Francis Chan for a quick minute. He was “farewelled” for taking a selfie with Benny Hinn. Apparently he was supposed to stay the hell away and only say mean things to Hinn. I don’t know that Francis Chan had any role in Benny Hinn’s realization. But I know that Francis decided not to treat him as a complete enemy and curse him. Francis apparently treated him with love. Now that Benny Hinn is on a new path, Francis’ decision seems like a good one. Are we willing to acknowledge this? Or do the farewell Francisers simply move on as if they did everything perfect? I know what my assumptions are on that one, but I also know that these assumptions come from my inner jackass. I’m trying to let go of those impulses and simply celebrate what I see God doing.

Read the Gospels ≥ Paul

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Here’s a challenge that would probably do us all some good: Read the Gospels more than, or the same amount as, you read Paul.

That might be a big yawn for some. For others it’s a weird statement to make, because it already fits your tendencies. But for many Christians, this is a big ask. It may even raise some red flags: Is he trying to lead me away from sound doctrine and toward some vague notion of loving everyone?

If this suggestion raises some red flags (it would have for me in the past), then that should raise red flags.

Could we honestly be worried about reading the four books that give detailed attention to the words, works, and ways of Jesus more than or the same amount as we read other books in the Bible? If that sounds suspect, something is wrong.

Think about this: the Gospels comprise just about half of the New Testament. If you leave Acts to the side, the Gospels contain 10,000 words more than all of the New Testament letters combined (including Revelation). The Gospels are more than twice as much material as all of Paul’s letters combined. These are all ways of saying that the material in the Gospels is an emphasis for the New Testament.

“If the suggestion to read the Gospels at least as much as you read Paul raises some red flags (it would have for me in the past), then that should raise red flags.”

And yet, Paul has been a major focus in most Protestant Evangelical churches. Without hard data here, I don’t hesitate to say that Paul gets preached more often, written about more often, and is given priority in the formulation of our doctrines and emphases. That’s not bad, but it skews our thinking and approach. Read Paul. Without a doubt. But I want to issue a challenge for us:

What if we read the Gospels at least as much as we read Paul? I’ve done that over the last couple of years, and it’s been formative. I don’t think it’s changed any of my core beliefs, but it has shaped my emphases and made me more patient, gracious, and tuned in to people. More concerned about love than doctrine. Maybe it’s just me. But Jesus is the cure for jackass. So it could only help.

Set yourself a goal to read through one Gospel per month for the next few months. Or alternate between a Gospel and an epistle for a while. Try reading nothing but the Gospels for a whole year (I’m a pastor, I promise it’s allowed). This isn’t some command or trick. It’s just a means of recalibrating. This should lead us all to be more in tune with Jesus, which should lead us back into Paul’s writing with fresh insights. This is how it’s worked for me, and I pray it does for you as well.

Costumes, Kierkegaard, & Human Dignity

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In his incredible book Works of Love, Soren Kierkegaard was concerned that we neglect to love our neighbors because we focus on the dissimilarities between us. We are like actors in a play:

“Here you see only what the individual represents and how he does it. It is just as in the play. But when the curtain falls on the stage, then the one who played the king and the one who played the beggar, etc. are all alike; all are one and the same—actors. When at death the curtain falls on the stage of actuality…then they, too, are all one, they are human beings. All of them are what they essentially were, what you did not see because of the dissimilarity that you saw—they are human beings.”

This excellent illustration cuts in two directions. First, it speaks to the way we view other people. We see successful businessmen, gifted speakers, homemakers, professional athletes, homeless people, white or blue collared workers, etc. We notice skin color and gender, confidence and awkwardness.

But Kierkegaard would have us understand that these outward dissimilarities are nothing more than roles we are called upon to play. The differences are there, but the time is coming when the curtain will fall, and the man who played the king will sit down for drinks with the man who played the beggar. And they will sit together as equals, for they are not king and beggar in reality—these were roles they assumed on the stage—they are nothing more and nothing less than actors. People. They are equal.

We would do well, then, to look past the outward symbols of dissimilarity when we encounter another person. We should look deeply into her eyes and recognize the gaze of a fellow human being. This allows us to view the other person as a neighbor. (“Neighbor,” by the way, is an important concept for Kierkegaard. I will inevitably write about this before long.)

“The dissimilarity of earthly life is like an actor’s costume…each one should have the outer garment fastened loosely so that in the moment of transformation, the garment can be cast off easily.” —Kierkegaard

Isn’t this the way it works in our neighborhoods? There is no hierarchy on my street. When I stand on the sidewalk with my neighbors, we don’t relate to each other as realtor, professor, pastor, programmer. We are simply neighbors. We spend much of our lives on adjacent lots. We leave our jobs and head home to talk and play in the street without once deferring to one another’s professional titles. The roles we play and the costumes we wear are irrelevant; we are able to love one another as equals.

The conversations I have on my street are a taste of humanity stripped of its dissimilarities. If only we could see everyone in that light. If only we could stop playing games and simply love.

But this will also require us to see the other direction that Kiekegaard’s illustration cuts. Kierkegaard would have us look to ourselves and remember that we, too, are only actors, regardless of how important (or insignificant) a role we believe ourselves to be playing:

“We seem to have forgotten that the dissimilarity of earthly life is just like an actor’s costume…so that each one individually should be on the watch and take care to have the outer garment’s fastening cords loosely tied and, above all, free of tight knots so that in the moment of transformation the garment can be cast off easily.”

Do you have some level of power in this life? Don’t hold it too closely. Don’t take yourself too seriously. You have been called upon to play the role of an executive or a teacher or a supervisor or a day laborer. But that role does not define you. Make no mistake that one day your costume will have to be removed. Better to wear the costume loosely so that you are prepared to step back into the role of human being as soon as the play ends.

It’s difficult to see other people as neighbors when we see ourselves as big shots. Likewise, it’s difficult to interact with people as equals when we see ourselves as supporting cast at best.

So play your role well. Give it everything it deserves. But don’t forget that the stage only extends so far. Don’t lose sight of the curtain—it is going to drop. And there you will stand. No longer the king. No longer the beggar. But an actor. A neighbor. A human.

Martin Luther’s Potty Mouth

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“You are a crude ass, and an ass you will remain!”


-Martin Luther (Against the Roman Papacy, an Institution of the Devil, pg. 281 of Luther’s Works, Vol. 41)

You seriously need to check out the Luther Insulter. I find it hilarious. If you are having a bad day, feeling masochistic, or looking for creative ways to insult friends, check out this site. (Please use it responsibly.) 

This isn’t the Luther you read about in text books, or the celebrated snippets Christian children parrot on Reformation Day (aka, Halloween). It’s the part of the Reformation that is a little too messy for our modern-day church. The part most of us never even knew about.

So what are we to make of Martin Luther? What are we to think of his potty mouth and his insults? Was he a jackass too?

Creating change is messy.

Could Luther have created change without the insults? Maybe, but he didn’t. God used a jackass like Luther to accomplish his work, and it wasn’t pretty or neat.

Luther certainly wasn’t Jesus. But while we are on the topic, Jesus hurled a few insults too, and so did John the Baptist (insert brood of viper motif) as they brought about the biggest change of all time—THE GOSPEL. It got messy, like, crucifixion messy. So change isn’t always pretty, but when change is needed it’s worth fighting for, maybe sometimes it requires some frank speech and a little name calling. Maybe other times change happens despite the frank speech and name calling. 

“Could Martin Luther have created change without such shocking insults? Maybe, but he didn’t. God used a jackass like Luther to accomplish his work, and it wasn’t pretty or neat.”

To the extent that Luther attacked other human beings in vitriol, I don’t condone him. But those of us in the Protestant tradition all acknowledge that God used a flawed yet passionate person at that moment in history.

Jen Hatmaker recently posted an excerpt on Instagram from the book she is writing:

“My beliefs were challenged because they were the byproduct of an obviously corrupt system, historically dead last to the table of confession and repentance. My beliefs were challenged because the same people were always in charge and they hung pictures of White Jesus in my Sunday School rooms. My beliefs were challenged because while promising life abundant, they broke hearts and trust and bodies and families with a clear conscience. My beliefs were challenged because, had I held to them as dictated, I would have no ministry, no authority, no agency over my own God-given gifts. My beliefs were challenged because the missionary culture I grew up in turned out to be colonization. My beliefs were challenged because they shamed girls and victims but protected men and abusers. My beliefs were challenged because they sentenced LGBTQ people to traumatic conversion therapy, forced celibacy, public humiliation, and ultimately suicide at seven times the normal rate. My beliefs were challenged because they weren’t producing many disciples, mostly just gatekeepers and defectors.”

That’s pretty messy. You may hate it or love it, but we can all agree it’s not neutral. Neutral doesn’t change much.

There are things in the current Christian culture that I believe are compromising the spread of the Gospel and the joy of the gospel. I’m not talking about megachurch culture, loose doctrine, or politicians. It comes from our infighting, which directs our energies at one another, and shifts our eyes away from our Heavenly Father, who desperately wants all of his kids to come home to a family meal.

What the Insults of Jesus, Luther, and Hatmaker Have in Common

They are directing their negative energy and insults at hypocrisy in the church, as a means to bring everything back to THE MAIN POINT. I truly believe this is the heart of Jesus, Luther, Hatmaker, and so many other leaders who are trying to bring about change. Of course, Jesus’ harsh words were also on point; Luther and Hatmaker are human and thus guaranteed to veer into jackassery at some point. 

I’m not comparing Jen Hatmaker to the Son of God or even the father of the Reformation. She is simply an example that change—no matter the decade, gender, or context—can be messy. I’m not sure that is a bad thing. Nor do I need to agree with everything a human does and says to derive value from their faithful battle against the status quo. I don’t even always agree with everything I say.

I’ll leave you with one more insult courtesy of Martin Luther. 

If you don’t agree with everything I say in this post…

“You are like the ostrich, the foolish bird which thinks it is wholly concealed when it gets its neck under a branch. Or like small children, who hold their hands in front of their eyes and seeing nobody imagine that no one sees them either. In general, you are so stupid that it makes one feel like vomiting.”


-Martin Luther (Against the Heavenly Prophets, pg. 186 of Luther’s Works, Vol. 40.)

LOVE YA!

-Ryan

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.

Narrowly Human

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The New Testament scholar Douglas Moo talks about how notoriously difficult it is to define the Greek word sarx. (Stay with me! This post is going to be way cooler than that first sentence indicates…) The problem is that its most literal translation, flesh, is either too physical in connotation (like the literal flesh on a body) or too negative in connotation (like sensuality, fornication, etc.).

Here’s the cool thing about the Bible’s perspective on flesh: Flesh isn’t the bad part of us, it is simply the physical part of us.

When God created the flesh of Adam and Eve, he said it was good. Jesus himself was the Word made flesh. So flesh clearly isn’t always negative. Someday, we will live in a new heavens and earth, with new bodies—new flesh. All will be as it should. Flesh isn’t inherently bad, but the flesh alone is never sufficient. Flesh alone is always lacking Spirit, like the desert lacks water. Flesh and Spirit were intended to live in harmony, not opposition. As it is now, they are—like most things in this life—at war.

Back to Moo. He likes to define living in the flesh as living “narrowly human.” I dig that. That makes so much sense to me.

To live in the flesh is to live your life consumed by worries, concerns, and longing for the more physical and base things of life. Don’t worry, fellow heresy nerds, I’m miles away from Gnosticism here. Gnosticism says the flesh is evil and the Spirit is good. I’m saying the flesh is good AND the Spirit is good, but to live by the flesh primarily is to fixate, idolize, and disproportionately desire something harmful.

We have a desire and need for sex. The narrowly human life (in the “flesh”) over-fixates on our need for sex to the extent that it becomes harmful and consuming and inappropriate.

We have a natural desire for justice, but the narrowly human approach (living in the flesh) is an over-fixation on the behavior of others, so much so that we become contentious and divisive and unduly opinionated and critical.

We have a desire for physical blessings like money, shelter, and life-giving relationship, but to live in the narrowly human sense (in the flesh) is to be unsatisfied with God’s blessing for us, and to become jealous of someone else’s physical life, popularity, holdings, or appearance.

To live in the flesh, whatever way it makes itself evident in our lives, is to live narrowly human. It’s not inherently evil, but it is inherently dying.

It’s amazing to me how much of my time and energy is spent worrying about, thinking about, and concerned with matters of my narrow humanity.

I see it constantly in my children too. They fight over their favorite snacks. They spend so much time concerned with how much of their favorite foods their siblings get. They fixate on their taste buds, then they get angry because those taste buds aren’t getting satisfied. Anger will turn to violence, secret stashes, and manipulation because they are so focused on this one commodity. This one physical sensation of eating their favorite snack.

This is no way to live. As a parent, it is miserable. They are, as C.S. Lewis put it, “far too easily pleased.” They are settling for a war over mud pies (their favorite treat), and missing the holiday being offered at sea (enjoyable peaceful relationships with each other and their Creator). Their bodies are important and their appetites are legitimate, but living amidst food wars is living a life that is narrowly human.

“We have Spirit-filled dreams, but many of us have settled for a ‘narrowly human’ reality.”

The Spirit wails for something greater. Humans dream of love, of marrying Mr. or Mrs. Right. We long to raise kids, and not just because we want to be saddled with the exorbitant costs incurred in modern child rearing (estimated at upwards of $250,000 per child over 18 years). We raise kids because we want the investment of love, we imagine peaceful family gatherings, we dream of years of laughter. We have Spirit-filled imaginations. But many of us have settled for the narrowly human reality. Sometimes it’s not even narrowly human. Sometimes it’s barely human. Living according to flesh, without the Spirit, promises a life of death. As the great Marcus Mumford said, “in these bodies we will live, in these bodies we will die. Where you invest your love. You invest your life“ That is one thing that fleshly bodies share: they all die. As do the pursuits of the flesh.

So what, now?

Can we live in the Spirit? Can we fix our imaginations back on LOVE, PEACE, JOY, KINDNESS, etc.

Or are we destined to live narrowly human lives?

One more thing. The power that raised Christ from the dead is the same power that lives in all who believe. So let’s do this. Let’s do it together. Let’s drop the insults. Let’s abandon the dissatisfaction. Let’s take the holiday at sea! Why not? Let’s be thankful right….NOW!

Inglorious Pastors

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The Hebrew word for GLORY (kabod) means HEAVINESS, WEIGHT, IMPORTANCE.

This week I got another glimpse into why our current culture increasingly feels as though pastors and Christian leaders are UNIMPORTANT and culturally IRRELEVANT.

Hang with me for a second while I explain:

I am a pastor in a denomination called the EFCA (Evangelical Free Church of America). I am proud to be a part of this particular denomination for a number of reasons, but one key theological reason can be summed up by this simple phrase:

“In essentials, unity. In non-essentials, charity. In all things, Jesus Christ.”

I love that phrase. I deeply desire to live and lead by it. It really is what Jackass theology is all about!

This week I am in Chicago for EFCA ONE, our national conference/business meeting. This year’s conference has the highest attendance in years. Can you guess why? It’s not because there is explosive numerical growth in our denomination. It’s because there is a controversial matter being voted on. Controversy always brings people out of the woodwork.

Do you know what the controversial matter is? No, it doesn’t have to do with racial tensions, roles of women, sexual identity, or any of the other relevant or controversial topics flooding social media today. The vote is over ONE SINGLE WORD in the doctrinal statement regarding ESCHATOLOGY (end times theology).

The proposed change reads:

“We believe in the personal, bodily and premillennial glorious return of our Lord Jesus.”

The denominational leadership is proposing this change for the purpose of charity in non-essentials. They want to be more inclusive of differing views. I am 100% supportive of this change. There are things in the Bible that are clear and straight forward. End times theology is not one of them. Remember, in non-essentials…CHARITY.

The disheartening part of this whole experience was all the passion and debate that led to this point. I will spare you the details, but this has been a 10 year journey. For the last 3-4 years the leaders of the EFCA have been flying around the country, asking regional denominational leaders if they support the change. In 2017, it officially became a motion, to be voted on in June of 2019. Countless hours have gone into this discussion.

Just before the vote, I sat in a 3 hour session where people passionately debated against this matter. There were threats of churches and entire districts leaving the denomination if this change was accepted. The opposition spoke about leftist thinking, the abandonment of biblical authority, and the deep fear of the dreaded amillennialism destroying the EFCA ethos.

It was sad to watch. Sad because all this energy and effort, all this time and conversation, has been spent on something so radically unimportant.

Look, I’m not saying understanding the Bible is unimportant, I’m saying this kind of debate has zero importance to the lives of everyday human beings. Feel free to develop a stance on eschatology, but when you see your opinion as an ESSENTIAL, as a hill to die on, you’ve got some re-prioritizing to do.

Remember, glory means WEIGHT. IMPORTANCE.

God is GLORIOUS. He matters. He is important. One day he will be seen and worshipped as the one who spoke creation into existence.

Jesus was GLORIOUS in the real world lives that he touched. He mattered to the prostitutes, the poor, the widows, the outcasts. He gave new purpose to everyday fisherman. He lived a life-alteringly relevant life.

As pastors, unfortunately, we can settle for an INGLORIOUS ministry of GLORIOUS God. We argue over the parsing of Greek words, theological nuance, eschatology, ecclesiology. We expend enormous amounts of energy on things that only matter to other highly schooled church people.

Meanwhile, there is real pain in the real everyday lives of humans we are called to love.

Aside from our love for God himself, PEOPLE MATTER MOST. Not ideas, not theoretical interpretations. People and their pain, and their struggle to know God in hostile world.

During an open mic session, a military chaplain said it best (my paraphrase):

“While ministering to young men and women in the military, I am constantly counseling them through matters of sexual identity, depression, addiction, and finding meaning in a hostile violent world. Never once in all my years, have I ever had someone ask me about eschatology.”

“The inglorious pastor (or layperson) snubs the woman at the well, rushes past the beaten man on the side of the road, because he’s rushing to tend to religious matters.”

This is it. Nobody in the real world cares a rip about the details of eschatology. Our hope is set on the promised return of Jesus. The only people who care about this level of granularity are pastors like me locked in ivory towers living in a bizarro subculture.

You see, it’s the inglorious pastor who snubs the woman at the well, who rushes past the man beaten up on the side of the road, because he’s rushing to tend to religious matters. It’s the inglorious pastor who writes off the 1 and tends only to the theology of the 99.

I applaud the EFCA for broadening their doctrinal statement. I do believe it was worth the effort. I’m grateful that after years of work and hours upon hours of debate, we took a vote, and it passed. 79% in favor. 21% opposed.

But the whole exercise was a warning to me. A shot across the bow. There is a tendency for me as a pastor to lose touch with real pain, real need, and settle for theory and theological debate. While all of this has its place, if it isn’t producing real love for real people, then I’m just another inglorious pastor!

What Piper, Bell, MacArthur, & Hatmaker Have in Common

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Saying that we’re all jackasses and we need to love more is different than saying that everyone is always right. We’re not arguing for some vague, anemic ecumenism or for universalism. We are not all right. In fact, we would go so far as to say we are all incredibly wrong in very different and important ways. There are things each of us lacks, things each of us overemphasizes. The thing that binds us together is our deep lack, our deep need, our deep inability to see clearly, understand fully, or live with integrity.

Have we forgotten Paul’s words?

“For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.” (1 Corinthians 13:12)

John Piper is not exempt from this. NT Wright is not exempt. Martin Luther King Jr., John Calvin, Rob Bell, Jen Hatmaker, Science Mike, John MacArthur, and Tim Keller are not exempt. Your pastor is not exempt. We are not exempt. You are not exempt. We all see poorly. But the gift is that we all see different things poorly. We are not all blind to the same things. That is the beauty of the body. Collectively we see far more clearly. Collectively we help to eliminate blind spots instead of increasing, perpetuating, or even parading them.

I love to do puzzles with my kids. But what the kids love most about doing puzzles is putting in the final piece. In fact, one of my kids loves to bypass all the work of putting together the puzzle by sneakily snagging a few pieces. He disappears for a few hours while the family labors over the puzzle, then returns at the end to victoriously put in the final missing pieces. This treasonous crime is easy to pull off because of the nature of a puzzle. A puzzle equally depends on every piece. It doesn’t matter which puzzle piece he takes. In the end, it will be the most important piece because in a puzzle the most important piece is the one that is missing.

“We all see poorly. But the gift is that we all see different things poorly. We are not all blind to the same things. That is the beauty of the body. Collectively we see far more clearly.”

We don’t look at the body of Christ this way. We haven’t learned much since the Corinthian church. Or since Jesus’ call for unity. We don’t care about the pieces that are missing. In fact, we tend to think that the only pieces to the puzzle that are of any value are the ones shaped like us. Or perhaps the ones connected to us. But the most important pieces are the ones that are missing: the ones that have been cast aside, forgotten, or undiscovered.

Jesus warned us to enter his kingdom through the “narrow gate.”

“Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.” (Matthew 7:13–14)

We have tended to equate the narrow gate with right doctrine. Entering through the narrow gate has meant associating with the right camp. But this wasn’t Jesus’ point.

“We have tended to equate the narrow gate with right doctrine. But Jesus is the narrow gate. His narrow gate was absolute surrender that produces deep love of God and others.”

Based on our patterns of association and disassociation, it seems we believe the narrow gate is about expository preaching, or only singing hymns, or emphasizing social justice, or being Republican or standing against abortion or promoting tolerance. None of these things has anything to do with Jesus’ concept of the narrow gate. He is the narrow gate. His narrow gate was absolute surrender that produces deep love of God and others. Jesus said nothing of worship style, he laid out no complicated doctrine. He commissioned the disciples in Matthew 28 to teach all that he had commanded, but when you look at the sum of Jesus’ commands, this is the picture we get: eat with sinners, serve the poor, and if anything hinders you from keeping in step with him, leave it behind. Never ever ever ever confuse religion for love, or self-righteousness for surrender. Ask, seek, knock, find. Don’t assume you know more than anyone else.

In other words, Jesus’ teaching (and therefore the narrow gate of surrendering to him) comes down to this: Love the Lord your God with everything you have and love your neighbor as yourself.