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Swing the Pendulum!

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If the pendulum on a clock doesn’t swing, then the time on the clock doesn’t move forward. Pendulums are all about motion.

In the Church, in theology, and in society as a whole we tend to be pendulum swingers. We get upset when we see an overemphasis or an overreaction. So we begin tugging back against the pendulum to solve the issue. Before long, we’ve overcorrected and someone else has to swing the pendulum back again. This ticking and tocking marks the movement of history.

Think of Martin Luther and Reformation. The Reformers were worried the Catholic church was worshipping statues and paintings. So when the Protestants gained control of a church, they would often pull the statues, paintings, and other priceless artifacts out of the church and literally burn or smash them. In this way, they earned the title of “iconoclasts.” 

Looking back, Francis Schaeffer explains, “To some of us the statues and paintings…may be art objects, and perhaps we wish that the people of the Reformation had taken these works and put them in a warehouse for a hundred years or so. Then they could have been brought out and put in a museum. But at that moment of history this would have been too much to ask! To the men and women of that time, these were images to worship…Thus, in the pressure of that historic moment, they sometimes destroyed the images.”

Swinging the pendulum was their real-time response to something they saw as a huge problem within the Church. We could come up with thousands of examples without breaking a sweat: One group forbids drinking, so another swings the pendulum back towards boozy culture. One group begins to equate lack of swearing with loving Jesus, so another starts “swearing for Jesus.” Some get too emotional in worship so others swing things towards the cerebral. We’re constantly swinging the pendulum back and forth. Correcting and overcorrecting.

But Pendulum swinging gets a bad rap.

Our goal seems to be arriving at some perfectly balanced equilibrium where everyone knows precisely how much to emphasize each thing. No one needs to be challenged. Everything just hums along, moving forward without any problems. It sounds nice, right?

Or does it?

Think of the scene in A Wrinkle in Time when the kids find themselves in a world of precise uniformity. Suburban kids all stand around their suburban cul-de-sac bouncing their balls precisely in time until their mothers come out in unison and call their kids in for lunch. It’s super creepy! Why? Because they value conformity above all else, which makes everyone mindless. Every person in this town is essentially a zombie—they look alive, but they’re really not.

A Wrinkle In Time GIF by Walt Disney Studios - Find & Share on GIPHY

Motion is a defining characteristic of living things. No motion, no life. So if we get to a place where we’re no longer moving or growing or changing, we’re living in a dead zone. Think of what makes a dead church dead: Everything is always done the same way by the same people over and over again. 

A pendulum gets swung because a generation looks at what their parents did and decides course correction is necessary. So they gather their creative energies and work towards change. This movement ensures that the next generation will have to step in and correct some things as well. But this is healthy. 

Because what we really want is for each generation to encounter Jesus anew. We want them to stand face to face with him. To experience him. To ask what he wants with them. And as they do this, we want them to strike out with purpose and vision.

“A real encounter with Jesus will lead each generation to interact with him in ways the previous generations never thought necessary. And that’s how we maintain life.”

It’s easy to think that the version of Christianity we’ve arrived at is the final word. We’ve finally debugged the whole thing. This is the final draft. But just like a designer’s saved finals (Project_final_final_final_final_v5.pdf), there is always more work to be done. That’s because Jesus is living. And a real encounter with Jesus will lead each generation to interact with him in ways the previous generations never thought necessary. And that’s how we maintain life within the Church and within our own hearts.

So when I see a movement within the Church and think it’s swinging the pendulum too far, I need to remember to get excited. Work is happening! Jesus is on the move! And this swing means there will be fresh work ahead. 

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.

Farewell Francis Chan

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Some friends recently showed me the most recent Francis Chan “controversy.” Here it is: Francis has preached at the same event as some prosperity teachers. He said something nice about Todd White. You can even find him in a photograph with Benny Hinn.

Can you imagine?

This has led some to dismiss Francis using the phrase, “Farewell, Francis Chan” (with a hat tip to John Piper excommunicating Rob Bell). Why? Because a person can’t share a stage without selling his soul. Because a lifetime of selfless ministry can be invalidated by one selfie. Because if you say something nice about someone you disagree with, then your heart has belonged to Satan the entire time.

The Farewell Francis Chan thing embodies the heart of jackass theology as well as anything I’ve seen. If you’re new to our blog, I should clarify that I’m a major jackass. We all are. But we’re here to confess our jackassery and hopefully bring our Christian communities to their senses.

Because, man, if Francis Chan is a heretic because he said something nice about someone he disagrees with, that’s the kind of heretic I want to be.[1] Seriously, if your theology leads you to warn people against Francis Chan because he chose human dignity over theological condemnation, then your theology is making you less like Jesus. And that’s a major problem.

Honestly, I don’t know anything about Todd White. Apparently somehow connected to the prosperity gospel? I know more about Benny Hinn. It’s all stuff I’ve learned second, third, or fourth hand, but I’m confident we’ve got some real differences. I’d probably sign on for very little of his theology. Would I be caught dead in a photo with him? Sure. Would I ever say something nice about his love for Jesus or his ministry? Honestly, if I knew anything about either I might.

“If your theology leads you to warn people against Francis Chan because he chose human dignity over theological condemnation, then your theology is making you less like Jesus. And that’s a major problem.”

Because a person’s value isn’t determined by the accuracy of their theology. Because it was “while we were still sinners” that “Christ died for us.” If you’re saying farewell to Francis because he’s loving someone that’s broken and sinful, then you’re the one walking away from Jesus.

I don’t know if the Farewell Francisers know this, but Francis Chan went on TBN one time to preach. (If you don’t know about TBN, don’t worry about it.) He gave a typical Francis message. It didn’t undermine his ministry or make God love him less. Actually, John MacArthur went on TBN at least once to preach. If you can believe it, he didn’t do it because he’s secretly trying to win people over to TBN’s theology. He said that he would take any opportunity to preach the gospel.

You’re allowed to disagree with the choices other people make. But if the choices you think you would make are the definitive standard for you, you’ve got self-idolization issues.

One of the articles I read criticized Francis for leaving the church he planted (after a measly 15 years pastoring it, if you can imagine). They said he blamed all the problems on the people in the church, etc. This is perhaps even lazier than the selfie accusations. Francis has spoken and written quite a bit about leaving Cornerstone, and he takes the blame for the things that displeased him about pastoring in a traditional church model even as he goes to great lengths to talk about how amazing Cornerstone was/is. It’s a refusal to believe his sincerity when he says things like this—an insistence that there must be some villainy beneath the surface—that keeps a narrative like this going. And again, it’s a jackass move.

Years ago, I watched as the community surrounding Francis’ seminary tore him apart for not emphasizing the resurrection in a gospel presentation. We seem hard wired to want to find a reason to oppose certain people.

“We could all stand to stop pointing out the heresy in our neighbor’s eye and instead focus on the lack of love in our own.”

It’s incredible how much pastors get criticized. Don’t get me wrong, we deserve it. We are jackasses, after all. But saying farewell to Francis or me or anyone else will not bring you closer to Jesus. Only love can do that. It’s okay to dislike Francis, it’s okay if he “just doesn’t do it for you anymore.” I don’t know what your job is, but it’s not deciding who’s in and who’s out. Jesus’ final prayer was for increased unity and love (John 17). Too often we go about the business of creating increased division and separation. I know Francis Chan is not perfect. He knows it too. How about we do our best to love him well as he tries to serve the Lord rather than accusing and excommunicating? We could all use more encouragement, prayer, and love. We could all stand to stop pointing out the heresy in our neighbor’s eye and instead focus on the lack of love in our own.

Update: The day after I wrote this, Francis’ released his own response to the accusations. If you’re still suspicious of him, at least do him the courtesy of hearing his motivation for doing the kinds of love-fueled things that people are spewing venom over.


[1] I borrowed this logic from my friend Chris Kottre.

The Conservative Jackass

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Our basic premise is that we are all jackasses. Myself especially. One specific type of jackass that I have given much of my life to embodying is the Conservative Jackass.

Ryan and I are blog buddies and we pastor together now, but we actually met in college. Ryan was my mentor for a couple of years and had a major impact on the depth and direction of my life. During this time, I was introduced to Conservative Neo-Reformed TheologyTM. As I began learning theology with a depth and intensity that’s difficult to imagine now (I’m still thankful for this season for this reason), I began to notice that Ryan resisted the militarism with which I began holding specific doctrines.

This was difficult for me to process. I really looked up to Ryan, but he couldn’t see The TruthTM! What was I supposed to do? It seems crazy for me to write it now, but I was honestly concerned for Ryan’s salvation.

How could he resist what was so clearly written in Scripture?

This is the heart of the Conservative Jackass. No, I’m not talking about a high view of Scripture. Ryan had that then and still does now. Same here. I’m talking about the inability to respect someone who disagrees.

This is as good an example as any, from the teaching of one of my theological heroes from this period:

“Either you believe the creation account in Genesis 1 and 2 or you don’t.  And if you don’t believe the Genesis account, then I just, I have to tell you, you have no hope of coming to the truth.”

-John MacArthur

He said this in the context of explaining why it’s essential for a person to believe that God created the world in six literal 24-hour days rather than believing in any form of theistic evolution. The problem is not being a creationist. That’s a fine position to hold. The problem is insisting that anyone who has less than 100% certainty about your specific reading of a passage couldn’t possibly be a Christian.

My question is: what the hell?

I’m serious in asking that. There was a time when I held this very position. But man—I was being such a jackass. How could I have assumed that total conformity to the way I saw things was necessary for salvation?

“The Conservative Jackass is an excluder. A person who knows the Truth and is unwilling to acknowledge the validity of any person or position that differs. His argument of choice is the slippery slope.”

I think the answer to that question is that I was my own God. And this is an important point. Anytime God agrees with 100% of our conclusions, then without a doubt we are our own Gods. When this is the case, either we have perfectly understood the mind of God—which, without question, is impossible—or our conception of God is simply: “He’s a deity who agrees with me on everything.” (Incidentally, there’s a great Bob Dylan song about this.)

The Conservative Jackass is an excluder. A person who knows the Truth and is unwilling to acknowledge the validity of any person or position that differs.

The Conservative Jackass’ argument of choice is the slippery slope. Leave room for disagreement on one tenet of your fundamentalist beliefs and pretty soon you’ll have slid all the way to liberalism (the dirtiest word imaginable: worse even than “unloving”). Allow for the possibility of some non-scientific terminology in Genesis 1–2, and pretty soon you’ll be asking Richard Dawkins into your heart. Question the traditional assumption of what “male headship” entails and before you know it, all of our superheroes will be replaced with women. Acknowledge that Paul warns against getting drunk but that the Bible nowhere prohibits drinking and—POOF!—the pulpit in your church will be replaced with a beer pong table.

I’m being super snarky (another form of jackassery, without doubt), but I’m just trying to illustrate how illogical and dangerous the slippery slope argument is. And yet the Conservative Jackass lives in constant fear of “if we allow ________, then _________.”

Just as with every type of jackass, this is so unlike Jesus. He said the greatest commands were to love God and love people. The Conservative Jackass minimizes this passage (a command which Jesus said was the most important) and acts as thought the greatest command is to develop and then insist upon perfect doctrine (a command which literally does not exist).

I realize I’m coming down pretty hard here; it’s because I am the Conservative Jackass. The problem isn’t being conservative, it’s being a jackass about it. But good news: the solution isn’t a big mystery. Simply spend time focusing on Jesus. Take a year to read the Gospels more than you read Paul’s letters, for example. Pray that God will allow you to see other people as he sees them. Try prioritizing love over doctrine. The best news of all is that ultimately, the solution is Jesus. He’s the cure for every type of jackass.

Don Freaking Quixote

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In Miguel De Cervantes’ classic novel Don Quixote, the eponymous hero is a knight on a quest. He is brave, chivalrous, and relentless. You won’t find a more committed knight in any of the classical literature. But there’s one problem: the entirety of his knightly career is misguided.

Whenever he engages in brave combat, he is always confused and always mistaken. In one famous episode he charges ahead to attack a windmill with his lance, believing the windmill to be a giant terrorizing the countryside. It doesn’t end well, but Don Quixote doesn’t learn anything from the encounter. He manages to miss the fact that they were never giants; he was fighting against windmills the entire time.

Throughout the classic novel, he attacks the innocent and wins meaningless prizes. He is sincere in his passion and utterly fearless. But it all means nothing, because he is misguided from the moment he steps out the door. Don Quixote’s life is tragic—not because he was a hero who fell tragically in the end, but because his every brave endeavor was tragically foolish from beginning to end. The story is humorous, but if Don Quixote were a real person, we wouldn’t be laughing.

Hard as it is to say, I believe Don Quixote is a good parable for much of the modern Church. It’s a caution for all believers throughout history (from Israel to the Modern Church). God’s people have a propensity to drift from the main thing (relationship with God and others) to empty things. This is why the prophets spoke tirelessly against Israel’s wanderings and Paul wrote letters to correct drifting churches.

One of the effects of the Fall is that our human hearts have to fight hard for the things that matter. It doesn’t come naturally. But another effect of the Fall is that we end up fighting for the wrong things. And fighting in the wrong ways. Brokenness prevails, even in hearts that have been redeemed.

I’d love to leave it at that, but I have to go a step further. I am Don Quixote. I pursue so many things with a righteous zeal, but many of those things turn out to be weird, insignificant, or harmful. I can never tell in the moment. (Honestly, I can’t say for sure if jackasstheology.com is just a place for me to be a jackass. I’m not even confident that’s not true for this post I’m writing right now.)

I wish I weren’t Don Quixote, but I know I am. And I’m positive I’m not alone. How many of the areas in which we Christians have scolded, reprimanded, and diminished people could be considered “close to the heart of Jesus”? Be careful how quickly you answer.

“Don Quixote was fully sincere in his quest. Nothing had mattered more in his life than defeating those giants. But the giants were just windmills. Is it possible some of the battles we are fighting are just as misguided?”

As Ryan and I have started Jackass Theology, it’s honestly been difficult for us to look at our own tendencies and the emphases of the American Church and not see much of it as misguided. Maybe we haven’t gone full Don Quixote, but it seems clear that we’ve been charging more than a few windmills.

What’s actually being propagated and protected is not Jesus himself, but a subculture produced by followers of Jesus. Not Jesus, but a derivative of Jesus, with all of its own battles and preoccupations. This is nothing new, but the Pharisees are a reminder that derivatives can be dangerous!

The problem, of course, is that Don Quixote was fully sincere in his quest. Those windmills were real giants to him. Nothing had ever mattered more in Don Quixote’s life to that point than courageously battling that particular giant. The error lies not in his sincerity or passion, but in the misguided nature of his pursuits.

Where do you draw the line? What battles do you consider worth fighting? And who do you see yourself fighting against? (Are you always the hero of your own story?)

Might future generations of Jesus followers look back at our preoccupations and wonder how we could have gotten so concerned over these things?

More importantly, might Jesus disagree with the things we spend our passions on? Having encountered Jesus in the four Gospels, does it seem like he’d be uptight and restrictive about the same things we are, fighting all of the same battles we devote ourselves to?

And really, should we be devoting ourselves to any battles? Or should we just be pursuing Jesus and the people he has placed in our lives to love?

The Sin of Certainty

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What a great title, right? I didn’t come up with it. It’s the title of a great book by Peter Enns, and it fits so well with the concept of Jackass Theology.

Enns argues that the Christian community has come to equate Christianity with correct thinking. It’s about signing a doctrinal statement. It’s about knowing what you believe and never doubting. It’s about doing more Bible studies and listening to more sermons and reading more theology books. And each of these things has their place.

But Enns argues that it’s less about correct thinking and more about trust in a person. Faith, he says, is not primarily a WHAT word. It’s a WHO word. It’s not so much about WHAT we believe, it’s more about WHO we believe.

It’s true that Christians have talked for a long time about “asking Jesus into your heart” and “the difference between a head knowledge and a heart knowledge of God.” But think about how nervous we get when we hear of a friend who is “questioning their faith” (cue horror movie music). Honestly, we’re more likely to talk about the sin of doubt than the sin of certainty.

We’re worried lest someone fail to recount the gospel according to our party’s nuanced understanding. We flip out when someone appears to be associated with a person we consider theologically suspect. When our pastor says something we’re not sure about, we rush to consult with John Piper’s blog or John MacArthur’s commentaries to determine whether or not we need to find a new church.

Okay, you may be saying, I can agree that certainty is not everything, but where does the sin come in?

Enns insists that trust means letting go of the need to be certain. If you need proof, you’re not trusting. If you wait till you’re certain, there’s no room for faith. That doesn’t mean we need to be illogical or intellectually lazy. But it does mean that God values trust over scholarship. Enns says:

“Letting go of the need for certainty is more than just a decision about how we think; it’s a decision about how we want to live. When the quest for finding and holding on to certainty is central to our faith, our lives are marked by traits we wouldn’t necessarily value in others: unflappable dogmatic certainty, vigilant monitoring of who’s in and who’s out, preoccupation with winning debates and defending the faith, privileging the finality of logical arguments, conforming unquestionably to intellectual authorities and celebrities. A faith like that is in constant battle mode…and soon, you forget what faith looks like when you’re not fighting about it.”

A healthy faith actually has room for doubt. Often, doubt is a symptom of life because it shows there is a wrestle, a tension, a process. If your intellectual belief is the kind of thing where you decide it once and then live your life without ever consider this in any greater depth, that’s not healthy.

“Kierkegaard wrote that just as a kid who’s about to receive a spanking pads his butt with a newspaper, so Christians insulate themselves from the force of Christ’s call through scholarship.”

And back to the sin. Our quest for certainty often makes us less dependent on Jesus. Often, we want certainty because we lack trust. When we’re certain, we’re unpersuadable. Any married person can immediately see the dangers here. Trust is relational; certainty is cerebral. God wants our brains, to be sure. But he wants more than that.

Kierkegaard wrote that just as a kid who’s about to receive a spanking pads his butt with a newspaper, so Christians insulate themselves through scholarship—building up layers of intellectual nuance so that we’re not hit as hard by the force of what Jesus is calling us to.

Sometimes I get frustrated at the way certain things in Scripture are worded. Honestly, if God wanted to, he could have said things clearly enough that we wouldn’t disagree over things like predestination and women in ministry and the best form of gathering as a church. That urge you are feeling right now to comment, “He has made it clear! Let me explain!” stems from the sin of certainty. Honestly, some things are less than clear, which is why Jesus-loving scholars and lay people have been arguing about these things for centuries.

I read a tweet from someone (I honestly have no idea who and have no idea how to track it back down) that said something like, “I sometimes think God left certain things in Scripture less than clear so that we would have to learn to love people we disagree with.” Amen.

Here’s to letting go of certainty and embracing trust. Let’s learn everything we can about God and his world, but let’s prioritize faith. Let’s give Jesus our heads, but primarily, let’s give him our hearts.

Superhuman Jackass Guy

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I have a lot of people come up to me and say, “I love what you said, but I’m not like that.”

My friend West told me about a sermon he preached where he said something along these lines: “We all think we do our own thing, but look how many of us are wearing black North Face jackets. We didn’t all independently decide this would be a great jacket, we wear it because we saw other people wearing it.” He said that after the sermon, people came up to him wearing black North Face jackets, explaining, “This was a gift, I didn’t pick it out myself!” I call this person super human guy.

I understand super human guy because I am super human guy. This is how I have lived most of my Christian life. I used to even think to myself, “How can I figure out the exact right rhythm so that I read my Bible, share Jesus with my neighbor, love everyone with perfection, be the perfect father, be extraordinarily patient and extraordinarily kind, be extraordinarily bold, extraordinarily brave? I will never be a hypocrite. I will never be a Pharisee. I will never be part of the problem. No lust. No greed. No flaw guy.” In other words, I wanted to be super human guy, making it clear to everyone why I’m not the problem.

I really have a problem admitting my limitations. And I’m not the only one. Yeah, we know all have sinned and fall short. All Christians acknowledge that. I’m talking about something different though: learning to be comfortable with our limitations. Not just our physical limitations in time and space, but our limitations in understanding, comprehending, and emoting. Our inability to actually discern and know and handle truth in objective ways, without going on the defensive. Can I live in such a way that it’s not offensive to know I am severely limited, flawed, and often wrong? 

Adam and Eve thought they could be limitless even before Bradley Cooper’s magic little pill. They thought that if they had the knowledge of Good and Evil they could use it, control it, harness it; they thought they could discern and not be deceived, because after all, doesn’t knowledge help us avoid deception?

Bradley Cooper in Limitless

Super human guy is the biggest of all jackasses, because super human guy hasn’t ignored part of the Bible, he has ignored ALL of it. Humans are limited, unable to be God. Absolutely reliant. Remember the analogy that Paul used in 1 Corinthians 12? That we are all pieces of a Body? Which may in fact mean that no matter what you say, no matter how solid the New Year’s Resolution strategy, you are limited guy (or gal). There is no superman here.

“If you claim you’re not a jackass, you’re claiming to be God: unlimited in your ability to love, to discern accurately. No manipulation, tantrums, prejudice, greed. But that person is God. And you’re not him.”

We like to think, “Sure, I’m less than perfect. But I’m not the problem.” But “less than perfect” is just a euphemism. Our world isn’t messed up because we’re “less than perfect.” It’s the REALLY bad stuff that has ruined our world. Like wanting sex with someone else’s spouse, refusing to forgive even when someone is begging for it. Hording things while other humans starve. Bullying the weak. That’s what ruins the world. The pain in this world exists because of big time jackasses. So it isn’t just that I “missed the mark” (a euphemism for sin), as though I’m not really bad and couldn’t be the real problem. It’s more like Vice President Cheney’s hunting accident, where he missed the target (a duck) and instead hit his hunting buddy in the face. His aim may not have been that far off, but it not a small problem, it’s a big problem.

And here’s the thing: I’m the big problem. So are you!

If you claim that you are not a jackass, you are claiming to be God: Unlimited in your ability to love. Unlimited in your ability to discern accurately at all times. Unlimited in your emotional response to horrible situations. No emotional manipulation, no childish fits, no temper tantrums, no prejudice, no faulty assumptions. No lust. No greed. No mistake guy. Superman guy. But that guy is God. And you’re not him.

Limitation is human. Embrace it. It’s even a huge part of the solution. What if limitation wasn’t a problem to be overcome, but actually part of the solution? Without limitation we are all our own gods and an absolute bloody mess. What if we are limited ON PURPOSE? What if our limitations aren’t supposed to all be overcome, but stand as reminders of our NEED? Constantly pointing us to our need for God, and our need for OTHERS.

The comments are open, so feel free to tell me why you didn’t pick your black North Face jacket because everyone else likes them. Tell me why you’re not the super human jackass guy…

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.

Kierkegaard & the Cure for Jackass

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The 19th Century Danish philosopher and theologian Søren Kierkegaard is without question one of the most influential thinkers in history. If that statement surprises you, it’s because his thinking comes to most of us indirectly through many currently-influential voices. He’s the philosopher equivalent of the bands who influenced the Beatles, who in turn influenced every musician you’ve ever enjoyed.

But he doesn’t do much direct influencing of modern readers because it takes a lot of work to dig into. For one thing, he wrote a ton of books, and those books tended to have many hundreds of pages. But to make matters exceedingly irritating, many of Kierkegaard’s books were written under numerous pseudonyms (Victor Eremita, John Climacus, Anti-Climacus, Hilarius Bookbinder, etc. etc. etc.). Some of these pseudonyms seem to represent more nearly than others what Kierkegaard himself believed, but it’s impossible to be sure.

Kierkegaard would play games with these pseudonyms. He would release two books by two different pseudonyms on the same day, or within a couple of weeks of each other. While he was producing these works, he would be sure to be seen in public frequently so that no one would suspect him of being the author of these works (a bit of theatre that worked for a time, but not for long). These books would offer different points of view on Christianity, philosophy, ethics, and society. Kierkegaard also published many books under his own name, but it still takes a lot of brainpower to untangle the relationship between this Kierkegaard and the pseudonymous authors of Kierkegaard’s other books.

Because of these bizarre methods, there’s no consensus on what Kierkegaard himself actually believed, no universally agreed upon “theology of Soren Kierkegaard.” We only have different camps of scholars who tend to hold the same general view of how it all fits together.

I’m tempted to think of that as a frustrating loss. But I’m realizing that it’s not. It’s actually a gift.

How can I possibly claim that this quirky, controversial, confusing philosopher could be the cure to jackass? Because the kind of reading that his books require would make us all better citizens by dismantling our biggest hurdle to mutual understanding.

When I first started reading Kierkegaard’s works, I read them as I read any book. I was in search of “Kierkegaard’s theology.” I wanted to know his views on things. When I do this with any author, I get a feel for their positions, and then I decide whether or not I agree with Calvin or Piper or Wright or Lewis. My thinking is binary (good author or bad author), and my mind is typically made up on a snap judgment rather than careful consideration. But this is actually unhealthy. Because I actually agree with and disagree with all of these authors.

“When you read Kierkegaard, you’re never quite sure where he’s heading or what it means to ‘agree with Kierkegaard.’ With each argument you must decide what you think. “

Why do I feel compelled to side with some authors and against others? Wouldn’t it be healthier to learn from each author and pull the most helpful parts from each? Isn’t it most important to walk away better informed and inwardly transformed as a result of wrestling with important concepts? How does it help me to be able to “agree with John Piper” or whomever, as though it’s all or nothing? Really, it just makes us all that much more divided. Encamped. Partisan.

But Kierkegaard’s bizarre style won’t let us get away with this. You have to think for yourself. When you read Kierkegaard, you have to engage with his actual arguments, because you’re never quite sure where he’s heading and you rarely get a clear picture of what it means to “agree with Kierkegaard.” You have to decide, to “judge for yourself” (to use a Kierkegaardian phrase). With each pseudonym; each book; each paragraph, sentence, and argument, you must weigh and decide what you think.

It’s infuriating. And exhausting. And healthy.

Our political climate is so polarized. You’re republican or you’re democrat. You’re pro or anti whomever. You’re pro this or anti that. We deal in sound bites, in memes. Your response has to be instant. You have to be outraged or impressed within seconds, and if you don’t make a social media statement right now then you’re siding for or against someone or something bad or good!

Don’t you hate it? Isn’t it ugly? Don’t you feel in your bones that we need something better, something more sustainable?

What we need, I submit, is a Kierkegaardian reading of everything. Take your time. You’ll have to decide, but don’t simply follow the party line. Do your homework. Weigh each comment, each argument, each moment on its own merits.

Judge for yourself.

Kierkegaard also rails against indecision, so you do have to make up your mind. Deciding is important, but you’re not allowed to decide by default, by following your tribe’s voting guide. If we could all retrain our habits of engagement in light of Kierkegaard’s infuriatingly inefficient approach, perhaps we’d learn to understand each other better, to renounce the “hot take.” We would then develop wise, patiently-formed, true-to-the-depths-of-our-soul convictions, and we could hold hands and walk away from the echo chambers we’ve been told to pledge allegiance to.

If you want to start on a super healthy journey, I encourage you to read some Kierkegaard. You can do it. I recommend you start with his masterpiece: Works of Love.