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Why Jesus Is the Cure for Jackass

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

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

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

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

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

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

He joined us.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Merry Christmas.

The Missional Jackass

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The method is never the answer. God is.

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

Kierkegaard: Love Believes All Things

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

LOVE BELIEVES ALL THINGS

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is not how we tend to think about love.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Rachel Held Evans & the Fight Against Jackassery

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Party

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

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

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

And who do you want to have there?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Weary Jackass

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

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

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

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


– “The Pulley,” George Herbert, 1633

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– Ecclesiastes 1:8

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– Matthew 11:28

Joshua Harris: An Opportunity for Empathy

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Author Joshua Harris influenced a whole generation of evangelical Christians with his book I Kissed Dating Goodbye. Now he has a new documentary, called I Survived I Kissed Dating Goodbye, about his new ideas on dating.

This last weekend, Joshua Harris posted this on Instagram:

“My heart is full of gratitude. I wish you could see all the messages people sent me after the announcement of my divorce. They are expressions of love though they are saddened or even strongly disapprove of the decision.

“I am learning that no group has the market cornered on grace. This week I’ve received grace from Christians, atheists, evangelicals, exvangelicals, straight people, LGBTQ people, and everyone in between. Of course there have also been strong words of rebuke from religious people. While not always pleasant, I know they are seeking to love me. (There have been spiteful, hateful comments that angered and hurt me.)

“The information that was left out of our announcement is that I have undergone a massive shift in regard to my faith in Jesus. The popular phrase for this is ‘deconstruction,’ the biblical phrase is ‘falling away.’ By all the measurements that I have for defining a Christian, I am not a Christian. Many people tell me that there is a different way to practice faith and I want to remain open to this, but I’m not there now…

“To my Christian friends, I am grateful for your prayers. Don’t take it personally if I don’t immediately return calls. I can’t join in your mourning. I don’t view this moment negatively. I feel very much alive, and awake, and surprisingly hopeful. I believe with my sister Julian that, ‘All shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.’”

Joshua isn’t the first or last person whose soul-searching journey led them out of the faith. Sometimes when someone leaves it is obvious that they are doing it in a willful desire to justify sin (think Prodigal Son). Other times it is about the wearisome nature of the church and its subculture, the dissonant value systems between Christians and their Christ, or the deafening silence of God. In these moments I empathize with Josh’s struggle.

Empathy is an important word. In Romans 12, Paul says, “Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep.” That means empathetic living. Opening yourself up to feel what others feel is a tremendous way to love people.

Sympathy can have a tinge of superiority. I feel sorry for you because you are experiencing pain. Sympathy is not the same as empathy. Empathy says, I feel pain as you feel pain.

The important thing about feeling what others feel is recognizing that you CAN ACTUALLY feel what others feel, and you CAN feel it without condoning ALL of their behaviors or beliefs.

My kids constantly celebrate things and cry about things that are objectively stupid. But I love my kids so I celebrate their stick figure drawings with them and I show empathy for their imaginary bruises (sometimes). The truth is that loving my kids doesn’t mean that I need to think that all the things they celebrate and cry about are wonderful and accurate. It’s enough to see someone I love sad, or someone I love happy. The question is: Can I join them in their pain and joy?

I want to be clear. I do not know Joshua Harris personally, but I am sure that the last several years of his personal life and faith life have been filled with both tears and joy. Tears over the emotional and spiritual turmoil of coming to grips with what you truly believe. His divorce may be amicable, but that doesn’t mean there were not hours upon hours of hurt and pain involved in coming to this decision. Have you ever felt these type of emotions? Have you ever struggled in your relationships? Have you ever changed your mind on something you believed? Have you ever been scrutinized and/or attacked by strangers who don’t know you?

Objectively, these things suck. You don’t have to assume a person is sinless to acknowledge that these things suck and to weep with the one who weeps.

Can you weep with Josh? I’m not asking if you can weep about the fact that he is stepping away from his beliefs. Nor am I asking how his situation makes you feel about Christian leaders. I’m asking if you can weep over his pain. Don’t make this about you. This is about him and his wife and his kids. Can you be sad for him about the things that are painful for him?

And now I’m going to ask for more than most of my readers would probably consider: Josh said he feels awake, alive, and hopeful. Given everything he’s been experiencing, this may be the first time in a while he’s felt these things. Can you rejoice with him?

“Joshua Harris made a heavy announcement. Will we weep with him as he weeps AND rejoice with him as he rejoices? Or will we make this about our opinions and expectations and lose sight of the person in process?”

This one is probably much more difficult to wrap you head around. You may feel that celebrating with Josh is celebrating sin or celebrating walking away from Jesus. (Many readers are doing exactly that, this one is easy for many of you.) I want to be clear, I do not believe the Bible calls us to celebrate sin. So without celebrating sin, is it possible to rejoice in the journey that Joshua is on? Is it okay to be hopeful for him? Is it okay to celebrate some of the freedom he now feels from the religious expectation that has likely oppressed him his entire life? The freedom of finally being honest about what he believes and the state of his marriage? It is truly a soul-crushing endeavor to be living a lie. He must feel free in this moment. He seems excited. I am happy for him. Not happy that he “fell away;” happy that the burdens and expectations saddled upon him have been lifted and that possibilities for the future are wide open. I pray blessings upon Joshua Harris. I want good things for him.

To be clear, in my paradigm, that means I also pray that he comes to see that Jesus was not the source of his frustration: religion was. I pray he comes to know the easy and light burden of Christ in new ways. I pray God works all these things for his good. But that’s what I want for him. Empathy doesn’t start there. Empathy begins by listening and understanding him.

Have Fewer Opinions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why We’re So Prone to Exclude

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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