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Clanging Cymbal Theology

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“If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.” – 1 Corinthians 13:1–3

I have only one question in this post: Was Paul serious when he said this? Because these are strong words. In fact, I think these are the kinds of words you or I would take heat for saying were they not recorded in the Bible.

Think about it. What if we didn’t have these verses in the Bible, and I told you that you could have perfect theology, knowing everything about the mysteries of God, but it would be absolutely meaningless without love for the people around you? Or imagine that I told you that you could have perfect faith, or put that faith into practice by giving away all of your possessions, but that without love for people this wouldn’t matter whatsoever. What if I told you that you could be a fearless martyr for the faith, but that if your life wasn’t marked by love, you’d gain nothing and be nothing?

I honestly think that if Paul hadn’t written these words, and if I came making statements like these, that I’d be shut down by people quoting chapter and verse on why doctrinal accuracy is most important, why God wants us to rebuke heretics rather than love them, and why we should be careful not to “love people into hell.”

But Paul’s words here are stunning. Get every theological nuance exactly right, he says, and without love, it doesn’t do anyone any good. Say anything you want, no matter how right or beautiful or biblical it is, and if it’s not saturated in and motivated by love, then your words sound like a noisy gong or clanging cymbal.

We don’t take Paul’s words seriously. How much of the Christian internet could be classified as clanging cymbal theology? Every sarcastic correction of someone’s theology, every “farewell” to a Christian leader who puts a doctrinal toe out of line (or is assumed to have done so). Honestly, I wonder if less than 99% of the theologically-related tweets launched into the twittersphere would pass Paul’s test.

How different would our culture be if we took Paul’s words seriously? Would the words “Christian” and “church” be synonymous with “hypocrite” and “judgmental” if we had been heeding Paul’s warning?

If we did pay attention to what Paul said here, what would it look like?

“Theology is not the main concern. People are. Actually, people are the main concern because God is always the highest concern. And God is love. So Theology without love is not theology: it’s heresy.”

I’ll make an important admission here: If my daughter says something theologically inaccurate, my initial response to her is very different than my initial response to someone on Facebook who challenges something I post. Why? Because I love my daughter deeply, and I’m so concerned for her personal growth and human flourishing that I try to avoid tearing her down. I want her to know and love God deeply, which is exactly why I don’t tear her apart for theological thoughts. Instead, I want to push her to wrestle, to think, to consider all of the information, to come to know the biblical texts, and to encounter Jesus for herself. In these moments, the last thing I want to be is a clanging cymbal. I want her to actually hear what I’m saying.

But when I respond quickly on social media, I’m often just trying to defend my point. The theology is my main concern, not the person. And this is exactly Paul’s point. The theology is not the main concern, the person is. And the person is the main concern in any given situation because God is the ultimate concern in every situation. And God is love. It’s NOT that theology doesn’t matter. But it IS that theology without love doesn’t matter.

Consider this last thought. Since I first started getting serious about theology, I’ve made it my goal to collect and develop answers to doctrinal questions. Love is one of those doctrines I believed in, but Paul’s strongly stated point here was lost on me. That’s not because I was a great theologian who was lacking one peripheral quality (love(. It’s because I was immature. Look at how Paul ends this passage:

“When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways. 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. So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.” (1 Corinthians 11:11–13)

It’s eluded me for ages but it now seems so obvious. Paul’s “childishness” was not his inability to lay out theological arguments. It was his lovelessness. A child can speak confidently but lack love. But once Paul grew up, he realized that love was the greatest of all.

How childish I have been. How childish so much of the church insists on being (myself still included). If only we actually believed that the greatest of these is love.

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.

You Can’t Write about Jackassery without Being a Jackass

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I’d like to bring you into my struggle with this blog a bit. A few weeks ago, I wrote about some very demeaning statements John MacArthur and Phil Johnson made about Beth Moore. I said their comments were cruel and seemed designed to wound. I still stand by those statements. But here’s the thing. I’m pretty sure I myself was a jackass in my response.

When a person decides to start a blog about being a jackass, one quickly discovers that it’s impossible to point out jackassery without frequently dipping into the very evil one is trying to eradicate. Turns out, that’s Jackass Theology Blogging 101.

If you’ve been around for a minute, you know that Ryan and I have tried to be very confessional throughout. We can clearly see the jackass tendencies in ourselves and in each other, so we try to write about that rather than always pointing out the jackassery we see in the world around us.

But I know we don’t always get it right.

I have re-read my post about John MacArthur many times, and I keep praying through whether or not the things I said were appropriate. Am I calling attention to an example of the ways our pursuit of orthodoxy can become a manifestation of the “works of the flesh” rather than the “fruit of the Spirit”? I think so. Most of you thought so as well. But then some of you saw my post playing into “outrage culture” or “cancel culture.” Were my words any better than the demeaning words I was hoping to call us away from? I honestly don’t know for sure (again, I keep re-reading and am not myself convinced), but I am confident that I didn’t get it all right. I tried to affirm my appreciation for MacArthur’s ministry and tried to use it as a means of calling us on to something better than what he did that one day. I’m sure I botched it. He loves Jesus, and I don’t want to have torn him down. I’m sincerely sorry for the ways my post tore down anything that’s good and belongs to the kingdom of God.

Here’s something I know for sure: I am not God. Jesus would get this blog exactly right at every turn. I know I’m not going to be able to do that. However, I don’t believe that making mistakes is reason enough for burning the whole thing to the ground. Instead, I think it’s a great reminder that I am not God, and that I need to continue to confess and seek him. I absolutely believe that examples of our own jackassery are more powerful than examples of the jackassery in Christian celebrities. My own examples get far fewer clicks, but they’re more meaningful. And prevalent.

I still think it’s worth fighting jackassery. But I know we’ll constantly need to acknowledge the ways it creeps out of our own mouths and actions. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn helpfully said, “The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either – but right through every human heart.” If that’s not true, I don’t know what is. And truly, the line separating jackasses from Spirit-filled people does not pass through theological camps or denominations, but right through every human heart. Including my own. Especially my own.

“The line separating jackasses from Spirit-filled people does not pass through theological camps or denominations, but right through every human heart. Including my own. Especially my own.”

We’re still trying to learn how to expose jackassery and say “that’s not okay” and “that’s not from God” while keeping ourselves unstained from jackassery. I’d love to say that we’ll find the balance at some point, but I know that’s not true. We’re not Jesus, and he’s the only one who completely avoids jackassery. But he’s also the one who heals jackassery, so there’s a lot of hope there.

The reason we’re fighting this battle is because we believe we all need to let go of our petty doctrinal certitude and our need to be right and instead cling to Jesus. And that’s a battle worth fighting. We should expect that along the way we ourselves will need to acknowledge times we’ve co-opted the moral high ground and begun to speak with the voice of the jackass. After all, we need Jesus as much as anyone. He’s the point of it all anyway, and I’m glad for a chance to acknowledge my dependence on him.

If We Cared More, We’d Fight Less

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Becket Cook: WWJD LGBT?

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The following is a guest post from Becket Cook, a friend of ours, a Hollywood set designer, and the author of A Change of Affection: A Gay Man’s Incredible Story of Redemption.


On Sunday, September 20, 2009, I walked into an evangelical church in Hollywood called Reality LA as a self-proclaimed atheist and a gay man; two hours later I walked out a born-again Christian who no longer identified as gay. The power of the gospel utterly transformed me during that service. I now live as a single, celibate man.

It wasn’t condemning guilt heaped on me by Christians that spurred the transformation. It was the power of God. I am happy to deny myself and take up my cross and follow Jesus, because He’s infinitely worth it!

Let’s start by asking the obvious question: What would Jesus do with regards to those in the LGBT community? Would He distance himself from them? Would He refuse to interact with them? Would He look at them as a lost cause and move on? Would He protest gay pride parades? Would He hold up signs with condemning slogans scrawled across them? Would He reject them?

Quite the opposite.

In the Synoptic Gospels, we see Jesus dining with “sinners and tax collectors.” This was incredibly counter-cultural. Instead of acting like the religious folks of His day, He deigned to dine with “those people.” This unexpected action mortified and mystified the religious class. They were downright indignant. In His typical fashion, Jesus schools them:

I came not to call the righteous, but sinners. — Mark 2:17
Jesus focused on individuals, not groups (the story of the Samaritan woman at the well, for example). He was after people’s hearts, hence His deeply personal approach to those whom He encountered.

Of course, Jesus never compromised the truth: Unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. — Luke 13:3

But Jesus was the master of balancing grace with truth. He does this perfectly throughout the Gospels.

My sister-in-law, Kim, was a natural at this. For me, she was a great example of how a Christian should respond to this issue. She has been a strong believer since early in her childhood. I met her when I was in high school, and she started dating my older brother, Greg. She and I always had a special bond; we enjoyed chatting and hanging out with each other. Years later, after I came out as gay to my whole family, my relationship with Kim remained the same, even though she was what I would have called a Bible-thumping, evangelical Christian. I knew that she knew that I knew that she believed homosexuality was a sin, but I never felt an ounce of condemnation from her. She never sat me down to explain to me that I was sinning. She never quoted Bible verses to me. She never judged me for my lifestyle. Instead, she did something far more dangerous: she prayed…for twenty years!

Over the years, while living in Los Angeles, I would go back to Dallas (my hometown) for Christmas. One of the highlights of my visits was getting together with Kim at the nearest coffee shop. We would chat for hours. I would talk about guys; she would talk about God. She was genuinely interested in my life, and never once said to me, “You know, you’re still sinning.” She was very open about her faith and would talk about what God was doing in her life. But this didn’t bother me, because I sensed an unconditional love from her. Her love for me didn’t increase or decrease based on whether or not I was in a relationship with a guy at that particular moment. In other words, she didn’t withhold love from me because of the way I lived my life.

She did two key things throughout the years: she loved me unconditionally and prayed for me without ceasing. That’s it. And it worked!

I was recently invited to a small dinner party at an incredibly beautiful home in Malibu. A friend from church was a work colleague with the owner, who was a gay man. Much to my friend’s and my surprise, the owner wanted to hear more about Christianity. He was curious as to why two gay guys would give up that life to follow Christ. Of course, we were more than happy to have this opportunity to share the Gospel with this group of relatively hardened skeptics, both gay and straight. The only problem was that our gracious host had failed to mention to his friends that two evangelical Christians, who had both been saved out of the homosexual life, were the guests of honor!

When, immediately after the first course was served, our host turned to me and asked if I would share my story with everyone at the table, I almost choked on my fennel salad. But as I was detailing the story of my conversion, I saw a look of genuine interest on the faces of the listeners; that is, until one of them asked the $64,000 question: “What about your sexuality?” As I addressed that issue, there was a sudden shift in the room. The mood quickly changed from polite interest to semi-hostile disgust. I tried my best to explain why homosexual behavior was incompatible with Christianity, when suddenly the discussion at the table became very animated. Various guests were chiming in with their own views, not only on this incendiary subject but on “spirituality” in general.

After our second course, the conversation started to become heated. So much so that at one point, when I felt like it was getting out of hand, I stopped everyone and said: “Guys, guys. I just want you all to know that the only reason I drove an hour out to Malibu on a school night during midterms (I was in seminary at the time) is because I love you! That’s it. I’m not here to win an argument. I’m here because I love you. Period.” Everyone was taken aback by this unexpected expression of my motives. A few of them seemed dumbstruck. The temperature in the room instantly dropped, bonhomie was quickly restored, and the evening ended on a good note. We didn’t experience a mass conversion that evening, but I was thankful for the opportunity to share what God has done in my life. Seeds were planted.

According to Jesus, the second greatest commandment is to love our neighbor as ourselves.

“Love people without condemning. Billy Graham famously said, ‘It is the Holy Spirit’s job to convict, God’s job to judge, and my job to love.’ This could make all the difference in the world.”

We know what happened when the lawyer was foolish enough to put Jesus to the test by asking who his neighbor was. After telling the Parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus asks the lawyer which man in the parable proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among robbers. The lawyer responds,

The one who showed him mercy.

Jesus told him to go and do likewise (Luke 10:25-37).

Let us also do likewise. Get a coffee or share a meal with a gay family member or friend. Love him or her without condemning. This could make all the difference in the world. I think Billy Graham put it best when he famously said, “It is the Holy Spirit’s job to convict, God’s job to judge, and my job to love.”


A Word from Jackass Theology
We, Ryan and Mark, appreciate Becket and his story so much. God has carried him through a lot, and when the time was perfect, God got Becket’s attention and grabbed his heart. While we know there are severe disagreements regarding issues related to the LGBT community, Becket’s story is a great example of God’s love traveling through loving relationships.

We highly recommend Becket’s new memoir. It’s an incredible story, and he challenges all of us—gay or straight–to give ourselves fully to Jesus.

In an effort to stand firm on God’s truth, we have joined many other Christians in treating beautiful people made in God’s image like jackasses. This is yet another area where we have had to confess our jackassery and ask, as Becket does, What Would Jesus Do? On the other hand, Becket has also taken a lot heat regarding his book because he now holds a non-affirming stance. All of this is Becket’s story, he’s sharing what happened to him and the convictions he developed. Jackassery can flow in both directions; we all need to relate to one another in love. Becket’s story is a reminder that we don’t have to drop our convictions to love and value another person. Remember that Jesus said the world would know that we are his disciples by our love (John 13:35), not by our impeccable moral standards or firmly articulated convictions.

C.S. Lewis’ Cure for Our Partisan Venom

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I can tell you right now this is going to be the best post I’ve ever written. Because most of this article comes directly from C.S. Lewis. What follows is from Lewis’ famous preface to the 4th Century church father Athanasius’ book On the Incarnation. That, plus a few words of my own clumsily explaining why Lewis’ words here could cure our hyper-partisan and heavily-jackassed culture.

“Every age has its own outlook. It is especially good at seeing certain truths and especially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books. All contemporary writers share to some extent the contemporary outlook… Nothing strikes me more when I read the controversies of past ages than the fact that both sides are usually assuming without question a good deal which we should now absolutely deny. They thought that they were as completely opposed as two sides could be, but in fact they were all the time secretly united—united with each other and against earlier and later ages—by a great mass of common assumptions… None of us can fully escape this blindness, but we shall certainly increase it, and weaken our guard against it, if we read only modern books… The only palliative is to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds, and this can be done only by reading old books. Not, of course, that there is any magic about the past. People were no cleverer then than they are now; they made as many mistakes as we. But not the same mistakes… Two heads are better than one, not because either is infallible, but because they are unlikely to go wrong in the same direction. To be sure, the books of the future would be just as good a corrective as the books of the past, but unfortunately we cannot get at them.”

See what I mean? Classic C.S.! Here we are, Clive says, fighting against each other, and assuming that we couldn’t be further apart in our positions. But when given a chance to compare our “polar opposite” positions to an old book, we find that our “opposites” don’t look as far apart by comparison.

C.S. Lewis said we only increase our blindness by reading modern books. Also read old books, he said: “They made as many mistakes as we. But not the same mistakes…”

So what’s the point? That reading books from a different age allows us to see with different eyes. Sure, those “different eyes” are as flawed as our own, but they’re still different. As Lewis says, “They made as many mistakes as we. But not the same mistakes.”

Do you see a connection here to the sources of our information? Read 100 Fox News articles and while they’ll differ from each other, they’ll all share many assumptions. Most of them the President will praise and a few he’ll ridicule, but they’re all within a certain stream. If you switch over to CNN, you’ll hear just as many errors. But they’ll be different errors. And they’ll differ from each other but they’ll share common assumptions. You can go a certain length toward healing the wound of one bias by viewing it light of another bias. And it’s exactly here that Clive Staples’ advice would be good to heed. This effect is multiplied when you read material from different cultures and different centuries. All full of mistakes, but the non-overlap of the mistakes helps us get a clearer picture.

Then Lewis says something even more fascinating:

“We are all rightly distressed, and ashamed also, at the division of Christendom. But those who have always lived within the Christian fold may be too easily dispirited by them. They are bad, but such people do not know what it looks like from without. Seen from there, what is left intact despite all the divisions, still appears (as it truly is) an immensely formidable unity… That unity any of us can find by going out of his own age. It is not enough, but it is more than you had thought till then.”

This is the surprising discovery of choosing to leave our echo chambers: we have more in common than we would dare to guess! And it’s small of us to insist that our differences are insurmountable.

And now for my favorite part. Good old C. describes the friendly fire you’ll receive from people in the echo chamber once you start seeing the essential unity we share (he knew this well):

“Once you are well soaked in it [the unity across the ages], if you then venture to speak, you will have an amusing experience. You will be thought a Papist when you are actually reproducing Bunyan, a Pantheist when you are quoting Aquinas, and so forth. For you have now got on to the great level viaduct which crosses the ages and which looks so high from the valley, so low from the mountains, so narrow compared with the swamps, and so broad compared with the sheep-tracks.”

Do we all know it’s a good thing to exit our echo chambers and listen to what other voices are telling us? I hope we do. But one thing you can count on: Talk about a Fox News article in front of your CNN friends and you’re in trouble. Quote Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in front of a Republican and you’d better brace yourself. Mention Richard Rohr to an Evangelical and prepare for a Reformation-centric lecture. Bring up Rob Bell to almost anyone and get ready for an eye roll.

We’re so partisan on so many fronts that we’ve lost the ability to listen to other voices. You have to agree with me that we’re all extremely biased. Right? We are encamped, but there are people traveling all around. Listening doesn’t require the abandonment of convictions. Loving doesn’t mean compromise.

We need to listen to, spend time with, and mutually love and serve people who are different than us. And to Lewis’ specific point, we could all stand to learn from those who came centuries before us. Our differences are more petty, more quixotic, than our small perspectives can imagine.

Narrowly Human

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So what, now?

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

Or are we destined to live narrowly human lives?

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

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

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 Feast

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

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

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

Why the table?

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

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

____________

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

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

_____________

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

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

___________

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

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

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

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

____________

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

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