How the Past Can Rescue the Present

At the start of new year, most of our attention is focused on what lies ahead. It’s really one of the few times we take our eyes of the present moment and begin to imagine the future. My wife and I love praying and planning for the season ahead.

But I also love studying the past. I’m not a history buff, but I enjoy learning about previous eras, particularly of church history. As a pastor, I am often comforted in knowing that the Church has faced challenges and dilemmas like the ones in our day before. We can learn from both the mistakes they made and the wisdom they displayed.

There are two types of snobbery when it comes to a view of time. There is the snobbery of progress— what C. S. Lewis called ‘chronological snobbery’. It is the belief that everything newer is more evolved, more enlightened, more advanced or sophisticated. This is a temptation precisely because there are aspects of it that are true: we know more about how the human brain works, how addictions occur, how spirituality integrates holistically with emotions and actions; and on and on. But not everything current is an improvement. The passing of time is not the same as progress. And, as Lewis pointed out, a culture or society may forget what it once knew.

The second kind of snobbery is the snobbery of nostalgia. This is the view that everything older is better; that the more historic the thing is, the richer it is. The way things used to be is automatically assumed to be better than the way things are. This view fails to account for the problems and flaws of every paradigm, or the challenges in every age, or even the way an allegedly abstract principle is actually deeply shaped by the context of its geography, politics, and more.

So, why does the past matter? Why study it if its not actually better than the present? Why can’t we just concern ourselves with the ‘now’ work of God? Once again, C. S. Lewis offers an insight:

“…we need intimate knowledge of the past. Not that the past has any magic about it, but because we cannot study the future, and yet need something to set against the present, to remind us that the basic assumptions have been quite different in different periods and that much which seems certain to the uneducated is merely temporary fashion.”

Just as a person “who has lived in many places is not likely to be deceived by the local errors of his native village,” so the person who “has lived in many times” is “in some degree immune from the…nonsense that pours from the press and the microphone of his own age.”

We study the past so that we do not become prisoners of the moment.

We study the past so that we can call into question the assumptions of our age.

We study the past so that we can gain an immunity from the myths of our day.

And so I press on…backwards to go forwards, free of the myopia of the moment. My current quest for chronological context includes reading this gem from Larry Hurtado (Emeritus Professor of New Testament Language, Literature, and Theology at the University of Edinburgh) on the unique qualities of early Christianity in the midst of both Jewish and pagan contexts.

Here’s one of the passages the struck me recently:

‘It is interesting that these pagan writers [in the first few centuries of Christianity] typically refer to Christians as dissonant and out of step, and as in tension with the larger culture of the time in some matters…Tacitus [the Roman writer around 112 AD who wrote on Nero’s accusations of Christians] claims that under Nero’s orders “an immense multitude” of Christians were arrested, who were convicted of “hatred of the human race,” and then were subjected to various forms of death.’

Huh. So, no matter how loving and kind Christians try to be, we still may be accused of being out of touch with the times (on the ‘wrong side of history’) and hateful? Well, now, that may challenge our paradigms.

But the rap on Christians in the first few centuries wasn’t all bad. Galen, a physician in the 2nd century, expressed ‘admiration for Christians, particularly for their courage in the face of death [not that the admiration for their courage was not a reason to rescind the death penalty!], their self-restraint in matters of sex, food, and drink, and their “keen pursuit of justice”.’ So, no need to tone down our admonishment of Christians today to embrace both a comprehensive view of justice and a temperate view of morality.

And yet, it may not be enough to keep people from viewing us– as Celsus the late second century pagan writer viewed early Christians– as ‘intellectually inferior people’.

There is so much more in Hurtado’s book that encourages and challenges me. And I think that’s the point: we need to study the past to see our own age more clearly.

We cannot compare the present to the future because we do not see the future clearly enough to know the implications of our theories and hypotheses. And we cannot live in the past as if the world remains unchanged. We must make two moves– the move to acquaint ourselves with the Church in previous eras, and then the move to see our own context with fresh eyes, and discern the Spirit’s work in us, here and now.

Better Sex, the Subjugation of Women, and Shades of the Real Thing

I’m blushing. I don’t write like this. I don’t like to talk like this in public. But when the public conversation is about a book and a movie that celebrates a kind of sexual expression, it is time to put a certain amount of shyness aside.

Before going further, I want to say that I know how people will view the response of Christians to this movie: Typical! Of course those prudish, old-fashioned nagging Evangelicals don’t like a movie about sex!

But while Christians are often vocal about what to boycott and what to ‘take a stand for’, we haven’t been the best about saying why. And in the few blogs I’ve skimmed from Christians, there is a lot of ‘Please just don’t go see it’ or ‘This is sin!’ talk going on.

So, this is my reluctant attempt to add to the dialogue by highlighting three things Christians affirm about sex, intimacy and our deepest longing:

1. Christians believe that the secret to better sex is not more erotic pleasure but more and truer intimacy. If you think that that the key to better sex is increased erotic pleasure, then any way of increasing erotic pleasure is something we should consider. This, by the way, has been the unstated presupposition of many Christian sex books, which are full of advice on how to spice up the marital bedroom. Christian readers have only paid attention to when to have sex– after you’re married!– and failed to recognize that these Christian sex-experts have the same faulty premise as a secular world: better sex comes from more pleasure.

But the Bible’s premise is actually quite different: better sex comes from more and truer intimacy. Sex is a physical enactment– the embodiment, if you will– of the one-ness between man and wife. (There is, of course, something to be said here about how the covenant of marriage is the only thing strong enough to protect and preserve the deep vulnerability that is necessary to develop intimacy.) As their lives have been made one and are becoming one– the ‘now and not yet’ of marriage– so sex becomes stronger and more meaningful.

2. Christians believe that all intimacy is the result of a mutual yielding, not one-side domination. When real intimacy and not raw erotic pleasure is the goal, you can never end up with abusive sex or sexual violence. The reason we detect contradictory voices in our culture– ‘Stop domestic violence!’ ‘End the subjugation of women’ and yet ‘I love “50 Shades”!’– is that we are thinking through the lens of pleasure and not intimacy.

Before Paul ever says a word about husbands and wives in his letter to the Ephesians, he admonishes us to submit to one another. Intimacy is the result of a mutual yielding. For two people to get close– friends, lovers, or even teammates and colleagues– each must give a little. Each must surrender a part of who they are for the sake of the other. This isn’t to be taken in a cold, contractual sense. It is the essence of self-giving love. The perfect picture of this is the Trinity, where personhood is not diminished but cherished as a result of mutual self-giving. A culture enamored with a picture of ‘love’ that looks like erotic pleasure from dominating or being dominated is one that has lost any sense of self-giving love.

3. Christians believe that sexuality awakens a thirst only spirituality can quench. Many of the Church Fathers linked the erotic language of the Song of Solomon to the church’s worship as the ‘bride of Christ’. (I know: you’re going to have to rethink your opposition to what you’ve dismissed as ‘all that Jesus is my boyfriend stuff’!) They saw baptism as a kind of wedding ceremony and the Eucharist as a kiss from Christ.

All this may sound strange, but they– and many Jewish rabbis before them– knew something we have forgotten: there is a link between sexuality and spirituality.

Actually, our culture is aware of this link as well, they’ve just inverted the relationship. See, for example, the popular song, ‘Take Me To Church’, which uses the language of spirituality to describe the experience of sexuality. It’s like Song of Solomon in reverse.

Here’s the point: sexuality awakens us to a deep thirst– the longing to be fully known and fully loved– which only spirituality can quench. This is why even before talking about mutual yielding, Paul the Apostle spoke of being filled with the Spirit. It is the Spirit of God who fills those who belong to Christ, who communicates to each believer their deep belovedness in Christ, and who reminds us how fully we are known and how deeply we are loved.

There are a whole lot of people whose thirst for intimacy has been awakened. They are more aware of a longing to be known and to be loved this weekend than perhaps at other times. Beyond boycotting a movie, Christians can be the ones who speak loudly and lovingly about the only place where we are fully known and fully loved: in Christ.

Is There a Difference Between Public Statements and Pastoral Exhortation?

[NOTE: This is a follow-up piece to my initial response to the reactions to Hillsong’s decision to decline making a public statement on ‘LGBT issues’. The first piece, ‘It’s Too easy to Dismiss Hillsong…and Miss Our Shared Problem’, can be found HERE.]

Well…Now that Pastor Brian Houston has made his position clear— via Paul’s letters, no less– the same writer at First Things (who suggested they were shifting) is concerned that we are making too much of the distinction between public statements and pastoral exhortation. Apparently, if we believe something we must say it every time we are asked, regardless of the setting.

This is worth exploring more.

Does the New Testament give ground for speaking differently to those who are followers of Jesus and those who aren’t?

Jesus reserved his strongest and clearest words for religious leaders and his own disciples– calling Pharisees ‘brood of vipers’ , telling Peter he was colluding with the devil, etc. But when pressed for specific answers, Jesus seem to evade Pilate: “What is truth?” he asked. Now, perhaps this is contextual: Jesus didn’t want to reveal His Messiah-ship to the greater public yet. But considering the amount of things to confront Roman rulers about, Jesus seemed strangely silent when on trial.

So, let’s go to the oft-cited John the Baptist’s confrontation of King Herod for his adultery. What is never said is that Herod was a Jewish king (a puppet king of Rome, but symbolically Jewish no less). John the Baptist does what a long line of Jewish prophets have done: speak the truth to power. And for this, he is beheaded– joining again the long tradition of Jewish prophets being persecuted for speaking the truth to power. But this is not a case of confronting a secular empire. Herod is confronted because he ought to know better; he comes from the chosen people of God. He is technically under covenant obligations. Caesar, on the other hand, is not. And so, I submit, neither Jesus nor John the Baptist confronted Caesar on ethical grounds. To be sure, Paul would challenged Rome on the claim of who the real ruler of the world was…but not on the basis of ethics.

Speaking of Paul. Much is made of how clear Paul was in 1 Corinthians. I agree. I preached through 1 Corinthians this year and tried to be as clear as Paul was in teaching the text. But the letter opens with these words: ‘To the church in Corinth…’ Not, ‘To everyone in Corinth…’ Paul isn’t broadcasting to the general public; he’s writing to a congregation he planted. And what did Paul lead off with when in public? Well, if his speech at Mars Hill is any indication, he tried to make a connection with their world and then draw a line to Jesus as the Messiah. Paul didn’t lead off with ethics; he opened with the core Gospel proclamation: Jesus is Lord!

To be sure, once you accept that Jesus is Lord, you will have to accept a new to live. And Christian ethics– as I have also made clear elsewhere— is not a collection of random rules, but the path to genuine human flourishing. I don’t disagree with the notion that Christian preaching must include Christian ethics, and specifically Christian sexual ethics. The question is one of sequence–which comes first?– and setting— where do we say what?

But for some Christians, this distinction doesn’t exist. It seems they want us to go randomly down the street telling perfect strangers that we don’t support gay marriage or aren’t for homosexual relationships.

OK, perhaps that’s a caricature of their argument. Sorry. The logic of the First Things piece is: If asked a clear question, give a clear answer, even– or especially– if it’s about Christian sexual ethics. I understand the desire for this. But again, I suggest that neither Jesus nor Paul gave the same answer or the same degree of clarity in every setting. Isn’t this what Paul meant when he said that he tries to be ‘all things to all men in order that he might win some’? Isn’t this what the poet Emily Dickinson says to us about telling the truth?

Tell all the truth but tell it slant —
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise
As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind —

What is most troubling about the First Things piece is the use of fuzzy logic. It is a ploy– a ploy, if conscious, a trap if not– of bloggers to cite A (a true event or statement) next to B (a troubling trend or topic) and by placing them side by side insinuate that A is part of B, even if it is not. In this case, A = the statements made by Hillsong pastors in two press events; B = the troubling trend of pastors not preaching traditional (Pauline) Christian sexual ethics. And by placing Hillsong’s media statements in the context of Christian preaching, the reader is left with the impression that Hillsong is compromising, that they don’t preach the Bible, that they are embarrassed about the truth…and on and on. Not only is this sloppy thinking; it is pretty close to slandering our brothers and sisters.

Don’t confuse a media statement for a sermon; a press conference is not the same as preaching. Please: let’s not unfairly characterize another church’s preaching by what is said in a media setting.

I’m sure we will continue to wrestle with what should be said in public and how and why. But perhaps we can try to think a little more carefully about what the New Testament does or does not model.

It’s Too Easy To Dismiss Hillsong…and Miss Our Shared Problem

So, Hillsong declined to publicly declare a position on ‘LGBT issues’.

And the internet was awash with opinions. Some shook their heads in disappointment, because, after all, ‘the Bible is clear’. Others smugly remarked that we shouldn’t expect much from this ‘culturally accommodating’ brand of Christianity. I find neither response particularly helpful or accurate.

First, the response of certainty: ‘A non-answer is an answer.’

I understand this response, and there is some truth to it: a non-answer is indeed an answer.

But it is not saying as much as we might think it is. It does not, for example, (necessarily) mean a ‘shift’ in position. It may simply be a statement about what the church’s mission is: to announce Christ in the pluralistic public square, and to challenge Christians more specifically once they are in the community.

I didn’t read their response as fudging on the what of Christian morality but rather as a statement about the where, when and to whom. Is it the Church’s role to announce ‘positions’ on issues to the public? Or is that tendency a leftover from Christendom– the era where we were gladly the power-brokers of society, blessing presidents and wars and condemning movies and rock stars? The Church is not a government agency; we need not announce ‘policy’ to the public.

Furthermore, there is something fundamentally wrong with thinking about this as an “LGBT issue.” I read with tears an email from a congregant who thanked me for our clear yet tender conversation about homosexuality. It was the first time he felt dignified as a person. Not an issue or an agenda. If we think of this as an “LGBT issue” or a “gay agenda”, then we will rush to announce policies and positions. But if we remember that we talking with and to people– living, breathing, holy, created beings– then we will be careful to have these conversations in pastoral contexts, not in press conferences.

Secondly, the response of smugness: ‘What did we expect from Hillsong?”

If you’re looking to bag Hillsong, you don’t have to work too hard. Criticism from afar is all too easy. The lights. The arenas packed with the young and beautiful. The upcoming movie. But all these critiques are cheap. And wrong.

Today, Hillsong was accused of ‘accommodating culture’, with the not-so-subtle insinuation that this was why they have attracted such large crowds. But I wonder if the people who wrote those critiques have ever been to Hillsong. I wonder if they’ve ever listened to a sermon. I wonder if they realize that they (likely) sing Hillsongs’ songs in their own churches on Sundays. I wonder if they know that one of the biggest new songs on Hillsong’s latest album is one based on the Apostles’ Creed— written humbly in response to a challenge from an outside denominational leader.

I know how easy it is to form an opinion or to cast doubt on a group of people by what you observe from the outside. I know because I’ve done it. But it’s wrong. From an academic standpoint, it’s irresponsible sociological analysis. From a pastoral standpoint, it reeks of the ‘older brother’ all too willing to see another’s faults exposed. And from a Christian standpoint, well…

Let’s look in the log in our own eye. 

Let’s do some theological reflection for a moment. One of the more controversial statements in Merritt’s article was from Carl Lentz’s wife, who said that it isn’t our job to tell people how to live. Let’s give her the benefit of the doubt and say that by ‘people’ she meant people outside their church.

But what if she didn’t? What if she meant that as pastors it wasn’t their job to teach their congregation how to live? Now, this would be extraordinarily troubling. But it would say more about us— all of us as modern, Western, Protestant, non-denominational Christians– than it would about Hillsong. Let me explain.

What makes it possible to say that it isn’t our job to tell anyone how to live? I submit it is the fruit of seeds many of us have participated in sowing:

  • We have perpetuated an individualistic view of salvation that allows an individual to ‘be on their own journey’– and the Church ought to be silent while they’re on it.
  • We changed the purpose of a church gathering from worship— with the historic ‘four-fold ordo’ or at least the ‘two-fold shape’ of Word and Table– to evangelism, modeling it after the Frontier Revivals– a warm-up, a sermon, and an altar call. If the church gathering is more about mission than formation, why wouldn’t we end up abdicating our role to instruct fellow Christians on a new way to live?
  • We have sent out church planters with little to no sense of ecclesiality (what makes a church a church) or covering or authority, leaving them to give ecclesial authority only to those ‘who are doing it better than us’– which, in short, means those with bigger churches.
  • We have created such a hard (and false) dichotomy between ‘law’ and ‘gospel’ that we have no place for actual moral instruction. All teaching on how we ought to live is too often reduced to ‘law’ and therefore dismissed as ‘legalism’. By misunderstanding grace to be a sort of spiritual autonomy instead of the power that makes us new and helps us live in a new way, we have side-lined any notion of ethics.
  • We have not said enough about the thoroughly biblical notion that the commandments are meant to give us life, that Jesus has a way for us to live that leads us to true human flourishing, that ‘Christian ethics’ is really an invitation to be fully and truly human.

You see, it’s too easy to scapegoat Hillsong and miss the larger problem we all share. We would do better to address our participation in an anemic or flawed soteriology and ecclessiology– the log in our own eye!– than to waste another minute dismissing a church we don’t really know.

UPDATE: I wrote a follow-up piece on whether we should make a distinction between public statements and pastoral exhortations HERE.

On the Limits of New Year’s Resolutions

Resolutions are powerful things. We feel all the energy of a new year rushing forward, washing over past failures or shortcomings. I like goals and fresh starts and reset buttons. But they have their limits. And as with so many things, the better we are at recognizing their limits, the more likely we are to enjoy them for what they are.
Five years ago, I wrote a blog on why resolutions miss the mark. And while I may have been a little gloomy about the topic as a whole, there are a few thoughts worth repeating as we step into 2014 together.
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Why does it seem that no matter how hard we try, we can’t seem to make ourselves better? If Life gave out report cards, we would be lucky to hold a B average. 

 

What if the whole approach is off target? What if life– and life with God– is not first about progress and improvement?

 

The Bible has two favorite word pictures for our life with God. The first is of a potter and clay. We are reminded that God is the potter and that we are the clay. Using this imagery, God rebukes Israel for trying to take over what only God can do:

 

“You turn things upside down as if the potter were thought to be like the clay! Shall what is formed say to him who formed it, ‘He did not make me’? Can the pot say of the potter, ‘He knows nothing’?” (Is. 26:19)

 

Jesus picks up on this theme by pointing out the futility of worry:
 
“Which of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life?” (Matt. 6: 27)

 

We cannot make ourselves more like Jesus any more than a lump of clay can make itself into a vase. We are not the initiator of change; we are the responder. From the picture of a potter and clay we learn the first reason resolutions often miss the mark: 

 

God is in charge of the process and the progress; we are responsible for our response.

 

We often defend our addiction to progress with the word “growth”. We need to grow this year– that’s why we have so many goals. The second Biblical image speaks to the concern for growth. Life with God is often pictured as a tree planted by streams.  

 

“Blessed is the man who trusts in the Lord, whose confidence is in Him. He will be like a tree planted by the water that sends out its roots by the stream. It does not fear when the heat comes; its leaves are always green. It has no worries in the year of drought and never fails to bear fruit.” (Jer. 17: 7-8)

 

Here again we are reminded that growth is God’s work. But there is another lesson from the tree:  

 

Bearing fruit is a byproduct of faith in God.
 
Will our lives be different as a result of walking with God? Yes. Will we be changed to become more like Christ? Yes. Is that the point, the focus of our efforts? No. The point is faith– trusting obedience– in God. The point is relationship and connection. Growth, fruit, is the external result of an internal work.  

 

Paul places our work, our effort, in the context of God’s work in us:
“…continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to His good purpose.” (Phil. 2:12b-13)

 

God is at work in us. And He is in charge of the process and the progress. That’s why it’s slightly misguided to set our own timelines for growth.
 
Can we have goals? Yes. But maybe our goals should be more about how we can create space for God to work in our lives, how we put down roots by the River, how we can respond to His molding. 

The words of the psalmist make an apt prayer for New Year’s:

Overview of Ephesians in 15 Minutes by N. T. Wright

For those already familiar with theologian N. T. Wright, this talk will seem a bit elementary– and much shorter!– than his normal lectures. For those unfamiliar with Wright, you may not see what all the fuss about this theologian is about. "Ephesians cannot be summed up in 15 years of study let alone 15 minutes," you may rightly say. But keep in mind that Wright is one of the rare breed of theologians who can write multiple 700+ page volumes on Christian Origins, a full-length 500+ page commentary on Romans, and yet write dozens of other books aimed at the general public, and succeed at both! That sort of excellent scholarship combined with accessible articulation are what make him special.

What is remarkable about this short talk, given not to seminary students but to the whole student body at a Wheaton College chapel, is how, in 15 minutes, he is able to show Paul's cosmic soteriology and how we fit into it. If brevity, as Shakespeare said, is the soul of wit (which for Shakespeare meant intelligence not humor), then N. T. Wright's wit and wisdom are both dazzlingly brilliant. The whole talk, only about 22 minutes long, can be viewed on iTunesU HERE.

NT Wright Gives Quick Tour Through Ephesians from Glenn Packiam on Vimeo.