On Lemuel Haynes and ‘Late-Night Talk-Show Liturgies’

‘The Lonely Ones’ by Edvard Munch (1899)

​I’m not sure America’s that much less religious than it used to be. Television is more common than it was half a century ago and we shouldn’t underestimate the degree to which religion can function as entertainment. ‘Nominal’ religion, of course, is certainly evaporating. There are less ‘religious in name only’ folks these days. Our ‘liturgy fix’ is easily attainable in our media saturated culture, and many who might have sought to quiet the pangs of utter hopelessness in a Church building a few times a week a century ago can self-medicate more economically by tuning in to The Late Show.

In the absence of other accessible forms of entertainment, previous generations were more apt to attend seasonal revivals, involve themselves in religious activities, etc. I’m talking about the way in which things like television and other now  accessible forms of cheap entertainment have come to fill a gap that previously religion filled for large subsets of the population: the desire to be entertained.

In centuries past, when Christianity – usually, some form of Protestant Christianity – was simply assumed to be true by most of the public, and there were fewer forms of widely accessible entertainment available as competition, involving oneself in Christian activities (such as bible studies, revivals, etc.) was one of the most common ways to pass the time.

This could give the sense, then, that America was more devout than it was. By circumstance, we were ‘more’ religious, but the roots weren’t particularly deep. Now that there are numerous alternatives by which we can entertain ourselves, religion’s hegemony in American life has predictably waned.

My question, then, is to what extent we can truly say that America is substantively less religious than it was, when previously the truth of the Christian story was merely assumed, rather than embraced, and the function of religion for a sizable portion of the population was chiefly its ability to fill a certain universal human need – that is, to pass the time in the absence of accessible competition, like television, etc. If my suspicions are true, America is as ‘religious’ as ever, we’ve simply reallocated our devotions.

I’m not being cynical. I certainly don’t think that hope is lost. None of this means that the gospel will no longer take root on American soil, or that the Great Commission is somehow out of reach. It simply means that we no longer have some of the crutches that our great-grandparents’ generation had.

But, as Lemuel Haynes was always quick to remind his cohorts, everything – everything – that happens, happens in order to further along the Triune God’s eternal plan to reconcile the world to Himself. If we face unprecedented challenges because there are infinitely more opiates from which the average person can choose, then so be it. As Lemuel would also have pointed out, true religion – at least, the religion of Jesus, is a balm for the wounded but is hardly an opiate for the bourgeoisie. If it is anything, it is a merciful buzzkill, jostling us awake and demanding our submission to the strange moral vision of the gospel of grace.

So it may be a good thing that television has taken away our hegemony. Bad for numbers – at least for now – but good for the world. To paraphrase David Bentley Hart, the Church has only ever been half-Christian (at best) when we’ve run the world. And to paraphrase Rod Dreher, we’re well on our way to becoming a minority religion in the West. To paraphrase Anthony Bradley, though, the majority of the Christians in the United States have never, actually known what it is like to be the ruling class – the historic Black church has always been a marginalized Christian group, from the colonial days to the Civil Rights movement to the modern era, where culturally dominant Evangelical institutions send missionaries into black neighborhoods to plant their own churches without involvement from the long-standing, theologically conservative Black Churches that have been there for decades (or centuries). And that’s only one example. We’ll survive like they’ve survived, and in-season we’ll multiply like they’ve multiplied – in season. The predominately white churches that make up what was the most culturally influential player in America’s religious landscape will soon enough occupy a similar position to the ethnic churches that past generations explicitly marginalized and current generations largely ignore. And we can learn from their historic witness. And, perhaps, in joining them in the society’s lower wrungs, we can learn to identify, explicitly and implicitly, with them as one Body, transcending our cultural divides without erasing them, and in doing so, become a common Church in America that begins again to turn the world upside dowm – even in the television age.

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Paul, on Moses (and the Scumbags Who Misquote Him)

The Lover’s Whirlwind, William Blake (1827)


“Now we know that the law is good, if one uses it lawfully, understanding this, that the law is not laid down for the just but for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane, for those who strike their fathers and mothers, for murderers, the sexually immoral, pederasts, enslavers, liars, perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to sound doctrine, in accordance with the gospel of the glory of the blessed God with which I have been entrusted.” (1 Tim. 1:8-11)

Paul is funnier than the folks who preach him. His first letter to Timothy opens with a pun: “we know, after all, that the Law is good – if you use it lawfully.” 

He’s getting at something, here. Depending on the context, says Lawrence Boadt, the term ‘The Law’ can refer to the Decalogue, – that’s the traditional name for the Ten Commandments – or the entire ‘Mosaic Law,’ – that’s shorthand for the whole 613 laws given throughout the Pentateuch – or, even, the Pentateuch itself – which is the traditional name for the first five books of the Old Testament, traditionally attributed to Moses. 

It’s not immediately clear which meaning of ‘Law’ he’s alluding to in this passage. It comes from a letter sent to his friend and ministry partner, Timothy, who was struggling to lead a group of churches in Ephesus while a troublesome pack of false teachers sought to lead his congregations astray. To be specific, they were trying to undermine the missionary work of Paul and others by reinterpretting the ‘Law’ to for their own ends. In Paul’s words, they “desire to be teachers of the Law” and were “devoted to endless myths and genealogies.” 

Apparently, fetishizing the Law didn’t do much to make them holier. They were as immoral, evidently, as your congressman (1 Tim. 1:13;15;19; 3:1; 4:2; 5:6;11; 6:5-10), and superstitious, too (1:4; 4:7). There were others, in and before Paul’s time, who were fond of ‘myths and endless geneologies.’ To heavily ‘allegorize’ the Old Testament, scholar W.D. Mounce noted, was to tap into a popular – and, probably, profitable – trend among certain groups of second temple Jews. There was a tendency within post-exilic Judaism to imaginatively retell “the pedigrees of the patriarchs,” writes J.N.D. Kelley. But whereas Philo and others taught from genuine love for God and faithfulness to the scriptures to creatively allegorize their content, – a practice soon after adopted by early Christian theologians – the charlatans stirring up trouble in Timothy’s congregations did so in reckless disregard for the holiness of God. Between their obsession with the more extravagant forms of rabbinic Midrash and their flagrant immorality, it’s unlikely that they meant well (1:7).

Their zeal for the Law led them to “wander away into vain discussion” (1:6) but did not prevent them from indulging in greed, sexual immorality, and divisiveness. They saw it, in other words, as a ‘roadmap’ to the ‘secrets’ of the ‘heavenly realm’ – think Left Behind, or Blood Moons. In much the same way that some modern teachers use the Old Testament prophets and the book of Revelation as springboards from which to make dubious predictions about the end times but don’t heed their rather unambiguous ethical imperatives, so also the troublemakers at the churches in Ephesus allegorized the Pentateuch in an effort to uncover the “secret meaning” beneath the text and obtain “higher” knowledge (6:20). 

This wasn’t uncommon among post-exilic Jews, especially in Alexandria – but these false teachers went further. They were not just churning out the sort of helpful folklore found in extra-biblical works like Jubilees and Biblical Antiquities. They were indulging unfounded fantasies about the patriarchs with the ‘Law’ as their inspiration, but neglecting – or rejecting – its moral boundaries. In doing so, they side-step its primary function: to be a ‘restraint’ or ‘guardian’ for the people of God (Gal. 3:24-29). 

It wasn’t just the the 613 literal ‘laws’ that were meant to serve as a ‘guardian’ over the covenant community of Israel, but the whole Pentateuch. The whole Torah was meant to be their ‘guardian,’ their ‘restraint.’ So Paul’s indictment is against an abuse of the Pentateuch – especially the ‘law’ portions. There is not, after all, much material to allegorize in the Ten Commandments alone, and although it is possible to produce a system of ‘mystical allegorizations’ of the Levitical and Deuteronomical Laws, the product would, almost certainly, be of a distinctly ethical nature. The scumbags heckling Timothy and his churches were scumbags, though, whose allegorizations were little more than “irreverent, silly myths” (1 Tim. 4:7), so that’s unlikely. Since their error consisted in “false knowledge” in the form of mythical stories surrounding the patriarchs but not rigid adherence to an upright lifestyle, their more flamboyant allegorizations probably dealt with the narrative portions of the Pentateuch along with the more pointed “law” sections. In other words, they did damage to the whole of Pentateuch. 

But “the Law is good, if one uses it lawfully.”  That’s essentially a wise-crack on Paul’s part, but it’s a remarkably rich one: noting the connection between v. 9 and Galatians 5:13-26, J.N.D Kelley suggests that the legal aspect of the Law “applies only to those who are under the influence of the flesh and who in their lives follow its promptings.” That’s why earlier, Paul says:

“Why then the Law? It was added because of transgressions, until the offspring should come to whom the promise had been made   . . .  before faith came, we were held captive under the Law, imprisoned until the coming faith would be revealed. So then, the Law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian, for in Christ Jesus, you are all sons of God through faith.” (Gal. 3:19-26)

So Paul’s insistence that “the Law is not laid down for the just but the unjust” assumes what he had previously taught in the epistle to the Galatians. There he writes that inclusion into the ‘covenant community’ of Israel precedes binding under the law (Gal. 3:9;17;18-19;21), and that the Law itself was, in fact, a gift to those who belonged to God’s covenant commumity of Israel (3:19-22). The argument would go as such:

‘Human nature is insatiably self-destructive (5:17) and, consequently, people have an inescapable bent toward enslaving themselves to sinful practices (4:3;8). The moral, ceremonial, cultic, etc. stipulations of the Law were intended, specifically, to enslave God’s covenant people instead to an ethical system consistent with God’s character (3:23;5:16;24-25). Communal adherence to the Law would, among other things, prevent God from having to pour His wrath out on the people whom He had rescued from Egypt for Himself. Although the Law was gifted to the covenant people of God for their protection, the redemption brought about in Christ means that the covenant people no longer need to be enslaved to the Law, but set free in Christ (4:1-7).’

So in Paul’s eyes the Law is good and holy, but must be used as it was intended to be used. It cannot be used as a means to enter God’s covenant – that is, following the Mosaic Law can’t save you, because the Law is only for the ‘already-saved,’ so to speak – or as a ‘pathway in to a higher realm of knowledge’ – that is, recklessly allegorizing the Mosaic Law (or the prophets, or Revelation) will not make you wiser, help you predict the future, or give you significant insight about the end-times, but it might turn you into a heretic.

Rather, the Law was given to people who were already in the covenant, it ‘protected the already-saved’ against becoming like the Canaanites again. Gleason Archer Jr. sums it up well: “grace reigned supreme in the Sinaitic covenant just as it truly did in the Abrahamic. The whole body of Law revealed to Moses and his people from this point on was a testament of grace, although mediated through a different economy from that of the gospel.” The legal portions of the Pentateuch, when originally given, were about ‘taking captive’ those who were already captive to sin. To put it another way, it was a glorious bit of divine pragmatism.

Now, though, in the ‘new covenant,’ the time has come to be set free from both ‘Law’ and sin. Don’t misunderstand – the Law is still for ‘new covenant’ people because it reveals the heart of Yahweh. When one has received the Holy Spirit, the Law becomes a tool in His hands to conform them into the image of Jesus.

A proper understanding of the Law was, in Paul’s mind, a non-negotiable component of that process. God gave the Law to Israel immediately after freeing them from slavery in Egypt. They were brought from the bondage of a cruel Pharaoh into the covenant bondage of a gentle Lord- literally, a feudal Lord, a suzerain – so that when the time would come, having been preserved by the grace of God by the boundaries set up in the Law, they could be set free from all bondage in the Spirit, whether to sin or to the Law.

So today, the violent need the Law because they are enslaved to their destructive appetites; the sexually immoral need the Law because they are slaves to their ‘animal urges’ – or, perhaps, their desire for approval or intimacy; enslavers need the Law because they themselves are enslaved to the human propensity to conquer and dominate. On this side of the Christ’s resurrection, the Law is ‘lawful’ when believers allow it to reveal in them what is not consistent with God’s heart for the world so that the Holy Spirit can recreate in them what has been broken.

Stewarding Creation Well, (and Other Things That Aren’t Negotiable)

A friend recently posed the question: “Should we be more focused on saving our Humanity or saving creation.”

He clarified what he meant: “By ‘humanity’ I mean, our civilization – our ability to be compassionate, to be kind, just, and peaceful. Our creativity, our expression, and our pursuit of truth. It seems like we are having a global ‘cultural’ crisis. We are also having a global ‘material’ crisis: the destruction of our planet. Which do we solve – or do we solve first? Or, which is the most important?”

Ellen Davis touches on the question in her book ‘Getting Involved With God.’ She offers a few relevant considerations:

First, the concept of ‘stewardship’ actually subordinates humanity to nature, in a way. We rule over it by serving it. Ignoring needs of the creation over which we were placed to steward is an abdication of our God-given responsibility. Our being stewards did not cease because of ‘the Fall.’ We should conduct ourselves – our families, and our churches – accordingly.

Secondly, our ‘subordinary’ rule over nature is woven into our humanity, and all the components of our humanity intersect, so embodying our role means integrating environmental and humanistic concerns. They both emanate from our role as stewards of God’s rule over the natural world. This is true of all humanity – again, we did not cease to be responsible for the well-being of creation because of the Fall. But it is especially true for those of us in the Church. Not only are we divinely charged with stewardship over creation, but we are actually aware that we are charged. 

That’s to say, irreligious environmentalists do instinctively what Christians ought to do out of obedience. How to properly care for the environment in an increasingly Globalized world is its own conversation. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, I’m tend to advocate for limited government, and the avenues that I would suggest toward more faithful environmental stewardship will inevitably reflect that. I’m under no delusions that GMO foods are inherently “dangerous,” and I’m far more interested in what the farmer who goes to church with me has to say about stewarding the earth than I am with the blogger from New York. There are, of course, others better suited than myself for making the case for one avenue over another. As an expositor of the Bible, though, my concern is pointing out that we do, indeed, have that responsibility. Complacency regarding the environment is a theological error.

To be specific, we are subordinate, by nature, to Christ. We serve Him as our King, our God. We ‘steward’ creation, together, as God’s image. That means that we subordinate our self-interest – say, industrial productivity, for example – to the needs of creation. It doesn’t mean that we are hierarchically subordinate to creation, or that we ‘serve’ it like we serve Christ. But it does mean that we serve Christ by ruling over nature in such a way that we care for its well being. And, there’s no way around it, stewarding creation faithfully has to take shape as protecting animals and environments threatened by certain human practices. In other words, ‘serving’ nature as its stewards, we serve Christ as His subjects.

The obvious contention – and a convenient one, might I add – that could be raised is that one day, we’re told in scripture, there will be ‘a new heavens and a new earth’ – presumably, one without an ecological crisis – and so we don’t really need to worry ourselves with maintaining the creation over which God placed us as stewards. 

And the obvious response – and an inconvenient one, might I add – is that we don’t, in any scenario, have the right to disregard our role, given to us by God at our inception, simply because He’s going to fix it all one day anyway. Again: inconvenient, but painfully obvious. And, like a lot of problems that ravage contemporary Protestantism, it can probably be traced in some way to the antisupernaturalist liberalism that trickled down from Berlin in the 19/20th century. 

I can’t draw a direct connection, because the ecological crises we face today were, for the most part, unknown at that point. Contemporary research has illuminated the extent to which human civilization has debased the environment. We have made ourselves, in a way, antistewards. As recently as a century ago, this was not so clear (or pronounced). 

But now it is, and our response has been tepid, noncommital. More than a few have denied outright that we have any responsibilty to rectify it – either because they disbelieve in stewardship, or believe it amounts to a license to consume the earth’s resources however we desire, or believe that the eventual redemption of the cosmos gets us off the hook from having to obey God by seeing to the earth’s well being to the extent that we are able. In any case, this is likely the result of the classic liberal Protestant notion that, with the coming of Christ, we ceased to have concrete social responsibilities outside of the necessary practical concerns that occupy everyday life. This notion permeated every corner of Western Protestantism, as the dubious pronouncements of the European intelligentsia took hold both in elite metropolitan cathedrals and remote country churches. Consequently, when the data began to suggest that creation had been suffering under humanity’s antistewardship, we were umoved.

So it’s ironic that Ellen Davis, of all people, would best articulate what was, until fairly recently, quite obvious. As an Episcopal priest, she is a mainline Protestant. Her theological heritage is closely linked to the earliest forms of this particular theological problem. More than is the case for any ‘evangelical,’ she is, at least in theory, the intellectual grandchild of the 19/20th century liberalism that subtly conditioned modern Protestants to approach environmental issues callously. Kudos to her for being ahead of the curve – or, perhaps, mercifully ‘behind the times.’ 

She’s not, of course, the only one. Richard Bauckham, a conservative Anglican Priest, authored ‘The Bible and Ecology‘ wherein he suggests, similarly, that our given role as ‘stewards’ over creation is, to say the least, primarily a charge to conform our own communities to the needs and rhythms of creation. 

He is not, like Wendell Berry, advocating a kind of large-scale return to an agrarian economy. But he does suggest that we, as Christians, ought to understand ourselves as part of the community of creation, rather than as distinct from it. That is, we’re not quite the mediators between creation and God so much as fellow members of creation alongside whom there is only one Mediator: Christ. As fellow members of the community of creation, we have a special role. But our role, which has us ruling over creation as God’s images, renders us creation’s servants, so to speak. We’re made to be cultivators, not simply consumers. Our stewardship is more of an albatross than a license.

A happy albatross. That is, it is good that we are commisioned with caring for creation, not bad. It’s a joyous ball-and-chain. There is no freedom from the stewardship we’re charged with. There is only a satisfying faithfulness and a draining abdication thereof. As we’ll remember from the book of Haggai, God responds to our abdications by taking the joy away from the comfort and ease that comes with it. 

So, to quote Davis again, it would be in our interest to ‘get involved with God.’ One day, all the bad we’ve done – to each other, to ourselves, and to creation – will come untrue. In the meantime, our responsibility to care for the earth has not been retracted. Though I doubt we’ll ever produce a ‘scarcity-free’ world, nor will our efforts ever undo the effects of the Fall, I would be remiss to ignore the other large, looming reality that Haggai points to: that faithfulness is remarkably powerful. And, to answer my friend’s question, it would also mean retrieving at least one component of our humanness. Whatever corruption has been wrought by the Fall, and however voluminous the ecological crisis, the power of God to bring about a new heavens and a new earth is, as always, beyond the scope of imagination. 

Surprisingly Enough, Jesus Is What God Is Like (Happy Easter)

The above image has the high and holy King washing the feet of His rowdy disciples. It ought be surprising that this is what God’s like. 

You’ve probably noticed that Jesus as we meet Him in the four gospels not just an amplification of whatever we already thought was right. ‘Good‘ as exemplified by Christ Himself was not, it turns out, just common sense baptized in Godness. Counterintuitively, He was something else entirely – something which often grates against what we call conventional wisdom. As a man, Jesus began the divine project of turning the world upside down. As the Creator of the universe, He began the project of bringing His creation into conformity with Himself. As both God and man, He bore the weight of humanity’s sin, and His own wrath against it. 2000 years later, we’re familiar enough with the story to miss the point. 

There was no reason to expect Good Friday. No reason to anticipate Holy Saturday, Christ’s descent into Hell. And no reason to count on Resurrection Sunday. And yet they happened.

These things are beyond the parameters of human creativity. Folks who imply a parallel between Jesus and the old myths of ‘dying-and-rising-Gods’ miss the point by a few degrees, like folks who can’t see much more than a ‘tribal deity’ in the Old Testament’s image of the God who sprung Israel out of Egyptian slavery. Whatever peripheral similarities exist are eclipsed by the sheer insanity of this God character who defies expectation.

There was no reason to expect the Creator of the universe to wash the feet of His disciples. There was no reason to expect the God who commanded the slaughter of the Canaanites to preach the Sermon on the Mount. There was no reason to assume that the God who vanquished Pharaoh would submit to a cross to redeem the crowds of people screaming for His blood. 

But on this side of His resurrection, it makes perfect sense. All this time we’d read our own motivations into the Yahweh character. We’d given Him our own psychology, assumed our own values in His every move. But God is different than we thought we knew. Everything He’d ever done, somehow, is part of the project of redeeming the world. 

The hasty meet Jesus in the gospels and assume that the Old Testament got God wrong. But the truth is that the Jesus we encounter there shows that we’d read the Old Testament wrong. God has always been like Jesus. The Father, Son, and Spirit has always been, as John writes, love. And now we know, on this side of the Resurrection. 

The Old Testament Wasn’t a ‘Works Religion’

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Temple of Juno in Agrigento by Caspar David Friedrich

The idea, ever popular, that the Old Testament was a ‘works religion’ but the New Testament is all about ‘your personal walk with God’ didn’t come from Luther or Calvin or Melanchton, or the old Baptists (or the Apostles). It does, however, show up in Adolf Harnack, a theologian that the churches teaching this nonsense probably have no love for. Of course, the idea didn’t originate with him. But he certainly helped popularize it, and it was a long time coming. The century leading up to his meteoric rise to prominence in the field of academic theology was a kind of seedbed for the growing hyper-individualism that overtook much of Western Christianity and produced the parched landscape in which we find ourselves.

Against their usual caricatures, it turns out that Luther’s a lot more nuanced about Law and Grace than is typically represented, and the Anabaptists/early Baptists found far more in the Old Testament than Law to be liberated from. Calvin, too, scoffed at the notion that the New Testament Religion was primarily about your ‘soul.’ The Patristic authors wrote often against an idea not unsimilar called ‘gnosticism’ (Google it for a fun afternoon). And the Apostles wrote the New Testament, which has an awful lot more on its mind than our ‘personal salvation.’

You do, however, see that idea fermenting in liberal academic circles throughout the 19th/20th century, and came to a head in pre-war Germany. At that point in time, mainstream theology trickled down from Berlin, alongside a few other elite academies. As goes the scholarship, so goes popular preaching, and both ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ Protestant churches were penetrated by the novel ideal that the Old Testament had brought about a ‘public’ religion, where people in a community work for their salvation in a shared domain of people separated from the rest of the world by God, but the New Testament had brought a ‘personal’ religion, where people were saved, either by assent to certain doctrines (as some ‘conservatives’ might have said) or by some sublime emotional experience of God (as some of the ‘liberals’ might have said).

Naturally, these are both wrong notions, because the ideology behind them is wrong. There is not a hard separation between the ‘Old’ and ‘New’ testaments. Some early Church Fathers were concerned that separating them as such in the canon would create an unbiblical disjunction between them in the minds of future congregations. It turns out their concern was prophetic, and the prophecy is fulfilled.

Over the following century, the line between ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ Protestantism blurred. New denominations emerged, old branches withered away, Fundamentalism was born, and proved to be a powerful evangelistic force. But it soon splintered off and became so varied and diverse that it’s hard to identify any ‘one’ thing that ‘Fundamentalism’ might mean today. But amidst the diversity of contemporary Protestantism, there is at least one common feature that we share.

Namely, that ‘conversion’ is framed chiefly as an individual’s personal experience with God, which is inaugurated by an emotional rush and then cemented by an intellectual assent to a (varying) set of doctrinal standards. Modern Protestants didn’t invent conversion – the Holy Spirit did that – but we did invent the ‘conversion experience.’

Formerly, a convert was someone ‘grafted into the existent community of the risen Jesus.’ There was an extent to which the convert ceased to be simply themself and became instead a ‘member’ (read: appendage) of Christ’s ‘Body.’ This was true across denominational lines. The ‘Great Awakening’ and other primordial revivals were not, chiefly, about saving souls, but about grafting wild olive branches into the Tree of Life, so to speak. Of course it dealt with individuals. Of course, every woman or man was responsible to respond to the Holy Spirit with submission rather than rebellion, but it was unthinkable that this was all somehow part of a puerile scheme by which God was turning people from damned to not-damned by charging people to talk them into belief and inspire them into spiritual euphoria.

Revival, back then, was more like enlistment. Jonathan Edwards, who championed the Second Great Awakening, preached ‘Sinners In The Hands Of An Angry God‘ not to people he hoped merely to turn into private believers, but to crowds of God’s enemies, whom, by grace alone, through faith alone, he hoped would be transformed through hearing the gospel word, into contagious gospel communities.

And they would, by carrying out the same mission that God’s people have always had, from Noah to Abraham to Moses to Nehemiah to Jesus’s disciples and their disciples and so on, multiply and fill the earth, as members of the ‘Redeemed’ community, so that over time, their neighbors would seek out the same Jesus in whose Resurrection they now found their life, and one day the whole world would look like love.

This fell by the wayside, however, because future ‘revivals’ were carried out under presuppositions unfortunately bestowed on us by liberal protestants from Berlin and Tübingen, and so on. Books like The Master Plan of Evangelism by Robert Coleman have done some great work toward recasting the original vision, but as it stands, revival in the West would first mean changing the consciousness of an entire generation.

There was, it seems, a rather direct line from the hard separation of ‘Law’ and ‘Grace’ to the artificial distinction of the ‘public, works-based‘ religion of the Old Testament from the ‘personal, spiritual’ religion of the New Testament, to the strange and inorganic framing of conversion as ‘saving your soul‘ rather than ‘being grafted into the earthly body of Jesus, as exclusive subjects of His kingship, who (incidentally?) share in His inheritance.’

This article is filled with generalizations. It’s hard to cover large swaths of history and interact with broad concepts without doing so. History is always more nuanced than is apparent in the books, articles, and dumb blog posts. Generalizations have to be read as such, and that is what these are. But generalizations are only untrue if they’re untrue, and these are not. And to summarize the sweeping statements thus far: We have inherited the notion that there is a distinction to be made between our spiritual lives and the rest of our lives. It was not the old Baptists, nor Luther nor Augustine nor the Apostles who told us that Jesus came round to save our souls so we could carry on with business as usual in the knowledge that we’ll go to heaven when we die. That was some German liberals from back in the day. Adolf Harnack and friends didn’t mean to derail the Protestant church in the process, but they largely did. Today in the West, even if you fancy yourself a ‘fundamentalist’ or an ‘evangelical,’ liberals probably wrote your theology.

Most of Harnack’s colleagues didn’t believe in the bodily resurrection of Jesus. Mercifully, they never did get religious conservatives to abandon that central doctrine of the ancient faith. But their theology did trickle down, not only to the towering Episcopal church on the corner of 4th and Dunmeier, but also to the Independent Baptist Church across the street. The result is that an awful lot of our churches carry on like the Resurrection didn’t happen, and Jesus isn’t King.

Because if the Resurrection did happen, and Jesus wasn’t just a spiritual guru, as Harnack taught, who died for our sins but left His throne unoccupied until the end-times, as too many to count have taught, then everything – literally everything – is different. If the crucified Jesus rose from the dead and ascended to His throne, then He rules the Church in a particular sense, even as He rules the world in a general sense. He said to Pilate, ‘You could have no authority over me that is not given to you’ (John 19:11), and Paul affirms as much when he exhorts the Christians in Rome to honor the Emperor (Rom 13:1-7). The rule of Christ over the whole earth is not expressed through political dominion. There can be no ‘Christian Nation,’ no legislated Christendom. He rightfully rules the whole world, but its thrones and dominions are occupied by usurpers. ‘David is anointed but Saul remains.‘ (1 Sam. 15 – 2 Sam 5).

And yet, Jesus is taking claim over the world that belongs to Him. Not from the throne, but from the trenches. He reclaims His world as He colonizes the countries of the usurpers – the gospel is taken from city to city, house to house, and people are grafted into His own ‘resurrection Community.’ They live on the terms of the Kingdom of God, together, in the midst of cities that cannot understand them. They don’t blend in to their surroundings, because their lives are strangely Jesus-shaped. The gospel has permeated every corner of them. Their politics are weird, because they serve a King who crucified Himself for His enemies. Their marriages are weird, because each member is married to a ‘Husband‘ who crucified Himself rather than retaliate against them. 

Their finances are weird, and their sex lives are different, because they worship a man who died a broke 33-year-old virgin (to paraphrase Derek Webb). They run their businesses strangely because they see the face of Jesus in every employee. And they make remarkable employees, because they work as though they work for Jesus Himself, rather than the CEO of Highland Ventures Inc. They haven’t simply had their ‘souls’ saved. They have, literally, become members of a ‘Body‘ other than their own, and the subjects of another Kingdom, who live out its principles in the midst of this one. And this one is passing away – not into nothingness, as though God were going to destroy the world. No, this world is passing away and becoming – slowly, painfully, and certainly – the kingdom on whose terms they already live. Half the work of an ‘evangelist’ is to live Christianly.

* * *

And so, to understate the point, Harnack and his colleagues were wrong. Long dead, he knows that now, and I like to think he’s happier for it. There has only ever been one mission of God, and Noah was a missionary, as was Abraham, and Moses. The ancient Law was not a pathway to salvation. The whole of scripture knows nothing of ‘works-based salvation’ – with the notable exception, perhaps, of some heretics in Galatia who didn’t understand their own Torah. The Law of Moses, perhaps counterintuitively, was a missionary endeavor. It carried forward the missionary work of Yahweh by shaping the already-saved‘ community of Israel around a ‘moral government‘ that reflected the unnatural compassion of the Triune God. Had they carried out their mission to the nations, they would have introduced world to the God who had chosen them, and waited together for the redemption that was to come.

The mission is not fundamentally different in the shadow of the cross. Abraham was saved through faith, if Paul is to be believed, and the ‘righteousness’ of Christ was ‘credited to him’ (Gen. 15:6; Rom. 4:2-5) – and he was given a mission for the nations (Gen. 12:1-3). We are saved through the same faith – our faith is Abraham’s faith, and vice versa – by the same grace, too. It was the Cross that saved the Israelites – time is linear, but grace is not.

What is different is that because all of us are included in the resurrection of Jesus, now we really are a royal priesthood. The Kingdom of God really is a kingdom of priests. That is to say, Jesus exercises both His royal and priestly functions on earth, today, through the Church. Scripture is the eyes through which we see the world – past and present – and we, the Church, are the hands by which Jesus writes the future.

There was no place for this in Harnack’s theology. He had faith in the world to work itself out. Religion, of course, was a good emotional crutch, so his Jesus needn’t do much more than abolish the old religion and instead create a new, ‘private’ religion, suitable for the modern man. Again, generalizations. Harnack and others were considerably more nuanced than I can do justice to here, but the point stands that we’ve absorbed more of him than is good for us, and it’s only stifled our usefulness as appendages in Christ’s body.

We would, conversely, benefit from relearning scripture. For too long, the lingering ghosts of German liberal Protestantism have haunted our preaching, writing, and discipleship. We will continue to self-marginalize if the modernist conception of New Testament faith is allowed to remain a very real fox in our imaginary hen-house. Conversion, irreducibly, is a transfer of citizenship. The Church is a kingdom of priests, overcoming the world as is by contagiously living on heaven’s terms in a world that foreshadows hell. The gospel doesn’t begin in Matthew, but in Moses. We share the mission of ancient Israel, because we’re the same Community.

There is help to be had here. The problematic trends  have described above are not true of all Christians everywhere. They are not even true of all Western Christians. Or even the American Church at large. These trends are prevalent in predominately white churches in the United States more than others. It has been less common, for example, in the black church. For whatever reason, they were less inclined to absorb the novel theological musings of the elite anglo-theologians working out of the European academy. (It’s almost like the heavy liberalization of the Ancient faith is a form of colonialism, or something.)

Of course, there’s no use romanticizing the black church. From what I’m told, they have problems of their own. But privatizing faith is not one of them, and a cursory study into the historic black church in America reveals, for one, a vibrant faith community that seeks to reconcile ever corner of itself to the gospel. Unlike the predominately white masses of mainstream American Christendom, they have not hammered a wedge between the private faith of the individual and the potent social force of the subversive gospel community. To put it another way, the black church is more ‘conservative,’ theologically speaking, even if their politics are more liberal.

Naturally, there’s nothing special about predominantly ‘white’ churches. We could disappear for centuries and the mission of God would not be threatened. But, you know, hopefully we won’t, and we would do well to learn from their example as a community of ‘gathered social engagement,’ ‘tightly-knit communal identity,’ and ‘deep scriptural engagement.’

Again, there’s no reason to paper over their own persistent ills. But they can remind us, for example, that Moses preaches the gospel. And part of Moses’s gospel is the transformation of society by the gathered community of Yahweh in the power of the Spirit. It’s part of Moses’s gospel because it’s part of Jesus’s gospel. Thanks largely to the corrosive influence of 19th/20th century liberalism on the white church, you won’t find much of that in the predominately Caucasian churches in the United States. We’ve been the ‘ruling class’ for so long that it’s ingrained in our psychology that this world doesn’t need to be turned upside down. Coupled with the trickle-down liberalism from Harnack and friends, this has rendered us a largely impotent force for the kingdom here. Again, generalizations have to be read as such. But these are not untrue generalizations. So we can learn from the black church what our own history has engineered us to forget: that the gospel turns the whole world upside down, and – as we ought to recall, but lately have not – that we are the ones to upend it (Acts 17:6).

Is Religous Liberty Biblical?

If you are a part of the Southern Baptist Convention or follow it closely you know that the past few months have been plagued with disunity and at times even hostility. While some of these issues have been resolved, there are still some questions that need to be answered. One of the most central and important questions that have been asked concerns Religious Liberty. 

The reason this topic is important is due to the controversy that surrounds it. While all religions officially have the right, is it fair for us as Christians to allow the courts to infringe upon this right against Muslims? Since we understand the Islamic faith to be contrary to the Gospel of Grace is it even right for Christians to protect their right? Ultimately, the question becomes is Religious Liberty Biblical?

There has been a debate as to whether Christians are obligated to either support the right of Muslims to build Mosque or whether Christians are called to oppose what we view as a false religious system. While both sides stand at opposite sides of this battle, we need to be reminded that there is no reason to destroy fellowship between a brother or sister over this issue. 

What we need to do is seek conversation and understanding between those who disagree with us. With this being said I would contend to you that it is not only our responsibility to advocate for religious liberty for all, but it is also a Biblical mandate.

There are three primary passages of scripture that justify the necessity for Religious Liberty and they are Mark 12:31, Romans 1:14-17, and Romans 13:1-10.  So that we fulfill the next passage for this stance, Romans 1:14-17 states “I am obligated both to Greeks and barbarians, both to the wise and the foolish.So I am eager to preach the gospel to you also who are in Rome. For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, first to the Jew, and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith, just as it is written: The righteous will live by faith.” (CSB). 

We do not get to pick and choose people groups that deserve to hear the Gospel. We cannot hope to share the Gospel with someone that we are actively telling they are second-class citizens who do not deserve the same rights we enjoy and allow others to enjoy. Our obligation to share the Gospel with all people comes before our fear or bias towards Muslims.

Romans 13:1-10 tells us:

Let everyone submit to the governing authorities, since there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are instituted by God. So then, the one who resists the authority is opposing God’s command, and those who oppose it will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. 

“Do you want to be unafraid of the authority? Do what is good, and you will have its approval. For it is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, because it does not carry the sword for no reason. For it is God’s servant, an avenger that brings wrath on the one who does wrong. Therefore, you must submit, not only because of wrath but also because of your conscience. And for this reason you pay taxes, since the authorities are God’s servants, continually attending to these tasks. 

“Pay your obligations to everyone: taxes to those you owe taxes, tolls to those you owe tolls, respect to those you owe respect, and honor to those you owe honor. Do not owe anyone anything, except to love one another, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.  

“The commandments, Do not commit adultery; do not murder; do not steal; do not covet; and any other commandment, are summed up by this commandment: Love your neighbor as yourself. Love does no wrong to a neighbor. Love, therefore, is the fulfillment of the law.” (CSB).

The first amendment our founding Fathers established states “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” 

If we truly desire Biblical Purity then we have to respect the first amendment and honor the law of the land which decrees that the government cannot oppose nor support any one religion. Paul ties in the command to love your neighbor because in it is the fulfillment of the Law and to follow the law is an example of loving our neighbor and thus fulfilling the law of Scripture. 

And Mark 12:31 states, “The second is, Love your neighbor as yourself.” (CSB). When we oppose the building of Mosque but have idly sat on the sidelines over the building of Jewish Synagogues, Hindu Temples, or even Kingdom Halls we are essentially telling Muslims that they are not as worthy of American rights as these other citizens. What Christians need to remember is that Muslims are not our enemy, we have one enemy. 

Muslims are not the predator, they are the prey to the true predator. Our enemy is “prowling like a roaring lion, looking for anyone he can devour.” (1 Peter 5:8 CSB). Muslims are just as blinded and ensnared by the enemy as we would be without the grace of God that saved us. We must not let our bias against the religion of Islam stop us from showing them the love we show all those who are of different religions.

Christians, we must understand that if we want to enjoy the religious liberty that we have enjoyed since the founding of this country then we must allow all religions to enjoy this freedom. It’s either Religious Liberty for All or Religious Liberty for none. If we are to be justified in our opposition of Religious Liberty for one Religious Group then we must be willing to lay our rights aside as well. However, if we truly want this liberty and desire to hold Biblical purity then we must not condone the beliefs of these religions, but we must support their right to build their places of Worship here in the United States.

Sin is a Hiding Place

Caspar David Friedrich, The Monk By The Sea

His eyes welled up and the tears dripped into his coffee cup. “I don’t know why I keep doing this.”

I was concerned he might get loud and the other patrons of the cafe would take notice, before I remembered that it didn’t much matter. My friend was confessing.

“You know it’s–”

“It’s not okay.” He interrupted. “Don’t tell me that.”

He wasn’t wrong. We’d been praying together for several weeks. Nobody breaks a porn habit in a day, and most folks don’t even break it in a lifetime. The previous week we had talked through how at least half the porn available on the web is there without the consent of the women in the video – stripteases sent to former boyfriends, and the like. It’s never okay to gratify yourself to the image of someone you’re not in it for the long haul with, but it’s especially grievous to use an image or a video that wasn’t meant for your eyes. That goes beyond lust and dives headlong into betraying the sexual autonomy of the woman involved. All sin, at some level, deconstructs into some form of dehumanization toward another human being who bears the imago dei. This heaps on an extra layer.

He had viewed one such video the night before. At the beginning, he said, the woman made an offhand comment that suggested it was a video previously sent to a significant other. It was not meant for him, or anyone, to see. If she knew it was online, she might be horrified. To watch this was to transgress her sexual autonomy and, by extension, the sexual autonomy of all women, everywhere. He watched it anyway. Our convictions melt when they stand in the way of something we want.

It was not okay, and he didn’t want to be lied to. And I didn’t lie to him.

“Why do you think you do it?”

He tried his best to look quizzical. He already had an answer, but it wasn’t fully cooked. I waited.

“It feels safe,” He half-whispered. “Porn feels like home. And I’m usually homesick.”

* * *

Sin is usually a hiding place. We retreat to it because it feels safe and natural. Indeed, it is “safe” inasmuch as it is familiar and unchallenging, and it is natural inasmuch as it comes as naturally to us as breathing. It is a safe haven that guards us from the bold and invading reality in which we find ourselves, where nothing is certain or sound, safety is not guaranteed, and the clamor of responsibility fills the silence and prevents us from drinking deeply of rest.

So indulging in sin is most often an act of sheer cowardice rather than simply licentiousness for its own sake. A man indulges in sexual sin, for example, not simply because he lacks morals or resolve, but because he lacks backbone. He’s lily-livered and yellow-bellied.

What would we do instead? To exist at all, frankly, is painful. Everybody goes somewhere to feel safe. You fish or you drink or you reach for the remote – et cetera.  But if we’re honest, either God is your hiding place or sin is.

In the latter case, you hide from reality because it’s painful to be anyone or anything, then you hide from God because you hid from reality by burrowing deep in your sin. And then you hide from you because you’re embarrassed that you’re who you are. And at this point you ought to be, really. And now you’re in a loneliness too deep for words – especially blog words.

If you read my own entries here with any regularity, you’re probably tired of hearing me say that we’re born communitarians. God’s a trinity – three persons, one substance – which is to say that God is a Community. As such, image bearers that we are, we are created for community. ‘It’s not good for man to be alone’ is, at best, secondarily about marriage. We exist to relate to others, specifically, after the likeness of God’s own Trinitarian pattern of love and self-giving. We’re born communitarians. 

It goes deeper than that, though. We are created for community, and we are created for Community. Which is to say, we exist to relate to God. In a way, that is, to participate in the unbroken joy of the Trinitarian Community, each of us, as a community swallowed up by grace in the original Community. We were created for God. Which means that so long as we’re hiding from God, we’ll be haunted by a loneliness deeper than loneliness. There’s no longevity to it. The illusion of safety that sin promises betrays us, invariably. It’s a bad hiding place.

Instead, perhaps, we could take a posture in every situation that says, “I am glad to be here. The pain of this is real, and I am glad that I am here, to be hurt at times like these. I don’t want to escape the ‘shackles of reality.’ They are not shackles. I am free to exist. To be – whatever that entails. I do not want an outlet into which I might retreat to avoid my present troubles.”

I’m suggesting the impossible here. At least, so long as we’re individuals, carrying on as individuals among other individuals while the sun sets and rises and the second-hand ticks toward oblivion. As long as we’re subjects of a loneliness too deep for words, disconnected from the ancient Community out of whose strange creativity we were born, there is no taking this posture. Too much is at stake to risk foregoing satisfaction in favor of faithfulness. If we’re not participants by grace in the fullness of joy within the Trinity’s blessed community, we’re doomed to please ourselves till we die, to stuff our pockets full with whatever might quiet the stir of deep sadness that hangs over us. And yet, our pockets have holes.

* * *

That which was from the beginning, that which we have heard, that which we have seen with our eyes, that which we beheld, and our hands handled, concerning the Word of life (and the life was manifested, and we have seen, and bear witness, and declare unto you the life, the eternal life, which was with the Father, and was manifested unto us); that which we have seen and heard declare we unto you also, that ye also may have fellowship with us: yea, and our fellowship is with the Father, and with his Son Jesus Christ: and these things we write, that our joy may be made full. (1 John 1:1-4)

John wrote the above paragraph, apparently, “so that you may not sin.” (2:1) When I was younger, I didn’t understand what was supposed to be helpful about it. Okay, I thought, Jesus is the ‘Word of Life’ that was with the Father from the beginning. The dots did not connect. This is Sunday school stuff. 

As I’ve grown, though, it’s become the passage I treasure more than any other. “That which we have seen and heard declare we unto you also, that ye may have fellowship with us: yea, and our fellowship is with the Father, and with His Son Jesus Christ.” John makes explicit what the other New Testament writers assume: that to become a disciple means enjoying the glory of God as Father, Son, and Spirit, not only at a distance as an admirer, but from the inside. No human being becomes God – this is one of the distinguishing marks between Christianity and Mormonism, for example – but we are included, by grace, through faith, in the joy of the already-satisfied God.

In a later writing, John takes to calling Jesus the ‘Lamb slain from the foundation of the world,‘ (Rev. 13:8), which is interesting, because He wasn’t slain before the foundation of the world. The crucifixion can be dated rather precisely – it took place at most within a 10 year window – and it’s well after the cosmos was made. Here John is getting at something different: The crucifixion of the Son of God is precisely the condition on which the project of creation was carried out. John writes that ‘in Him all things were made, and apart from Him not one thing was made that has been made,’ (John 1:3). Coupled with the aforementioned passages, a clearer picture emerges:

The Father, Son, and Spirit, wholly satisfied as a self-contained ‘Community,’ needing absolutely nothing and absolutely no one else to complete their happiness or augment their joy, wanted to create a world of other beings that were not them, with whom their perfect satisfaction could be shared, simply for its own sake. They knew, however, that the result would be a humanity so sinful that hell would be a form of social justice. Together, they agreed that the Son would become incarnate as a human being, teach them how to be ‘human’ again, and be crucified, swallowing up the whole wrath of the whole Godhead, and overcoming the forces of Darkness to rescue them for Himself, and complete the project, begun at Creation, of multiplying their own unchangeable joy into the world of creatures they had made.

So the privileges we receive in salvation go further than simply ‘not going to hell;’ We’re invited, for all time, effective immediately, into God’s inner corridors. There is no more Temple, no more Tabernacle, because Christ is the Temple, and we’re invited in to fellowship, as John says, with God our Father and His Son, because we are indwelt by the Holy Spirit. And there, in the deepest chambers of the Triune communion, is a joy that sin cannot compete with, because it’s thoroughgoing. Sin is sweet and toxic, noisy, enticing. But Mercy is thirst-quenching. We chase the ghosts of satisfaction our whole lives, but it lives in the innermost chambers of a Temple we’re invited into. Like I said earlier, nobody ever becomes God. Sin offers us something like godness. Mercy offers the opposite. We’re dethroned as we’re ‘deified,’ Athanasius would have said, because he liked confusing sentences. He didn’t mean that we become a deity. He meant that we become what we were always meant to be – glorious human images of the high and humble King, emphasis on the humble part.

So sin is a hiding place. That’s an awful lot of why you look at porn or bully your roommate or lie to your neighbors and so on. But it’s a bad one. Ineffective, at least. But prayer, daily communion with the whole Godhead, is not. It’s not a hiding place, either. Though it is safe. However therapeutic it may be, communing with God never ends at catharsis. Instead it transforms us.

As you commune with the Father, through the Son, by the Spirit, your appetites are changed and your capacity to understand yourself as the recipient of an unmerited grace widens. And it makes you weird. We realize there, daily, that we’re forgiven for all of ourselves, down to the marrow. Our self-image dims, in a way. We realize as we drink deeply from the fountain of grace that every kind of abuse we ever put a gay classmate through is abuse we put Jesus through. You realize there that your homophobia held Jesus on the cross. ‘It was our sin that held him there, until it was accomplished.’ That your racism held Jesus on the cross. ‘It was our sin that held him there, until it was accomplished.’ That your sexism held Jesus on the cross. ‘It was our sin that held him there, until it was accomplished.’ And your porn. And your cruelty. And your negligence in not calling your mother every couple weeks. In communion with the Godhead, we’re each haunted by a million sins. It doesn’t crush us, but it’s certainly changing us into something we weren’t and always should have been.

Actually, this is probably why we stick with sin. Joy makes too may demands on us, while sin cathartically drinks us dry. So sin’s a bad hiding place, and you owe it no allegiance. John writes, ‘My little children, if any man does sin, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous: and he is the propitiation for our sins; and not for ours only, but also for the whole world.’ (1 John 2:1-2). We’re forgiven for everything, forever, and brought back into the communitarian joy we were created for. When we grasp that, we’re furnished with enough to carry us through whatever nightmares await us between the cradle and the grave. That should be plenty of joy to run on, certainly enough that we needn’t hide from reality beneath the blood-stained sheets of sin.

Finding Jesus in a Psych Ward

The particulars of exactly how and why I was hospitalized for psychiatric complications are both too difficult to put into words and also are one of the best blessings God has given me in my 21 years of life. On December 1, my husband brought me to the local emergency room and the next morning I rode in the back of a police car to a larger facility. As I rode in the car the officer was kind and tried to get me to talk about my situation but all I could do was cry. I had been emotionally stunted for months and finally it was all flowing freely.

As my vitals were being taken a kind older woman approached me as my quiet sobs continued. At the time I didn’t know it, but she was also a patient and was going home that day. She took my hand and said, “I know you’re scared honey. But God will be with you here; these are good people. God is here. I just wanted to tell you that.” I think I murmured a thank you before finally being taken to my room to get some rest.

I spent the first day sleeping and observing. I was shocked at the kindness and vulnerability that was evident in every interaction that we had with one another: patients, techs, nurses, therapists, psychiatrists, and even the man with dementia who was in the next ward over and kept trying to enter our ward. My friend, who was my roommate during my stay, is a particularly special person. When I arrived the only things I had were the clothes on my back and my stuffed tiger, Limo. When I walked in our bedroom the first thing I saw was her penguin slippers and I knew she was a kindred spirit. She taught me the ropes the first day and we built a friendship that we’ve maintained beyond the hospital.

There was a deep irony in that almost every person on the ward was suffering with some level of depression and anxiety (some of it social). However, one of the ways that we showed we were ready to go home was interacting with each other. I was so scared that I would never get to go home because I was not willing to approach anyone. But I didn’t have to. During my first day, every single patient introduced themselves to me and gave me a piece of encouragement. “Don’t worry, the first day is always the hardest.” “Don’t skip snack time because they serve ice cream and Oreos.” “You have a great psychiatrist.” “I struggle with the same thing.” “Here’s how to work the phones.” On and on until I felt overwhelmed with how much love I was receiving.

Every single one of us there struggled with self-love. We were there because our self-hate had manifested itself in some way that required us to be under constant care. And yet- the words that we gave one another were words of love. “You are so much stronger than what happened to you.” “You are beautiful.” “You have overcome so much.” “You have a great smile.” “The world would be worse without your humor, your story, your smile, your life.” Words that we could not bring ourselves to say to our own bodies and minds and souls we poured into one another.

By the grace of God, I got to spend 6 days with these people. I learned more about community than anything else. For the first time, I was in community with people who as broken as I, and we all knew it. There were no masks, no pretention, no “I’m fine”. Nobody pretended they were fine; we were all openly broken. There was only love and support and encouragement and kindness. We were there to learn to love ourselves, but we learned that by loving one another.

I met Jesus there. I had met Him before and I knew Him, but I didn’t know that He was living inside of a psych ward. But His grace was evident everywhere. It was evident in that I had a support system that came to visit me (including my husband who never missed a minute of visitation). It was evident in the care that the nurses who worked with me showed toward me. It was evident in the dignity that each person was treated with. His grace was evident in the lives of the women I met there, many of whom had been victims of assault, trafficking, abuse, neglect, disease. And by His grace alone we all survived to live through our adversities and meet each other that weekend.

I will never forget the friends I made in the facility. One of my last interactions was with my roommate. We were lying in the dark the night before we got to go home and she opened up to me about her story for the first time. And as we both lay there in the dark crying, she said to me, “I knew that you were a special person the moment I saw you. I felt the Holy Spirit tell me that you had experienced deep pain and that we were both going to be okay.”

Friends, that was church. That was God’s people living together and sharing their deepest pains and their greatest joys with one another without any reserve. When I walk into a church I don’t want to have to hide my mental illness and what I have survived. I want my brothers and sisters in Christ to cry with me and listen to me and encourage me, and I want to do the same for them. The church should be a place of true community, of the kind of love and sacrifice that I experienced on the Adult Behavioral Ward.

“Those who are in need
and are not afraid to beg
give to those not in need
the occasion to do good
for goodness’s sake.”
Dorothy Day

There’s a Place At the Table for the “Faithless”

Originally published to Armchair Theologian.

​I am not God. That’s an ultimate reality. But only because it contains so much in so few words. “I am not God,” means that God exists, almost certainly. I could reason my way into an explanation for the universe that does not require a creator, sure, but that isn’t the point. If something like the Classical Theism we half-read about in our Western Civ classes is true, then God is present, in a way, in the statements, “God does not exist,” and “There is no God.” I happen to think that’s true, and so you can commune with God, live with Him and love Him with the best of yourself if you struggle and even fail to believe with your head and your gut that He is real.

For all of its strange incarnations, Christianity recognizes the contradictions in man. And God, if He’s this God, promises rest to people who need it, so He invites one and all to His table to join Him in His rest. And he knows the contradictions in man, and it is right for the one who struggles and fails to accept even His existence – who cannot with her conscious mental faculties sign off on the proposition, “there is a God,” to join in worship, in the ordinances, and in the whole life of the Church community, because despite her limitations God has accepted her.

Her place at the table is not a special place amongst other specially marked places  for  those whose faith is, like hers, intentional rather than intellectual. The place marked out for the one who cannot believe in God but will not let go of Christ is among all of her brothers and sisters in the faith. It is wrong to say that she has no faith. They have the same faith, and sit at the same table in fellowship with the same God whose real presence makes them one people.

That the God incarnate on earth in Jesus of Nazareth actually exists, not only in the faith of His people but in Himself, means that the sort of belief that saves is not actually an intellectual assent to the right propositions. If anything, that would constitute a “good work” that would put certain people in God’s favor by way of an arbitrary advantage. Instead, saving belief is to entrust yourself to God through Jesus Christ, even in the midst of serious limitations in your capacity to believe.

“I am not God,” means God is distinct from me. That is “good news of great joy.” He has His own being apart from me. He is not ultimately a projection of my unconscious emotional need to believe a higher power. It is true that “in Him we live and move and have our being,” as St. Paul quoted Epimenides to the crowd of Greek philosophers in Athens, but that is not the end of the story. We exist in Him but we are not a part of Him. The quest for God is not a journey inward.

The Christian religion teaches that history is a roundabout retelling of God’s journey toward us. He has left His place to meet us, not within ourselves, but as Himself and on His own terms. It is no kind of grace if we seek God and the road brings us back round to ourselves. For the woman who needs desperately the rest of God, it is a nightmare to find that she has nowhere to run. If God is an extension of herself, then there is no help coming. She has only “the power of positive thinking” to hope in. The rest of God is an illusion.

If, however, God is His own person, then also the rest of God in which He invites us to join Him is real. He has the authority to offer it to whomever He  wants. The struggle, the anxiety of existence can be overcome and the hope to do so is real. The world is inhabited by tired people, and if God is real, and I am not Him, then He can offer rest to my tired eyes, and yours, even amidst our utter lack of faith.

Jesus Won’t Make You Not Lonely

Jesus won’t make you not lonely. He never offered to. That’s a false promise from your youth pastor or a kitschy blog post you read.

And yet He does promise to make you complete. Which, apparently, still means lonely. Because if the gospels are any indication, Jesus was plenty lonely. 

There was a time when He wasn’t. “And now, Father, glorify Me in Your own presence with the glory that I had with You before the world existed.” (Jn. 17:5)

Jesus was and is God, even though He’s not the Father, or the Spirit, and in eternity past, they were complete together, and they weren’t lonely. 

And creating people such as ourselves had everything to do with multiplying their own mutual satisfaction into creatures that were not them. So there will be a day when we are like them in that we won’t be lonely. Every thing will be as satisfying as it ought to be. 

We won’t be God, but we’ll he like Him in all the right ways even as we’re unlike Him in almost every way, because we’ll be investing in each other without emotional deficits to fill.

Everything we’ll stand to gain from friendship will change because we’ll carry on with one another out of an over-abundance of satisfaction. We will not strip-mine one another for satisfaction.

But today we’re lonely. We wake up and the dread’s there, quiet or clamoring. This is what Jesus felt, too. And it wasn’t because He was single, which He probably was.

Say He’d married Mary Magdalene. After picking her up off the ground and dusting her off, He wraps His robe around her and walks to the courthouse asking for a Baptist preacher. James and John are witnesses to their union. Their mom, too, for good measure.

They have a courthouse wedding and build a life together. He’s a bottomless pit of patience and He helps out around the house. She cooks a mean fish and she knows things the other wives don’t know about, on account of her life of sin before she met Him. Pretty soon she’s teaching every wife in the neighborhood things they couldn’t have known and the husbands are grateful. Jesus is just happy He gets to be the guy who comes home to her every day.

It’s not an end to His loneliness, though. The dread’s still there. Maybe it was clamoring and now it’s quiet. But dread is dread and if it’s there it’s there. Any way we slice it, we’ve got a lonely God-man and that means our loneliness is as holy as His ever was because it’s part of the human experience, and the human experience is holy because the Triune God breathed life into it for His glory – even if the humans that experience  it are damnable. 

What isn’t so holy is what we do with our loneliness. One of the things that sets us apart is the desperation with which we endeavor to eat up the dread that haunts us. We won’t be subjected to it, and anything done in the name of shielding ourselves from its oppression is pardonable, or even praiseworthy, we say in our hearts. Remarkably, this does not appear to have been Jesus’s posture.

There’s always a multitude of angles to everything, and there’s plenty to be said about the how and why of Jesus’s sinlessness, but one angle is certainly this: sin is noise as much as it is anything else. Noise to drown out the cacaphony of dread. It doesn’t shrink our loneliness, but it does compete for our attention. It’s racket that muffles despair. Our career in sin is a humanitarian endeavor directed at ourselves. We’re nursing wounds.

Jesus, lonely and wounded like everyone else who’s ever lived, turned His dread into occaision for worship. He neither revolted against His loneliness nor resigned Himself to it. He sacrilized it. 

Amongst other things, being like Jesus means going and doing likewise – recognizing the sanctity of loneliness and protecting ourselves from the temptation to flee from it. The tyranny of trying to complete ourselves in other people is staggering, and the novelty of romance and sex and even platonic friendship turns on us when we heave the weight of our “wholeness” on it. To quote Derek Webb, “Jesus died a broke, thirty-three year old virgin for the sake of those of us with misplaced values.” Like Jesus, let the existential dread that accompanies being a human being on planet earth carry us to the altar to worship.