A Few of My Favorite Things in 2018

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It’s that time when people list their favorite things from the year. Here’s mine.

Experiences

New Baby–The most exciting occurrence of 2018 is Laura and I getting pregnant with our first baby, Caroline. Caroline is slated to make her entry into the world in late February. I’m trying to enjoy my sleep now.

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Ministry Fruit–It’s always a joy to see people make professions of faith in Jesus at our church and also through the First Priority ministry at Tanner High School. Here at Tanner UMC we’ve enjoyed using our new projector system, which has added more accessibility and versatility to our worship. I’ve enjoyed growing in prayer through the Book of Common Prayer and leading a crash course in the BCP for others. I liked helping in a Walk to Emmaus spiritual retreat for the first time. It’s really cool to see how God has used our church to bless others–listen to my Dec. 30th 2018 sermon if you want to hear some of the numbers on how our church has blessed others.

Trip to England–Laura and I enjoyed a great vacation to England in April. We flitted about in London, Oxford, and Bath. It was my first trip to Europe, and it was a blast.

Here’s a very English picture of Laura and I at Christ Church in Oxford.

Here’s a very English picture of Laura and I at Christ Church in Oxford.

Trip to Los Angeles–In the same month, I got to go on a trip to Los Angeles with some other pastors from our area to visit different ministries. It was quite an impactful time, replete with lots of jokes, ribbing, and laughter.

Here’s our group at the edge of Dodger’s Stadium. Yes, we did serious stuff too :).

Here’s our group at the edge of Dodger’s Stadium. Yes, we did serious stuff too :).

Smashing Pumpkins Concert–I got to hear my favorite band from my high school days perform some of their best hits in Nashville. My brother and a former youth from my old church, Ethan, came with me. The Pumpkins rocked hard and got me in my feelings. The show was one of the best I’ve ever been to.

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Deer Hunting–While I grew up squirrel hunting with my dad on occasion, I never went deer hunting. A couple of guys at the church, Leeroy Gatlin and Joe Crumbley, are taking me under their wing and teaching me their ways. It’s peaceful and makes me feel better connected to my roots.

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Books by Genre (favorites are highlighted)

Political Theology/Politics

Public Faith in Action–Miroslav Volf & Ryan McAnnally-Linz–Great, concise Christian examination of multiple political issues, ranging from wealth, poverty, work, education, healthcare, migration, criminal justice, healthcare, war, beginning life, marriage & family, ending life, policing, and more. I’d put Volf and McAnnally-Linz center-left when it comes to their politics and theology. They are a bit more liberal than me, but I find a substantial amount of agreement with them. They helped stimulate my thinking on a few issues, particularly healthcare. I would have presented differently on a few things, but overall this is a very good entry point that has the rare combination of good biblical reflection, brevity, and practical action steps.

Just Mercy–Bryan Stevenson

The New Jim Crow–Michelle Alexander

The Third Reconstruction–William J. Barber II 

The Benedict Option–Rod Dreher

Theology

Healing–Francis MacNutt–MacNutt’s reflections informed the Healing services we had at Tanner and Riddle’s Chapel UMC, as well as my portion of the revival services at Bear Creek UMC this year. He gives a fairly comprehensive theological and biblical look at healing, arguing that aspects of the salvation Jesus brings involve healing. He divides healing into four realms–spiritual, emotional, physical, and deliverance (aka exorcism). He also brings decades of experience in healing ministry to this book, which makes for some very good practical advice. MacNutt isn’t a dumb enthusiast, either–he has a a degree from Harvard and a PhD. This book has set the tone for me when it comes to healing ministry. 

The Lost World of Adam and Eve–John Walton

Catechism of the Catholic Church

Need to Know–John Stackhouse

Changes that Heal–Henry Cloud

The Lost World of the Flood–Tremper Longman III & John Walton

Disunity in Christ–Christena Cleveland

Four Views on Hell–Edited by Preston Sprinkle, contributors Denny Burk (Eternal Conscious Torment), John Stackhouse (Annihilationism/Conditionalism), Robin Parry (Universalism), and Jerry Walls (a Protestant form of Purgatory). Yes, I read a book on hell. And I did a good chunk of it while at the beach, which made Laura’s family laugh at me.

Get Wise–Bob Merritt

Barking to the Choir–Gregory Boyle

History

The Civil War as a Theological Crisis–Mark Noll–This is a deep dive into the white American church’s most painful sin. The largely Protestant nation of America could not agree on an interpretation of the Bible when it came to the issue of slavery. Our simple, Bible-focused Protestantism (The Bible says it, I believe it) seemed to work fairly well on things that were clear in Scripture, but slavery was an issue that created a crisis over the Bible–just what exactly does the Bible say? How are we to interpret? On complex issues where there was not an easy “biblical” answer, people tended to be more formed by the politics, science, and economics of their region. Noll lifts up the pro and contra arguments concerning slavery from leading American pastors and theologians of the day, and provides some outside perspective on the debate from Europeans and Canadians. Pro-slavery white Americans tended to let implicit assumptions, the faulty racial science of the day, and their economic interests cover over the biblical teaching of the image of God in all people and the equality of all in Christ. Denominations divided over the slavery question, politicians were divided, economic interests were divided, and the nation ultimately resorted to guns to resolve the conflict. In the aftermath of the Civil War, the belief of many white Americans, particularly in the South, did not change. The church lost steam in being able to speak politically, and the public became increasingly wary of basing public policies on what people purported to be biblical teachings. This fragmentation of the church and its failure to espouse a unified political vision paved the way for increased secularization in American politics, which has had some pluses and minuses. Overall, this was a very interesting look at some history that has a lot of bearing for where we are today.

The Undivided Past–David Cannadine

Fiction

Americanah–Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie–Shoutout to Laura’s friend Laurel who gave us this book. This story contains a lot of good nuggets when it comes to examining culture and race. The story follows a Nigerian woman, her time growing up in Nigeria and her later travels to the United States, which creates ample opportunities for reflection. Adichie lifts up interesting thoughts on the intersection of African American culture, African culture, white culture, American culture, technology, education, mental health, and gender. While there are a lot of bright spots in the book, I didn’t particularly like the way it ended, which seemed shallow in contrast to the rest of the book and left me with a sour taste in my mouth.

(I know; I’m bad at reading fiction. Currently working on one other book loaned to me by a friend.)

Leadership

The Path Between Us–Suzanne Stabile–This book is based on the Enneagram personality system that has become the favorite personality tool for Laura and me. Stabile is a master Enneagram teacher, and she dives into the relational dynamics between different Enneagram types. This book can be helpful for better understanding interactions between different types in relationships and at the workplace. 

Finish–Jon Acuff

Comedy/Fun

Stuff White People Like–Christian Lander–This book is a hilarious and biting satire of moderate-to-progressive white culture, written by an observant insider. It’s good to be able to laugh at yourself sometimes. Short, sweet, and still surprisingly accurate for having been written in 2008. Read it if you’d like a good laugh, no matter who you are.

Based on a True Story–Norm MacDonald

Podcasts

Woodland Hills Church–Pastor Greg Boyd is the planter and primary preacher at Woodland Hills. He is more of a “head” preacher than a “heart” preacher, which I enjoy sometimes. 

United Methodist Church of the Resurrection–Adam Hamilton is a great preacher. I think differently from him on some issues, but he’s still one of the best preachers in modern United Methodism. 

Revitalize and Replant with Thom Rainer–shoutout to Keith Shoulders for getting me into this podcast. Rainer and his friends offer leadership thoughts for pastors of small, often rural churches in need of revitalization.  There is a lot of practical leadership advice in the podcast to help move your church in a direction that best honors Jesus.

This Cultural Moment–My wife learned about this podcast from some friends, and she got me into it. Pastor John Mark Comer is a church planter in Portland, Oregon, and he co-hosts the podcast with his friend Mark Sayers, who is a pastor in Melbourne, Australia. They talk about doing ministry in progressive, post-Christian cities and comment a lot on the current state of the West. Very interesting reflections on what is likely going to be the coming shape of doing ministry in the West.

Typology–As mentioned before, Laura and I love the Enneagram personality type, and Ian Morgan Cron interviews different people who are different types and explores different intricacies related to their type. Laura and I already nerd out when it comes to the Enneagram, and this indulges our nerdiness.

That’s it. Hope you enjoyed it! What did you like about 2018?

’Tis the Season for Depression: 7 Steps To Battle Darkness

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“Where shall I go from your Spirit? Or where shall I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there! If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there! If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me. If I say, ‘Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light about me be night,’ even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light with you.”     –Psalm 139:7-12

It was impressed on me to write about depression a few days ago. Seasonal Affective Disorder touches a lot of people this time of year, and the highest rates of depression occur during the holiday season. I had five different people either talk about or post something related to depression over the past few weeks. There definitely are folks in the Tanner and greater Limestone County communities who are battling depression. 

Depression is the common cold of mental illness. According to a study done by the National Institute of Mental Health, 6.7% of all adults age 18 and older reported a major depressive episode in 2016. That percentage goes up with younger generations: 12.7% amongst adolescents aged 12-17, and 10.9% amongst young adults aged 18-25. I’ve had several seasons when I’ve been down and emotionally numb. I’ve seen counselors a few different times in life, and probably will in the future. While I’m not a counseling professional, I wanted to share some things I’ve found useful in seasons of darkness and depression. I hope you find them helpful too.

1. Connect with God in the darkness–There can be a sweetness to the darkness if we face it with Jesus. We can have a deep connection with God and others in our sadness. Don’t walk away from God in your pain; rather, pour your heart out to him. We are invited to bring our negative emotions to God in the prayer book of the Bible, the Psalms. Many of the Psalms showcase experiences of darkness and have people pouring out their souls to God in complaint, anger, and confusion (read Psalm 22, 42, 43, 44, and 88 for starters). Sometimes God comes very close to us in our sadness and difficulties, as he did to a suicidal Elijah in 1 Kings 19, or to Paul concerning his thorn in 2 Corinthians 12:1-10, or Jesus in Gethsemane in Luke 22:39-46. Pour out your heart to God; don’t cut yourself off from him in these dark times. He is near to the broken hearted (Psalm 51:17) and he will not break a bruised reed or snuff out a smoldering wick (Matthew 12:15-21). Are you sharing your struggles and negative emotions with Jesus, or cutting yourself off from him? He desires to strengthen and help us.

2. Claim the gifts that come from dark seasons–There can be gifts that come from being acquainted with melancholy. There is no experience or trauma that God cannot redeem and use for good in some way, according to Paul in Romans 8:28. That’s not to say that everything that happens to us is good or is part of the intentional will of God. Rather, God can turn around whatever we go through and bring good out of it, even if it is despicably evil. The darkest hour of Jesus’ life–his betrayal, suffering, crucifixion, and death–was redeemed by God to become the means of winning deliverance for all who would receive Christ in faith. God can redeem our situations of trouble too, if we cling to him in faith and don’t give up. God develops our endurance, character, and hope in situations of suffering (Romans 5:3-5). Similarly, going through trouble can lead to good art. I have always been attracted to gloomy songs because they help us feel our emotions, express our pain, connect with someone else over the experience of suffering, and the really good ones help orient us toward hope. These songs send the message that there’s someone out there who gets it and they’ve worked through it. Being acquainted with depression can help us connect with others in their times of despair. We are better able to be a calming, empathic, hopeful presence. Don’t lose sight of the gifts that can come from your experiences of despair. Those who run from sadness won’t understand or be able to wield these gifts as effectively. Have you claimed the gifts that come from the darkness?

3. Don’t fall in love with despair and wickedness–As a caution related to my previous points, while there can be growth and connection with God in the dark, there also can be a temptation to fall in love with it. Despair may be all we pursue or allow ourselves to feel. We can come to believe we are unworthy of love, we don’t deserve or can’t accept happiness, we are broken and really deserve hopelessness and pain. One of the effects of sin is that it corrupts our hearts and minds, so that we desire the wrong things and believe the wrong things. The sins of others also shape us–negative beliefs get written deep into us by abuse, rejection, pain, and frustration. There is often a measure truth to our negative thoughts and beliefs. I’m not going to tell you just to accept yourself, that you’re fine just as you are so just do you. In fact, it’s healthy to feel negative emotions and be challenged by God, because the Bible is pretty up front about us being sinners who don’t measure up to a holy God. Before I became a Christian, while I experienced the love of Jesus drawing me to himself, I also experienced conviction of sin, that I was jacked up and stood in need of God’s mercy. There are parts of us–not all of us, but parts of us–that really are quite unlovely. All of us mess up, all of us experience brokenness. But the good news is that God’s love for us doesn’t depend on us cleaning ourselves up. “But God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8). Jesus loves us so much that he died and rose again to heal our brokenness. By the cross he rids us of shame and guilt and radiates the Father’s pure love to us. This is not because we are worthy, not because we’ve earned it, but because of God’s overflowing generosity and grace that he freely gives to whoever will trust Jesus as Lord.

Sadness can help us be honest about our flaws and limits, but being consumed by it leads us to push away the love and grace of God. A tool of the enemy is to get us to acknowledge our badness but think that grace isn’t really available to us. The most devastating schemes of the devil are partial truths. Jesus can help us see ourselves as he sees us: people who are loved in spite of our sins, who are fearfully and wonderfully made, people whom God desires to bless, people meant to live for God’s glory and purpose.

This is really the heart of the internal battle. I can’t make you love God, have a healthy love of yourself, and want the right stuff. That’s the Holy Spirit’s job, and he can use Spirit-filled people to move us to that place. Do you allow yourself to experience love and joy? Have you fallen in love with darkness so much that it’s all you pursue anymore and you reject God’s love and grace for you? Do you believe you are a deeply loved person, someone Jesus valued so much that he died for you and lives to be in a loving relationship with you? Don’t let darkness lead us to smother hope and push away our extravagant God, whose grace is always greater than our sins.

4. Remember that where you are now isn’t where you’ll always be–Night isn’t mean to last forever–eventually dawn comes. Negative circumstances are what lead most people to depression. You may be suffering abuse. You may feel smothered by a dysfunctional family that you wish you could get away from. You may be experiencing conflict or mistreatment at work. You may have lost a family member, a friend, or a job. You may have done something you’re ashamed of and have a guilty conscience. You may be poor, struggling to make ends meet. People may make fun of you or pick on you. You may feel like you don’t fit in anywhere and no one is interested in you. You may be struggling with health problems. While these things probably won’t change overnight, some of them will. Where you are now isn’t where you always will be, and Jesus can bring us into seasons of favor and joy if we persist through the hard seasons. Sometimes we can get to those seasons by making a change–changing jobs, changing where we live, getting some healthy distance from our family, getting away from an abusive relationship, getting some distance from a particular friend group, investing in a relationship with Jesus, changing our habits, and so forth. Sometimes we can’t change our situation and we have to grind our way through a difficult season. Reinhold Niebuhr’s Serenity Prayer is useful in situations like this: “Lord, give me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” Whether we can make changes in our situation or not, we are not to lose hope. Hope is the ability to see how things could be better, to anticipate it, and to orient ourselves toward that future goodness. With Jesus, while we may have difficult seasons, there is always hope for things getting better. Don’t throw away the hope we have in Christ just because our present season is hard. And if your safety is being threatened and you’re being abused, there are ways to get you to a safer place. Just reach out.

5. Have friends–One of our students at First Priority last week shared how someone befriended her when she was going through a season of depression and helped her get through it. Now she wants to pay it forward and spread hope and joy to others. If you find a friend who will listen to you, care for you, joke around with you, and especially pray for you, you’ve found a treasure. I call on friends when I’m going through a hard time to share what’s going on and ask for prayer. Depression can lead us to isolate ourselves and display awkward behaviors that push people away. Resist the urge to isolate. Find some folks you can trust, who won’t betray your best interests. Proverbs tells us that there are friends out there who stick closer than family (18:24). You can be that friend for someone else, too. The important thing is to have friends you can trust and to have give and take in your friendships.

6. Go see a counselor–When we get physically sick, we go see a doctor in hopes that they will help make us well. Unfortunately, we don’t always think the same way when it comes to emotional sickness. We may push ourselves away from seeing a counselor, telling ourselves that going to a counselor is a sign that we’re “one of those messed up people.” Being real about problems and seeking healing and wholeness doesn’t mean you’re weak; it actually takes courage. If you’re too proud to seek wholeness, it’s your loss. Counselors and psychiatrists, especially well-trained Christian ones, are like doctors of the soul. They have expertise in diagnosing emotional wounds and unhelpful behaviors/thought patterns. They can point us toward healing and give us concrete steps to get there. They can determine if our brains aren’t producing enough neurotransmitters to make us have a good mood, and can detect other neuro-chemical issues that affect our emotional states. Medicine helps heal, and there’s no shame in taking medicine for mental health when we need it. Before Thanksgiving, I talked with a stranger while I was getting my wife’s tires changed. As we talked about life and church, he eventually shared how the antidepressant he takes greatly helps his mood and helped him get through a difficult season in caring for his elderly parents. Antidepressants aren’t silver bullets that totally fix everything, but they can be tools to have in our toolkit. Medicine can help our moods and emotional states, but I would combine it with other healthy activities. It never hurts to go see a counselor, and I have a professionally trained Christian counselor I’d recommend in the Madison area if you’re interested. 

7. Cope with stress in healthy ways– We all have different behaviors we use to cope with stress. They all work for us to some degree, but some are healthier than others. I offer some brief Dos and Don’ts here:

Do: Do get enough sleep and exercise. Do pray and go to church. Do vent to friends. Do keep a journal where you write out all you’re dealing with–you can even turn it into prayer. Do get clean from any addictions. Do punch a pillow or punching bag. Do assertively handle conflict.

Don’t: Don’t regularly eat tons of awful food. Don’t isolate. Don’t rip someone’s head off in anger. Don’t run from healthy conflict. Don’t shoulder everything yourself and try to be a strong rock. Don’t self medicate with drugs, alcohol, or escapist behavior. Escapist behavior compounds problems, and while it may take the edge off for a while, it while lead you to crash down lower and lower.

Some days we do better than others when it comes to coping with stress and having healthy disciplines. I certainly don’t have perfect discipline. None of us do. The sooner we accept and even laugh about our foibles, the better it will be. If we mess up, ask God for forgiveness, forgive yourself, and try again.

So there you have it. I hope some of this resonated with you. My prayers are with you if you’re going through a season of depression. While the darkness is tough, and all of us will go through dark seasons in life, they don’t have to get the best of us. We can be good stewards of our dark times, and God can work in us through them. Just be easy on yourself and give it time.

What would you add to the list?

4 Questions for an Increasingly Secular Generation Z

Everyone cares about the important questions of life. But let’s be honest: most of us don’t have the passion or the drive to study them at a deep level. Plus, we probably aren’t enticed at the prospect of working at Starbucks after earning a degree in philosophy. (Sorry, philosophy majors. You know it’s true.) Still, it can be helpful to wrestle with questions and to see how people of different worldviews engage one other. In particular, I’ve been thinking about atheism. Atheism and agnosticism have been on the rise in younger generations in the US. According to research by Barna, Generation Z (the generation after millennials, born 1999-2015) is more than twice as likely to identify as atheist in comparison to the general adult population, although that statistic is still relatively low at 13%. Add to that those who consider themselves agnostic and of no religious affiliation, and the number rises to 35%, a large portion of a generation. Why are we seeing these trends? I’m sure there are several reasons, but for the purpose of this article, I want to pose four conversation starters that I believe bring to light some weaknesses of atheism in particular.

1. What Hope Does Atheism Offer in Comparison to Religious Hope? 

I like to make a distinction between generic hope and religious hope. Generic hope refers to the hopes just about every human being shares–hope for a good life, financial success, good health, a good family, our politics to win, our communities and people around us to do well, emotional fulfillment, etc. The nature of religious hope really depends on the religion, but speaking as a Christian, there is beautiful hope that Jesus adds to life. There is hope for personal calling and meaning in life. We are made for a purpose and can fulfill that purpose through a relationship with Jesus and in service to him. There is hope in the face of adversity. Even if my family struggles, I become poor, my politics loses, evil triumphs in my community or nation, my health deteriorates, people dislike me, and I die, Jesus gives me strength in the face of these difficulties and a positive expectation that God can turn bad things around for good. He gives me hope of eternal life after death. He gives me hope for God’s justice and goodness to break forth here and now and the conviction that his justice will finally prevail when Jesus returns to judge the world and evil will finally be put down. He gives hope even when he calls us to sacrifice for his sake, knowing that when we lose things for his sake, we find life and blessing in him. He provides peace, comfort, and growth in all things.

What hope does secular humanism offer in the face of adversity? Atheism seems easy to hold if you’re a person of privilege, but what does it offer you if your health fails, if your politics loses out, if you end up poor, if you experience evil triumphant, if you feel lonely and misunderstood, and, ultimately, when you face death?

2. What Is the Basis for Morality? 


I have a hard time seeing any unifying, universal moral code emerging from atheism. That’s not to say that people of no belief or of uncertain belief aren’t moral people–many of them are. They do some good things, and often they want to make the world a better place. But how would you describe what is good, what is right, and what we ought to do from an atheistic framework? Why should we do any of it? Where does the moral impulse come from? Surely the basis for morality is not indulging whatever desires I find inside myself; I see a lot of ugly impulses within me alongside some good ones. People do a lot of nasty things in the name of being true to themselves: divorcing a spouse we find boring, sloughing off responsibility, saying awful things about someone behind their back, or cutting corners to make money. Does morality come from group consensus and majority rule? That varies from place to place. In the early 20th century, the majority of Americans supported Prohibition. Then they didn’t. What about abortion, which continues to remain a closely contested issue in public opinion polls? Didn’t the majority of Germans go along with Hitler’s Nazism? Surely there’s more to morality than public opinion, and we often cling to our beliefs despite what the majority may think. Will you say there is no final truth or morality, that everything is simply subjective interpretations competing for supremacy, that it ultimately doesn’t make any difference which truth you choose? That makes sense to me in an atheistic worldview, but seems anemic in actually bringing people together, binding up the world’s wounds, and standing against evil. Plus, I haven’t met a soul who is totally relativistic in their morality–there would be no reason to critique anyone or anything. Total relativism seems simply to be an invitation to a life of inertia.

As a Christian, the notion of universal standards given by a sovereign creator God has much that is attractive to it. Our all-knowing, loving God designed things to be a certain way. We hurt ourselves, others, the created world, and God himself when we go against that way and sin. Not to mention God will hold us responsible for our choices. Things tend to go well and there is flourishing and blessing when we live according to the way God designed things to go. The basis for morality lies with an ever-present God who applies standards and truths to all people at all times in all places, and there are rewards and punishments according to how we measure up to God’s will.

That’s not to say all Christians agree on everything. If you look for 2 seconds, you’ll find that Christians don’t. We human beings are limited–we will not understand God fully, nor will we fully comprehend all reality. This invites us to humility, to acknowledging that we don’t know everything about God and the world, that we could be wrong about a lot of things, and that there’s always more to learn. I take comfort in knowing that I’m not the source and arbiter of all truth. Jesus is. Yet I trust that Jesus is able to make himself known to us in a way that we can understand sufficiently for God’s purposes for our lives. And the fact that God knows all truth and is the evaluator of all moral action gives urgency for us seeking truth and seeking to live a moral life, even when what’s right is not easily discerned. Jesus is the one who reveals what is true, who vindicates what is good and true in life, and ultimately he will judge the world according to his truth. I am called to always be learning the truth as best I can, to be shaped by his truth, and bear witness to his truth.

Further, many secular humanists in the West hold to a bastardized version of Judeo-Christian values. Consider the value of the equality of all people regardless of gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, socio-economic status, etc. That’s straight from Genesis 1:26-27, Romans 2:6-11, and Galatians 3:27-28. Apart from a belief in God making all people of equal worth, why might you believe human beings are of equal value from a secular perspective? Why might you think we should all have certain rights? The values of equality, family, justice, compassion, meaningful work, loving your neighbor, and more all make sense from a Christian framework. God created human beings and the world to be a certain way, and it’s easy to see how those values have made their way into our politics. But strip away the original theology from which these values arose, and suddenly it becomes a lot harder to justify exactly why we hold certain values from a secular perspective.

Again I ask, what is the basis for morality? Can you unify people and hold people accountable to some common standard from an atheistic perspective? What impetus is there for pursuing truth and goodness in secular humanism? Can it escape the center of truth being the individual?

3. What Caused Existence? 

I see secular humanism caught in a bind when it comes to origins–either it can’t break out of an infinite regression of causes, or it believes in an unconvincing necessary being. I’m referencing the cosmological argument, an argument for God’s existence that St. Thomas Aquinas appropriated from Aristotle concerning an unmoved mover/uncaused cause/necessary being. I think it has a lot of explanatory power when it comes to understanding origins. The argument utilizes deductive reasoning, saying it is more sensible to believe there is a creator who is eternal and exists outside the standard line of cause and effect than it is to believe in an infinite regression of causes. (An infinite regression of causes is never being able to break out of “What caused that? And what came before that? And what came before that?” on into infinity.) If there is not a being who is outside the standard chain of cause and effect, then it seems likely that time itself wouldn’t exist and life wouldn’t exist, because an infinite regression of causes would mean we never could get back to a definitive beginning of existence. Since we experience time, it seems likely that there was a definitive beginning to time. It makes more sense to believe there is an unmoved mover, an uncaused cause who is outside the standard conception of cause and effect, upon which all of existence depends, who by necessity kickstarted this thing we call life. We Christians and other theists call this being God, and given the nature of existence, the theistic conception of God seems to have a lot of explanatory power.

I once saw an atheist philosopher posit “Nature” as his necessary being and uncaused cause. I’m not sure he really defined what “Nature” is. Is it personal? Does it have a will? If so, “Nature” sounds a lot like God. Or is it just the laws of nature? How likely does it seem that impersonal laws of nature would exist outside the standard line of cause and effect, would start an interdependent world that evolved into creatures that feel and decide, much less human beings who have such high level intellect, emotions, and will? Creatures like human beings seem probable if they are the creation of a God who has mind, emotions, and a will, but to have these kinds of creatures produced by the impersonal, non-willing laws of nature? That seems quite unlikely.

Can secular humanists break out of an infinite regression of causes in their understandings of origins? If not, it seems likely that secular humanists will never be able to be anything but agnostic when it comes to origins. Can they believe in a sensible necessary being besides God? So far, I haven’t been convinced. I’m in favor of continued scientific exploration of origins, but it seems safe to infer that something powerful and personal, outside the standard line of cause and effect, got this whole thing going. God seems to be the most sensible candidate to me.

4. How Do You Make Sense of Widespread Religious Experience? 

In other words: are all of us religious folks foolish when it comes to understanding accurately our own experiences? That seems to be the impression we get from the New Atheists, though not all in the unaffiliated camp would be so antagonistic toward religious people. While I do confess that people can go weird places when it comes to religion, people also can go weird places in their atheism (look at Stalin, Mao, & Pol Pot). Surely the intuitions and experiences of the vast majority of the people throughout history and in the world today aren’t total rubbish. According to a 2012 study, Pew Research Center found that only 16.3% of the population of the world could be classified as “Unaffiliated,” their catch-all term for atheists, agnostics, and people who don’t subscribe to a particular religious tradition. But even within that 16.3%, some of them hold spiritual beliefs “such as a belief in God or a universal spirit,” which wouldn’t jibe with most expressions of atheism. Are the majority of people in the world mistaken when it comes to reporting religious experience and belief in a spiritual reality? 

What about miracles with medical documentation? A famous site of Catholic pilgrimage and devotion is the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes, located in the town of Lourdes in southwestern France, where there have been 70 miraculous healing reports recognized by the Catholic Church. Several of these healings have medical documentation that has been evaluated by the International Lourdes Medical Committee, “an international panel of about twenty experts in various medical disciplines and of different religious beliefs,” who comment on whether the recovery is medically explicable or not based on the evidence available. Similarly, Dr. Candy Gunther Brown of the Religion Department of Indiana University published a study in Southern Medical Journal of research conducted at a Pentecostal meeting connected with Iris Ministries in Mozambique. They obtained permission from several volunteer subjects to use medical technology to measure the subjects’ hearing and vision. They later measured these same subjects after they received healing prayer, and recorded significant improvements to the hearing and sight of several.

Further, Christianity isn’t the only religion with reports of spiritual power encounters that change people. Dr. Edith Turner (now deceased) was an anthropologist who, along with her husband Victor, was studying the Ndembu people in Zambia. An anthropological practice is to “go native” and participate in the rituals of the people you study as though you believe in them yourself, even if you don’t. Dr. Turner went native, and throughout her career reported things such as healing, clairvoyance, a witch doctor extracting a bad spirit from a sick woman’s back (it came out in the form of a gray blob), trances, and more. She became an adherent to a shamanistic form of religion in the aftermath of her experiences. 

How would secular humanism respond to the majority of people in the world reporting spiritual encounters? What about the encounters that profoundly change people, and the ones with corroborating testimonies and medical documentation? I don’t deny that there are fakers out there when it comes to faith healing and spiritual power, but there are multiple stories that seem extremely difficult to controvert.

Conclusion

In conclusion, secular humanism struggles to articulate hope beyond the generic hopes everyone shares concerning life, with no hope after death. I have not seen it offer a believable concept of universal right and wrong, as well as a basis for a unifying morality. The origin of life is a mystery, and we cannot sensibly understand it or see an overarching purpose behind it. It is dismissive of widespread religious experience, spiritual power encounters, and documented healings. In short, I fail to see how this is a more compelling worldview than the Christian faith. In Christianity, you have strong hope, a sensible morality, a framework for understanding origins, and a loving God you can encounter by experience. Logic and argumentation alone cannot prove God, but it can lead us to to dip our toes into the waters of faith, to “taste and see that Lord is good.” My encouragement to Generation Z is to search, study, and give yourselves over to the means of grace for a few weeks. See if Jesus won’t meet you there.

Takeaways From the Catechism of the Catholic Church

I recently finished reading the Catechism of the Catholic Church. (The word catechism means “instruction.”) It is a thorough grounding in Roman Catholic belief and practice. While I have read and benefitted from a few Catholic authors (St. Augustine, Henri Nouwen, Richard Rohr, Greg Boyle, Raniero Cantalamessa), most of what I’ve heard about Catholicism has come through Protestants, which is undoubtedly biased and selective. It has been a joy to get such a broad summary from an official Catholic source. Contrary to uncharitable comments I’ve heard from a few Protestants, practicing Catholics are our sisters and brothers in Christ. We are united in the ecumenical creeds (Apostles’ Creed, Nicene Creed, Chalcedonian Definition, etc.) We all believe salvation is in Christ alone, by grace alone, through faith. We are united in God as creator, as Almighty, and as our Father. We are united in the saving work of Jesus in the cross and resurrection, the sending of the Holy Spirit, the unity of the saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, Christ returning to judge the world, and eternal life. Our consensus in doctrine and practice is much greater than our differences, but it’s often the differences that get the most attention. Here are some of my brief takeaways concerning pleasant discoveries, the most fundamental difference I see between Catholics and Protestants, and a list of some of the other differences that stem from this fundamental difference. 

Pleasant Discoveries

  • The Catechism is thoroughly biblical, in spite of common Protestant accusations that Catholics basically don’t care about the Bible. Biblical references are teeming throughout.

  • The Catechism is kinder toward Protestants than I was expecting: we are followers of Jesus and the Spirit does much good through Protestant churches, though they would say we aren’t properly related to God’s true church.

  • The best and most thorough discussion of angels I’ve ever read is in the Catechism.

  • There is a healthy respect for science and natural reason, and official teachings of Catholicism are much more open to evolution than some Protestant bodies are. I think we could learn a lot from them in this regard.

  • There is a rich spiritual tradition with many encouragements toward a life of prayer and discipline. I see more emphasis here in Catholicism than I do throughout Protestantism.

  • There is a continual focus on the poor and God’s love for them, and an appreciation for vows of poverty and singleness, which many Protestants tend to ignore.

  • There is a lot of modern moral and political wisdom in the Catechism.

The Fundamental Difference: How Should We Do Theology?

The differences between Catholics and Protestants ultimately root in different ways of doing theology. We Methodists like to use the acronym STER to talk about the different ways people come to know God: Scripture, Tradition, Experience, and Reason. Every person and every denomination weighs and uses these four sources of theological knowledge differently. For instance, charismatic and Pentecostal Protestants tend to give more emphasis to Scripture and experience (what I learned in the practice of prayer, what the Spirit told me, my experience trying to live out a particular biblical principle). The Reformed tradition tends to weigh Scripture and reason more heavily (what is the best way to go about interpretation, how does background of a particular Scripture inform our understanding of it, how does this interact with other sources of knowledge like science, philosophy, psychology, etc.) Anglicans would employ Scripture and tradition more heavily, while still giving primacy to Scripture. Roman Catholics put holy tradition (the ecumenical creeds, what Christians and teachers have said in the past, how the church has interpreted Scripture throughout history) on an equal level with Scripture, with the authority being given by God to the Magisterium (the pope and his bishops) to interpret Scripture and holy tradition, sometimes infallibly. See Article 2: The Transmission of Divine Revelation (paragraphs 74-95) of the Catechism to get the Catholic perspective of how they do theology. One of the reasons why they proceed this way is that the Scriptures themselves were given to us by the tradition of the church. The New Testament wasn’t finally canonized by the church until the 4th century, and the New Testament documents themselves were produced by individuals of the early church. Thus, this is used as an argument for the highest authority being given by God to the leadership of the church, guided by the Holy Spirit, to decide what God’s inspired and authoritative revelation is.

We Protestants would agree that we are dependent upon the tradition of the church for the initial production of the Scriptures by the apostles and their associates as well as the later canonization of the Scriptures by church leaders in the 4th century, but would differ on how much weight we gives these different sources when it comes to doing theology. Protestants would put Scripture as the more important and the most foundational source for how we come to know God, more so than tradition. Thoughtful Protestants aren’t anti-tradition, they simply are more critical of tradition, especially where later tradition has moved beyond the data from the earliest tradition of Scripture. We would say that the Holy Spirit gave the church the ability to recognize the Scriptures as the earliest, most pristine traditions of Jesus, the apostles, and their associates, but the church does not finally imbue all authority into those texts. In other words, the authority of Scripture doesn’t finally derive from the church, even though God used the church to give us Scripture, but final authority belongs to the God who inspired the Scriptures and who reigns over all existence.

To play with an illustration given by Anglican Bible scholar N. T. Wright in his book Scripture and The Authority of God (p. 69), let’s use the example of receiving orders from your commander through the mail. Consider Scripture being like the message from your commander in the mail, and the postal worker who delivers it being like the church. Just because a postal worker delivered your orders to you doesn’t mean your postal worker has the same authority as the message or the commander, and therefore you give all allegiance and obedience to the postal worker. Nor does it mean you worship the letter that the worker gave you, though it contains the official message from your commander and is the best way to come to know your commander (this would be an idolatry of the Bible). Both the letter and the worker are helping us be better connected to the commander, but they fulfill different roles. Protestants would say the letter contains the most pristine presentation of the commander’s orders, not necessarily the thoughts of any postal worker about the letter. We would argue that the earliest traditions of Christianity we have in the Scriptures should be the most fundamental criteria by which we evaluate all doctrines and practices of the church, because these are the closest documents we have to Jesus and his apostles, and they are the ones the early church recognized as being consistent with the faith handed down to them. If a teaching of the church is not evident from the Scriptures, at the very least it shouldn’t be required as necessary for salvation, and if it runs contrary to the Scriptures, it should be abandoned as contrary to the earliest traditions of the church. This is what led to the Protestant Reformation–a desire to reform the Catholic Church to align with the earliest traditions and teachings of the church as revealed through Scripture, a return to primitive, early Christianity.

In some ways, Protestantism released great potential for transformation within the church, but it also created a huge fracturing within the church, paving the way for disagreements and even fresh entries into error. Luther quickly discovered that any hopes of unifying Protestants around a common interpretation of Scripture was dashed at the Marburg Colloquy in his arguments with Zwingli, and it’s undeniable that people interpret Scripture in a lot of different ways still today. There are hundreds of different denominations, all claiming to be “biblical,” but coming to different conclusions on points of doctrine. We have something similar to individualized Protestant Magisteriums in the various denominations, where each rallies around certain ways of interpreting Scripture, and each gives hierarchical authority for enforcing those views. This is where the STER acronym can once again be helpful for navigating the differences amongst Protestants, because often you can trace the source of the disagreements down to differences in valuing and interpreting Scripture, Tradition, Experience, and/or Reason. In spite of the fracturing it has caused, we Protestants believe a foundational reliance on Scripture is a conviction worth arguing for, even if it hasn’t been able to produce ecclesial unity, because of the desire to pursue primitive Christianity as best we’re able to understand it.

As you can probably tell, unlike the Roman Catholic Magisterium, most Protestants wouldn’t claim infallibility for the church. This may seem scary for those who want definitive answers. If you deny infallibility within the church, then can we reliably know God at all? I think we can. I believe Jesus is capable of making himself known to us in a way that is sufficient to God’s goals, though I may not fully understand how we come to know God. I also take comfort in there being a huge amount of consensus when you start to look at all the commonalities among Christians of various stripes–stuff that has been believed by all people, in all times, in all places. But the best we humans can do is humbly and prayerfully make arguments–be witnesses–for why we think God is a particular way. We may get it wrong, and all of us probably are wrong about certain things when it comes to God. We always run into the limits of our own finiteness in the ability to know things, which should showcase that human beings are not the source and judges of all truth. Scripture tells us that Jesus is the source of all truth (John 14:6).  He is the one who has all authority, knows all things, is God’s infallible, inerrant Word, and will ultimately judge all things. So as fallible, finite human beings, we make our attempts and we seek to grow in our God-given understanding, but we shouldn’t be surprised if we can’t obtain infallibility and if the church can’t obtain it. Perhaps our limits are meant to point us beyond ourselves to a God wiser and greater than ourselves, where in faith we humbly seek more understanding, to quote St. Anselm. God gives us enough knowledge that we might have faith in Christ and serve him. And if Paul’s Body of Christ language in 1 Corinthians 12 and Ephesians 2 is any indicator, perhaps God loves diversity concerning some things more than we theological types care to acknowledge at times.

I say all that to say this: what you think is “right” or “wrong” really depends on how you do theology. If you accept the Roman Catholic method for doing theology, everything makes sense and checks out. If you don’t, then you have another method for understanding God and would use that theological framework in making your critique. Ultimately, these arguments and questions come back to us as individuals and lead us to ask: what seems most reasonable, convincing, and beautiful? People who are a lot smarter than I am on both sides could take this argument deeper, but these are my musings after reading the Catechism.

Some Other Differences

All of the following observations are presenting issues that really come back to the core issue in the previous section. Some differences particular Protestant traditions would have with Catholicism would also be differences they would have with other Protestants, so I won’t talk about mode of baptism, infant baptism, baptismal regeneration, providence, predestination, sacramental theology, women in ministry, gifts of the Spirit, etc. The list below are things that most if not all Protestants would have trouble with based on their way of doing theology.

  • The Papacy

  • Mariology

  • Mandatory Celibacy in the Priesthood

  • Praying for the Dead

  • Purgatory

  • Indulgences

  • Divorce as Always Impermissible

  • Consequences for Abortion–Why excommunication for abortion and not other mortal sins?

  • Birth Control–Many Protestants would question the opposition of the Church to other non-abortifacient forms of birth control (besides the rhythm method) and would differ slightly on God’s purposes for sex within marriage.

Conclusion

All in all, there is a lot of room for Catholics and Protestants to pray for each other, worship together, and work together for the evangelization and discipleship of our world. The Catholic Church is a huge and beautiful boat from which to fish. I have benefitted much from reading the Catechism, and I’m sure I will continue to learn from and serve with Catholics in the future. I think John Wesley sums up best how we ought to treat each other in his sermon “Catholic Spirit”:

But although a difference in opinions or modes of worship may prevent an entire external union, yet need it prevent our union in affection? Though we cannot think alike, may we not love alike? May we not be of one heart, though we are not of one opinion? Without all doubt, we may. Herein all the children of God may unite, notwithstanding these smaller differences. These remaining as they are, they may forward one another in love and in good works.

Review of Gordon Fee's "God's Empowering Presence"

I recently finished reading Pentecostal scholar Gordon Fee’s tome God’s Empowering Presence. I benefited much from his thorough exegesis of all the explicit and implicit references to the Holy Spirit in Paul’s letters. Fee, who belongs to the Assembly of God, is a welcome guide to me, a United Methodist, on the Holy Spirit and on Spirit phenomenon in Paul. Here are some things that I took away from reading most of his book.

 

The Charismata

Fee argues the Greek word charismata, often defined as spiritual gifts (think prophecy, miracles, healing, speaking in tongues, etc.), would have been more understood to original readers/hearers as “grace bestowments” or “grace endowments,” not primarily as "spiritual gifts.” The only passage that designates them “spiritual gifts” is in 1 Cor 12, in other passages there is no explicit mention of the Spirit in relation to the charismata (see Romans 12; Ephesians 4; 2 Cor 8:7; 1 Tim 4:14; 2 Tim 1:6-7 and others), though it’s not wrong to see the Spirit under the surface in these other passages. John Wesley’s use of the terms “gifts and graces” for ministry may be nearer the mark of the language of the early church. Arguments against God giving charismata to people today (commonly called cessationism) are extremely exegetically weak and would have been foreign to Paul.

Prophets and tongue-speakers are in control of themselves (1 Cor 14). There is nothing to indicate they are out of control, for Paul believes them capable of speaking one at a time, whether speaking in tongues or prophesying (14:26-33). Glossolalia (glossolalia is the Greek term for speaking in tongues) was a regular part of Paul’s own spirituality (14:18). Tongues speakers should pray for the ability to interpret their own glossolalia (14:13). Fee makes good case that the “inarticulate/wordless groanings” of the Holy Spirit in Romans 8:26-27 are very likely a reference to speaking in tongues, and he also sees it as a possibility for “praying in the Spirit” in Ephesians 6:18. If Fee is right in seeing glossolalia in Romans 8 and Ephesians 6, then glossolalia, though unintelligible to its speakers without interpretation, encourages their spirits and can encourage the church when interpreted (1 Cor 14), the Holy Spirit intercedes through glossolalia to conform people to God’s will (Rom. 8:26-27), and glossolalia helps people wage spiritual warfare through effectively sharing the word of God (Ephesians 6:17-18).

Prophecy seems to be the chief charisma that Paul lifts up in his writing. It is not necessarily what we think of as modern day preaching, but a spontaneous utterance or word that comes from God for the community or for an individual. It needs to be tested (prophets are not immune to mistakes–1 Thes 5:19-22; 1 Cor 14:29). Some potential ways to test it are to run the message against what we know to be the content of the Christian faith, and Paul also gives a further the suggestion that prophecy should be done to encourage (1 Cor 14:31). I can't remember if I experienced this or just heard a story about it, but I have heard of prayer meetings that left an open mic for someone to speak a prophetic word, but there were people on either side of the mic who made you tell them what the prophetic message you were about to give was. Once they heard it, they would either give you the go-ahead to speak that word to the group, or they would say that might not be a word for this group. Such is one way of "testing" prophecy. Not allowing and despising the gift of prophecy actually serves to quench the Spirit (1 Thes 5:19-22).

 

The Holy Spirit and the Trinity

Salvation is Trinitarian in that it is initiated by the love of the Father, accomplished and demonstrated historically in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ, and applied to the believer in the Holy Spirit. Christianity is Christocentric–everything centers on and revolves around Christ. We should not lose that focus as we learn about and grow in the Holy Spirit. Preaching is made effective by the Holy Spirit, who uses our words to point people toward Christ (per Fee’s comments on 1 Thes 1:4-7). The Spirit drives us toward the character of Christ (see the fruit of Spirit in Galatians 5) and leads us to embody a cruciform lifestyle of God’s power displayed in weakness and love, not in triumphalist power apart from suffering (see especially 2 Corinthians, where Paul makes this point again and again). The Spirit is a “down payment” (2 Cor 1:22; 5:5 and Eph 1:14), a foretaste of God’s future and of the resurrection life we will have in Christ when he returns. The Spirit is also God’s seal–think of the seal of a signet ring pressed on wax, God’s official mark on his children connoting his ownership over those sealed by the Spirit.

 

The Flesh vs. the Spirit

Fee has great reflections on the flesh vs Spirit in Paul. The flesh represents our mindset and desires before we come to Christ; the Spirit is God’s future come into the present era and empowers us for a Christlike life. Both Spirit and flesh influence us, and we are not immune to temptation, but the Spirit is sufficient to overcome the flesh. We get no hint that the Spirit is weaker than the flesh in Paul–the Spirit is sufficient to live the life of Christ. Interpretations of Romans 7 and Galatians 5 that would give the flesh the “upper hand” in our struggles with sin have some significant exegetical problems, as Fee demonstrates in his work.

 

Baptism in the Spirit

Fee argues, I think convincingly, that baptism of the Holy Spirit is not a second work of grace subsequent to conversion, but rather refers to what happens to us at conversion. That’s not to say that we don’t grow after conversion by walking in step with the Spirit (Gal. 5:16-25) and being filled with the Spirit (Eph. 5:18-21), only that in Paul, baptism in the Holy Spirit is referring to conversion.

 

Critiques

I am vastly in agreement with Fee’s work and interpretation, and have been greatly instructed by him. That being said, I have a couple minor quibbles and one major criticism of his work.

 

Minor Quibble #1: This book is not accessible to most people. Fee claims he is trying to speak to two groups: “pastors, students, and other church leaders; and the academic community” (p. xxii). I’m part of his intended audience, and I was struggling to stay engaged during the exegesis. I’d recommend you try another book on the Holy Spirit for those who haven’t been to seminary and who don’t have a great grasp on Koine Greek–about 800 pages of this book is in-depth exegesis, which isn’t always the most excited reading. This book is written mainly for Bible scholars.

 

Minor Quibble #2: I think I’m about 80-90% in agreement with Fee on how Paul understood and used the Law. Fee is right in letting us know that there is continuity and discontinuity in how Paul understood the Torah’s relevance for those who are in Christ. It seems to me he is too negative in his treatment of the Law in Paul. I tend to side more with some of the proponents of the "New Perspective" on Paul, salvation in OT and NT has always been by grace through faith. The Law is good (Rom 3:31; 7:7-12) and not totally done away with, but what Paul often is principally arguing against when he takes the Law to task are certain “works of the Law” and identity boundaries (circumcision, dietary laws, special days, animal sacrifice, Temple worship, etc). The coming of Christ and the work of the Spirit are foreshadowed in these works of the Law and are fulfilled by Christ and the Spirit, so they do not apply to Christians. Still, we are called to fulfill a “righteous requirement” of the Torah (Rom. 8:4). Fee seems to want to get rid of all Torah observance, but I rather think we should systemically reevaluate Torah and find which parts are in the “righteous requirement” we are called to fulfill.  Calvin’s demarcations of the Torah into three parts (moral, judicial, and ceremonial) are a step toward this systemic reevaluation of the Law in light of Christ and the writings of the NT. The OT is still Scripture, helping us see what God has fulfilled in Christ and the Spirit. It's useful in drawing out principals for how to live in Christ, and some of its commands very much still apply. After all, the Torah that commands circumcision and animal sacrifices is also the same Torah that commands love of God (Deut. 6) and of neighbor (Lev. 19), which Jesus made the heart of his teaching (Mark 12:28-34) and Paul makes the heart of his ethics (1 Cor 13; Gal 5:6; Rom. 13:8-10). So Fee making comments like Paul telling us to follow Christ “Torah-free” seems imprecise to me and unfaithful to what Paul is saying.

 

Major Concern: Fee is bent on trying to disconnect Spirit baptism from water baptism in this book. I’d like to hear his beliefs on what actually happens in water baptism, because he spends so much time arguing for what he doesn’t believe happens in water baptism: receiving the baptism of the Spirit. Baptism is tricky in the New Testament, since, as John Wesley says, there is an “irreconcilable variability” when it comes to what happens in baptism. While there are definitely instances of Fee’s view in the NT (Cornelius’ house in Acts 10 is the big example of people receiving the Spirit before getting baptized), I still believe baptism is the primary way God saves and gives his Spirit to people, and wouldn’t be so strong in disconnecting water baptism from Spirit baptism. I think Fee totally ignores some of the connections in Paul’s own language on water baptism and Spirit baptism (dying to sin and having Christ’s new life through baptism in Rom 6 connects with Rom 8:1-6 where the Spirit is “the Spirit of life” and we put the flesh to death by the Spirit; also circumcision made without hands by baptism in Col 2:11-12 and its connection with the Spirit circumcising the heart in Rom. 2:29; being made one in Christ and receiving adoption as sons through baptism in Gal. 3:26-29 connects with receiving the “Spirit of adoption” in Rom. 8:12-17 and being part of one body and “baptized into one Spirit” in 1 Cor 12:12-13; Eph. 4:4-6.) Paul seemed to believe that something happens in baptism–it’s not just a nice symbol. Also, as Fee repeatedly notes, the Holy Spirit is the “applicational” member of the Trinity, applying God’s grace experientially into the life of the Christian. Why wouldn’t we expect that when people undergo water baptism in faith in Christ (or a family member believes on behalf of an infant getting baptized), the Holy Spirit wouldn’t do the very thing signified by the washing/immersion in water? I agree with Fee that the Spirit is the reality that baptism points toward, that it is the Spirit who unites us in Christ and gives us new life, but Fee seems bent on disconnecting the Spirit from the sign of water baptism. Further, what would Fee make of other passages outside of Paul that connect water baptism and the Spirit, like Acts 2:38-40, water baptism and salvation in 1 Peter 3:21, or the Spirit descending on Jesus when he was baptized by John in the Gospels? I wouldn’t get my sacramental theology on baptism from Fee.

 

Conclusion

Fee’s encouragement is for us not to burn down existing traditions and denominations if they have crowded out the Holy Spirit in their theology, worship life, and/or personal spirituality. Rather, he encourages us to find ways to embrace the work of the Spirit today that were so obviously a part of the life of Paul and his churches. I am grateful for Fee’s exhaustive work, and pray the ministry of the Spirit will be more evident in my own life and in my own tradition, the United Methodist Church.

Top Five Books of 2017: #1

And now for #1. I'd love to see what your favorite books of the year have been as well, so feel free to comment!

#1 The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus' Crucifixion by N. T. Wright

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Of all the books I read this year, this one has challenged, blessed, and shaped my thinking the most. It is a book about the cross of Christ written by a leading New Testament scholar. While Wright can be a bit repetitive and there are some portions of this book that were dry as dust, the content has led to some shifts inside me that I still don't think are quite settled. While it's impossible to summarize everything in this book in a few paragraphs, it has been very helpful in getting a deeper understanding of what Scripture says about Jesus' crucifixion. To examine the cross, you have to get down to the fundamentals of the Christian religion. What is the problem with our world and with humanity? How is the cross of Jesus an answer to that problem?

Many conceptions of the cross I hear and undoubtedly have said myself at one time or another make an angry God the main problem we need to be rescued from. The common line of thinking goes like this: God made the world good and made it with some random rules for his humans to follow. Sin is breaking those rules. Sin is bad because God gets really angry with us when we break the rules. In order to rescue us from this angry God who would blast us into oblivion if he could, the loving Jesus steps in and takes God's wrath upon himself, so God can blow off some steam. Now we can live at peace with a placated God if we trust in Jesus. 

Wright believes in substitutionary atonement (it's biblical), but the above conception of substitutionary atonement is a bit simplistic and, to be honest, a little problematic. I'm not sure if I'd trust my cat with a God whose primary characteristic involves blowing up in fits of rage over people breaking arbitrary rules. Don't get me wrong, sin does make God angry, but Wright has helped me see that an angry God isn't the principal problem we need to be rescued from according to Scripture. Rather, we need to be rescued from sin and the devil, the real culprits of evil in our world, and sin is something worse than breaking random rules that tick God off. Sin, in and of itself, is destructive and deformative. Sin is choosing to go against the grain of the universe, against the very fabric of how we are made to live, and there are natural consequences that arise from doing that. Take, for example, Genesis 3. Before God's punishment ever comes in, you see that the man and the woman give power over to the devil to define their world (scary!), they start trusting something other than God, they are filled with shame and fear, and they start blaming and arguing with each other over who's at fault. God disciplined them in wrath after that, but the damaging effects of sin were already at work. Or look at Romans 1:24, 26, and 28, where God displays his wrath, not by adding in some external punishment, but by simply giving people over to the natural consequences of sin. It's like he's saying, "You want this? OK, see how that works for ya." Sin isn't bad just because God punishes it. Sin by it's very nature is damaging to us, to the created world, and to God. This has helped me see that God's wrath and punishment are loving responses of a holy God to limit the spread of the cancer that is sin. The Father's discipline is meant to woo us toward the love, life, and light we can enjoy in Jesus and the Holy Spirit. It's like a parent disciplining a child so they know not to go play in the street. The salvation we need isn't just getting God to take a chill pill. We need liberation from the enslaving, degenerating, and wounding powers of sin and the devil. 

The cross of Christ is God's ultimate answer to evil. It is Christ being our representative, facing the worst schemes of the devil and bearing our sins and the natural consequences they bring about–namely pain, isolation, betrayal, and death, all that we might have God's unending, joyful life. The cross showcases the power of love against the power of violence, lies, and shame. Further, Wright helped me see that most of the time people neglect the atonement theology of the Gospels and instead frame the conversation about the cross around what Paul says. The Gospels do have atonement theology, but, unlike Paul, it is more implicit rather than explicit. The Gospel writers set us up to understand Jesus' crucifixion in terms of the Passover. The Passover was God's final plague on Egypt (Exodus 12), the time when God delivered Israel in a mighty way from the evil, enslaving power of Pharaoh. In the cross of Christ, God has worked an even greater Passover, overthrowing a greater Pharaoh (the devil), and freeing all who trust in our sacrificial lamb, Jesus, into a greater Exodus from the enslaving power of sin, that we might live as we are meant to live. This revolution, this victory of God, this freedom from sin to live a life of cross-bearing love, is offered to all who would trust in Christ as their Savior and Lord. Of course, there's much, much more to the book, but this is the heart of what I took away from Wright. There are not many books I would read twice, but this is one of them. 

Top Five Books of 2017: #2

Each day this week I'm going to post one book that made my top 5 list in 2017, building up from number five to number one. I'd love to see what your favorite books of the year have been as well, and I welcome your comments!

#2 You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit by James K. A. Smith

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While I have heard friends rave about Smith's Desiring the Kingdom trilogy, I never got around to reading any of them, and am grateful for this more accessible condensation of his ideas. Smith is a philosopher at Calvin College, and he convincingly argues that the Enlightenment's conception of human beings as primarily "thinking" creatures, or "brains on a stick," is deeply flawed. Descartes' "I think, therefore I am" is the epitome of this view of humanity. Smith says we aren't primarily thinkers, though that is a crucial aspect of our humanity, but lovers. The things we love control us more than our thoughts. For instance: everybody knows that diet and exercise are the best way to lose weight and maintain a healthy body. Yet in spite of such widespread knowledge, very few put this into practice. Why? Because we are more controlled by our desire for food and comfort than what we know intellectually to be good for us. Our habits are more telling of what we love and worship than our knowledge. One can be the most orthodox and biblically astute Christian out there and be wracked with lust, greed, anger, pride, and a whole host of other sins, because increased information doesn't automatically equate to life transformation. Jesus didn't come to make well-informed disciples who aren't any different from the world around them. He came to transform our lives and renovate our hearts. This is a kick in the rear for someone like myself who likes to read and think. The call of discipleship isn't a call only for more information (though much of modern discipleship seems to be based purely around learning new things intellectually), but to grow in love with Jesus and with neighbor through worship, service, and holy habits. Jesus wants to take our loves from being disordered (desiring the wrong things) to being properly ordered. This is a timely, challenging message, and Smith lays out ways we can grow in loving God, particularly through inspiring worship at church and family discipleship. You Are What You Love snags #2 on my list.

 

Top Five Books of 2017: #3

Each day this week I'm going to post one book that made my top 5 list in 2017, building up from number five to number one. I'd love to see what your favorite books of the year have been as well, and I welcome your comments!

#3 Man Enough: How Jesus Redefines Manhood by Nate Pyle

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I wish I wrote this book. I just finished leading a men's small group through both the Gospel of Mark and this book, and it has been a very rewarding experience. There is a ton of fluff in our culture and in the church about what it means to be a man. Real men are hyper sexual and sleep around a ton (or the Christian version: real men start families and really enjoy sex with their wives). Real men are providers. Real men are unemotional. Real men are warriors. Real men are leaders. Real men are (fill in the blank)–you get the picture. What I love about Pyle's book is that he challenges us to bring our focus back to where it should be: Jesus and the Bible. He is wonderful at exposing the danger of bias we can bring to reading our Bibles–if our culture says men should be strong warriors, should be financial providers, should be unemotional and hyper sexual, then it's easy to look for parts of Scripture that support our pre-existing conceptions of manhood and ignore those that don't fit. It's also easy to forget that how we "naturally" are wired isn't necessarily holy–there's this little thing called sin that should make us question our first impulses.

Have you ever thought about how Jesus doesn't fit a lot of what we lift up as "a real Christian man?" He didn't have a paying job or financially provide for his family during his public ministry–he actually left his family behind and depended on the support of wealthy women (Luke 8:1-3). Jesus didn't start a family of his own and he never had sex (!). We like to lift up Jesus driving animals and money changers out of the Temple as an example of masculinity, but not so much Jesus weeping for Lazarus (John 11:35) or weeping over Jerusalem's lack of repentance (Luke 19:41). Jesus never got in a fight, and rather than fighting his enemies, he died for them. Further, I often see men's ministry lift up David as an ideal warrior, but what about the artsy-fartsy side of David playing on his lyre and writing poetry? What about the fearful Jacob who stayed among the tents while his manly-man brother Esau was a hunter (and who was the one who got God's blessing?). What about Paul, the scholarly church planter who also never got married or had sex?

When we say "real men are X," the danger becomes affirming the masculinity of some men, while detracting from a sense of masculinity in others in a way that Scripture doesn't support. What about the scholar? What about the poet or artist? What about a same-sex attracted man willing to live in celibacy? Being a Christian man means loving Jesus Christ and seeking to develop his character, not trying to fit some cultural, unbiblical stereotype of what manhood is about. This book does a great job at tearing down what I believe is the heart of the masculine myth: men cannot be weak. Jesus Christ on the cross shows us that true manhood and womanhood–true personhood in general–isn't afraid of vulnerability. To be a man following after Christ, we don't need to be afraid of weakness, of emotion, of submission, of humility. Men's ministries, I don't care if you want to have a weight lifting group, a pickup sports group, a wilderness adventure group, a deer hunting group, a fishing group, or a ride-your-Harley-for-Jesus group. There's nothing wrong with any of those things or with using them to connect in friendship and to grow deeper in Christ. Just don't play into stereotypes that "real Christian men do this." 

Pyle wonderfully shows that there are two kinds of courage. There's the courage to upset the apple cart, to challenge others, to stand up for what's right and not cave in to the pressures of the world. But there's also the courage to be honest about our weaknesses and failures, the courage to be humble, the courage to submit to others. That's the kind of man I'd like to be and I'd like for the men around me to be. Bring it back to the Bible (all of it!) and to Jesus. Don't limit to men or to women things God clearly calls everyone to do, both male and female. Galatians 5:22-23 doesn't say that men should embody these particular fruits of the Spirit and women these others, but that everyone is called to embody the same fruit. Men and women are made to work together in Spirit-empowered harmony and mutual submission, as together we display the courage of Jesus and the character of Jesus to a world in desperate need of love. If there's one book I would recommend to men and women for getting a good picture of what Christian manhood looks like, this is it.

As a side note, I'd go further to say that the Bible doesn't teach that only men are to lead at the highest levels of the church, but women as well. 1 Timothy 2:8-15 and 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 aren't the only passages in the NT concerning women's ministry. I know that's a debated topic amongst different church traditions, but I'd invite you to look at Miriam in Micah 6:4, Deborah in Judges 4-5, a whole host of prophetesses in the Bible (which is a gift of higher authority than pastoring and teaching according to 1 Corinthians 12:28 and Ephesians 4:11), Phobe the deacon in Romans 16:1-2, Junia and Andronicus as a husband and wife apostle duo in Romans 16:7, and Priscilla along with her husband Aquila teaching Apollos God's way more fully in Acts 18:24-26... I'd encourage you to listen to my sermon on February 19th, 2017 if you're curious about a biblical case for women in ministry leadership. I think restricting women's leadership doesn't really put all the pieces of the Bible together well.

 

Top Five Books of 2017: #4

Each day this week I'm going to post one book that made my top 5 list in 2017, building up from number five to number one. I'd love to see what your favorite books of the year have been as well, and I welcome your comments!

#4 Necessary Endings by Henry Cloud

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This has been the best leadership book I've read in the past couple years, which may not be saying much since I'm a rather infrequent peruser of leadership books. My own inexperience aside, Cloud finely articulates how many of us get stuck personally and how organizations get stuck due to an inability to recognize when something needs to end and acting accordingly. Some of the nuggets that Dr. Cloud gave me in the book: the difference between hurting to heal and hurting to harm, the importance of finding and facing reality, knowing that unending hope in ineffective practices is a curse while hopelessness can be a gift, signs of when we need to persist in a difficult season vs. signs of when something needs to end, recognizing incompatible wishes (e.g., I want to eat all the cake and fit in my same jean size), differences in how to handle wise people vs. foolish people vs. evil people, and how to tackle internal and external resistance to change. This book is a treasure trove of wisdom from a PhD psychologist who has consulted with many high performing people and companies. It will give you a framework for how to approach all sorts of difficult conversations and decisions, and it is a tool that God can use to help you pursue his future, making some endings along the way. So if you're feeling stuck, this might just be the book for you.

Top Five Books of 2017: #5

Each day this week I'm going to post one book that made my top 5 list in 2017, building up from number five to number one. I'd love to see what your favorite books of the year have been as well, and I welcome your comments!

#5 Why I'm Not a Calvinist by Joseph Dongell and Jerry Walls

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Ok, I admit: this is like the ultimate echo chamber book for me. I'm an Arminian reading other Arminians who taught at the same seminary I attended concerning why we think we're right. It doesn't get more "let's preach to the choir and all high-five each other" than that. I hope you'll bear with my indulgence. I also know this is a bit of a disagreeable topic and perhaps not the best way to start a series of blog posts. The other four should be shorter and less controversial in comparison. Still, this is legitimately my number five pick, so let's begin.

This book was very informative and I learned several things, like the difference between common grace in Reformed/Calvinist theology and prevenient grace in Arminian/Wesleyan theology (common grace does not have a saving intent behind it), as well as a compatibilist conception of human will. If you're wondering what a Calvinist and an Arminian are and what the heck these words mean, I'm referring to a theological debate that has gone on in the church for many centuries concerning the nature of humanity, grace, salvation, providence, and the character of God. Calvinists (taking their name from the French reformer John Calvin, though really St. Augustine is the original proponent of this theology) believe that before the foundation of the world, God chose some people to be saved and enjoy eternal bliss through Jesus Christ while God also chose some people to be eternally damned, and there is nothing anyone can do to change God's timeless decree. You're either in or you're out. Human beings are not free. Their will is totally bound by sin so that they are incapable of doing good apart from God's intervention. Everything that happens and every choice you make has been determined by God, or, if you're a proponent of compatibilism, God so shapes all circumstances that everything you freely choose happens precisely according to his will. Arminians differ in that they say God in his grace enables people to have a measure of freedom from the deforming and binding power of sin–he enables them to make genuine, free choices. They can choose to receive salvation in Christ by placing their faith in him as Lord and Savior or they can reject Christ. They can choose to honor God in a particular situation or disobey him. God desires all people to be saved and Jesus died for the whole world, but the reason all are not saved is because people use their grace-enabled freedom to reject God, not because some were chosen before the foundation of the world for salvation and some weren't.

This is a debate between Christian brothers and sisters, not between some who are in Christ and some who are out. The differences I'm describing don't strike at the heart of Christianity. There are sisters and brothers who are very godly and intelligent who would disagree with me on this (you may be one of them), and I admit that I could be wrong. I don't have perfect knowledge of all things and don't fully understand God or the Bible. That being said, theology matters, and what you believe about God has implications for how we connect with God and live for him today. We should strive to learn as much as we can in order to live the way God wants us to. The question really comes down to which theological framework makes the most sense out of Scripture and is consistent. That's what theology is: the synthetic task of reading the whole Bible and getting a sense of how to put together the parts into a coherent whole when it comes to God, how we should live, and where this whole thing is going.

Joe Dongell is a Bible scholar and Jerry Walls is a Christian philosopher, and they team up to make a case against Calvinism. I had Dr. Dongell for an Inductive Bible Study class on Romans, and it opened up Paul's letter in a fresh, big way for me. I have a lot of respect for the man. One thing I appreciate in the book is the charitable tone the authors bring to the table toward those with whom they disagree, engaging people's ideas and avoiding the belittling that is so common today (though, if you watch Jerry Walls give talks on the subject, it seems to me he is often unkind toward his theological opponents). Dongell and Walls engage the writings of prominent Calvinist authors like D. A. Carson, J. I. Packer, John Piper, R. C. Sproul, John MacArthur, Sam Storms, Al Mohler, and more. Dongell was very helpful in arguing for interpretive humility as well as offering interpretations of texts commonly championed by Reformed exegetes (e.g., John 6:35-44; Romans 8:29-30; Romans 9; Ephesians 1:3-14). He raises some interesting exegetical questions on whether some Reformed interpretations best make sense out of these passages. Walls tackles things on the philosophical/theological side of the debate, and highlights that both Arminian and Reformed sides make theological and philosophical claims from Scripture. It's unfair to say one is "more biblical" while the other is "more philosophical." You won't find words like determinism, compatibilism, libertarianism, total depravity, limited atonement, supralapsarianism, unconditional election, prevenient grace, and Molinism in the Bible. These are concepts that theologians of various traditions use to help us put together all of what we read in Scripture in a way that makes sense.  

Walls accuses J. I. Packer of trying to hold together two logically inconsistent claims (God determines everything; human beings are free) behind a lot of language about the mystery of God. He goes on to say that a mystery of God and an obvious logical inconsistency are not the same thing. He presses D. A. Carson on whether Calvinist theologians can in any meaningful sense say God loves everyone. If someone isn't elect, God might love them in the sense of showing common grace and sending water for their crops, but he doesn't love them in the sense that really matters and is the ultimate purpose of life: having a life-saving, joy-giving, hope-filled relationship with Jesus Christ. It would be like me saying I love all three of my cats, while I only feed and care for one of them. My actions show I don't love the others I haven't chosen, or at least don't love them in the way that really matters and leads to life. Would you call the behavior I exhibit toward the two unchosen cats love? Walls further points to problems logically consistent Calvinism brings to evangelism, assurance of salvation, and the character of God. He quotes John Wesley, who says that Calvinism makes God out to be worse than the devil, since God deceitfully offers salvation from sin to all, but doesn't really mean it since he doesn't enable all to receive it; even more, it becomes impossible to tell the difference between a wicked attack from the devil and a sovereign act of God. Both would stem from God regardless of the official "actor" and would fully embody God's will. (See Wesley's sermon "Free Grace" for the quote in context and for his long, bracing critique).

Pretty much everyone was Arminian where I grew up in the rural Methodist and Baptist churches of Randolph County, AL. I become Reformed for a few months in college when I first met people who were Calvinists and pointed me to Scriptures I never wrestled with before. But as I kept reading the Bible, I kept having questions about this conception of God. If everything happens according to God's plan, why does God still blame people for sin? If you set your children up to fail and then punish them for failing, how is that just or good? Why are there so many warnings in Scripture about consequences for disobedience and injunctions toward good behavior if we have no grace-enabled power of choice? If God desires all people to be saved (John 3:16; 1 Tim. 2:4; 2 Peter 3:8-9), and everything totally depends on the sovereign will of God, then why doesn't God save everyone? How is a world where some are eternally damned apart from anything they can do to change their outcome better than one in which God saves everyone? Because it gives God more glory to destroy those people and makes those whom he chose to save more grateful? But I thought God doesn't take any pleasure at the death of anyone, but wants them to turn and live (Ezekiel 18:32), and that there is more rejoicing in heaven over the repentance of one sinner than over the ninety-nine who need no repentance (Luke 15:7). I thought the cross of Christ for the salvation of sinners reveals the glory and will of God, not some conception of individuals predestined to damnation apart from any choice of their own. 

The main struggle I have with Calvinism is that it describes a God with a conflicted will and conflicting desires. God desires the world to be saved, but he also desires to be glorified in damning others, and for no reason other than God's own internal conflict, some human beings are eternally damned and some are saved apart from anything they can do. In Reformed theology, the only thing that stands in the way of God saving the world is God. In Arminian/Wesleyan theology, what stands in the way of God saving all people, and what explains the presence of evil in the world, are free, disobedient creatures. How can Reformed theologians call God good when there's no moral difference between God and angels and demons and human beings and the devil–they're all just different actors carrying out God's plan? How could we call good choosing to save some when you could save all? If there were three babies drowning in a creek and I had the ability to save all three, yet only saved one to showcase my power and glory, would you think I was amazing and stand in awe of the choices I made? Or would you think I was a sadistic serial killer? Is our human conception of goodness so far divorced from what the whole sweep of Scripture says and what the whole world can recognize as love and righteousness? Calvinists would have us think so. 

I find the Arminian conception of things much more convincing in making sense of the whole thrust of Scripture: God is love, God is good, God desires the whole world to be saved, and he is working to make that happen, if only we would yield to his Spirit and follow Jesus Christ. Election is corporate, not individual. Predestination is either functional (toward holiness or toward Christ being the way of salvation) or it is according to foreknown choices. You can read the book to learn more about what that means or endlessly nerd out on the exegetical arguments at http://evangelicalarminians.org. Correct me if I've erred, and I welcome those who disagree with me to point out where I've fallen short in my description. These are some of my concerns, and it's why I have found a home in the Wesleyan tradition rather than in the Reformed/Calvinist tradition, and it's why I really liked this book. God is good and God is love. What do you think?

Honorable Mentions that Didn't Make the Top 5

 Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther by Roland Bainton, Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, Adventures in Evangelical Civility: A Lifelong Quest for Common Ground by Richard Mouw, Four Views on Hell edited by Preston Sprinkle (Burk and Stackhouse's essays were the best), Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy, and Adam and the Genome by Scot McKnight and Dennis Venema.

Embracing Power and Weakness

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Today I've been reflecting on the realities of power and weakness.

The past few weeks have been awful concerning tragedy. Hundreds are shot in Las Vegas and we are grieved. Earthquakes have caused much damage and loss of life in Mexico. Hurricanes have ravaged Houston, Florida, and especially Puerto Rico. In the face of tragedy, it is inspiring to see first responders use their power to mobilize, sort through the damage, and save lives. Facebook and other organizations have created opportunities to donate toward the relief effort. Our church has put together several cleanup buckets to go to a disaster relief warehouse to do our part to help. Still, in Puerto Rico, thousands are without electricity and running water, and try as we might, we can't bring back the dead.

We Americans are quite accustomed to having power. We talk about what people should do. We organize, argue, demonstrate, vote, and spend money for our causes. Yet things that seem so right to me may not seem right to you. Politically, I'm a Christ follower who has issues with both the Republican and Democratic party platforms. The total package of my values seems just about absent in our current political discourse. Who do I vote for? Who represents my values? For all my thoughts and blogging and conversations and voting, my voice is fairly marginal. I live in the tension between power and weakness.

We all have power. We all have weaknesses. How do we handle both?

Paul was someone who learned how to embrace both power and weakness in his walk with Jesus. Paul knew the power of the Holy Spirit, yet he did not turn that power inward for selfish purposes, but rather used that power to serve God's purpose. God used Paul to heal people, cast out demons, convert people to faith in Jesus Christ, shape lives, inspire hope, and plant churches throughout the Roman empire. Yet Paul also knew heartbreaking moments of powerlessness. He was beaten, arrested, conspired against, abandoned by friends, shepherded erring churches, battled against despair, and had personal struggles he asked God to remove. In Paul's correspondence with the Corinthian church, he has piercing meditations on the power of the cross (1 Cor 1:18-31) and Christ's strength in our weaknesses (2 Cor. 12:1-10), something that only could have been written by a person profoundly acquainted with powerlessness. For Paul, he had learned that when he was weak, it was not a time to give up hope or throw it all away. The crucified Jesus shows that there is a hidden strength at work even when it seems evil and suffering have the day. The crucified Christ displays the power of suffering love that can transform lives. Paul knew power. Paul knew weakness. And he could see God at work in both.

We need a Spirit-filled use of power and a Christlike embrace of loving powerlessness.

I find myself in this tension often. Sometimes I need to be reminded that even when I'm weak, Christ is strong through me, so stop trying to force it, carry the world on my shoulders, or pretend I'm invincible. Other times I need to be reminded that God and society have given me power, so stop acting like I don't have it and get out there and do what I can for God's good purpose.

We have power. Problems get solved. We overcome difficult odds. We beat the other team. Our candidate gets elected. Our influence changes someone's life. We rebuild after tragedy. We help those who are down and out. God shows up in an undeniable way.

We have weakness. There are many people whose mind we will not change. We can't enact our total vision for our church, community, state, country, and world. We struggle with personal faults we wish we didn't have. We can't fix everything and everyone. We have bouts with doubt.

The challenge is walking well with both power and weakness. You can use power for good or it can be your downfall. You can let weakness cripple you or you can embrace it as a means of God shaping you into Christlikeness. God uses both power and weakness to mold us into who he calls us to be.

Reinhold Niebuhr's Serenity Prayer, popularized in AA and other twelve step programs, takes these realities and lifts them toward God in prayer: "God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference."

Wisdom from the Global Leadership Summit

I had the privilege of attending a simulcast of Willow Creek Community Church’s 2017 Global Leadership Summit at Asbury UMC in Madison. This is a gathering of high level leaders from various spheres–church, business, education, justice, etc. There are several tidbits that stood out to me as I think back to the speakers and what they had to say about leadership. I share some of the notes I took with you here as things all of us could chew on.

Bill Hybels

  • Employees perform 50% worse if they feel like they’re disrespected by a boss or another employee, and 25% of them take it out on their customers.
  • Ways to cultivate civility in a disrespectful culture and world:
    • 1. Differ without demonizing
    • 2. Have spirited conversation without drawing blood
    • 3. Listen without interrupting
    • 4. Limit your volume level and don’t use incendiary words
    • 5. Be courteous to everyone
    • 6. Apologize
    • 7. Form opinions carefully and stay open to changing your mind
    • 8. Show up
    • 9. Set rules of respect in your organization.

Sheryl Sandberg

  • “You can’t become what you can’t see.”–spoken in reference to how we socialize girls vs. how we socialize boys.
  • Most everyone talks about post-traumatic stress, but you don’t always hear about post traumatic growth. You grow after going through a traumatic experience!

Bryan Stevenson

  • Get proximate to those you want to serve. Leadership means that people must believe you are with them.
  • Change narratives–don’t let harmful narratives define people’s lives
  • Stay hopeful–hopelessness is the enemy of justice. Hope gets us to stand up when other people say sit down.
  • Choose to do something uncomfortable 

Andy Stanley

  • It is almost impossible that you will be the one to discover what is uniquely better and changes the paradigm of your field. But you can be in a position to recognize the game change and adapt when it happens.
  • Be a student, not a critic.
  • Listen to outsiders and people not in your field.
  • Closed-minded leaders close minds. If you lead with closed eyes and a closed mind, you will hurt those under you, even your children. 

Juliet Funt

  • When talented people don’t have time to think, business suffers.
  • Never rush the cooking of a great idea.
  • Great leaders have white space (time to think).
  • Become aware of the thieves of your time: 1. Drive, 2. Excellence, 3. Information, 4. Activity

Sam Adeyemi

  • In leadership, you don’t attract who you want, you attract who you are. 
  • Real and sustainable change in people’s lives begins with a change in their sense of identity. 
  • Sometimes what you’re used to is not where you belong. Your beliefs partly set where you can go in life.
  • Being poor, being a slave, and/or being a colonized person can create a sense of inferiority. This is often accompanied by low self esteem and limiting beliefs about your possibilities. 
  • What people see and hear consistently will enter their hearts and will put their lives on autopilot. 
  • Vision is the way to see things not as they are, but as they could be. Describe your vision over and over. Call out positive vision for a person’s life.
  • Model transformation. People follow a standard they can see. You “die” at one level to evolve to another. Don’t be afraid to give up part of yourself.

Angela Duckworth

  • Grit is sustained passion and perseverance toward long-term goals.
  • Millennials don’t have a lot of grit.
  • With age, experience, and deliberate practice, we grow in grit. 

Gary Haugen

  • The finest leadership training in the world can be rendered useless by fear.
  • Fear replaces a dream of what is possible with a preoccupation with self.
  • We aren’t likely to know what we fear most.
  • Relentlessly inventory your own fears
  • We often get driven by our unexamined fears rather than our dreams and goals.
  • Don’t focus on what could go wrong, but on what could go right.
  • Form a community of courage around you.
  • Our survival and resistance to fear depends on how well we love each other.
  • Courage, like fear, is contagious. 
  •  

Evolving–Original Sin and Death

This is the final installation on faith and science, as I've introduced the conversation and looked at what evolutionary science has found in the first blog, and the second blog looked at interpreting Genesis 1-11. I've been looking at some of the main arguments from the book Adam and the Genome by Dennis Venema (PhD in Genetics) and Scot McKnight (PhD in New Testament). Now, I want us to look at original sin, Romans 5, death, and some concluding thoughts.

Original Sin and Romans 5

If Adam and Eve weren’t historical people or weren’t the first human beings, then how then are we to understand the doctrine of original sin, which traditionally has said that human beings inherit a sinful nature that has been passed through the generations because of the disobedience of Adam and Eve as our first parents? McKnight reserves the final chapter of the book for addressing original sin and unpacking Romans 5:12-21, which is the passage St. Augustine used to formulate the doctrine. I include the English Standard Version of this text in full here:

Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned–for sin indeed was in the world before the law was given, but sin is not counted where there is no law. Yet death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sinning was not like the transgression of Adam, who was a type of the one who was to come. But the free gift is not like the trespass. For if many died through one man’s trespass, much more have the grace of God and the free gift by the grace of that one man Jesus Christ abounded for many. And the free gift is not like the result of that one mans’ sin. For the judgment following one trespass brought condemnation, but the free gift following many trespasses brought justification. For if, because of one man’s trespass, death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ. Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men. For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.

McKnight argues that the doctrine of original sin was formed by Augustine, one of the doctors of the church, based on a mistranslation that Jerome made of 5:12. Jerome completed a translation of the Bible from the original Hebrew and Greek into Latin back in the early 400s, which became known as the Vulgate (a Latin word meaning "current" or "regularly used"). Jerome wasn’t always the best with his Greek. Jerome translated 5:12 as saying “in whom all sinned,” while the Greek says “because all sinned.” Notice in verse 12 that death spreads not because we are “in Adam,” but “because all sinned.” McKnight argues that what Paul is highlighting isn’t necessarily a hereditary sinfulness, but a participatory sinfulness. Just as Adam sinned in Genesis and death came into the world in the Genesis narrative, every single human being has followed the moral example of Adam and sinned, which is Paul’s main message in Romans 1-3.

If you assume we inherit sinfulness, then based on the text, with Jesus being set up as the antithesis to Adam, it seems logical to assume universalism as well, that all will inherit salvation. In verses 18-19, it says one act of disobedience led to condemnation for the many (which is a Jewish way of saying everyone), so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for the many. If we inherit Adam’s act apart from our will, then do we not also inherit Jesus’ act apart from our will? I think pretty much everyone agrees the Bible teaches not everyone will be saved, so it seems natural to interpret this as people not automatically inheriting condemnation because of the passing on of a sin nature. Rather, Adam is put forward as a representative of a disobedient humanity, because all of us sin. We are worthy of condemnation when we follow the example of Adam in Genesis and sin, and we receive grace, righteousness, and life from Jesus when we trust him in faith. These two are set up as examples of two different courses of life–Adam representing the life of disobedience to God (whom all of us follow in some way or another), while Jesus is the means of our salvation and the example of a holy life. Is Adam set up here as a historical person from whom we have inherited a sin nature? I find McKnight’s argument convincing that Paul is putting Adam forward here as an example of moral failure, the archetype and representative of all of us in our sinfulness, and that when we choose to sin, we follow Adam. In short, Paul is not teaching hereditary sinfulness predicated on a historical Adam, but a participatory sinfulness following the example of Adam in Gensis. You can see a briefer version of McKnight’s argument here, but the book is much fuller in detail, and I’m afraid what I’ve written doesn’t fully do McKnight justice. McKnight goes to great lengths to show that Adam was not understood in only one way throughout the history of interpretation. Read the book to get the full scope of his argument!

Death

Unless I didn’t see it, one of the big topics McKnight doesn’t address is death. I think that is a miss in the book. A pervasive biblical teaching is that sin leads to death. If we view Genesis 1-11 as mostly mythological in nature, then it’s tempting to interpret death only as a metaphor. However, I think we must say that the Bible gives a physical/biological dimension to sin and death as well.

Yes, it’s appropriate to give a wider meaning to death than just your heart ceasing to beat and breath no longer filling your lungs: Sin can bring about the death of innocence, the death of trust, the death of relationships. Sin can lead to the death of full personhood and dehumanization. Sin can even lead people to take life. Part of the work of Jesus is that he took the worst people and spirits controlled by sin and the power of death could throw at him. They worked to kill his reputation. They worked to kill his relationships with others–he was betrayed by one of his friends and his disciples fled. They worked to kill his sense of self by shaming, stripping, and mocking him. They worked to kill and disrupt his relationship with God, calling him a heretic, a sinner, and demonic. They worked to kill his comfort and quality of life, beating him and crucifying him. And finally, they physically killed him. The long biblical narrative is that sin brings death in the quality of our lives, our relationships, and our physical bodies. Jesus’ bodily death and bodily resurrection prevents us from interpreting death as only metaphorical or relational. To me, biological death seems inextricably tied up with the biblical picture of what sin and death is. Some aspect of physical death is implied as a consequence of sin and is something Jesus has overcome.

If creatures have been dying long before human beings ever showed up on the scene, then how are we to understand death theologically and biblically? Does the badness of death depend upon a historical Adam and Eve? Is death a natural thing God wove into our existence that he doesn’t prefer, a limitation to being human that God can lead us to overcome? Should we look at a primordial, Satanic fall as the true incursion of the badness of death in the world as some have interpreted Revelation 12:7-12? Is there a moment along the evolutionary timeline where human beings became morally responsible to God and a different significance was given to death? As you can see, I have questions concerning death in particular, and it seems there’s still room for biblical and theological development. If you’re aware of some good reflections on death from a theistic evolutionary perspective, by all means let me know. 

Conclusion

You can read the Bible in a way that makes the science and faith irreconcilable, or you can read it in a way that synchronizes them. Science isn't infallible, but when it's true to its method and has been confirmed repeatedly, we would be wise to heed it. After all, if you still prefer a young earth creation view,  you at least need to acknowledge that you pick and choose how you want science to interface with your worldview. You appreciate the advances in medicine, technology, convenience, conservation, etc. that result from the application of the same method that arrives at the theory of evolution, and yet reject that method when it challenges a particular interpretation you have of Scripture. Can you come up with a  convincing explanation for why you should have it both ways? 

When it comes to origins, I think science is helping us read our Bibles better, leading us to ponder more deeply just how God is at work in our world. As I've said throughout these blogs, I think there are good reasons for Christianity and science to be friends. You may or may not agree with me, and I acknowledge I could be wrong on several counts. But I hope we all will seek truth together and not settle for cheap answers. The faith and science conversation definitely isn’t settled, but I’m excited to see how it progresses as we grow in understanding of God and our world.

Evolving–Interpreting Genesis 1-11

This is a continuation of my previous blog concerning science and faith in light of reading the book Adam and the Genome by Dennis Venema and Scot McKnight. This has been a stimulating book by two scholars in their respective fields of Genetics and New Testament, and they both take an in-depth look at evolution and the Bible, working to see what sort of synthesis might come from the two. Both Venema and McKnight are connected with Biologos, an organization which promotes biblical Christianity and evolutionary creation. In this blog, I want to focus on some aspects of biblical interpretation that often come up in this conversation. What better place to begin than Genesis?

Genesis

Genesis 1-3 are some of the most important chapters of the Bible. By anyone’s estimation, if you were given the exercise of compiling the 50 most important chapters of Scripture, I’m sure these chapters would make just about everyone’s list. They tell us much about God and how he creates, human beings, gender and marriage, the created world, what’s wrong with the world, and God’s response to sin. The question is, how are we to interpret these passages, especially in light of the findings of science?

For any close reading of the Bible, we need to work to understand the genre of a particular text and the background out of which that text arose in order to best interpret it. First, genre. Let’s look at Psalm 22:12-13, which says “Many bulls encompass me; strong bulls of Bashan surround me; they open wide their mouths at me, like a ravening and roaring lion.” Knowing that the genre of the Psalms is poetry makes me think that the psalmist isn’t giving a literal, historical account about an unfortunate instance where he was surrounded by bulls that gnashed their teeth at him, although I’m sure that’d be a great story to share at the town watering hole. Rather, he is using metaphor to tap into our emotions and carry us along with him, conveying a sense of fear, danger, and overwhelming odds against him. Genre makes a difference in whether I read this as a historical narrative or a poetic expression. A good question we should ask of any text of Scripture is what genre it is. Knowing the genre helps us know how best to interpret.

Second, background. A good example of background informing our understanding of a text would be women’s head coverings in 1 Corinthians 11, a passage that strikes many readers today as odd. In Craig Keener’s The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament, he writes “Women’s hair was a common object of lust in antiquity, and in much of the eastern Mediterranean women were expected to cover their hair. To fail to cover their hair was thought to provoke male lust as a bathing suit is thought to provoke it in some cultures today” (p. 475). There also were tensions between women of different socio-economic statuses in regard to head coverings and hair styles. Knowing the background might help us understand a bit better what Paul was dealing with and the reasoning behind his arguments. It also can help us ask the interpretive question of whether women wearing head coverings is a transcultural command for all times and places or something Paul was dealing with in his context from which we can pull helpful principles to apply in conversations about propriety today, though we wouldn’t implement it in exactly the same way.

With genre and background in mind, let’s look at Genesis. 

The ancient Israelite concept of the cosmos was that there was a dome above the sky and pillars that were holding up the earth below. The earth is kind of like a flat disc, surrounded by water with some stuff above it. Whenever it rained, they thought God opened the floodgates (see Genesis 7:11; 2 Kings 7:2; Isaiah 24:18) and then shut them. Sheol was the holding place of the dead, not quite as developed in theology as what we think of as paradise or hell. The earth is held up by “pillars” or “foundations” (Psalm 18:7; 82:5). A good picture of how they viewed the world is in this image from Bible scholar John Walton:  

With this background in mind, it behooves us to ask: Would God deliver a 21st century science lesson about a big bang, the evolution of life over billions of years, bacteria and cellular development, common descent, a round earth, etc. to people who didn’t have the foggiest idea about electricity, atoms, germs, or the sun being the center of our solar system? It’d be gibberish to them.

As to genre, Genesis 1-11 seems to be in the same mold with other Ancient Near Eastern creation narratives that were around at the time. In chapter 6 of Adam and the Genome, McKnight shows that Genesis has similarities with other early works like The Epic of Gilgamesh, Atrahasis, and Enuma Elish, but it is different from them in some crucial aspects. This goes to show that God speaks to his people in ways they can understand, accommodating us in order to communicate critical truths to us, but also standing against some popular ideas in the air. So Genesis may not be a modern scientific account, but based on the worldview people had at the time, Genesis 1-3 articulates some of the most important things we can know about God, humanity, and the rest of the world. Let a brief summary of some key points suffice here:

God–God alone is the one supreme God and he is creator of all that exists. God creates by speaking and creates out of peace, not out of violence, unlike the other creation narratives. God wants to be in relationship with human beings and cares for his creation, unlike the gods of other creation narratives. God creates human beings with a purpose and is patient with a disobedient humanity, disciplining them for their mistakes but also tenderly caring for them.

People–People are God’s special creation, and both males and females made in his “image.” In the context of the time, idols were images that represented the presence of the divine, and kings would put up images of themselves throughout their empires to remind people of their rule. For human beings to be in the “image of God” probably means they are representations of God’s divine nature in some way and are meant “to rule over creation and to represent God to creation” (Venema & McKnight, 129). Humans are called to work the created world for it to develop and blossom; they bring out some of the latent potential within creation and are co-creators with God in this way. People are gendered, husband and wife are designed for a “one-flesh” union, are created with the potential for procreation, and are called to mutuality with each other (Ibid., 133). Humans are endowed with a measure of freedom and have the capacity to choose something other than God’s desires–we can step outside of our God-given boundaries, which is known as sin. Choosing contrary to God’s will ends up leading to shame, fear, blame, the damaging of relationships, and loving discipline from God in order to limit the spread of the consequences of sin.

Creation–The created world, plants, and animals are good. Human beings are supposed to rule over them like God does, with loving care, and to develop them. Human disobedience has led to damage and frustration in the rest of creation.

Do all of these points require a literal, historical interpretation of Genesis? I don’t think so. I prefer an allegorical interpretation of Genesis 1-3, that it is not a historical, factual, scientific account, but something that is still profoundly true. It is true in the same way that the psalmist saying he’s surrounded by bulls of Bashan in Psalm 22 isn’t a statement of historical fact, but a poetic way of engaging us with a feeling of being surrounded, in danger, and weak. It’s true in the same way that Jesus’ parables aren’t accounts of events that really happened, but are made-up stories that illustrate very important truths about God, human beings, and the created world. 

McKnight goes on to point out that one way of understanding Adam and Eve is that they are archetypes, or representatives, of all of humanity. Each of us was created for a purpose of spreading God’s reign in the world. All of us sin and go beyond our God-given boundaries. All of us need redemption from God in Jesus Christ. He further points out that Adam and Eve are also archetypes of the story of Israel. Let Israel be A.) and Adam and Eve be B.) in the following sentences. A.) The nation of Israel was specially chosen and created by God and given a purpose in Abraham to multiply and be a blessing to all peoples on earth. B.) Adam and Eve were specially created to be God’s image bearers and spread God’s reign. A.) Israel failed at their calling and broke their covenant with God. B.) Adam and Eve broke their covenant with God by eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. A.) Israel enters into exile by the Assyrians and Babylonians as a result of their disobedience B.) Adam and Eve enter into exile and are expelled from the Garden of Eden due to their disobedience. Finally, all humanity as well as the nation of Israel stand in need of redemption to fulfill their original calling. This paves the way for Jesus Christ to fulfill what it means to be truly human and live into the image of God, as well as to fulfill God’s covenant calling for Israel. Jesus Christ is the perfect human being and the perfect Israelite, and he makes a way for all humanity to be restored back into God’s original purpose and to fulfill God’s covenant with Israel through the New Israel, the church.

I know treating parts of the Bible as myth or allegory can be very dangerous and can even lead to denying the substance of the Christian faith if we’re not careful. An essential aspect of Christianity is that God has been active in history, that he did and still does stuff in the real world. It isn’t all psychologizing, or that we should live as though Christianity is true, even though we know it really isn’t. If Jesus’ death and resurrection is just a myth and didn’t happen in real time and space, then Paul says we are to be pitied more than all people, we are still in our sins, and our faith is useless (1 Cor. 15:12-19). God is the God of history and a God who acts in history. I’ve even experienced that up close and personal in my own life and have heard it time and again in other people’s stories–God is alive and active and working in our world. Still, I think we have good reasons to treat Genesis 1-11 as being mythological (in the best sense of that word)–the findings of evolutionary science are showing us that Genesis 1-11 is not history. There are some biblical scholars who start interpreting Genesis as a historical account once chapter 12 starts and we get to Abram. For a take on Noah and the flood narrative, see this article. I fully acknowledge I could be wrong, and I welcome feedback and further instruction if you think otherwise. But I’d rather be wrong in a genuine pursuit of truth than being too afraid to explore real questions.

Further, if we want to interpret Genesis 1-3 as a strictly historical, scientific account for how everything came to be, we bump into problems. In Genesis 1-3, we have two creation narratives set side by side; Genesis 1:1-2:3 is the first narrative, and the second narrative starts at 2:4. In Genesis 1, God creates the trees (1:11-13), then later sea creatures and birds (1:20-23), then the animals (1:24-25), and lastly he creates humans (1:26-31). In our second creation narrative in Genesis 2:4, however, God creates the man first (2:7), then he creates the trees (2:8-9), and then in 2:19 he creates the animals and brings them before the man to name them. The Hebrew word yatsar in 2:19 is past tense (formed), not pluperfect (had formed) like some translations make it in an attempt to smooth over the differences between the accounts (Ibid., 102). If God meant for us to read Genesis 1-3 literally, then couldn’t God at least get the chronological order right between the two narratives? Further, where on earth did Cain’s and Seth’s wives (4:17, 26) come from if Adam and Eve are the only humans? Add to that the findings of science telling us that all forms of life in the universe did not come into existence in 6 days and that biological death was not suddenly introduced when human beings came around and made an unfortunate choice. If the universe was made in six days and humans are only a few thousand years old, wouldn’t you expect that honest inquiry into our world would confirm, not contradict, such assertions if that’s how it really happened? Or are the overwhelming majority of scientists deceived? Perhaps trying to make this text a science lesson or a history lesson is missing the point. I don't think we have to interpret Genesis 1-11 historically, and I don't think we have to make science and Christian faith fight each other on this one.

So, were Adam and Eve real people? I’m open to that possibility, but if they were, it seems likely they weren’t the first human beings, since multiple independent lines of research are telling us we descended from a pool of 10,000 hominins. McKnight argues that the allegorical, moral Adam and Eve get treated as a historical Adam and Eve in the Bible whenever you see genealogies in Scripture (like Genesis 5; 1 Chronicles 1; Luke 3:23-38). It seems likely that other biblical authors did view them as historical people, yet once we reach a certain point in the genealogy, we should perhaps view it as dipping back into the clouds of myth or allegory. If I’m reading him correctly, this seems to be what McKnight is advocating. This could be a way of harmonizing Genesis 1-11 and the findings of evolutionary science, and doing so in a way that seeks to take the Bible seriously.

What do you think?

Next up, interpreting Romans 5:12-21 and some final questions concerning death...

 

Evolving–Reconciling Evolution and Christian Theology

“The number one reason young Christians leave the faith [and that non-Christians find Christianity intellectually incoherent] is the conflict between science and faith, and that conflict can be narrowed to the conflict between evolutionary theory and human origins as traditionally read in Genesis 1-2” (Venema & McKnight, pp.104-105).

I just finished reading an engaging book released this year, a collaboration between two first-rate Christian scholars entitled Adam and the Genome: Reading Scripture after Genetic Science. Dennis Venema, who has a PhD in Genetics and teaches at Trinity Western University in Canada, along with Scot McKnight, who has a PhD in New Testament and teaches at Northern Seminary in Chicago, do a bang-up job bringing evolutionary theory and Christian theology into a constructive synthesis. Both of these men have ties to BioLogos, an organization composed of Christians who are evangelical in theology (shorthand for they affirm biblical authority and orthodox Christianity) and believe in theistic evolution, or that God created the world through the mechanism of evolution. I’ve found BioLogos to be the best resource at fostering informed dialogue between the scientific and Christian communities, and it was at a BioLogos gathering in New York when Dennis and Scot first met each other, which has now led to this book. 

Christianity and science have had their ups and downs throughout history. We can point to several positive examples between them. Gregor Mendel, the father of modern genetics, was a monk. Isaac Newton, a prominent scientist who discovered the theory of gravity, wrote that creation points to God. Frances Collins led the team that sequenced the human genome in the early 2000s and is an evangelical Christian. On the other hand, we’ve all heard the story of Galileo. His research supported Copernicus’ theory that our solar system is heliocentric—the earth and other planets revolve around the sun. After he (perhaps intentionally) slighted the pope in one of his works, Galileo was put on trial, told to curse his findings, and placed under house arrest for the rest of his life for contradicting the “clear” teaching of the Bible—that the earth is the center of the universe. 

Heliocentrism remained controversial for quite some time. Venema tells the story of John Edwards (not the famed American revivalist Jonathan Edwards of the First Great Awakening) who wrote an apologetic work in 1696 against heliocentrism, saying it clearly violates Scripture, which teaches the earth is the center of the universe. For, after all, Psalm 104:5 says “the Lord set the earth on its foundations; it can never be moved,” or Ecclesiastes 1:5 “And the sun rises and sets and returns to its place.” And how else could God make the shadow go backwards for Hezekiah in 2 Kings 20:1-11, or stop the sun in the sky for Joshua in Joshua 10:1-15? Edwards also said heliocentrism is contrary to reason. I like one of his arguments Venema quotes:

Nay, truly, if the earth were hurl’d about in a Circle (as these Persons assert) we should feel it to our sorrow, for we should not be able to keep our ground, but must necessarily be thrown off, and all Houses and other Buildings would be thrown down, being forcibly shared off from the Circumference of the Earth, as things that are laid on a Wheel are flung off by it when it turns round (Ibid., p. 10).

Knowing what we know today, it may be a bit humorous to read an argument for being slung off the earth like a ball from a fast-pitch machine if the earth is really rotating and orbiting as fast as those heliocentrists say it is. Copernicus’ ideas had been around for about 150 years by the time Edwards wrote, however, some of the science was still coming in to confirm heliocentrism, and the vast majority of Christians (and probably people in the West in general) had been geocentrists for a long time. Today, that has been totally reversed, and you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who claims to believe the earth is the center of the universe. And what of John Edwards’ claims that the sun being the center of our solar system is contrary to Scripture and reason? The fact is, hardly anyone sees it that way now. Bit by bit, as more and more research confirmed heliocentrism, people started to wonder if they’d been interpreting those Scriptures improperly. Now that we’ve put people into space and on the moon, it’s against all reason to think otherwise concerning the sun being the center of our solar system. While initially some were against it because of Scriptural and rational questions, the church shifted.

In a similar manner, ever since Darwin published his On the Origin of Species, we have been in the midst of another conversation concerning origins, and a similar slow and steady shift has been happening.

Exploring this topic inescapably leads us to the Bible and how we are to interpret it. Most Christians believe the Bible is inspired by God to teach us and help us live a holy life (2 Tim. 3:16-17), and Protestants especially hold that if a doctrine cannot be proved by Scripture, it should not be required as necessary to salvation. To believe or do something contrary to Scripture, properly interpreted, would be sinful.

Genesis 1-11 tells the story of a God creating all that exists in six days, an original human pair (Eve and Adam) who sinned in the garden of Eden, their exile from the garden, a murder of a brother, a flood, the building of a tower, the confusion of languages, and several genealogies. Elsewhere, the Bible depicts much of humanity being descended from Adam and Eve, including big names like Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, David, and Jesus (Luke 3:23-38). Paul teaches in Romans 5:12-21 that in Adam, sin was introduced into the world and because of that, death came to all people (see also 1 Corinthians 15:21-22).

When it comes to the sciences, physicists are telling us that the universe didn’t originate a few thousand years ago from a six day creation, but from a big bang 13.8 billion years ago. Our universe took shape over billions of years (the earth is estimated to be about 4.5 billion years old), and evolutionary science is indicating that life on earth evolved slowly but surely over several billion years, with modern humans arriving on the scene about 250,000 years ago. It also shows that humans didn’t come from one original pair, but from a pool of about 10,000 hominins during a bottleneck about 150,000 years ago (Ibid., 44; Venema shows there are several independent lines of evidence pointing to this conclusion in chapter 3). 

Evolution is a theory in the science world. As Venema writes, when we use the word “theory” in common speech, we often mean something like a guess, but in science, theories are developed over a long period of time, are verified by many different experiments, and are useful for explaining “why the facts are the way they are” (Ibid., 3). The big bang and evolution aren’t just vague guesses, but have been verified time and time again by a whole host of different experiments. In short, they’re as well established as gravity, as the sun being the center of our solar system, as germs and cells and the laws of planetary motion.

Perhaps you can see the mutually exclusive claims. Which is it? Six days or billions of years? Were there two original humans or a pool of 10,000? Has stuff been dying for billions of years, or did death only come after Adam and Eve ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil?  Were Eve and Adam real people? If not, what do we do with other biblical authors treating them like they were, including them in genealogies (Luke 3:23-38) and Paul using Adam as an example of how sin spread to all humanity (Romans 5:12-21)? If Adam and Eve aren’t a historical couple and many Christian traditions hold to a doctrine of original sin (the sinful nature of that original couple has been passed down to every human being in existence), what are we to do with that belief? Moreover, what does it do to our understanding of salvation in Jesus Christ, who by his work is supposed to set us free from death and sin if life has been dying long before humans ever came on the scene?

These apparent inconsistencies have led many to choose either evolutionary science or an anti-science version of Christianity. Person A will take science, its methodologies, its explanatory power, and its progress and leave behind a Christianity she or he considers intellectually vacuous and superstitious. Perhaps another worldview, like atheism or Buddhism, wouldn’t have such a dissonance between the claims of science and claims of religion. Person B, on the other hand, will take God, the Bible, the morality it teaches, and the spirituality of a Christian faith walk, and reject science—at least evolutionary science and certain aspects of cosmology—holding to a literal six day creation. This has often been labeled the creationist perspective. Creationists see evolution and the Bible as inevitably conflicting, and would argue that to unite the two into a synthesis is like trying to make oil and vinegar mix—you can shake things up a lot, but in the end, they just don’t go together.

Some have gone so far as to champion creationist science, a banner carried by people like Ken Ham and the organization Answers in Genesis (there are others as well). Creationist scientists deny evolution and any other scientific data that goes against their literal interpretation of the Genesis creation narratives, and they work to prove that interpretation scientifically. These folks are hailed by many in the scientific community as practitioners of pseudo-science, often presenting technical answers and challenges to largely non-scientifically trained audiences (people like me) who don’t have the foggiest idea of all the data out there. It would be like someone wanting to have an in-depth discussion with me about software programming. I might recognize a few words here and there, but largely I’m going to have no idea what you’re talking about and I’m going to trust that you know more than I do on this one. But for those who do have more background in evolutionary science and are cognizant of the data, they recognize that something fishy and unfair is going on in many creationist critiques of evolution. Venema is quite helpful in this regard in the book, demonstrating that yes, evolution actually can explain fish turning into primates, and lays out the genetic arguments for why that’s the case.

Venema and McKnight give several examples in the book that make a lot of sense according to evolutionary theory, but just seem baffling from a six-day creationist perspective. I’ve included three here. First, when it comes to our sense of smell, humans have some pretty damaged genetic material, which can help explain why our sense of smell is shoddy in comparison to a dog or a cat. What’s interesting is that when you look at the sense of smell of other primates, they too have a lot of mistakes, sometimes down to the very same malfunctioning genes that are in humans, which suggests common ancestry. Orangutans, our furthest primate relative, share one malfunction in common with us, guerrillas share two malfunctions in common, and then our closest ancestor, chimpanzees, share three malfunctions in common with us (Ibid., 34). That sure does look like some of the malfunctions happened to our common ancestors. And if God created us only a few thousand years ago, why did he create us with all this damaged and seemingly useless genetic material? Second, as an example of an intermediate species, Venema points to Basilosaurus, an ancient whale that had small hind limbs that were unable to support its weight, and says there are several other examples (Ibid., 16). Third, McKnight tells the story of someone who noticed the “latent but inactive remains of the Vitamin-C producing gene” shared among humans and primates and wondered: If God created all there is a few thousand years ago, why did he put stuff like this all over the place that seems to point to evolution? (Ibid., 172). There are more examples in the book, and it makes for good reading.

Why have I been rambling on about this topic? Well, my own view is one of theistic evolution, that God created all that exists and developed the world through evolutionary processes. I believe it’s possible to reconcile evolution and the Bible while not downplaying biblical authority. Not everyone will agree with me, and that’s fine. We don’t have to view things the same way to be sisters and brothers in Christ, or at the very least to be friends. And I fully admit that I could be wrong—I don’t know everything there is to know. But it’s for reasons that become apparent when interpreting the Bible itself, when looking at the weight of evidence for evolutionary theory, and especially in consideration of those who feel they must choose either Christianity or science, that I see theistic evolution as a compelling position. Science and Christianity don’t have to conflict. In fact, I think they can help each other and need each other. Science is a wonderful vocation for Christians, and no, you don’t have to check your brain at the door to be a Christian.

In my next blog, I want to continue the argument Venema and McKnight lay out in their wonderful book (you should read it—they are much more informed and winsome writers than myself) and look at what the Bible says and how to interpret it as we wrestle with these questions. Stay tuned.

Babel or Pentecost? Seeking Unity in Diversity

In America today, we are struggling with heavy divides across identity boundaries. In his enlightening Atlantic article entitled “Breaking Faith,” Peter Beinart argues America’s secularization hasn’t led to an end of the culture wars, but rather they are taking a nastier turn, centering on race and politics as the primary battleground. He found regular church attendance connected with an increase in tolerance for other ethnicities and Muslims, as well as a general hope that the political system works (though, unfortunately, increased church attendance is also connected with disdain for LGBTQ people, which isn’t good even if you hold a traditional view of sexuality like I do). He shows that more secularized people tend to favor the populist candidates: Bernie on the left and Trump on the right. Trump did best with conservative voters who don’t go to church (even if they identified as evangelical), while Bernie did best with liberal voters who don’t go to church. Regular church goers who leaned liberal tended to vote for Hillary, while Ted Cruz appeared to be the favorite candidate of regular conservative church goers. In essence, we are seeing some of the effects of a more secularized nation unfold before us, and it isn’t all pretty. More and more, identity markers like nationality, religion, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, socio-economic status, political affiliation, geographic location, etc., are viewed as uncrossable chasms. We are fracturing along these differences, and there is uncertainty as to whether we can move forward.

As a Christian, I believe there are several gifts that my faith offers when it comes to our present challenge. God has given us language and convictions that can showcase a healthy way to embrace diversity, reach out to others who are different, and promote a sense of harmony and cooperation even if we don’t agree on everything. After all, what group can you find in our world that is more diverse than the church, containing followers of Jesus in every country, who speak many different languages, and have a God-given passion to share God's love with every tribe, tongue, and nation?

Reconciliation

Reconciliation is a repeated point of emphasis for Paul in his letters. It is the restoration of a harmonious relationship between people, a removal of tension and grievances. Paul teaches that when we trust in Christ’s good work for us, we are united with God and united with other believers by the Holy Spirit. Paul writes that the cross of Jesus has torn down the hostility and ethnic tensions he saw in the church of his day. “For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of the commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility. […] So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God…” (Ephesians 2:14-16, 18). There is a lot to this passage that could be unpacked, but one of the core convictions is that in a mysterious way, Christ’s death on the cross does away with any pride or ethnocentrism we might cling to, so that no matter our background, the Spirit who unites us is more foundational to our identity than any other component of it. In light of biblical teaching, Christians are commanded to be united with other Christians and to reach across boundary lines in friendship. The church should showcase God’s reconciling love, which leads us to be reconciled with each other. You should expect to find very different people together in church. We haven’t lived up to that call perfectly throughout our history, but there are some beautiful examples both in our past and in practice today.

The Image of God

Yet even for those who are not Christians, Christianity has another unifying conviction in that we all share a common humanity. I recently benefitted from reading former president of Fuller Theological Seminary Richard Mouw’s book Adventures in Evangelical Civility: A Lifelong Quest for Common Ground. He articulates well his experience of finding commonalities in surprising places and with surprising people: 

I have regularly experienced a profound sense—in reading a non-Christian philosopher, in engaging in debates on questions of public policy, in debating theological topics with persons of other Christian traditions—that I am standing together on a patch of common ground with someone whose views on serious matters are quite different from my own. The historian David Cannadine recently published an insightful apologia for the importance of holding on to the idea of human solidarity in spite of the attention given these days to human differences—religious, national, racial, ethnic, gender, lifestyle, and the like. I especially like the subtitle chosen for his book: Humanity beyond Our Differences. It is that ‘beyond’ or ‘beneath’ that I often experience. It is important, though, to assess that experience in the light of careful theological exploration. What explains the experience of standing on a patch of common ground? (p. 17)

Mouw goes on to devote a whole chapter to the image of God as a concept that explains the commonness he has experienced. My next sentence is cliche, but it’s important because we’re losing the ability to believe in a shared humanity in American culture. I believe that all of us at our root are people, made in the image of God, holding some of the same hopes, dreams, fears, talents, and weaknesses in our hearts. Believing in a common humanity doesn’t make identity differences go away, but it does give us a framework to point toward a deeper, unifying reality each and every one of us shares. I understand the image of God to mean that each human being is specially loved by God, reflects something of God’s character and power, and is intended to serve as a mediator between God and the rest of creation. So even if you’re on the outside of my particular religious, ethnic, or fill-in-the-blank-here boundary marker, however important it is, that does not negate your humanity, nor does it mean you aren’t worthy of love and respect. No matter who you are, I can connect with you with and learn from you, whether a Muslim chef, an atheist philosopher, a lesbian waitress, a Chinese accountant, etc. Identity differences do not erase our shared humanity. Worldviews with no sense of love or appreciation of the humanity for those who disagree with them further chaos rather than cooperation.

Pentecost

As a last example, I follow Mouw in how he uses the biblical examples of Babel and Pentecost as two different approaches we can have to diversity.

Babel represents one kind of multiculturalism. Babel is an extreme picture of an irreducible diversity, of the loss of common patterns of understanding; Babel confuses, divides, and erects barriers. Pentecost, in contrast, represents a very different kind of multiculturalism. The Pentecostal experience does not eliminate the diversity of tongues, but it provides us with the ability to communicate across linguistic and cultural boundaries. Pentecost heals, unites, and promotes understanding. From this perspective, the fundamental question about cultural diversity today is this one: Are we going to think about this diversity against the backdrop of Babel or against the backdrop of Pentecost? (137)

I see a lot of the Babel mindset in America today. More and more, the voices who hold a narrow view of humanity are growing louder and louder and are pushing us apart, whether in the White House, in the media, in the religious community, or in protest movements. There is only space for my black experience. There is only space for my conservative politics. There is only space for my liberal beliefs. We could go on. All of these are worthy of exploration, some even of being championed, but if there is no reconciling conviction, no appreciation and respect of a shared humanity, then I am afraid such an approach fails to be fully Christian. Heck, I don’t even think it ends up being truly American, since according to the Declaration of Independence we’re supposed to hold that all people are made equal and endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights—life, liberty, & the pursuit of happiness. 

How Can We Build a Bridge?

My own community of Tanner is wonderfully diverse. Some numbers I’ve seen for our local K-12 school is that we are 27% African American, 29% Latino, 39% White, 5% other. What would it look like for my church and for me personally to work toward building bridges and incorporating the gifts of diversity into our lives? I am convinced that it starts with kindness, a willingness to listen and engage, and friendships with people who are different from ourselves. From the place of friendship, a whole lot of things have been birthed: partnerships between churches of different ethnicities, interfaith conversations, community forums, political action, mutual learning, changed lives, and so on. But friendship is necessary for any of this to come from a genuine place and can simply be an end in itself.

There’s a whole lot more that could be said and explored. But as a matter of a starting place for my tribe, the church, I’d like to say that we have the language, mission, and spiritual power that could model a diversity our country desperately needs to see right now. Let’s reclaim Jesus’ push for reconciling people to God and to each other. Let’s reclaim a healthy appreciation of the image of God and the grace of God at work in all people, not just Christians. And let’s reject any conception of diversity that has a divisive, Babel mindset, instead embracing the surprising and challenging truth of the tongues of Pentecost: The God who reconciles us and the humanity we all share is more central to our identity than the markers and narratives we use to push ourselves apart. So how can I be a friend to someone different from me today? 

Our Dance with Authenticity

“I always keep it 100…”

“I’m just being real…”

“Our church really needs to be more authentic…”

Chances are you’ve heard people speak along these lines before. Authenticity is a virtue being championed in both the church world and in our culture. Since the presidential campaign started ramping up until today, many Americans have been emoting about our political situation. Impassioned social media posts, blogs, news articles, video clips, podcasts, and protests have flooded the internet. More than ever, we are telling the truth as we see it.

I was recently privileged to be a part of a conversation with other clergy in my denomination about authenticity. One person in particular had some questions on the topic. He said he had participated in conversations in the past where people would praise him for being honest, and encourage him to continue in that direction. However, some experiences in leading his church were now making him wonder if authenticity could reach a point where it fails to be helpful. The comments people shared were illuminating.

Authenticity can be good. We need genuine love and relationship—God wired us that way. So in that sense, authenticity is necessary. But I wonder sometimes if we lift up authenticity as more important than it should be, like some kind of ultimate virtue. As long as we’re honest, we can say and do whatever we want, because we’re being true to ourselves. If I say something condemning or spiteful, I can excuse it by saying “I’m just being real.” We can explain away our hurtful actions, our immaturity, or our overly critical words by claiming it was done in the interest of authenticity. Now if we believe in a total, inherent goodness of humanity, then I can see why we’d believe whatever we discover noodling around inside ourselves is a blessing to be shared. But the biblical picture is not so positive concerning human nature. People are mixed bags. I can authentically be a sinner just as much as I can authentically be a saint. Every thought or feeling that I experience isn’t always God’s gift to the world. A relentless authenticity hurts.

The fire and brimstone preachers who go to college campuses and condemn everyone to hell are being true to how they see God, but sure are causing a lot of damage. The worker who is painfully honest with her or his boss might be genuine, but sometimes it isn’t going to help the boss, the company, or (gulp) his or her future prospects with that job. And the ultimate test of authenticity: “Honey, what do you think of my new outfit?” Friends, tread wisely if you ever find yourselves in such dangerous territory.

Truth defined as being authentic to yourself is not enough. Honesty needs to be guided by a higher principle, and I believe that principle is love. Love is the heart of the Christian religion. Love seeks authenticity in obeying God and developing a friendship with him. Love seeks God’s best for others, even to the point of pain and self-sacrifice (John 15:13). Love is patient and it is kind (1 Cor. 13:4). In Christianity, God’s holy love is the foundational truth that holds all of existence together. It is the heartbeat of the Trinity. So if my authenticity needlessly wounds someone else or leads them away from God’s best for their lives, while I may be honest, I am not being loving, and therefore I am not living out Jesus’ truth.

Tim Keller, in his book The Meaning of Marriage, talks about how spouses dance between the values of love and truth. A dose of truth can challenge your spouse, help him or her grow, and can even be encouraging when he or she has done well. On the other hand, showing love can help spouses feel affirmed, supported, and cared for, even when they make mistakes. But an unnecessary, double-shotgun blast of truth can shake your spouse to the core and do a whole lot of damage, sometimes taking years to undo, while a constant attitude of acceptance can coddle your spouse, never pushing for growth or challenging bad behavior. John writes that Jesus was “full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). He held these two things together perfectly.

The same dance applies to us today as we seek a holy authenticity in the various spheres that touch our lives. In these tense times, ask yourself: Is my sharing something motivated by love for the other and seeking the best for all involved, or is it just an emotional catharsis for me? Am I sure what I’m sharing is true and from a reliable source, or is it an “alternative fact?” How can I confrontationally love someone in a way that is gentle?

More than ever we are seeing people’s true colors, which creates a wonderful opportunity to talk about important things. Authenticity at its best invites genuine discussion about beliefs, identity, and ideas while minimizing vitriol. I hope times like these help all of us grow into veterans in the dance between love and truth, discerning wisely when a situation calls for a challenging honesty, when it calls for support and acceptance, and when it’s best not to talk at all.

Again, this does not mean truth is unimportant. Hardly. But when we embody a holy authenticity, the chances go up for truth becoming transformative. When our authenticity is guided by love, we will see a higher truth, the ultimate truth, come to bear: that the love of Jesus is the most beautiful and powerful thing in the world. Really.

The Focus of Calling

 

My favorite academic Christian book I read in 2016 was John Stackhouse’s Making the Best of It: Following Christ in the Real World, in which he delves deep into the relationship between Christ and culture and makes an argument for something he calls New Realism. I read a story that stuck out to me in the book:

I heard of a faculty meeting at a Christian college in which one professor announced his impending resignation in order to pursue a calling among the poor of that city. It was a moving address, and afterward little knots of conversation formed in the faculty offices. In one such conversation, a distinguished senior professor was overcome by such admiration for his younger colleague’s ministry that he openly doubted the worth of his own career. Yet, as a friend pointed out, this senior colleague had blessed the Body of Christ with decades of fruitful Biblical scholarship, while the younger professor leaving to work with the poor had not been inclined to that form of edification of the Body. Serving the poor is good and teaching the Scripture is good (cf. Acts 6:2-5). Few can do both. We should be content to be mere members of a Body that collectively does many things.

Stackhouse’s words are very apt for our present situation. 2016 was a year of a contentious and surprising election, showcasing very visible signs of our nation’s division. This division is still with us, and everyone wants to be a political talking head, to tell us which way the wind will blow and what our nation must do. I’ve done it myself.

Politics is important—it affects our healthcare, our schools, our businesses, our infrastructure, and a whole lot of other stuff. But it is not the most important thing about being human. Our political persuasions are not our core identity marker, and they cannot meet all our spiritual, relational, and emotional needs, though some politicians would love to promise us they can. And not everyone is called to work in politics. Since so many people are talking about politics, the temptation is that all of us should throw ourselves wholeheartedly into it. But that isn’t true. Only some of us should. Knowing God’s calling on our lives and who we are in Christ helps us know the paths we should follow. If we take the Lordship of Christ over our lives and our governments seriously, then we should take the calling of Christ on our lives seriously too. Sometimes we can be envious of other people’s callings while not recognizing our own and the value it brings. As Paul says in 1 Corinthians 12, the Body of Christ has many members with different gifts, talents, and vocations. We are not all the same, and that’s a good thing. Because our different gifts and callings all serve to build up the common good.

I’m not saying we shouldn’t care about politics, just that some of us will be gifted, graced, and called to go heavy into it while some of us will not. And that’s ok. Because serving with integrity in politics is good. Teaching is good. Serving the church is good. Raising a family is good. Metalwork is good. Science is good. And a whole lot of other things are good. And this is why I love Stackhouse’s book. In the midst of his thoughtful musings on the relationship between Christian faith and politics, he challenges us to look at politics and every other worthwhile endeavor through the lens of Christ’s calling on our lives. We must ask, “Who is Jesus Christ for us today?” and then follow it with “Who am I for Jesus Christ today?”

In the midst of a swirl of opinions and the unnerving chaos of change, don’t forget whose you are and his call on your life. Because in a world of competing voices and priorities, his voice is most important.

Impressions of Osteen

Impressions from Osteen’s Night of Hope

I’ve heard a lot about Joel Osteen. You probably have too. If you’re in the church world for long, then, sure as potlucks and committees, his name is bound to come up as you journey the pilgrim pathway. Some say the pastor of America’s largest church is like Jesus with flawless, gel-covered curls. Others say he’s the devil in disguise, preaching a false message that tickles people’s ears but leads them away from the truth. Me being a rather curious United Methodist pastor, I decided to go see for myself, along with a couple new friends who were kind enough to let me carpool with them. Thanks to a friend at my church scoring me free tickets, we went to Bridgestone Arena in Nashville as part of Joel and Victoria’s Night of Hope tour. Here are some of my thoughts on the event:

What I Enjoyed

There were many positives I took away from the experience. I enjoyed seeing the diversity of the worship team. Men and women of different ethnicities were on the stage, the music was dynamic and celebratory in tone, and their musicianship was top notch. Osteen was able to draw a diverse crowd. I noticed a good mix of African Americans and white people as I scanned the audience, and I even sat next to an Asian couple. In Alabama, it’s a rarity to have a significant presence of different ethnicities at church gatherings. Osteen’s ministry has the boon of communicating across racial lines and empowering people of different ethnicities. I also appreciated how both men and women were enabled to preach—Victoria and Joel taught from the stage—which embraces the Bible’s vision of women and men ministering in the Spirit’s gifts. The production quality was excellent—all the videos were high definition and artsy. The Osteens also have a partnership with World Vision, and a significant plug was given for sponsoring children and families living in poverty in third world nations. World Vision does vital work, and I’m glad the Osteens lend their publicity and influence to benefit World Vision’s mission. Also of note: there was an appeal to the importance of the Bible before Joel’s main message, people on the stage regularly confessed the power of Jesus as our risen Lord, Joel invited people to accept Jesus as their Lord and Savior at the end of his message, and he encouraged people to get plugged in to local churches in their area. Joel is a very gifted speaker, whose pace is very easy to follow, he tells a lot of good stories, and he has learned to preach right into the camera so it looks like he’s staring straight into the soul of everyone looking at the screen. In short, there were many good things to take away from the night.

There were also some concerns I had about the night.

Separating God’s Power from God’s Purpose

Joel’s message was based on Gideon in Judges 6-7, how even if it looks like the odds are against us, God can give us a breakthrough no matter the chances. He regularly made mention of “pursuing our dreams,” of “stirring up the gifts within us” so that we can pursue our best life. His focus appeals to the self-serving side of us, putting our dreams and aspirations in the driver’s seat with God being another tool at our disposal in the pursuit of our ideal selves. I did not hear much about God’s dreams for our world, nor do I remember hearing much about the Lordship of Jesus Christ over our lives. Yes, God can best the odds of any difficult situations put before him, but he does it according to his purpose, not ours. We can’t disconnect the power of God from the purpose of God. The examples he used in his talk were of people becoming stars—a pizza delivery guy who became an NFL player, a kid in the foster care system who grew up to be a country music artist, and a woman who earned a very selective scholarship to a prestigious institution. Couple these stories with Joel’s celebrity pastor status, and it seems like the unspoken message is that your best life is a life of fame and fortune. The reality is, God’s purpose for most of us probably doesn’t involve us becoming a celebrity, getting uber rich, and having tons of power. It might look like humble service.

No References to Sin?

Another concern I have heard others raise about Joel is he does not talk about sin all that much. If my ears and memory serve me correctly, he never mentioned sin throughout the night, instead preferring to talk about failure and being held back from our potential, which can be some of the effects of sin. I’ve had sermons where I haven’t talked about sin all that much either, but I still very much believe it’s a reality. I’m not sure where Joel is on this in his preaching, but if he never talks about sin, that is problematic. Sin pervades our world, and, if we’re honest, it often more present in our lives than we like to admit. If our view of the Christian life does not come to grips with the reality of sin, then we are living a truncated, unbiblical vision of the faith that isn’t going to reflect reality very well. In fact, some of our dreams of success, of being the celebrity, of being the star that everyone adores, cheers, and serves, though deeply wrapped in the American psyche, can actually lead to sin. Jesus’ attitude during his earthly ministry was not “How much fame and adulation can I get while pursuing my dreams,” but “How can I best love and honor my Father and serve others?” (Mat 20:28; John 13:12-15). Instead of God cheering us on toward all of our dreams, God might judge some of our dreams as damaging, misguided, perhaps even evil. Calling people to Christ without calling them to recognize and deal with sin will not set them up for the fullness of God’s desires for life.

Prayer, Healing, and the Danger of Universalizing Personal Experience

Earlier in the night, Joel told a story about his mom, Dodie Osteen, getting diagnosed with metastatic liver cancer in 1981. He recounted hearing that the doctors had given her only a few weeks to live, and he remembered seeing how yellow she was turning due to jaundice. Dodie surrounded herself with pictures from earlier in her life when she was healthy, and she prayed for healing and visualized herself getting well, just like she was in the pictures. Eventually, Dodie was healed and the cancer was gone, despite near impossible odds. Later, Dodie came out onto the stage and said what God had done for her, he could do for you. Just keep praying in faith and visualizing your body getting healthier.

I celebrate how God miraculously worked in Dodie’s life. I fully endorse God’s power for miraculous healing and the gifts of the Holy Spirit for today. But sometimes, no matter how much you pray and how much faith you have, you don’t get healed.

What made this example so personal for me is that my mother recently died from liver cancer on October 25 of this year. My wife and I prayed for my mother’s healing ever since we learned the cancer had spread to her liver and other parts of her body in 2015. My mother prayed and fought to get well the whole time. We had people in our local church praying for her. We had friends all over the nation who were praying for her. But she didn’t get better. She died. 

I don’t know why things played out the way they did for us, and I won’t pretend to solve all the mysteries of death, suffering, and God’s will. But I don’t think Mom’s death happened because we didn’t have enough faith in God or Mom didn’t visualize and pray hard enough for her health. I take a lot of comfort in reading about David’s unanswered prayer (2 Samuel 12:15-23), about Jesus’ unanswered prayers (Mark 14:32-42; John 17), and about Paul’s unanswered prayers (2 Corinthians 12:7-12). Teaching people that if you believe hard enough, God will make you well is insufficient and can set people up for shattered expectations and an extra layer of guilt on top of grief–“Did I not have enough faith?” While I celebrate God’s healing power in Dodie’s life and know others who have experienced God’s miraculous healing, taking your experience and universalizing it can be dangerous.

Conclusion

All in all, I was grateful for the experience and the chance to see a big name speaker in the American church world. Joel has a lot of strengths and there is much that I learned from him. I can see how his message appeals to people going through struggles and who feel like life is pushing them down. Joel is right to highlight that Christianity is a positive religion. God is a good Father who gives good gifts. Jesus cares for us deeply and watches over our lives. We are better people when we follow Jesus, or at least we should be. It’s even in our best interests to follow Jesus. But sometimes following Jesus can lead to suffering and delaying gratification in order to choose a later, greater good. Following Jesus calls us toward humility, toward loving and serving others, toward simplicity and generosity with our possessions. It doesn’t guarantee all our dreams will come true or that our life will be easy. Sometimes we have to lose our lives to find true life in Jesus Christ, which really is living our “best life now.” 

It can be unfair to evaluate someone based on one sermon (we preachers know this), so I acknowledge I could be wrong. Some of my concerns might be put to rest if Joel was given the opportunity to give a fuller exposition. Still, I share these as my impressions after the Nashville Night of Hope. But I haven't shared everything about that night. At the end of the service, several people stood up to give their lives to Christ after Joel’s message. He directed them to get plugged in to local churches in the area and to start reading the Bible and praying. There were multiple children and families who got sponsored through people partnering with World Vision. Some of the people were saying they felt inspired as we were leaving. If that had happened at my church, well I’d say we’d had an amazing day. I pray that Jesus continues to use and guide Joel Osteen, and I celebrate that people are coming to follow Jesus through his ministry.