“The Shack”: How Firm a Foundation?

Several weeks ago I received a message from one of my church members asking for my thoughts on the book “The Shack” and the movie that was just coming out at that time based on the book. She said she had read something critical of the story, which she had read, and had even participated in a church study group a few years ago on the book. At that point I had only heard about “The Shack”, but had never read it even thought it had been recommended to me. Neither was I familiar with the author, Paul Young. Since I knew little to nothing about the book or the author, I really couldn’t say much for sure. I did tell her that if it varies too far from the revelation of God as the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in the Bible then it might be misleading.the-shack-grayscale-graphic3.jpeg

Over the course of the next several weeks I did come across some articles that were critical of “The Shack”, a couple from the reformed and conservative Lutheran branches of the church, and a couple from evangelical United Methodists  (See Dr. Ben Witherington’s thoughts here and Dr. Chris Ritter’s here). I also listened to some interviews with the author, Paul Young. It seemed to me that there was indeed much to be wary of. Yet the reviews were mixed with some praise for “The Shack” movie, at least, coming from some conservative evangelical voices.

Last week I stayed up late a couple of nights and actually read “The Shack” in its entirety. I know some have tried to dismiss the concerns that have been expressed over the last several years by saying that it’s just a fictional story, a parable, and therefore shouldn’t be criticized so much for theological imprecision. But is it true that there is only room for theological nitpicking when it comes to this story?

Paul Young has made it clear that he intended to describe his view of God and what God is really like in story of “The Shack.” His parable is also certainly about dealing with human pain and brokenness that result from broken relationships and injustice, but he also wants to correct what he perceives to be misconceptions about God that exacerbate that pain. So “The Shack” paints a portrait of Young’s view of God. The question is whether or not this a complimentary or contradictory portrait of God compared to what we find in the Bible.

The first clue that Young might be setting up a contradictory view comes fairly early in the book, on page 65-66. At this point in the storyline the reader has already been rocked by the nightmarish tragedy of the main character, Mack, barely rescuing one of his children from drowning, only to discover, after a frantic search, that his young daughter, Missy, has been abducted by a cold-hearted, callous serial killer, called “the Little Lady Killer.” Also at this point the reader is hooked by a momentous mystery. Mack has received a note in the mail box inviting him to return to the shack deep in the woods where he and law enforcement had found Missy’s ripped, blood-soaked dress. The note is signed, “Papa”, his wife’s affectionate name for God. As Mack ponders whether the note might actually be a tantalizing invitation to meet with God or a taunting trick of a serial killer still at large, Paul Young, as the narrator, brings into question Mack’s seminary training that he says had reduced God’s voice to the paper of Scripture in order to keep God bound in a book only to be interpreted by the proper authorities. Young says sarcastically, “Nobody wanted to keep God in a box, just in a book. Especially an expensive one bound in leather with gilt edges, or was that guilt edges?” (p. 66)

Here, I think, we have more than a little hint that the God Mack will encounter in the shack will burst the boundaries of traditional evangelical interpretation at minimum and probably even the contours of the way God is described in the Bible itself. It seems pretty obvious that Young here anticipates criticism and objections to his view of God and was probably trying to inoculate his enthused readers from criticism by way of caricaturing his inevitable critics. Again, the question is not whether the depiction of God in terms of the metaphors and symbolism used by Young is identical to what we find in Scripture, but is his depiction of God in harmony with or contradictory to what we find in Scripture? Was Young suggesting that God may reveal himself in new ways, but in ways that are in harmony with the Bible, or was he suggesting that God may reveal himself in ways that contradict and therefore correct the Bible itself?

In “The Shack” Young boldly attempts to cast his vision of God in terms of the Christian concept of the Trinity. There are some commendable features to Young’s explanations of the Trinity in that he captures that God is inherently and eternally a relational being of mutual respect and love. Overall, however, he blurs together the distinctions between the three persons enough that it seems more like a functional Unitarianism than the Trinity. All three persons bear the marks of crucifixion and all three are described as becoming human in the incarnation (i.e. John 1:14 when the word became flesh).

Moreover, in terms of the depiction of Jesus, he seems to be for all practical purposes fully human but not really divine. Sure Young describes him as divine and even as the God-man, but functionally his version of Jesus never has or ever will draw upon his divine nature to do anything. He only lives moment by moment as every human being was designed to live in relation with God and relying on God’s power. Papa tells Mack that Jesus was “just the first to do it to the uttermost” (p. 100). Young’s Jesus is nominally and inherently divine but not functionally so, even  after the resurrection and ascension.

This may seem like nitpicking, but this is a different portrait of Jesus than the Biblical portrait that reveals that Jesus not only shares the divine name and titles such as I Am, the Lord, God, the Alpha and the Omega, etc., he also shares and exercises  divine power and functions such as the power to raise the dead (John 5:21), including raising himself (John 2:19-21). Jesus also exercises the divine authority to judge, a power delegated to him by the Father, who judges no one, Jesus says (John 5:22-23, see also Rev 4 & 5 ff). And, as we will see, divine judgment gets redefined quite a bit too in “The Shack.” Nevertheless, “The Shack” seems to have a high Christology nominally but a very low Christology functionally

Young also gives us a much more confused version of the Trinity than necessary. Of course it is a great mystery of the Christian faith, but the mystery of God’s divine nature should not be used as an excuse to blur and redefine those things that God has revealed to us in Jesus and in Scripture. One such area of confusion is in terms of Young’s depiction of the Trinity as non-hierarchical. That is, that there is no hierarchy of authority between the three persons. Young does not believe that genuine relationship can involve any hierarchy. To Young hierarchy is inherently bad and only a result of broken relationships. So, of course, there would be no hierarchy among the perfect relational being. Yet, again, this is not the portrait of God that we find in the Bible. God the Father sends the Son, the Son reveals the Father and is the way to the Father, and the Father and the Son send the Spirit who brings glory to the Son, who in turn brings glory to the Father. Jesus said himself that the Father is greater than him (John 14:28) and 1 Corinthians 15 indicates that when Christ has subdued all things under his authority he himself will be subjected to God the Father. Young seems to envision the perfect being and the perfect society in terms of an absolute equality of power and authority in mutual submission. Consequently, Young also conveys an anti-institutional sentiment throughout the book. I believe this is directly connected to his view of God, or possibly vice versa.

The Bible, however, does not convey the idea that a hierarchy of authority is inherently bad, even within the Trinity. The Father, Son, and Spirit are equal in terms of their shared divine nature and the dignity and honor that accompany that nature, but the Bible does portray them as having different levels of authority. Likewise God created human beings in his image and we are all equal in terms of human dignity by virtue of our shared human nature, but God has given each of us talents and gifts that differ from one another. So some will have more authority in society and in the church than others. Those God-given higher authorities are to be obeyed in so far as they are in harmony with the highest authority, which is God (see Romans 13, Hebrews 13:17, Acts ).

Hierarchy is not inherently bad. What is bad is selfishness and greed inspired by sin that can cause some to abuse their God-given authority. Hierarchy is not inherently corrupt just because it can be corrupted. There is no possibility of that within the being who is absolutely perfect and incorruptible in righteousness, justice, and holiness. And relationships don’t have to be less loving because of differing levels of authority.

Institutions are not inherently bad either. They too can become corrupt and abusive, but they doesn’t make them inherently so. If there is to be order rather than confusion and chaos there will inevitably be organization, which will lead to organizations. Young seems to make the mistake of thinking you can have the power of spirituality without the form of religion, such as ritual and institutions. To acknowledge the power of spirituality one need not deny the form of religion (see 2 Tim 3:5).

Young also reveals an impoverished view of the law and rules and responsibilities. He has Sarayu, his character for the Holy Spirit, answer in the affirmative to Mack’s question, “Are you saying I don’t have to follow the rules?” Young’s Holy Spirit responds, “Yes, In Jesus you at not under any law. All things are lawful” (p. 203). At best this is a confused conception of Christian liberty based on a misunderstood slogan from the 1st century church on Corinth (see context of 1 Cor. 10:23). God’s grace and the power of the Spirit don’t free us from the moral law to live contrary to it if we want. God’s grace frees us from the righteous condemnation that disobedience to the law brings, and the Holy Spirit empowers us to live in harmony with the law of God (see Romans 8 & Galatians 5:16-26). As with hierarchy and institutions, Young, at least, seems to imply that there is something deficient and inferior about the law itself in contrast to Paul who insisted that the law is good (Romans 7).

Indeed the law of God itself is good, it is a reflection of the very character of the holy and righteous God. The problem is not the law; it is sin. Because of sin, the law can only condemn. According to Romans 8 the Spirit enables believers to overcome the power of sin so that by walking in the Spirit the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us (v. 4) because we will submit to God’s law (v. 7-9). This was the promise of the New Covenant all along (see Jer 31:31-34; Ezk 36:25-27), which Young seems to allude to, but he does so in a confused way that throughout history has led to misunderstanding grace as a license to sin rather than freedom from sin for obedience to God’s law. Compare part of the New Covenant promise found in Ezekiel 36:27 fulfilled in Jesus to what Young’s version of the Holy Spirit says in “The Shack.”

“I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules” Ezk 36:27 ESV

“‘Are you saying I don’t have to follow the rules?’ Mack had now completely stopped eating and was concentrating on the conversation. ‘Yes. In Jesus you are not under any law. All things are lawful.” The Shack p. 203 

Young’s main concern with the law is not that it leads to the righteous judgment of God because of sin, but that law leads to the worst sin of all in the eyes of Young and most of the more liberal persuasion in general: judgmentalism. The God of “The Shack” is loving, affirming, and accepting, but not really into judgment, at least not as traditionally understood.  The God of “The Shack” is not concerned about responsibilities and expectations because that would lead to guilt, shame, and judgment. Young’s God is never disappointed with people (ps. 205-26). No expectations? Never disappointed with anyone?

How does that portrait compare to Jesus’ telling of the parable of the talents in Matthew 25:14-30? What about Mark 9:38?! How does it square with Micah 6:8 that tells us what God requires of us? Of course what God requires God provides by his grace and his Spirit if we will turn to him, but he does seem to expect us to work from, NOT for, but FROM the grace he has given us to produce fruit (Mark 12:1-12?).

And what about the judgment of God? The God of “The Shack” does judge but not for destruction, only for redemption (ps. 169; 224). For Young the fire of God’s judgment is for purification not condemnation. But God never punishes. Indeed God doesn’t punish sin; he only cures it (p. 120). Of course God can and does cure sin, but will the Great Physician cure those who absolutely refuse to receive his medicine of immortality?

As many have long suspected Paul Young envisions a God of universal salvation, meaning all will eventually be saved. This fits well with his vision of the nature and character of God in which he emphasizes love and mercy at the expense of justice for those who refuse to repent (see Rev 6,14,16, 20, & 21). In “The Shack” after Jesus shocks Mack by saying he doesn’t care if people of other religions become Christian, Mack asks if that means all roads lead to him. Young cleverly has Jesus respond, “Not at all. Most roads don’t lead anywhere. What it does mean is that I will travel any road to find you.”

This clever response probably provided Young with some wiggle room to dodge reasonable concerns that he intended to promote universalism. 20 million copies sold later, he apparently no longer feels like he needs any wiggle room. In his newest book, “Lies We Believe About God,” he makes explicit what was more subtle in “The Shack.” He leaves no doubt that he believes that everyone is already saved and that it is a lie that anyone “needs to get saved” (see Tim Challies’ article). He said as much in “The Shack” to begin with. He believes that everyone is on the same path and headed in the right direction, some are just farther along than others. And death in no way will end that journey and neither will hell.

But what does the Jesus of the Bible say?

“Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few

 “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will recognize them by their fruits

“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’

“Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell, and great was the fall of it.” Matthew 7:13-27 ESV (see also Matthew 24 &25)

Of course those of the more liberal theological persuasion will probably love “The Shack.” Those steeped in the Moralistic Therapeutic Deism that pervades so many churches will embrace it and promote it. It will find plenty of welcome on the OWN (Oprah Network) and in New Age circles as well. And some conservatives who were a little too eager to give Paul Young the benefit of the doubt may not have seen the red flags that have been there all along.

“The Shack” serves up quite a bit of false assurance with the big helpings of comfort food coming out of Papa’s kitchen in the shack. The vision of God that Young portrays is really not complimentary with the revelation of God in the Bible. The two views are contradictory. To build your life on the theology of “The Shack” is to build on shifting sand. To build your life on God’s word is to build your life on the Rock Christ Jesus as he is revealed in the Bible. You really have to choose, and there is no indication in the Bible that you will have all of eternity to do it.

The Hard Truth

In the 19th century leading up to and during the Civil War, Mark Knoll argues that there was a theological crisis (in “The Civil War as a Theological Crisis”) that fueled much of the heat of the debate before and the bloodshed during the conflict. The war that pitted American against American and cost hundreds of thousands of lives on both sides was driven in large part by theological and philosophical certainty on both sides. This certainty was inspired by an overconfidence in the Enlightenment notion of reason. It was believed that the truth was easily discerned by people of goodwill. As a result it was easy to dismiss those with opposing views as willfully distorting the truth. Those, including some black preachers, with more subtle, nuanced, and substantial arguments against slavery as it was practiced in America that depended on the wider biblical and historical context were muted by the overwhelming cacophony of simplistic arguments undergirded by biblical prooftexts ripped from their context. The simplistic arguments governed by this overconfidence in reason made demonization and polarization  all the easier on both sides. (I highly recommend Mark Knoll’s book.)

Once again we find ourselves deeply divided and extremely polarized in America to the point that some have suggested there is a cold Civil War that’s getting warmer and warmer all the time. Now, however, it’s not so much that there is an overconfidence in the ability to know the truth, but an overconfidence that truth is merely subjective or so unknowable that anyone’s guess is as good as another’s.

The atheist philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche insisted that life is not about the will to truth as much as it is about the will to power. According to this way of thinking truth claims are simply cloaks for some to ascend to power over others. Therefore relatisix and nine perspectivevism has reigned supreme for many decades now, and not only among the cultural intelligentsia.

The meme to the right has made many rounds on social media. The idea is that both people are right in their claim to what the number is because they are just looking at the same thing from different perspectives. In this abstract hypothetical illustration that claim may very well be true, but if the intended implication is that all of life is like this we would rightly be wary. In the real  world there’s not much that exists apart from some context. And context always narrows the range of possible legitimate interpretations of words and actions.

Take the number in the illustration above and imagine it on a championship team photograph for your favorite college basketball team as part of a heading that says “2016 NCAA Men’s College Basketball National Champions.” To say it is nine instead of six now would be a  much more dubious proposition. One could argue that the 6 is a typo that was meant to be 9, but even then one would also have to believe someone like Marty McFly brought the picture back from the future in Doc Brown’s time traveling machine. There would be a lot of other immediate contextual clues and more remote historical evidence (i.e. print and online news reports) that would more than justify the claim that the number is really six instead of nine. The accumulation of evidence would narrow the range of meaning evermore as the contextual evidence mounted. Historians rely on this and logical deduction to determine the motivations of actions or the meaning of words expressed by figures in history. Detectives also rely on contextual evidence and logical deduction to solve crimes.

Relativism leaves us at the mercy of subjectivism; subjectivism leaves us at the mercy of the will to power. Unfortunately, history has demonstrated that those bent on the will to power have not proven themselves all that merciful. The will to power is not concerned with truth, only claims to truth. Facts become putty in the hands of people more concerned about controlling narratives to influence perception,which they insist is reality. Whoever can be the cleverest to persuade enough people wins. But relativism, it seems, has not robbed many of those who adhere to it of certainty. Unlike the early 19th century, however, the certainty is not rooted so much in reason. Now for many the certainty seems to be rooted in desire and the beliefs inspired by it. Many are certain about what they want, and they bend reason and facts to suit their desires.

I think Nietzsche really was on to something. I believe in absolute truth, although I don’t believe in the human ability to know it easily, and certainly not exhaustively. I don’t believe we can know much of anything with certainty in any absolute exhaustive or complete sense. There is always much more than we can know about any given thing. We know in part and what we do see we see through a glass dimly and obscurely, as the apostle Paul noted (1 Cor.13:12) . We can’t know anything certainly, but because of that we will all come to believe certain things about what we do know with conviction. Faith in something is inevitable for all of us. We are are wise, however, we should be open to modifying or changing our beliefs in the light of more evidence. If we are absolute ideologues, however, we will not. In that case we will cherry-pick the evidence that supports our existing beliefs and ignore or suppress evidence that doesn’t.

Nietzsche, the son of a pastor, came to believe something. According Damon Linker, Nietzsche “presents us with the peculiar spectacle of a philosopher who began his intellectual life, not from a position of openness to an elusive truth not yet grasped, but rather from an unshakable conviction that he had already found it, and that all of human experience and history had to be reconceived in its light” ( https://www.firstthings.com/article/2002/08/nietzsches-truth). What was this truth that the man who claimed that all claims to truth are just cloaks for the will to power? According to Linker, Nietzsche biographer, Rudiger Safranski, reveals a man who “devoted his formidable intellect to making sense of the world in terms of its intrinsic meaninglessness.” Apparently his presupposition was that life is meaningless from which the conclusion that we can make it mean anything we want is easily derived, want meaning desire being key.

Living only according to the fulfillment of our own desires is what the Bible describes as “having no hope and without God in the world” (this state described in Eph 2:12 corresponds with the state of being described in Eph 2:1-3). This seems to be exactly the state that Nietzsche found himself in, which led him to conclude that is all there is. It is all there is for sinful man apart from God, but in His mercy God in Christ offers us more (Eph 2:4…).  Considering that his earliest philosophical work was “On the Origin of Evil” at the age of 12, perhaps Nietzsche starred into the abyss too long at too young an age. Narcissism and nihilism, both of which are characteristics of evil, definitely found welcome in his soul, which is probably what left his mind debilitated by insanity at age 45.

Humanity in sin is a slave to corrupted human desires such as greed, sloth, and lust. For these corrupted human desires truth, another name for the higher desire and will of God the Creator, and reality come to be seen as subservient to desire. Living with our own corrupted desire exalted above truth, however, as Ephesians 2 indicates, leaves us at the mercy of the spiritual forces of evil, which, again, have always proven to be merciless. But when our desire is exalted above all, we will attempt to bend reality, the truth, to serve our desires. In other words, we will lie, which involves distorting the truth and/or suppressing it.

While those who are playing the game of the will to power often say that all beliefs are equally valid, they obviously care a great deal that people believe some things but not other things. Hence, the use of propaganda and clever tactics of persuasion, which often involves distortion and suppression of evidence that would make the case for the truth or the closest possible approximation of it.

From the the biblical perspective sinners don’t live for the truth; sinners live for the fulfillment of their own desires. As a result truth becomes either useful, malleable, or dispensable depending on the combination of the circumstances and what is most conducive to personal expediency. When one’s own desires rule, the attempt will be made to make truth bow. Wherever sinful desires reign truth will suffer suppression. But the truth is the only thing that can set us free from slavish desire and the prince of the power of the air who uses those so enslaved for his own narcissistic and nihilistic purposes.

The will to power is the devil’s game, and it is often waged with clever sounding slogans designed to persuade enough people that those wielding the slogans can fulfill their desires for comfort, security, and pleasure usually without the troublesome specter of personal responsibility and accountability. Often these sinister slogans come in the form of prooftexts from the Bible.

Referencing specific verses or passages from the Bible is not wrong, after all Jesus himself did exactly that in fending off the temptations of the devil in the wilderness (Matt 4:1-11). It’s not wrong as long as we don’t do it like the devil himself did to tempt Jesus by quoting a part of Scripture without regard to the overall context and tenor of the Bible as a whole (i.e. Matt 4:5-7). We should always endeavor to use any particular biblical text in a way that is in harmony with the overall context of the message of the Bible as a whole. The same is true for the writings and speeches of other people too, by the way. The same goes for scientific (hard and soft sciences) studies as well. More context can only help to clarify by narrowing the range of legitimate interpretations.

Someone who is not interested in context is not interested in the truth. The most pressing debates among us can never be settled by who can mount the most prooftexts for their cause. Recently, for example, some who usually aren’t so concerned about what the Bible says about some things, like sex, were suddenly concerned that people care about what the Bible says about the way we treat immigrants and refugees.

In order to make the case for a liberal immigration policy and against a particular conservative view, many provided a slew of prooftexts from the Bible. The gist of what many of them were arguing seemed to strongly imply that it is an easy, open and shut case, that all immigrants should be welcomed without question and hesitation. Some even argued that safety shouldn’t be a significant concern because it is not a priority for Jesus, who obviously didn’t consider safety when he risked arrest and crucifixion. When some of them were challenged by arguments that put the liberal prooftexts back into the light of the original context, they just dismissed it as an attempt to make excuses for disobeying the clear commands of Scripture with regard for the care of immigrants and refugees.

But many of those same people are not so strict when it comes to the clear commands of Scripture with regards to sexual ethics, commands that, as I have shown before, are even considered to be clear by some of the most prominent liberal scholars. Some, who on the one hand want to argue that 2000 plus year old texts have no relevance for sexual ethics in 21st century America, on the other want to argue that it’s just a simple matter of biblical obedience with regard to the current immigration debate in the United States in 2017. I think we should be very welcoming and lavish in our generosity toward immigrants and certainly refugees, but we can do that without throwing caution to the wind. The issue is complicated. I don’t know exactly what should be done. It seems pretty obvious that there is a higher calculus at work than just helping people in need. There’s obviously political power at stake on both sides. Nevertheless, from a biblical point of view the issue is also definitely more complicated than some want to acknowledge.

Just take one of the prooftexts for example.

“When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.” (Lev 19:33-34 ESV)

This is a beautiful and wonderful text, one that is certainly echoed by Jesus in the second half of Matthew 25. But, look, this text itself evokes a much broader context of the story line it’s found in. This text must be understood within the story of Israel coming out of Egypt and wandering in the wilderness before they enter into the promised land of Canaan. The stranger here being evoked is not necessarily someone who would have migrated from another country, but was in many cases a person of one of the Canaanite tribes who inhabited the land before Israel arrived to take possession of the land. For the Israelites this meant driving out the Canaanites who refused to accept Israelite control of the land and to live according to the laws of Israel’s God, Yahweh.

  “Do not make yourselves unclean by any of these things, for by all these the nations I am driving out before you have become unclean, and the land became unclean, so that I punished its iniquity, and the land vomited out its inhabitants. But you shall keep my statutes and my rules and do none of these abominations, either the native or the stranger who sojourns among you (for the people of the land, who were before you, did all of these abominations, so that the land became unclean), lest the land vomit you out when you make it unclean, as it vomited out the nation that was before you.” Lev 18:24-28 ESV

The strangers or foreigners to be loved as the Israelites loved themselves were those who agreed to live peaceably among them, and were often of the Canaanites who originally inhabited the land, like Rahab (Josh 2 & 6), the Gibeonites (Josh 9; 2 Samuel 21), and Uriah the Hittite. Yes they were to love the stranger/foreigner who was committed to living peaceably with them, but there were also general restrictions for certain nations that had proven hostile to Israel when they came out of Egypt, like Moab. Moab tried to have them cursed and eventually seduced Israel into sexual immorality, which is what God warns against in Leviticus 18 above, and idolatry (Numbers 22-25). Of course the Moabite Ruth, who accepted the God of Israel as her own, is a significant exception to the general restriction. There’s much more that could be said, but if you think Leviticus 19:33-34 and other texts like it make an open and shut case for a particular view on the current immigration and refugee debate in the United States … Well, I don’t know what to say.

We cannot prooftext our way into the kingdom of God. We can’t prooftext and cherry-pick our way to the truth. Soundbites and slogans won’t suffice. We can’t prooftext and cherry-pick our way to peace and prosperity either. If all we have is personalized individual truths designed to fulfill personalized individual desires, all we will have is never ending conflict and misery. They say the road to hell is paved with good intentions; I suppose it’s also replete with slogans and prooftexts for road signs along the way. Getting to the truth requires much more than prooftexts, it requires context and a lot of patience and work, hard work. And that is the truth, the hard truth.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Beginning with Ashes

Below are some of my reflections on Ash Wednesday and Lent from last year with a few additional thoughts:

We begin in the mud of ashes, a journey in the dark shadow of the cross, knowing it’s a shadow cast by the glorious light of the resurrection. Why begin Lent with ashes?ashes_6329cnp

In the Bible ashes, often paired with sackcloth, a coarse and uncomfortable material, symbolize repentance, humility, and/or mourning in the aftermath of disaster or impending potential doom. Upon encountering God, after seriously questioning God’s justice in the midst of his own great suffering, Job repents in dust and ashes. The king of Nineveh, with Jonah’s reluctant pronouncement of looming judgment, fasted in sackcloth and repented in ashes. Ashes remind Christians of some of the first words of our Savior’s preaching, “Repent and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:15).

Ashes also remind us of the righteous judgment of God that stands against us because of sin, as well as its penalty, which is death. The penalty for rebellion against God’s law, is “you shall surely die” (Genesis 2:17). Although physical death is included, the worst of it is spiritual death, being cut off from God, the source of life, goodness, and blessing.

Accepting the black mark of ashes on our forehead at the beginning of Lent symbolizes our acceptance of the righteous judgment of God against us as sinners. It is to confess, as did Daniel on behalf of Israel as he sought God’s face through prayer and fasting in sackcloth and ashes, that we were and are wrong to break God’s commandments and that God’s judgment against us is right and just (see Daniel 9:3-19).

Nevertheless, the mark of the ashes in the sign of the cross reminds us of God’s mercy because His only Son, the perfectly holy and righteous One, took the penalty that we deserved and “bore our sins in his own body” (1 Peter 2:24) with the result that we who were spiritually dead in sin received new life through forgiveness by the canceling of the debts and just legal decrees that stood against us, which “he set aside nailing it to the cross” (Colossians 2:13-15).

The mark of ashes also reminds us of our need to take up our cross daily, to die to sin, to “put to death” any lingering attachments to the old age, the fallen world that is passing away, and any remaining corrupt desires and habits of our old selves before we were born anew into the kingdom of God (Colossians 3:1-17). We engage in this discipline of Lent, not to be saved, but because we are saved; and because we are saved, we know we are being saved daily as we grow into “the holiness without which no one will see the Lord” (Hebrews 12:14).

The ashes remind us that “in the midst of life we are in death.” The sign of the cross reminds us that “our help is in the name of the Lord who made heaven and earth” (Psalm 124:8). It is He who sent his very own Son to die for us so that we could live for Him.

In Christ we can live as those who are prepared to die, to die daily to sin, and, therefore to die in hope at our appointed day to stand before the judge of all the earth (Hebrews 9:27). We die in the black shadow of the cross but also in the light of the resurrection. When we are prepared to die; truly we are prepared to live, knowing that the one who formed us from the carbon dust of creation to begin with will from the ashes and dust of death raise us to new life, daily, and on the last day. Are you prepared to die?

In the beginning God formed us from dust and ashes. He formed us like clay; His fingerprints are all over us. He breathed into us the breath of life. When we rebelled and our love failed, God’s love remained steadfast. In sin we return to the dust and ashes. By grace through faith we rise with Christ to walk in newness of life now and on the last day we will rise again from the ashes of the sinful world from which God makes all things new. Those who humbly begin in ashes end up in glory.

Temple Building & Sabbath: Holy Work Requires Holy Rest

Exodus 31:1-11 tells of God empowering and enabling certain people, Bezalel, Oholiab, and others to make the tabernacle where God’s presence would dwell and all of the furniture, articles, and instruments to be used in it. The Spirit of God empowered and equipped this select group to do this holy work. What is interesting is that this passage is followed immediately with a reminder about the importance of keeping the Sabbath. Even the holy work of making the tabernacle did not exempt Bezalel and the gang from taking Sabbath rest.

Under the New Covenant all of God’s people are filled with the Holy Spirit and empowered for the holy work of building up the body of Christ (see 1 Cor 12-14; Eph 4), a process through which God is preparing us to be a holy temple, a place where his presence will dwell forever (see Eph 2:18-22; Rev 3:12). All Christians are called and empowered for this holy work, yet there are certain people who are set apart to serve and lead this holy work in unique ways.

The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ,  until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ.  We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming. But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love. (Ephesians 4:11-16 NRSV)

Some, like me, have been called to focus exclusively as clergy on leading the people of God in the work of ministry to build up the body of Christ. The word of God in Exodus 31, being written for our learning, stands as a reminder for all of us of the importance of sabbath. Although under the New Covenant we are not bound to the observance of any particular day or days, the Sabbath still stands as a reminder that all of God’s people need to take time weekly for worship and rest apart from the daily routines of sustaining our livelihoods. It’s also a reminder that our ultimate trust must be in God’s provision and not our own power to provide for ourselves. But when your entire vocation is to focus exclusively on the work of building up the body of Christ and seeing it built into a holy temple, it may be tempting to think that we may be exempt from the need for sabbath

cana-nazareth-btahny-jerusalem-etc-321
Cornerstones of the Temple Constructed by Herod

rest.

Many years ago after just starting out in pastoral ministry in the United Methodist  Church I had to attend a mandatory stewardship seminar. I remember one of the speakers there practically bragging about not ever taking a day off. Everyday he engaged in some type of work geared toward growing his church. Many may have admired this minister for his work ethic and determination, but he really needed to be challenged to trust God and to entrust and trust the laity with more. I saw this same pastor a couple of years later and it seemed that his physical health had deteriorated considerably.

The Duke Clergy Health initiative has shown that the health and overall well-being of pastors is not very good on average. Lack of rest and relaxation is surely a major reason. So a lot of emphasis has rightly been placed on sabbath time for pastors. One reason may be because laity don’t see the work that pastors do as real work. Some may see the end product of a lot of prayer and preparation, a sermon during a worship service as about all there really is to it. Hence the old joke that pastors only work one hour one day a week. But any one sermon is the result of several hours of preparation and countless hours of thinking and prayer. And the thought process is hard to turn off. So when physically it doesn’t seem like the pastor is doing much, there is still a tremendous amount of work going on mentally. There’s also a battle raging spiritually as the forces of the evil one will be hard at work in attacking God’s messenger who is in preparation to deliver God’s word.

There’s also a battle raging during the delivery of a message. That’s is why the ministry of preaching and teaching needs to be bathed in prayer by the pastor and the congregation. Preachers often feel exhausted after delivering a sermon. It may be that they wrestled demons all night and in the early hours of the morning before delivering what they prayed would be a word from God. Sometimes the wrestling match continues during and after the message. Proclaiming the word of God is not easy, just ask Jesus, whose cross stands as a reminder.

I remember one preacher who talked about how he had wrestled with a message all week that he knew was going to be unpopular in his congregation. He knew it would draw a lot of opposition and potentially lead to conflict. After preparing the message he said he talked himself out of actually delivering it, and went with a message that wouldn’t stir up any controversy. As he stepped into the pulpit to preach a woman who was visiting the church for the first time stood up and interrupted the service by speaking in tongues after which she interpreted the message. He said the message she delivered was the gist of the message that he was supposed to deliver that day but chose not to. The interesting thing is this wasn’t a Pentecostal church. It was a Baptist church where no one had ever heard anyone speak in tongues. At any rate, the point is that there is often much more going on behind the scenes when it comes to sermon preparation and delivery. It can be an exhausting battle.

One time a lay person in a church I served preached for me when I was on vacation. He was a devout and faithful Christian, a wonderful leader in the church, and a very good public speaker. He regularly taught an adult Sunday school class. When I got back from vacation I thanked him for preaching for me. He said, “I don’t see how you do this every week. I was absolutely exhausted Sunday afternoon.” Some of the exhaustion comes from the general anxiety of public speaking, but there is much more going on spiritually as well.

But the work of ministry for a pastor involves more than just preaching. Ministry often involves writing as well, which takes a lot of time. This blog article alone will take several hours to complete. There are also the Bible studies and other church functions and activities. Pastors are also the chief administrative officers and leaders of missions and evangelism efforts. Pastors provide counseling for the bereaved and grief stricken, those who are struggling with other emotional issues and relationship problems, and sometimes those who have experienced horrific tragedies. We are with people during some of the most joyful times of their lives, such as weddings and baptisms, but also during their most stressful times: illnesses, job losses, accidents, deaths. Pastors take on some of the stress that their people go through. Some have compared it to second hand smoke that may cause health problems, but in this case it is second hand stress from others in addition to the pastor’s own personal burdens.

I had the joy of performing a wedding for a couple in their early sixties. They were both so blessed and happy to be united in holy matrimony. Less than six weeks later, however, I visited the wife at Duke hospital who was there because of heart problems. As I waited for an elevator I ran into her stressed-out new husband who was just getting off the elevator to go home to get some sleep. We spoke briefly before I went up to pray with his new wife. That night as she lay in the hospital he had a massive heart-attack in his sleep and never woke up. I performed his funeral a couple of days later and spent much time praying and consoling his widow who had been his bride less than six weeks earlier. She was on an emotional roller coaster. I wasn’t exactly on the ride with her, but I was there on the ground joyfully watching her go up, and anxiously and sadly waiting to console her when she came down. We regularly “rejoice with those who rejoice” and “weep with those who weep” (Rom 12:15).

The work of full-time ministry can be misunderstood by laity and clergy. Some might say that ministry is a marathon not a sprint. But ministry, like life in general, is not a marathon either; it’s a pilgrimage. As such, as with any long, slow, arduous journey, it will require regular rest stops along the way. In order to do more, sometimes we have to do less, sometimes nothing at all. Even those of us in full-time ministry need to make time for rest. That can be easier said than done. There are many potential pitfalls and temptations along the way.

One of the challenges with full-time ministry is it can be hard to ever feel like you’re really off. In the back of your mind you know there could be an emergency call out of the blue at any time. And for me at least, moments of inspiration for messages and sermons don’t come on demand only between certain times of the day. It’s hard to shut our minds off, and we’re even encouraged to always be on the lookout for something “that’ll preach.” This feeling of always being on is palpable.

In 2012, after completing my time at Duke Divinity school as a student pastor on loan so to speak from the Western North Carolina Conference to the North Carolina Conference, I was appointed as a provisional elder to a church in the Western NC Conference. The way it worked out that summer there was a week between the clergy moving dates for the two conferences. So I had one week where I wasn’t responsible for either church, the one I had just left or the one I was going to. That week I knew I would not receive a call from either church. Although I was already thinking about my first sermon and even a series of sermons at my new appointment, I could feel the difference of at least a measure of responsibility being lifted from my shoulders for that brief time.

Taking time off is one thing,  but actually being able to relax is another. Clergy need to be able to get more than just time off each week and for vacation. Clergy need to be able to find time to actually relax. There are a couple of things that might help.

One is we need to remember that we are particularly called to equip the saints for the work of ministry, not do it all ourselves or even to be involved in it all. Once I had someone say to me that the church ought to organize a team to build a house with Habitat for Humanity. I got the impression that what she meant was that I ought to organize a team to do that. Instead I commended her for the great idea and encouraged her to organize the team. She instantly resisted, but after a little encouragement and a couple of suggestions she warmed up  to the idea. Within a few months she did indeed organize and led a team to help with a Habitat project. She and others grew tremendously and were blessed in being a blessing to the community. We need to entrust and trust laity with the work of ministry and not try to be involved in everything ourselves.

But more than trusting laity we need to trust God. “If it is to be, it’s up to me” should not be our motto. God can handle it if I take time off. The Holy Spirit is at work in every member of the body of Christ and God is more than able. Taking time for Sabbath rest is an act of faith. And the rest aspect of sabbath, just as much as the worship aspect of sabbath, should be practiced as a means of grace. As an act of faith and a disciplined practice, sabbath rest will certainly be a means of grace to strengthen us in our faith in God.

When we do take time to rest and relax we should be aware of temptations that will keep us from actually relaxing and avoid them. For me it can be electronic messages such as work related emails and social media. On my sabbath days, I enjoy and find refreshment in some social media, but I must not allow myself to be drawn into reading articles and engaging in Facebook “discussions” about controversial topics (see http://babylonbee.com/news/local-man-redeeming-time-arguing-facebook-day/). I do enjoy reading online articles and blogs, but I have to intentionally avoid them if I am going to truly relax on my sabbath. I read but I try to only read for my own personal enjoyment and edification. I do also sometimes engage in online “discussions”, but I limit that in general during the week and altogether during my sabbath time. You can easily, before you even realize it, spend a few hours responding to people on Facebook or Twitter, the latter I hardly ever use anyway.

There have been times when I have been taunted and mocked for not responding to someone on social media. But I would rather miss out on time with complete strangers on Facebook than miss out on an opportunity to truly relax and enjoy time with my wife and family. Jesus will still save the world without me sharing my thoughts on everything I come across on social media or hear on the news.

Speaking of news, I still watch the news, but not quite as often as I used to. I have learned that it’s better to spend more time hearing from the Holy Spirit than hearing from the plethora of political pundits on CNN, Fox, and MSNBC. I found it best to avoid news altogether during my sabbath time if I really want to relax.

Of course there will sometimes be things that will come up that will interrupt our sabbath time, but we should still make time later in the week or the following week to make up for lost time. If I am unable to take my regular day of sabbath, usually Mondays, I will do my very best to take time another day during the week. This week it will be Friday, Lord willing.

As the writer of Hebrews says, faith is the key to entering into God’s rest (Heb 4:1-13). Ultimately we need to trust God enough to truly rest. Taking sabbath is an act of faith. In faith we come to the one who bids us:

“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” (Matthew 11:28 NRSV)

Holy work requires holy rest. We can trust that God will provide us with plenty of both.

Weight Loss and Health: The Physicality of Christian Spirituality

In the late spring of 2010, I began to have some concerning physical symptoms. Occasionally when I would stand up from sitting or turn my head to look behind me I had the sensation of slight dizziness that made it seem like the room was shaking. This didn’t happen often, but I knew that it was probably related to the way I had been overeating. I had some issues with pain in my lower digestive system, like sharp contractions, too that was directly related to how much I had eaten. I knew I was eating way too much and way too often, so I backed off a bit, which did seem to alleviate some of those symptoms. The changes I made, however, were pretty minor.

Later that summer, I had to have a physical checkup for a life insurance policy that we had applied for. That checkup revealed that my blood pressure was too high, and that my cholesterol and triglycerides were well above normal. These findings didn’t allow me to get the preferred status that I had received for a different policy a few years before. It was obvious that I had gained a lot of weight over the past couple of years as well.

At this point I was just a few weeks away from starting my third year in the Masters of Divinity program at Duke. While I was in Divinity school I also pastored a church. With the symptoms I had in the Spring and with the bad report from the physical exam, I knew I needed to make some serious changes. So I committed to eating better the best I knew. Vigorous exercise at least 3 times a week was already part of my weekly routine. I ran a couple of miles each of those days and did a 15 minute routine on the Bowflex that I had at the time. I knew that it was my diet that I had to change.

At first I changed the types of foods that I was eating. I focused on avoiding foods high in fat. I also stopped eating large meals late at night – sometimes I would eat an entire meal before I went to bed after having supper with the family at the regular time. But mainly I focused on changing the types of foods I was eating. The change did help. Fairly quickly I did lose about 20 pounds. When I went for a checkup in mid September that year my vitals were back into the normal range, although still on the upper side of normal. I continued to do the best I knew how, and avoided too much unhealthy food, but it was a struggle. It seemed I had reached a plateau, but I knew there was more I could do.

That fall I decided to participate in a health and wellness program designed for clergy called “Spirited Life“. It was a program done through the Duke Clergy Health Initiative that had been studying clergy health in North Carolina among United Methodists since about 2008. Spirited Life was part of a longitudinal study to test the effectiveness of certain training and practices to improve overall clergy health. Their studies indicated that overall clergy health (physical and mental/emotional) is poorer than the general population of North Carolinians, which isn’t all that great to begin with.

At any rate, in the fall of 2011 I became a participant in the first of a few cohorts of United Methodist pastors to go through the Spirited Life program. The first health screening I received through Spirited Life in November of 2010 revealed that I had regained several pounds since September and had suffered a bit of a setback in terms of my vitals. Full participation in the Spirited Life retreats and seminars began in January of 2011.  Among other things, such as stress management, part of the program included participation in a weight loss program called “Naturally Slim“.  With the knowledge and information I gained from this program I formulated a plan that helped me to lose a lot more weight and achieve an even better level of health.

During Lent that year I committed to giving up sweets altogether with the exception of one small dessert one time per week, mainly on the Sunday feast days. I also committed to not eat any snacks between meals and, according to the advice given in the Naturally Slim program, to only eat meals when I was truly physically hungry. I discovered for me this was only a couple of times a day. At night before bed if I felt a little hungry, I would eat a small handful of plain mixed nuts to take the edge off so I could sleep. By doing these things by Easter (April 24, 2011) I had lost another 25 pounds or so – I got down to 148 pounds.big-cliff-little-cliff

Although I didn’t monitor it closely, from the Spring to early August of 2010 I had probably lost about 10 to 15 pounds to weigh around 195 when I had that checkup for the insurance company. By changing my diet a little more I got down to around 175. In November I went back up a few pounds. By Easter, through the plan that I was faithful to through Lent based on what I learned in Naturally Slim, I weighed 148 pounds and was in much better overall health. When I had my physical later that summer my vitals were all well within the normal range and the doctor thought that I may have lost too much weight and should adjust my diet to gain back a few more pounds. Over the last few years I did gain several pounds back, but, overall I have been able to maintain a much healthier weight.

Through all of the initial weight loss,  I continued my long established exercise routine. The main factor for me was a change in my eating habits. After the Naturally Slim program I didn’t worry so much about the types of foods that I was eating as much as how much and how often I was eating. This is not to say that the former is not important – it is – but the later is arguably more important. That being said, the most important component of my change in diet seemed to be drastically limiting my intake of sweets, including desserts, sodas, sweet snacks, etc. Inspired by my successes, my lay leader at the time also cut way back on sweets and snacks, especially soda, and lost about 60 pounds.

Having sweets more than once or twice a week gets me off track. So I have to really watch it. The other important component was not snaking between meals. My meals usually consist of the foods I have always enjoyed – for me just about anything in terms of meats, cheeses, and vegetables. Bread has never been a major part of my diet. I usually only have bread when my meal includes some type of sandwich. My two meals per day, usually around 10:30- 11:00 am and 5:30 pm, are pretty hearty though. Occasionally, such as Sunday morning when I can’t eat lunch until around 1:00 I will have a handful of raw almonds and half a banana so I will have the energy I need to preach and lead worship, etc. Sometimes I may have a larger breakfast, but if I do I don’t eat another full meal until supper. If I need to I may have a small snack like a handful of Almonds and fruit before supper on those days.

Knowing what to do, however, is not the only thing necessary for weight loss and better health. Having the power to do what we know we should do is also important. Overcoming our human desires corrupted by sin and the deceptiveness of our fallen human emotions is easier said than done. Eating is not just a physical act; it also involves our minds and emotions; and it is spiritual as well. Briefly, here are a few things to consider when trying to become physically healthier through eating better.

Christian salvation involves the whole person and the whole person is spirit, soul, and body (see 1 Thess 5:23 for example). Sometimes some Christians think that what they do with and to their bodies is completely irrelevant to their salvation. Some even think that who they are is completely independent of their physical bodies. From the Christian perspective our spirits, souls, and bodies, are each an integral part of who we are. Saint Augustine, although he was influenced by Platonic thought, which tends to view the body as non-essential to who we are as humans, said, “the body is not an extraneous ornament or aid, but a part of man’s very nature” (The City of God, Book 1, Chapter 13).

Final salvation for the Christian happens at the resurrection of the body. The apostle Paul calls this moment for which all of the physical creation longs “the redemption of our bodies” (Rom 8:24 ESV). The ultimate goal of Christian salvation is not to discard the body to live a disembodied life in heaven, but for our bodies to be redeemed to live an rembodied life in a renewed physical creation. And it won’t do to act as if it doesn’t matter what we do with and to our physical bodies now since we will get new bodies in the resurrection. Even now our bodies are sacred space for the indwelling of the Holy Spirit and should be respected as such as we seek to glorify God in our bodies ( see 1 Cor 6:19-20).

Likewise neither is human sin purely a spiritual reality. Sin is a spiritual disease that corrupts God given human desires, which manifest within the mental, emotional, bio-chemical, physiological,and social aspects of our embodied existence. In his discussion of sin in Romans 7, Paul’s desperate rhetorical question, “Who will deliver me from this body of death?” (7:24) is more than a metaphor, but points to the reality that our bodies too have been corrupted by sin. One of the major categories of sin that has been delineated over the centuries into what has been called “The Seven Deadly Sins” is gluttony. Gluttony is a corruption of our natural God-given desire for nourishment to sustain life and health. This is one of the ways that sin manifests itself in human life. As with other corrupted desires we must master it rather than allowing them it master us (see Gen 4:7 in context).

Our whole lives are an interaction between the spiritual, psychological, and physical. We are not spiritual beings who just happen to live in a body for a brief stint on earth. We are physically embodied spiritual beings who are destined to lived physically embodied lives in the New Heaven and Earth forever.

Eating is also an emotional thing. We do eat for pleasure, but pleasure should not be the main reason we eat. We should enjoy food, but the enjoyment should not be the only factor that we consider. We also may eat to soothe our anxieties and relieve stress. Finding comfort in comfort food is obviously not the best way to deal with anxiety. Saint Augustine again said, “Our heart is restless until it finds its rest in Thee” (in “Confessions”). We must seek our ultimate comfort in God and in being at peace with the God who made us. We have that peace through Christ Jesus who also delivers us from the fear of all fears, the fear of death (See Rom 5:1; Heb 2:14-15). Emotional eating can lead to enslaving cravings, food addictions and bad habits. We must learn to starve those enslaving cravings and truly feed and nourish our bodies. So we must distinguish between cravings and true hunger. Fasting can help with this. For me fasting for a day or two has also functioned like a reset after I have overindulged. This too is spiritual, psychological, and physiological.  And fasting, along with prayer and many others things, is a means of grace, an intentional Christian practice through which God strengthens us.

Exercise is also an important component.  Don’t be too overwhelmed by the thought of starting an exercise routine. If you are not doing anything now, don’t underestimate the benefit of small beginnings. Do something rather than nothing. Even if it is only walking briskly for 10 minutes at first. Even now my whole exercise routine only takes about 30 minutes. I had to cut back for a while earlier this year because of nerve pain in my lower back, hip, and leg. I’m working my way back up. The pain is gone so I’m running again, so far a mile to a mile and a half. I also do about 50 pushups and 25 pull-ups – I don’t have the Bowflex anymore. I always try to do something. Something is better than nothing. Just walking regularly makes a huge difference.

But we also need to make time for rest. Sometimes something is better than nothing, but there are also times when nothing is better than something. Making time for rest is also an important Christian practice, which just makes good sense for any human being. We call this sabbath; it too is a means of grace. Rest is important because when we are are overworked and under-rested we are more vulnerable to succumbing to cravings. Being overly tired seems to increase the power of unhealthy desires and decrease our power to resist them. So finding time to rest and relax is important.

The good news is that we aren’t left to the mercy of our own will power; we have the mercy and grace of God to relieve our guilt through forgiveness in Christ and to empower us through the Holy Spirit.  Sin of any variety is too strong for us to overcome on our own, but with God all things are possible. The power of God enables us to become and to do what we could never become and do on our own. Yes, we are called to “work out [our] own salvation,” but we do so knowing that as we do “it is God who works in [us], both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Philip 2:12-13). Truly, we “can do all things through him who strengthens [us]” (Philip 4:13). And the primary way God has chosen to strengthen us is through the means of grace as they are practiced within the body of Christ. The Christian life is meant to be lived out in community. God has placed us within a body of fellow believers through whom he works to strengthen us. We need others as God works through them to challenge us and encourage us. A community living in the means of grace becomes a place where streams of mercy flow freely from the fountain of living waters to bring healing and health, in spirit, soul, and body.

The Encouragement of the Scriptures

It’s been a while since my last post – several weeks. With a wife and five children and as the only child of an elderly mother, who fell and broke her hip the Sunday after Thanksgiving – I just brought her home today! -, my life has a way of getting hectic quick. This fall in addition to teaching a discipleship class at my church each week, I also preached at a few other churches’ revival services. I’ve also been working on papers for the Board of Ordained Ministry for many weeks now as I continue on the long and arduous process toward ordination as an Elder in the United Methodist Church – I just turned the document in yesterday. So I haven’t given my blog the attention I would have liked. Nonetheless, there are couple of thoughts I’d like to share over the next couple of days – hopefully anyway.

One is how blessed I have been as I have preached through Advent and into the Christmas Season thinking about how much of the prophecies of Scripture have already been fulfilled by Jesus. I especially have the Old Testament in mind here. Isaiah in particular comes up so often during Advent and during the season of Christmas (December 25th – January 5), especially regarding the birth narratives. Matthew, for example, draws our attention to Isaiah by book ending the birth of Jesus and the beginning of his preaching ministry with Isaiah 7:14 and Isaiah 9:1-2 (Matthew 1 & 4). The former refers to a virgin giving birth to one who would be called Immanuel, which means God with us; the latter speaks of those who walked in darkness witnessing a great light. By quoting these verses Matthew is not just focusing our attention on these specific verses, but to the broader sweep of these passages, some of which had an immediate fulfillment in Isaiah’s day, but they were ultimately fulfilled in the way they prefigured the ruler to come who would bring everlasting peace on the heels of pure righteousness judgment by Jesus of Nazareth. Isaiah 9 goes on to say:

“For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Might God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end, on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time forth and forevermore” (Is 9:6-7 ESV).

Matthew is telling us that this is Jesus, the one who also fulfilled the prophecy of Micah5:2 by being born in Bethlehem of Judea, and the one whose way was prepared by John the Baptist, himself, according to Matthew, a fulfillment of Isaiah 40:3.

Of course so much of what Isaiah prophesied has not fully come to pass. Swords have not been turned into plowshares and nations have not given up the gruesome art of war (Isaiah 2:4); world peace still seems to be the dream of the naive. For this reason many have rejected the claim that Jesus was and is the Messiah that Israel had so longed for. However, the one that Isaiah envisioned coming as the righteous judge who would bring justice to the poor and the meek and destroy the wicked (Is 11:4), was also the one who would be “deeply despised, abhorred by the nation” (Is 49:7), “despised and rejected” (Isaiah 53:3), who would die for the sins of the world and bring healing to his people and ultimately to all the nations of the world by his wounds (see Isaiah 52:13-53:12). There is so much that Isaiah saw that still seems to be a pipe dream, but there is also much else that he saw that has been fulfilled by Jesus of Nazareth.

Lee Stroble, in his book, “The Case for Christ”, tells the story of Louis Lapides, who is Jewish. As a young man he rejected the Jewish faith of his upbringing and embarked on a journey into eastern religious mysticism and psychedelic drugs . After a hard life and many dead-ends had left him feeling hopeless but still desperate and hungry for meaning, he accepted a challenge to read the Bible. He refused to read the New Testament initially, however, because he had gotten the impression that it was the equivalent of a Nazi training manual. As he read through the Hebrew Scriptures, the Old Testament, he began to note the references and allusions of this prophet and king to come.

Throughout his life he could never understand why Christians were so enamored with Jesus and the crucifixion. As he began to read Isaiah, especially what scholars refer to as “the servant passages”, he came to believe that Jesus was the one that Isaiah had been talking about all along, even several hundred years before he was born. He began to see what Jesus himself had revealed to his earliest disciples and apostles: that he was the fulfillment of what had been prefigured and predicted in the law and the prophets all along (i.e. Luke 24:13-49). He came to see that Jesus had fulfilled so much already, and that he is the one who will fulfill the remainder of the promises yet to be fulfilled.

In an interview with Stroble, Louis said, based on the calculations of Peter Stoner, that the likelihood of Jesus fulfilling just eight of the dozens and dozens of prophecies of the Old Testament by accident was 1 in 100 million billion. This, he said, would be equivalent someone blindfolded finding one uniquely marked silver dollar in a knee deep sea of silver dollars the size of the area of the state of Texas.

The more I study Scripture the more I see how uniquely Jesus of Nazareth is the one about whom the law and the prophets testified in many very specific and in many more very subtle and nuanced ways. He has fulfilled so much of Scripture already; we can be confident enough in faith to have a sure hope that he will bring the rest of it to pass.

I think this is what the apostle Paul was talking about when he wrote:“For whatever was written in the former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope” (Romans 15:4 ESV – I encourage you to read the context).

Christmas is a reminder that so much of Scripture has already been fulfilled in Jesus, the Messiah. He truly is a light to the nations and through him God’s salvation has spread to  nations all around the world and is still spreading. Jesus came as the Savior of the world; he will come again as its rightful Lord and its righteous Judge and thereby bring in the everlasting peace of the kingdom that has no end. In this new year, may your life be filled with the present assurance of faith, the confident anticipation of steadfast hope, and an overflowing abundance of God’s great love in Christ. Indeed, “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope” (Romans 15:13).

 

Unity and the Other Marks of the Church

In these days of crisis within the United Methodist church, many are the calls for unity. Many are also the condemnations of even the mention of schism, understood as a formal separation. To compromise the church’s unity is to compromise the church’s witness to the world according to some. According to others schism will reveal a failure of leadership and love. The unity of the church, the mark of identity that the church is one under the headship of the one Lord and one God, is vital and essential. Unity, however, is not the only vital and essential mark of the church. The four traditional marks of the church are that the church is: one, holy, catholic, and apostolic. These four marks are together stated in the Nicene Creed. Each of the three other identity markers of the true church are also vital and essential. Each is integral to a people’s connection to the head of the church, the Lord Jesus Christ, and for the church’s witness to the world. True unity can only be a reality and understood correctly within the context of these other marks of the church.

HOLY

The church is called not only to be one, but to also be holy. In the Apostles’ Creed this is the first of two marks of the church mentioned therein, the other being catholic. To be holy is to be set apart by God the Father through faith in the Son and to be empowered by the Holy Spirit to live holy lives that reflect the image of God in the world. The church is called to make a difference by being different and living differently in the world by the grace of God. A beautiful summary of the holiness for which the church is saved from a decaying and darkened world is found in Jesus’ famous Sermon on the Mount.

There, after the sermon’s introduction called the Beatitudes, Jesus says to his disciples, “You are the salt of the earth” and “you are the light of the world” (Matthew 5:13-14 ESV). The saltiness of the salt and brightness of the light are determined by the extent to which the holy characteristics as defined by Jesus are evident in the lives of his followers. The righteousness to which disciples of Jesus are called is a higher righteousness that includes the right motives of heart to go along with the motions of obedience. It is a righteousness that is in harmony with the intent of the law and the prophets and each and every commandment found in scripture, as summed up in the Ten Commandments (5:17-20). Among other many vital aspects of holiness, Jesus highlights the importance of sexual holiness and the integrity of marriage to the highest degree and with the sternest of warnings about the danger of temptations to compromise that holiness.

The content of the holiness for which the church is set apart can be found in the moral law, which has ongoing relevance for the church. The moral law, revealed in the scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, reflects the heart and character of the Law-Giver. Being created in the image of God (Genesis 1:26-28) humans were created to reflect God’s holy love and righteous character into the world. Sin disrupted that vocation; grace restores it. Hence, Jesus’ call for his followers to “be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” As the perfect human being, Jesus embodies as the first perfect image-bearer since the fall the content of the very character of God revealed in the moral law.

Through the forgiveness available through his sacrificial death and the enabling power of the Holy Spirit we too are called to saltembody the character of the God who sets us apart. To compromise the holiness for which we are saved is for the salt to lose its saltiness and to hide the light that is meant to bring blessing and healing to the nations of the world. This too constitutes a compromised witness of the church and reveals a failure of leadership and love. A church that has lost its flavor is “no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people’s feet.” A church that compromises the moral commandments of God is a church that refuses to shine the light of God in all its fullness by doing good works (i.e. living a life in harmony with the commandments as taught by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount) for the glory of God. And a church  like that stands the risk of Jesus removing its lampstand. To such a church Jesus’ message is:

“Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent.” Revelation 2:5 ESV

Unity does sometimes require compromise, but only on non-essential matters. The integrity of the moral law, summed up in both tables of the Ten Commandments, is not an indifferent matter. If Jesus says we shouldn’t relax even one of the least commandments, how much more serious to relax his call to sexual holiness which comes with the sternest of warnings about the severest of judgments? It is evident that even in his sermon, “Catholic Spirit”, which is often misused to justify treating differing opinions on sexual morality as an indifferent matter, that John Wesley saw the moral law as a non-negotiable, essential matter for true Christianity. For Wesley the true catholic spirit would include a hatred of “all evil ways”, which he describes as “every transgression of his [God’s] holy and perfect law” (Sermon 39 section I:16).

Catholic

The word catholic means universal. It does not refer to just one branch of the universal church that uses that title in their name, but includes that branch and every other Christian body throughout the world and throughout history. The catholic (universal) church is not limited to any one ethnicity or nation as it is made up of Jews and Gentiles, and it is not limited to any particular geographic area, as it spans the globe. The catholic church also is not limited to any particular time, as it spans all of history. Neither is the church confined to those who are presently alive in their body on earth, but also includes the saints who are absent from the body but present with the Lord in heaven. In other words, the catholic church includes the church militant (against sin and the forces of evil on earth) and the church triumphant who worships before the throne of God in heaven and pray for justice to be carried out on earth (Rev 4-6).

It must also be noted that the catholic church, made of of Jews and Gentiles in one body, stands in continuity with Israel, the descendants of Abraham through Isaac. The unity of the church cannot be conceived apart from its catholicity. We are to be one in the essential matters of the Christian faith around the globe and throughout history. A presentism and cultural-centrism is not a recipe for unity when understood within the context of the catholic nature of the church.

Apostolic

The apostolic nature of the church refers to the church’s foundation upon the witness and teachings of those called and appointed by Jesus to be his apostles. With the exception of Paul they were as his disciples witnesses of Jesus’ ministry and teaching, his crucifixion and burial, and, along with Paul, of his appearances after his bodily resurrection. The New Testament bears witness to the teachings of the apostles and their reports regarding the teachings of Jesus and the meaning and significance of his crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension as the fulfillment of the new covenant promise found in the law and the prophets. The apostles affirmed the ongoing authority of the Old Testament as Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount indicates (Matthew 5:17-20; also see Luke 16:16-17). Hence Ephesians 2, which shows the continuity of the church with Israel, says the church is “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone.” Although there is discontinuity between the church and Israel in terms of ceremonial, civil, and symbolic laws for Israel as a distinct nation among the other nations of the world no longer being necessary for the church as their purpose was fulfilled in Christ, one of the most important areas of continuity is the universal and timeless moral law of God.

While in Ephesians 2, for example, Paul can speak of laws being abolished, it is clear in Ephesians 5:1-14 that by this he does not mean the moral law, which remains the standard of obedience and judgment for the new covenant people of God . As N.T Wright says, for Paul the outward markers of Israel’s national identity are “no longer required, but the moral standards which were supposed to distinguish Israel from the nations were if anything intensified” (Paul and the Faithfulness of God, p 1048). And for Paul, as well as Jesus as indicated in the Sermon on the Mount and in Matthew 19, sexual holiness, celibacy in singleness and fidelity within the lifelong covenant of  marriage between a man and a woman, is a vital component of the moral law to be lived out in the life of the church together.

The teaching of the apostles reveals the ongoing authority of the Old Testament, particularly the moral law revealed therein. The testimony and teaching of the apostles as revealed in the New Testament also show how Jesus fulfilled the promise of the new covenant found in the law and the prophets, in which God’s people receive forgiveness and a new heart empowered and guided by God’s Spirit for obedience to God’s law.

Conclusion

We are called to maintain the unity of the Spirit, but not apart from the call to “walk in a manner worthy” of our calling (Ephesians 4:1-6), and not apart from the call to “put off” “the old self,” which “corrupt through deceitful desires, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness” (Ephesians 4:22-24). Holiness and the other two marks of the church cannot be tossed out in the name of unity. Neither can unity be achieved through compromise with “the unfruitful works of darkness” (Ephesians 5:11). That is not a recipe for unity, but is the very act of schism itself because it is to dilute the ingredients of the church’s saltiness, to separate from the church universal, and to break from the witness and teaching of the apostles. This would be to move away from the foundation of the New Testament apostles and Old Testament prophets.

John Wesley said that schism biblically speaking is not separation from a church, but division within a church through the failure to remain united in word, mind, and judgment (“On Schism” Sermon 75 section I:1-2). According to this understanding of schism, it is obvious that we already have schism internally in the UMC. This is really the result of the failure of leadership and love to maintain the unity of the Spirit, which scripture describes as being united in the same mind and judgment and of the same mind, love, spirit, and purpose in full accord (1 Corinthians 1:10;  Philippians 2:2.). When we admit that we are of two minds, we admit that there is schism. It is those who insist on revising the moral law to accommodate modern, western sexual sensibilities who are causing division and compromising the church’s witness, not those who insist on upholding the church’s scriptural standards.

While Wesley did indicate that a believer should not separate from a religious body frivolously, he did indicate that separation would be necessary if a believer would be forced to sin by remaining within a compromised Christian community (Sermon 75: section II:17). If the United Methodist church does officially compromise the biblical standard of sexual holiness, even by treating it as an indifferent matter, which it clearly is not, or if the denomination fails to hold covenant-breakers accountable, then in order to remain those of us who hold to the traditional Christian teaching would be forced to break the clear command of scripture to “take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness” (Ephesian 5:11). This would be true if the terms of communion included being forced to either accept and celebrate sin, or to treat it as an indifferent matter when it clearly is not. Either scenario of possible compromise will be unacceptable.

The bottom line is that any church or denomination that would allow itself to be conformed to the world by deliberately rejecting a straightforward command of scripture, would fail to be one with the holy, catholic, and apostolic church. Regarding the presenting issue of whether or not to affirm same-sex relationships, which has brought every mainline denomination to the point of schism, in the scriptural or traditional sense of the word, the theologian Wolfart Pannenberg said:

  “Here lies the boundary of a Christian church that knows itself to be bound by the authority of Scripture. Those who urge the church to change the norm of its teaching on this matter must know that they are promoting schism. If a church were to let itself be pushed to the point where it ceased to treat homosexual activity as a departure from the biblical norm, and recognized homosexual unions as a personal partnership of love equivalent to marriage, such a church would stand no longer on biblical ground but against the unequivocal witness of Scripture. A church that took this step would cease to be the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church.” Wolfhart Pannenberg (see full article in Christianity Today HERE)