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Posts from the ‘Practical Theology’ Category

Of me, as Ross

Ramrod straight I sat in that chair as my heart pounded away. The time came. There was a door in the corner of my eye, waiting for me to walk out, run away, do anything else with my late afternoon but this. I was tapping my fingers in some weird pattern, I don’t know what or why. A few in that small room might have been getting uncomfortable because I was making intense, sustained eye contact with each. Could they see my nerves? I haven’t said anything, but maybe my tells were obvious. Sometimes the tension gets the best of me. In this moment more than ever.

My therapy support group isn’t judgmental, so I don’t know why I panicked. In my journal that night I jotted down some ideas. Here’s the one I landed on:

But those words, those words, they carry the meaning of 20 pages compressed into three syllables: I am gay. The kind of sentence that should take 10 minutes to speak but comes out in seconds. Something so deeply buried in me doesn’t feel right to be released so fast. With a single clause the perceptions of me held by those in the room become completely out of my control — a bizarre feeling, seeing as I seem to spend all of my social energy on perception management. I lose a certain power when I become so vulnerable. The guys in the group took it well. They either said nothing or were affirming of me. Not in a theologico-sexual way. But of me, as Ross.

These guys are grace and peace to me. Coming out was the most difficult thing in my life and I’m glad to have had their support.

I’m gay. I’m homosexual. I’m a homosexual. I have homosexuality. I experience same-sex attraction. I’m same sex attracted. (That’s six ways to say something I have never said publicly before). I have been this way since hitting puberty, and in my life I have never been sexually attracted to a woman. Even once. I dated some girls along the way and had genuine emotional attraction to them, but that didn’t lead anywhere physically past friendship.

However, I have had consistent strong sexual attraction for other guys. You would think that this fact would have… tipped me off? To think, Gee, huh, maybe I’m gay? But that’s not how denial works. It took honesty and courage to come out to myself and that didn’t happen until the Fall of 2018. For years I had known about my sexual attraction to men but never realized the depth and exclusivity of these attractions. At some earlier points I had used terms like asexual. But I could not deny that I had sexual attraction going on. So maybe bisexual? But I could not deny that I simply did not have any attraction to women. Maybe that means I’m asexual with respect to women… and… um… and… and… that’s where the sidewalk ends. That’s when I couldn’t sustain the denial any longer. I began to recognize and name my same-sex attraction and tell a few trustworthy people.

My friends asked about my faith. After all — they reminded me — I am in seminary to become a pastor. The answer is complex, so I’ll write more in the future, but three things for now.

  • First, I believe that my same-sex attraction is a result of the Fall but is not itself sin. God intends marriage to be a male-female union, so I will not marry or date.
  • Second, my lack of opposite-sex attraction means that I am called to singleness which is celibacy with Christ. Thankfully singleness is better than marriage! 1 Corinthians 7:32-35.
  • Third, and the product of the first two points, I will find relational fulfillment not in one spouse but in a whole community of people, the body of Christ. I will pursue spiritual friendship by loving friends and being loved by them in the life-together of the local church.

As for pastoral ministry I see no necessary problems. Of course there are all the unnecessary problems. Like some who fear that I might infect them with my gayness. Nobody admits to thinking this but they do, you can tell. Or the outcry when I change some minor aesthetic detail (wall decorations, what type of stirring rods we use in our coffee, etc.) and the decision is attributed to my sexuality. Yes, these trivial things come up in church life. Or people who assume I will be political about sexuality all the time. Or others who think (groundlessly) that I will abuse their children. Or still others who run out of arguments and throw up their hands, saying, “We just prefer the other candidate.” I’ll deal with those responses as they come. But there are no necessary reasons why I would be excluded from pastoral ministry. I follow the example of singleness set by Paul and more importantly by Jesus himself.

I don’t care to defend myself. I don’t need to argue, though a close friend once described my love language simply as “debate.” Some people will stereotype me and others will flock to me, choosing me as their token gay friend. Both of these responses are frustrating but I will get over myself and deal with it. Some kindhearted people will thoroughly critique my use of the word “gay.” Okay. Kind of an in-house argument among us same-sex attracted Christians, so probably stop caring so much about that. Less kindhearted people will attack me for using “gay” as a pretext for their broader intent to malign and slander me. In the gentle authority of Jesus’s name please stop.

Instead, here is what I ask of you. Can you do what the gracious people in my support group did? Can you put aside for now your theories about what went wrong in my body (or my childhood development, or in my DNA, or etc. etc. etc.) and instead accept me? Not accept my actions as moral or reject them as immoral. Again, that is still a judgement, an evaluation. Can you be accepting of me, as me? Of me, as Ross?

I’ll lose Christian friends because they disagree with homosexuality. This makes no sense to me, as I do not have gay sex. But still I’ll lose friends. On the other side I’ll lose non-Christian friends because they will see my sexual ethics as self-repressive and hostile to other gay people. Rejected by some conservatives as too liberal, and by some liberals as too conservative, I’m caught in a trap I hate, defending a position I didn’t choose. Can you move past that with me? With me, as me? With me, as Ross?

Let’s talk about Ross. Ross likes to watch movies, especially Westerns and Thrillers. (Bonus points for Western Thrillers). Ross does dumb talent show performances, calls them “art,” and then refuses to explain their true meaning. Ross goes to college where he studies philosophy and ministry. Ross complains about the dining hall at school but appreciates it in secret. Ross gets riled up and wants to make everything a debate, because that’s somehow the way his mind is wired. Ross used to run Cross Country but out of laziness no longer runs or exercises at all. Ross cares about the migration crisis and wants to learn Spanish so he can be helpful to a Chicago-area immigrant ministry. Ross loves Junior High students and in many ways still is one. When he is angry Ross shuts down instead of lashing out. When he is sad Ross isolates himself and waits for it to pass. When he is humored, you will hear it, whether you are in the same room or not. Ross loves Jesus and has found more meaning in that relationship than in all others combined. And so Ross loves the Bible, because Jesus loved the Bible, and Ross wants to be like him. Ross sometimes runs out of socks and has to wear used ones twice. When it gets bad, he just goes to the store and buys more socks. That should solve the problem, he thinks.

Guys, this is me. I’m more than my sexuality. I’m more than my coming out narrative. I’m more than the prejudice and invective that mindless people hurl at gay folk every day. Forget all that. Can you love me? Can you love me, as me? Can you love me, as Ross?

Thank you for your understanding. Thank you for your grace. Above all, thank you for your friendship. To me it means everything.

Love,
Ross

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Thanks Todd for the photos!

Thanks Tim, Stephen, Josh, and Steve for helping me write this post!

With Reverence and Humility

The Garden at Les Lauves, 1906 - Paul Cezanne

Found this today in a commentary on Romans 1. Take these words from Dr. Martyn Lloyd Jones to heart.


Let us learn these simple lessons as we move on. We put the creature before the Creator whenever we put any single idea of our own before the revelation of Scripture. I feel like repeating that. To put any idea of our own before Scripture is to be guilty of this very sin of putting the creature before the Creator, our ideas rather than what the Bible says, or what God has revealed. ‘Ah’, we say, ‘but I don’t understand that; I don’t see how God would be fair if He did this and that’. That may be what you say; and it may be what you think. The question is, What is revealed? What does God say about Himself? My friends, we are not meant to understand all we read in the Scriptures. It is beyond us. Our minds are too small, and we are born in sin. We come to this as little children, not to comprehend it all, but to worship and to praise, and to receive it. And if we start putting our ideas or difficulties or thoughts or feelings before the Scripture, we have already partly become guilty of this terrible, serious charge of putting and worshipping the creature before the Creator.

Let us, therefore, always approach the Word of God with reverence and with humility. Let us never come to read it without praying to be enlightened by the Holy Spirit. Let us come to learn, not to have our prejudices confirmed, or to turn something down. Let us come with open minds. Let us receive the words, lest in our modern fashion we may be guilty of this very thing which the Apostle charges those people of ancient times [Romans 1:21-23]. And above all, let us ever, as we think of Him and talk about Him, remember who He is and what He is. We forget that sometimes, do we not? Perhaps something has been going wrong — we may find ourselves like that man in the seventy-third Psalm, who had been having a hard time while the ungodly were very prosperous and begin to say, ‘Why does God . . .?’ Oh, my dear friends, the next time that thought or feeling arises in your breast, stop for a moment and remember that you are thinking and speaking about the uncorruptible God, this glorious Being, glorious in His holiness, infinity, and majesty! Let us put our hands upon our mouths and be content to wait until He reveals His purpose to us. How dangerous it is to speak, without thinking, about God, the Creator ‘who is blessed forever, Amen.’ Let us stop for a moment! God forbid that we should ever be guilty of speaking about God in a manner that is unworthy!


Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Romans 1: The Gospel of God, 387, commenting on Romans 1:18-23.

Painting (unrelated): Paul Cézanne, The Garden at Les Lauves, 1906.

Don’t Lurk

Your biology class lectures happen in an open field. Philosophy class is done while you rock climb. Your major classes are held during competitive team sports. While you practice archery, a professor explains how to write good thesis statements. Who knows the things you can learn about while white water rafting?

Can you imagine a college like this?

Everything is FUN!

Everything is EXCITING!

Nothing is BORING! 

 

A professor told us about this school — supposedly real, though I don’t care enough to research where this college is located or if this characterization is accurate — in class one day. And my mind wandered to how awesome this school would be. How I would be so, so much more happy in this kind of environment than where I am now. But my professor took a different angle. One that has stuck with me.

He said, “You would be so bored, so fast. In a few weeks, you would be over it. College isn’t about entertaining yourself with fun activities; it’s about creating something.”

Yes! This is true… but I am bored, too. Normal college got so boring, so fast. It only took weeks for me to be over it. So maybe I’m making in my own life the mistake that Fun Outdoorsy School is making at an institutional level?

Question: what makes college so boring? Answer: that we aren’t creating anything, anything meaningful. Creative work is our original calling. God has created us to “image” him back to the creation. We do this by working and tending things in this world, ruling over and taking dominion of the created order.

Genesis 1:26 Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.”

27 So God created mankind in his own image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.

28 God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.” …

2:15 The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it. …

19 Now the Lord God had formed out of the ground all the wild animals and all the birds in the sky. He brought them to the man to see what he would name them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name. 20 So the man gave names to all the livestock, the birds in the sky and all the wild animals.

A task of ordering, shaping, dominating, tending, sorting, and ultimately, creating. It is only because of the Fall that this ordering, working, sorting task becomes tedious and painful. God curses humanity (represented by Adam):

3:17 To Adam he said, “Because you listened to your wife and ate fruit from the tree about which I commanded you, ‘You must not eat from it,’

“Cursed is the ground because of you;
through painful toil you will eat food from it
all the days of your life.
18 It will produce thorns and thistles for you,
and you will eat the plants of the field.
19 By the sweat of your brow
you will eat your food
until you return to the ground,
since from it you were taken;
for dust you are
and to dust you will return.”

This curse applies to all people because Adam and Eve represented all people in this narrative. And so, we too feel the “thorns and thistles” of frustration, pain, suffering, and meaninglessness while we try to fulfill our calling from God to create. But it wasn’t meant to be this way! This is a diversion from the original purpose! We were made to “image” the glory of God in all that we do. And so this creative work is basic to finding meaning in life and to being fulfilled as a human being.

Another angle, less theology this time: Social Media has three types of people. Content Creators are the 1% of users who make and share new content of their own. Interactors are the next 9% who comment, like, or share other people’s content, but they don’t make things of their own. Lurkers are the next 90% who intake Content Creators’ work and Interactors’ interaction with that work, but do nothing with it besides see and enjoy it. They do not share, they do not comment, and they make nothing of their own.

Here are pictures.

Azad Blog 1

The same thing is true in college. In high school you are a Lurker just intaking ideas and information. But college makes you start to Interact with ideas, critique them, argue about their merits, and share them with underclassmen who are starting to wade into the discussions. The ultimate goal is to make you a Content Creator, someone who knows enough about the topic to really contribute new work that other people can take in. This means you have to specialize in one thing, because a 22-year-old doesn’t have the knowledge to speak into more than one debate at a time. So you pick a major and start to work, and work, and work, until you can produce new, quality work of your own.

That’s the point of college. The more time you spend creating something, the less tedious and frustrating and boring it will be. Those classes you hate? They are so painful because you have decided they won’t help you in your creative project. Even if you aren’t sure what that project is, you have a sense, and this History of Chinese Politics class just ain’t it.

(It could be that the class really isn’t helpful, and Liberal Arts colleges suck. Or maybe you just have a bad attitude and refuse to see how the class will help. Probably both.)

All of college boils down to Neil Gaiman’s dictum, “Make Good Art.” But instead of art, it can be anything. Make good biology research. Make good athletic training preparation. Make good philosophy writing. But whatever you do — whatever you do — do not Lurk. Find meaning and fulfillment by doing what you are created to do: create.

Converted Together?

A fascinating scenario from Paul G. Hiebert, not sure what publication, for my intercultural ministry class. Here, you can read the scenario and my response essay. Also enjoy this photo I found of the forest in Borneo.

borneo forest

Mark looked at the chief and elders before him and at the more than two hundred men, women, and children crowding behind them. “Have they all really become Christians? I can’t baptize them if they don’t each decide for themselves!” he said to Judy, his wife.

Mark and Judy Zabel had come to Borneo under the Malay Baptist Mission to start a new work in the highlands. They spent the first year building a thatched house, learning the language, and making friends with the people. The second year they began to make short treks into the interior to villages that had never heard the gospel. The people were respectful, but with a few exceptions none had shown any real interest in the gospel. Woofak was always around and had been from the beginning. In time he had become a believer, but few of the others took him seriously. He was something of a village maverick. And there had been Tarobo and his wife and four others. By the end of the third year, the worship services were made up of these seven baptized believers, Mark and Judy, a few passersby, and a dozen children.

That year an epidemic had spread through the highlands. For weeks Judy and Mark went through the villages, praying with the sick and dispensing medicines, until they thought they could go on no more. They wept with families faced with death and told them of the God who loved them and had conquered death itself. One village in particular had suffered greatly from the disease. Though the people seemed to appreciate the love shown by the two missionaries, they had shown no particular interest in the gospel.

Three months later, two elders from this village had come to the mission home, wanting to see the missionaries. “Can you come to our village and tell us more about your God?” they asked. “We want to know more about him.”

Mark and Judy were excited. Their many hours on the trail in the rain and the weary days of ministering to the people were bearing fruit. Taking some food, water, changes of clothes, cots and nets, they set out for the distant village.

It was almost dark when they arrived. The village chief invited Mark into the men ‘s long house where all the adult males of the village were gathered. Judy joined the women, who sat in front of their huts discussing the decision the village elders were about to make. She sensed that there had been much discussion in the village before she and Mark had been invited to come. Now there was a feeling of excitement and uncertainty in the air. Some of the women wanted to know more about this new God. Others said that it was best to stay with their ancestors who cared for them in the spirit world, and with the tribal gods who had helped them to be victorious over their enemies in the past. In the long house the chief asked Mark to tell them more about his God. For three hours Mark told the men about the Jesus Way and answered their questions. Then the chief asked Mark to sit down on a log. Mark noticed that the men broke up into smaller groups, each made up of men from the same lineage. For half an hour there was a loud debate as men argued for and against following the new God. The arguments died down, and then the leaders from the various lineages gathered with the chief. Again there was a heated discussion. Finally the chief came to Mark and said, “We have all decided to follow the Jesus Way. We want to be baptized like Woofak and Tarobo.”

Although it was late, neither Mark nor Judy could sleep after the meeting. The decision of the village, especially the way it was made, had caught them totally by surprise. They knew that tribal people often made important decisions, such as moving their villages or raiding neighboring tribes, by discussion and group consensus. But they never dreamed that people might use this method to choose a new god. All their theological training in their church and Bible College had taught the young missionaries that people had to make personal decisions to become followers of Christ. Here the group leaders had decided for all. What did that mean? Was it a valid decision, especially when it was clear from the debates that some had opposed the choice? How could they baptize the whole village when not all were agreed? Then again, what did it mean in Acts when the jailer believed and Paul immediately baptized him and his whole household? Moreover, if they did not accept the villagers as Christians, the Villagers might return to their old gods. Judy and Mark knew that they had to do something before they left the next day. . .

As Mark and Judy searched for an answer, suddenly the great spirit gong in the men’s long house rang out. Hurrying over to find out what was going on, Mark found the chief and asked him why they were summoning the tribal spirits, now that they had become Christians. “Don’t worry,” the chief said. “We are calling them to tell them to go away because now we have a new God.

Judy and Mark were still uncertain as they finally fell asleep, bone-tired and knowing that they would have to give the chief and the village an answer in the morning.

Hiebert’s scenario involved a missionary couple converting a tribe. The tribal council elders, through much debate, decided to follow the missionary’s (Christian) god rather than the ancestral spirits. Conflicted with the implications of “group conversion,” the missionaries face a dilemma: do they baptize the village, and so assume that each tribe member has been saved? Or, do they wait until each person professes faith in Jesus, and then baptize each person individually?

The dilemma facing this missionary couple depends on two factors, one anthropological, the other theological. First, why do the tribal people not understand that salvation is a personal calling? Second, what is the purpose of the baptism the missionaries have offered? Quickly it becomes apparent that the first question raises meaningful theological questions, and the second meaningful anthropological questions, thus betraying the distinction between these categories in the first place.

Why do the tribal people not understand that salvation is a personal calling? The Hiebert case study characterizes the decision process of the tribe as “a loud debate as men [not women] argued for and against following the new God,” followed by “a heated discussion.” This model of “group consensus” seemed alien to the missionary couple, who “never dreamed that people might use this method to choose a new god.” The missionary couple resists contextualizing the gospel to the tribe’s collectivism. If salvation is primarily a born-again experience in which a single person makes an individual decision to make Christ their personal lord and savior – notice, “a single person,” “an individual decision,” “personal lord and savior,” clauses littered with adjectives stressing the solitary nature of salvation – how can the tribe choose together? Notably, the tribe did not even begin to consider conversion under these terms. It did not occur to them that each and every tribe member could convert, but not all at once. This means that the difference is one rooted anthropologically in the way the tribe is culturally structured.

The missionary couple brings a gospel steeped in individual language not because such framing is necessary to the gospel message, but because their own context has so mediated it to them. Why is salvation a “personal” “choice” to “accept” Christ “into your heart”? Where is that language found in the New Testament? Of course, it is well known that the Sinner’s Prayer is a modern invention, but does the individual salvation upon which it rests also come from modern times? It does. The New Perspectives on Paul movement has gone to great pains to show several closely related ideas about Second Temple Judaism and its social context, relevant here. First, in Second Temple Judaism, Jews did not have “works righteousness” as Protestants are common to claim, in which a person’s good deeds or bad deeds earn their standing before God. Rather, the temple was the locus of God’s presence, and sin rendered one ceremonially unclean so that they could not enter the Temple, and so they were considered “out” of society. This is why the Levitical code contains not only moral injunctions but also chapters upon chapters of instructions on ceremonial cleansing and ritual impurity. Second, from this, it becomes clear that Paul’s understanding of salvation was not “non-works righteousness” in the sense that God has nullified the old system and so now we ourselves individually do not have to work to earn God’s favor. That would nullify a system that never existed. Rather, the nullification is of the legal system itself, so enabling Jews who had the Law and Gentiles who did not to both share in the people of God, the Kingdom of God. This community is a body mediated through the bodies of its members (a concept later stolen and secularized by Hobbes) rising together into one reified being, for which Christ will return.

As a result of this communal understanding of salvation – we enter into a community, which is saved, rather than each person being saved, and then forming a community of the saved – the language of accepting Jesus as “personal lord and savior” or “individual” decision does not make sense. This has not addressed the other outstanding theological problem: that an individual “decision” has been made by “accepting Jesus” as personal lord and savior. (The quotes have been switched from the previous sentence). The simple answer to this is that people do not decide their salvation though it manifestly appears that they do this on the surface. Ephesians 1:11-14 (a passage well understood as collective salvation in the above sense) speaks to God’s choosing, predestining plan to redeem the elect, which manifests itself in our believing upon hearing the gospel and so being marked by the Holy Spirit as a seal. The reason that the New Testament does not use “accept Jesus into your heart” language is because by the time a person does so, Jesus is already in their heart, having orchestrated their accepting him in the first place. The combination of these two perspectives – that salvation is not individual, and salvation is not a decision – should, if thoughtfully considered by the missionary couple, shift their categories in way that reduces their hesitation to baptize the tribal people.

Baptism remains. Could the missionary couple’s understanding of baptism be what holds them back? What other perspective on baptism would rectify the problem? There an irony in the debate between paedobaptists and credobaptists. The former baptizes as an infant, and then does confirmation to be included in the life of the local church; the latter does parent dedication, and then does baptism to be included in the life of the local church. However, baptism in paedobaptist churches and parent dedication in credobaptist churches have similar functions: infant baptism signals God’s promise of election upon that child, into which they will grow as they are raised to be a Christian; parent dedication signals the parents’ promise to raise the child as a Christian along with the congregation’s help. In both cases, the event that takes place at about 1 year old signals that the child will live under the authority of a Christian household and be raised in the local church; the even that takes places around 15 or 16 or so years signals that him himself or she herself will be a participant in that local church on the basis of their profession of faith. The similarity is striking, really, and is the reason why paedobaptist and credobaptist churches do not differ in practical ways as a result of their position on baptism.

My suggestion to the missionaries is that the tribe is not being credobaptized, but paedobaptized, despite being adults. This seemingly askew category choice is appropriate because the only claim that can be made about them is that they are about to be subject to the authority of the local church (presumably run out of the Chief’s office). The promise of God’s election is being declared over them, into which they will grow as they are raised to live to follow Jesus. Since the tribal council decision was not about personal faith, but about whether to continue using the village spirits or the new God, it only makes sense to understand the council’s decision as one of official structure and committed religion.

In this response, I have shown that three aspects of evangelical Revivalist theology fail to meet the needs of the tribal people in Borneo to whom the missionaries were sent. Rather, by adopting a confessional, paedobaptist, Reformed theology, the missionaries could articulate the gospel clearly to the tribal people, without hesitation as the legitimacy of baptizing them together. We have seen that the anthropological question of individual vs. collective cultures is solved by a theological route (understanding Pauline justification and election), and the theological question of paedobaptism vs. credobaptism is solved by an anthropological route (understanding how church ceremonies actually function), betraying the assumed distinctions between the fields.

 

Trump, White Evangelicalism, Immigration, etc.

There is a lot to say about this new essay from Tara Isabella Burton at Vox. The key quote to focus on:

“This willingness to define seemingly straightforward passages in the Bible along politicized terms — reimagining what it means to be someone’s “neighbor” — speaks to a wider issue within white evangelicalism. The degree to which white evangelical identity is increasingly predicated on politicized whiteness — and on an insular and isolationist vision of community — reveals the extent to which white evangelicalism has become synonymous with Christian nationalism under the Trump administration. And, increasingly, white evangelicals are willing to selectively reinterpret the Bible to justify this.”

What disorients me is that I have experienced little of what TIB has described. The pastors of my parents’ church and my own current church have forcefully denounced Nationalism from the pulpit in messages on 1 Peter 2 (the church is “a holy nation, a royal priesthood”), on Revelation 5&7 (People of every nation will worship around the throne), on Ephesians 6 (that the Devil is our true enemy, not political or ethnic opponents) and Romans 14 (politics as disputable matters). My church is currently doing a series on politics and political engagement as a Christian, and the tone is nothing like an “evangelical identity predicated on politicized whiteness.” I go to the largest EFCA school in the country, and the rhetoric spoken around campus is always pro-refugee-life, pro-aid, pro-humanitarian. All of the Christian leaders who I pay attention to are similarly oriented when it comes to immigration topics — including the editorial staff for The Gospel Coalition, which is not a platform for liberalism.

But TIB’s description is still true. I see tastes of it at conferences, or from across the Christian blogosphere, or from individuals in small group settings in-person or being interviewed on television. And the polling numbers don’t lie, at least, significantly outside the margin of error. Here’s what I am wondering: in the same way Conservative and Progressive voices online get locked into echo chambers where only supporters see their content, could something similar be happening even within evangelicalism? I am not suggesting that we have carved out sectors of the larger Conservative-Progressive social mediaspace, but that within the Christian mediaspace certain niches have been carved to accommodate each perspective.

In an essay from earlier this month TIB pointed out that White Evangelicals are the only religious group in the country who supports President Trump. Which is true. But what she does not acknowledge is that there have already been longstanding breaks between Mainline and Evangelical protestants, and even longer, historic breaks between Catholics and Protestants. Those breaks happened at the level of whole countries (e.g., Germany vs. Italy, England vs. France), whole denominations (e.g., PCA vs. PCUSA), whole universities (e.g., Princeton vs. Westminster), whole ideologies (e.g., Modernism vs. Fundamentalism). But what is really new, what is really damning, is that now, in this current transition, there is not much of an institutional shift. The separation between politically conservative Evangelicals, on the one hand, and politically moderate or just leans-conservative Evangelicals, on the other hand, is happening at the grassroots level. President Trump has galvanized something like a grassroots split within Evangelicalism proper, mirroring broader concerns over the “Death of Truth” or “Post-Truth” society we inhabit in the information age.

But regardless of the existence of a niche, politically-moderate voice within Evangelicalism that happens to surround me, here is what TIB nails: the new hermeneutic at use that subverts Jesus’s calling to care for the helpless. By redefining “neighbor” to be only fellow Christians (which is bogus), or to be only those who have not broken the law, Christians in the age of Trump are buying into an inward gaze. This inward gaze is the concrete result of Nationalist rhetoric, yes, but I would also say it is a result of Rule-of-Law thinking that became really popular during Black Lives Matter protesting a few years ago. Of course, of course, of course, the Rule-of-Law mindset is completely irreconcilable with Christianity. With Jesus’s rendering inoperative (katargeó) the Old Testament Law. But that doesn’t seem to be a problem these days, since the Old Testament laws about refugees and immigrants are also being ignored. TIB refers to Isaiah 10, Matthew 25, Leviticus 19:33–34, Jeremiah 7:5–7, Ezekiel 47:22, Zechariah 7:9–10, and the flight to Egypt by Joseph and Mary as Biblical precedent for a pro-refugee-life stance. Ultimately she employs Galatians 3:28 to say that the power of Christianity subverts political and ethnic identities.

trump holding a bible 2

(The gross mishandling of Romans 13 by Jeff Session and Sarah Sanders, which I didn’t know about until reading this piece, is also important. Can you imagine Nero quoting Paul’s words back to the Christian community and saying, “Yes, you heard the man, now offer sacrifices to me”? When Rome quotes Romans, we have a problem.)

On that count, TIB is spot on. But what about the specific policies we support? What about the particular ways the federal bureaucracy maneuvers through these topics? Those are important, but disputable questions. However, we need to keep in mind that the most shocking statistic TIB cited was not about a specific policy: “more than half of white evangelicals report feeling concerned about America’s declining white population” is not a policy position; it is a generally racist sentiment. Such racism, obviously, has no place in Christian community. If not specific policy, when we focus on the topic of ethnic nativism: let’s not condemn ethnic nativism because “the Bible says that” you should care for the helpless and those who are fleeing persecution. Worse, let’s not default to citing “these Biblical writers who say that” we must be pro-refugee-life. If our doctrine of the Inspiration of Scripture informs our thinking on this topic, we can comfortably and boldly say that “God himself has said.”

To use brackets when teaching theology in the church

Something the NASB edition does but nobody else bothers with: italicizing all words that have no basis in the original text. Of course, this is hilarious, because even word-for-word translations have several words in each sentence that are interpolated. A phrase like πιστις Χριστου cannot be translated into English as “faith Christ” but must include an “of” in between to make sense. Should we italicize “of” in every genitive? The word “in” or “to” for each dative? Beyond case-use, there are more ways that words get added. One that Matt Chandler pointed out a few years ago is Philippians 2:4, “not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.” In the Greek, this sentence is more like “not looking to your own ________ but each of your to _________ of others.” The word “interests” is a simple translation addition to make the sentence clear for English readers. The NASB italicizes it.

brackets symbol vectorTo avoid being confusingly word-for-word, the NASB still includes the word; to avoid giving the word undue weight, the NASB italicizes it. While that approach may be ridiculous — and at times unhelpful, since English readers are used to thinking of emphasis when they see italics — the idea can be applied on a different level. I would like to suggest that the same inclusion-by-italicization method can be helpful for our teaching of theology in the church. Since, again, italics usually communicate emphasis, maybe brackets are the better symbol.

The balance struck by the NASB is also a balance to strike with teaching theology: we don’t want to be unhelpfully text-only, which would deprive our congregation from thinking rightly about the text. On the other hand, the theology we supply to the text may be wrong, and we do not want to give it the same level of authority in our teaching.

The main example that comes up in my conversations at Trinity is limited atonement. Limited atonement is a doctrinal idea that I believe is logically consequent from other doctrinal ideas which have strong Biblical basis: the other four points of Calvinism, total depravity, unconditional atonement, irresistible grace, and perseverance of the saints. Each of these command strong Biblical support in a way that limited atonement does not. (If anything, 1 John 2:2 leans the other way on atonement). Limited atonement is extra-biblical, but this does not mean untrue; it only means not necessarily true. Calculus is extra-biblical, but true!

So if someone were to ask me, “Where do you see limited atonement in the Bible?” I would have to first show the Biblical support for those other four doctrines, and then after all of that, say, “Look, I know its not anywhere in the text, but limited atonement just has to be an accurate description of Christ’s work on the cross if these other four things are true.” In other words, limited atonement as a doctrine exists one level of abstraction above these other doctrines; it does not have roots in the text, but in other doctrines, which themselves have roots in the text.

So, should we teach limited atonement? Or should we just leave it unsaid? My answer is that we should still teach it, but bracket it with phrases like “it seems like the best way to understand these doctrines would be…” as an opening bracket and then “there may be more precise ways to talk about the relationship between these doctrines, but we can save those for later.” Maybe it’s my evangelical upbringing, but this approach seems like a healthy way to major on the majors, minor on the minors, and keep our gaze focused on the Biblical text and the doctrines most obviously rooted in the text.

Of course, this bracketing is unnecessary in a doctrinal class, a catechism class, a book study group, or, unthinkably, a class on theology. I am only talking about expositional preaching on Sunday morning, especially when the congregation is walking through a book of the Bible chapter by chapter. As pastors, our understanding of level-two and higher doctrine should impact how we read the text and the basic ideas which emerge from it — don’t get me wrong, higher doctrine matters — but it is unhelpful to explain these ideas as if they bears the same weight as other teachings. Your doctrinal stance on the precise nature of the atonement will color your teaching, but don’t trick the congregation into thinking that stance is rock-solid authoritative like the text itself.

I know there are objections to what I am saying. For his part, Paul comments that he opposed Peter “when I saw that they were not acting in line with the truth of the gospel.” (Galatians 2:14, a great verse to memorize). Likewise we should understand the gospel in all its abstract implications and try to live accordingly. There is also the simple fact that Paul himself was a deeply systematic theologian, and he wrote Biblical text, so then we have some Biblical texts that ground even our deepest systematic theology. The number of topics that can be two layers of abstraction away from “But if their transgression means riches for the world, and their loss means riches for the Gentiles, how much greater riches will their full inclusion bring!” or “God’s gifts and his call are irrevocable” is small. (Romans 11:12, 29).

I am talking about practical, day-to-day, sermon-by-sermon use of theology for teaching laypeople. For the Junior High students I volunteer with at church, this can be important. I remember when I was in eighth grade and first started to discover the doctrines of grace and the five points of Calvinism. It changed my life, but not always for the better. Eighth-grade me would have been far better off being challenged to learn more about the Torah and Prophets, or about the doctrine of sanctification (!) than about theoretical constructs which I later discovered were deeply bankrupt. The solution doesn’t have to be complicated: we can better communicate the message of scripture by including-by-bracketing logical developments of doctrine.

Fall, friendship, and experiencing God

As I drove back to college from my parents house today, my route wove through an aimless countryside. Along the way were Pumpkin Patches and Harvest Pickings, Apple Orchards and Tree Farms. My parents and I stopped at one together and bought cider, jams and apples. We even had our picture taken:

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Seeing the fall in action ushered my mind to a moment in one of my favorite books. David Whyte’s collection of short essays, Consolations: The Solace, Nourishment and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words. In his meditation on Friendship, he writes this:

Through the eyes of a friend we especially learn to remain at least a little interesting to others. When we flatten our personalities and lose our curiosity in the life of the world or of another, friendship loses spirit and animation; boredom is the second great killer of friendship. Through the natural surprises of a relationship held through the passage of years we recognize the greater surprising circles of which we are a part and the faithfulness that leads to a wider sense of revelation independent of human relationship: to learn to be friends with the earth and the sky, with the horizon and with the seasons, even with the disappearances of winter and in that faithfulness, take the difficult path of becoming a good friend to our own going. (73-74).

One of our main goals as people is to experience transcendence. This is true of everyone, even, awkwardly, of those who deny that the transcendent is real. To see a mountain that dwarfs us in size. To look out on an ocean whose end is the horizon. To look injustice in the face and say “No, you will not remain,” only for, to our surprise, our words to make themselves true. To understand our world in a way that bring us if only for a moment far beyond our normal, small lives. To look up at the color-changing leaves of a tree and tremble under the weight of overwhelming beauty.

For the believer, these everyday moments point to something outside of themselves. They sign God to us, or his glory, or the meaning he declares over our lives. For the nonbeliever, these moments of transcendence are puzzling. Even though nothing exists out there, beyond us… we still experience the “out there” in our own lives.

These are “the surprising circles of which we are a part” and “the wider sense of revelation independent of human relationship.” We have the option to see them around us — or we can shut them out. If only we have eyes to see, ears to hear, hearts to understand.

What surprises me about Whyte’s comments is that friendship helps us get outside us. Friendship and its “natural surprises” can condition us to see a bigger world. A world that is open to what may be outside it, whether we like that possibility or not.

Thinking it would be fitting to the topic, I sat outside to write this post. But within a few minutes, I was too cold and had to retreat to the Student Center fireplace. Even after almost twenty conscious years of living through the Midwest winter — which bottoms out at negative 20 most years — I always forget the cold. This is because the knowledge of cold and the experience of cold are two different things. Six months of warmth is not enough to make me forget that it gets cold in October. But that length is enough for me to forget what the cold feels like.

In the same way, we who believe can know that God is real. And those who do not believe can know that God is not real. But we all feel, we all experience, we all sense God. The changing seasons, of which Pumpkin Patches and Apple Orchards are reminders, remind us to look beyond ourselves. So, too, does the tumult of ordinary life with friends challenge our gaze to drift higher and higher.

Reflecting on this summer of camp ministry

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As the campers left grounds on Saturday, and then hours later the entire summer staff did too, our season of ministry at Timber-lee came to an abrupt end. I felt the whiplash of a quick transition from a mentality of full-steam-ahead-don’t-quit-until-the-end to suddenly one of wait-what-it’s-the-end-how-do-I-act-normal-again in just a few hours.

I had two groups of elementary school aged campers, three groups in middle school, and two groups in high school. Eight straight weeks with a maximum time-off of about four days over the 4th of July break. While I recover from this sprint-marathon of a summer, I want to offer up some reflections about what God has been teaching me, and maybe give an example or two to illustrate each point. Interspersed are some photos from this summer that our camp photographer captured (and they are unrelated to the text surrounding them, just general photos). This post is more for my own personal benefit than yours — after all, most of what I learned has been learned from experience, and therefore is not something I can communicate in writing. But whatever. Here I am writing it anyways, and here you are reading it anyways.

 

10 Reflections From This Summer of Camp Ministry

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1. Being vulnerable even to those who look up to you. Something I did not understand before is that I had tried to present myself as perfect rather than the lazy, slobbish, forgetful, doubting, undisciplined, worried person that I actually am. Presenting myself as perfect is hard to avoid because I want to be a good influence, and ultimately my influence should be towards Jesus, who was perfect. Why would I want them to see anything other than Christ in me?

For whatever reason, during high school week I got real with my cabin one night. We were talking about global missions and the need for people to leave North America, leveraging their jobs for the spread of the Gospel. It was a great conversation. And then I shared something that had happened to me back in April. I was at Together for the Gospel, T4G, in Louisville. What I did not realize prior to arriving was that I had signed up for all of my breakout sessions with David Platt. All of them. I love Platt — his sermons have influenced me greatly over the last few years — so this was not a problem.

At one of his sessions Platt asked us to pray, “God, send me wherever you want to send me,” even if you are convinced that God has no plans to send you abroad. Just to have the willingness at heart to pray that prayer, no matter what actually comes of it. I started to pray it, but stopped myself. I couldn’t say it. I felt fear creeping up in me, fear that I didn’t know I had until that moment. And for almost the whole rest of the conference I was consumed with the question, do I really trust God with my eternal life if I can’t trust him with my current life?  There was a whole mix of emotions bouncing around inside me: fear, confusion, hypocrisy, frustration. Like I had somehow failed at being a “good Christian.”

I shared all this with the few campers sitting around at the time. Matt, Thomas, Ty, maybe a few others. Matt commented words like, “Gee, Ross, this is all so different from last year. I just remember you being this perfect counselor, but now you are telling us all these things you are failing at and still working on.” Which was a hillariously on-character comment if you know and love Matt as I do. I’ve been slowly learning to share stories like this one. Because even though the person I’m pointing to is perfect, I am not and never will be perfect. And my campers are not and never will be perfect. What they need is not some far-off vision of what a flawless Christian looks like. They need to see someone who struggles in different ways, as they do, so that they can see how to process through those struggles. That is far, far more helpful.

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2. God’s sovereignty. I guess I’ve always been a big fat Calvinist. Though for the past two years I’ve found different theological systems to help me understand it all. This summer there were some changes here. The first was that I began to process on a new level some of the implications of God’s sovereign election. My spotify playlist for the summer was almost all King’s Kaleidoscope and Beautiful Eulogy, so you can imagine why. If I’m so convinced that salvation is not a gift to be accepted or rejected but rather God’s effectual calling drawing to himself his elect, then maybe I should stop explaining salvation to kids like its a prayer or a commitment you make to God. Maybe I should explain the gravity of sin to them and see if God by his Spirit begins to change their hearts from the inside out. Maybe I should pray for them more and talk a little less. Maybe.

It’s also crazy to see God’s providential hand guiding different situations that have happened. Like, the one kid who accidentally forgot to sign up for the high ropes course is the same kid who had tons of questions about God that he wants to ask me one on one. Well, thanks to his forgetfulness during the sign up paperwork, we had two hours to talk, just me and him. And that conversation was, by his account, potentially life-changing.

Or another camper, who I met while volunteering in 2014 and 2015, and then had in my cabin in 2016, and then bonded with a lot in 2017, and then had again this year. He got to camp and found out he was in some random other cabin, not with me or the friends he came with. We scrambled very last minute to rearrange things, and it all worked out because someone had last-minute dropped who was supposed to be in my cabin. Which meant I had seven campers, and thus an open spot for this kid. God directed that process, somehow, so that it all worked out. I had a borderline-life-changing week with him, too.

Strange to say it this way, but I also saw God’s providence in my sickness. Halfway through the summer I developed bronchitis, and then two separate upper respiratory infections, a bad stomach bug, a normal cold, and then a sinus infection. My health was nearing an all-time low at one point, when several of these were overlapping. But God in his providence directed these circumstances so that… actually, I probably shouldn’t write this story and post it on the internet where it will remain forever. But let’s just say that it was 1. absurd, 2. miraculous, 3. involved some screamo preaching, and 4. was based on Romans 6 and Colossians 3 and may be the subject of a future blog post. God is good, and in his wisdom directs even garbage situations like my run of illnesses to result in good.

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3. That 14 year olds are adults. I began research for my Senior Thesis this summer. The project will focus on the Age of Majority and how it’s a total mirage that was constructed 100 years ago. One of the relevant books I have been reading this summer is Robert Epstein’s The Case Against Adolescence (which I know is not the best book on this subject but it will work as a starting point). The whole idea is that the category of “adolescence” was socially constructed to accommodate a new social strata of industrialized societies, and their middle classes, even though there is no basis in biology for this category. The result is a fundamental mismatch between a teenager’s capacities and their expectations, the capacities being way higher than what we expect of teens. And so we are “infantalizing” them, or babying them along instead of expecting them to act like adults.

The obvious implication is that we should use biology, not social convention, to decide when someone becomes an adult. The biological marker would be puberty. The social convention would be 18. Something I was reflecting on the whole summer was the rapid rate of change in my campers by their age — just how different a 10 year old is from a 12 year old, and just. how. different. a 12 year old is compared to a 14 year old. I’m not sure that I have all the developmental categories straight to explain it yet (which is the goal of my Thesis), but it was clear to me that my campers entering 8th grade and above were in every functional way adults. Which meant that for them, I pushed hard on understanding the Bible and on living a full Christian life. Much harder than I think I had pushed in past years.

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4. Helping boys express their emotions. In May I watched a documentary called “The Mask You Live In” that dealt with the gendered social expectations of American boys and the harmful effects this can have. I didn’t love it, but the documentary said some valuable things and helped me assemble my thoughts on this topic. The main one is this: that our society conditions boys to not feel emotions. But… you can’t not feel emotions. Feeling emotions is just part of being human. So what our society actually does is condition boys to not express their feelings, or only express them in unhelpful ways.

I cannot tell you how many times this issue came up with my campers. Maybe a hundred times. And I only had about 50 campers. Boys are trained to bottle up their feelings, and move on. (Then bottle up the next feelings, and move on, and then the next ones, and move on). This continues until they no longer have the capacity to hold them in, and they have a mega-meltdown and let everything come flying out. Unfortunately, even here this doesn’t work because you cannot ever really, fully conjure back up feelings that you have repressed. You can only bring back half the passion. This is why recognizing and expressing feelings in the moment is so important. Not that boys need to cry all the time, like when they stub their toe playing soccer. Holding back those tears can be an act of courage to continue on in the game. But other tears — like in the death of a close friend, for one of my campers — need to be shed.

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5. The Local Church is where it’s at. One of the inherent flaws of camp ministry is that it only lasts 6 days a year, but the camper is living the Christian life for all 365. There are so many friendships made this summer that I wish I could continue, but it is just not feasible to travel outside my little North Suburban area. I am so limited in what I can do for these kids after they leave. The most is to reply to their emails a couple times a year. This is why I want to do youth ministry in the Local Church, where I meet students on their first day of 6th grade and walk with them in the faith until they graduate high school. Forget six days, that would be seven years of discipleship. God can use camp ministry in really important ways in their lives. He did for me. But it will never be the primary source of their discipleship, and that’s where I really want to head when college ends in a few years.

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6. Christians appreciate it when you call them out on sin. At least, they should. To look another person in the eyes and say, “you are wrong on this, and you need to change what you are doing” in a way free of judgement, being only gracious, and yet firm and insistent… That balance is hard to strike. But I think that there was one moment in the summer when I did strike it, by the power of God’s Spirit. It was brought to my attention that one of my campers was living dat partyboi lyfe in all its hallow glory, and posting it online. When that was shown to me, it almost broke me.

So we needed to talk. We went to a mostly-secluded place on camp grounds and talked it out for a few hours. And it took all the courage in my heart to look him in the eyes and say that I knew exactly what was really going on. Even though he played the part of the good little church boy when around me — which meant that such a confrontational conversation was bound to completely change our relationship. And it did. But I was also clear that nothing I was saying came from a place of bitterness or frustration or anger or disappointment. But that just as God’s love reaches out to us when we don’t deserve it, my love for this camper was reaching out to him even when he didn’t deserve it. And I want nothing but the best for him.

It was the most difficult conversation I have had in a while, which is saying something given the kind of year this has been for me. But at the end of it all, much like the two campers I mentioned before, he was thankful and said that because of that conversation, he would not go home from camp the same person as before. The lesson here is not to shy away from difficult conversations, because God can write a beautiful story of redemption through them.

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7. The Church is failing to teach Christian Sexuality. This was something I already knew but which became more and more obvious by the day. By “The Church” I mean effectively every church everywhere. And by “failing” I mean a true F, not one of those 59% F+ grades, but a solid 20% F- grade. Of course I was limited on what I could say. I could say nothing to my grade school campers (which makes sense). But with the older kids it was important for me to be a frank and open source to talk about different topics in this area.

The most common one was porn, of course. I would love to enter prophetic-voice mode and call down droves of locusts and frogs on every youth ministry that has never mentioned this to their students. If I hear the question “is it sinful to watch porn?” from one more eighth grader I swear to God I’m literally going to go burn their church down. Not because the student is at fault. But their youth pastor sure is. And their parents sure are. And that is just ground zero for a whole life of future disobedience to God’s design for their sexuality.

This is what happens, by the way, when your whole “purity” message is just “don’t have sex before marriage,” end of story. Christian students are given basically zero other guidance than this because the youth pastor is afraid they are stepping on the parents’ turf, but meanwhile the parents assume the youth pastor is covering it. hahahahaha. And so random ol’ me had to explain, no less than a half dozen times, the way that God has designed the male body to deal with sexual abstinence, and that God’s plan for Christian sexuality is chastity in singleness, and to submit all sexual desire to the authority of Christ, who himself was single for his entire life and did not sin, and… (I think I wrote about this once…). This is so basic that it could be taught in a half hour lesson at youth group. If it sounds like I’m bitter based on my own poor experiences growing up, that would be because I am and this is a widespread problem in American Evangelicalism.

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8. Show a 7th grader how to be a 7th grader for Christ, not how to be a college student for Christ. You know what 7th graders like to do? They like to yell, and scream, and throw sticks against trees while ironically quoting memes they don’t like. They are eager to learn more about God but get bored if you used technical vocabulary. But they can totally handle the technical vocabulary — it’s just boring. They love playing kickball and 9 square, but don’t like “aesthetic spaces” designed solely for socializing. High schoolers love those. But 7th graders don’t. They want to have deep conversations but not all the time and those conversations will meander around the bend and form ox bow lakes so big you didn’t think a single conversation could have produced that. They want to worship God by song but they also want to have fun while they do it. They don’t have much of a boring-tolerance yet, which is fine. Whatever, so what if they get tend to get bored. Just do more exciting things. It will work out.

What is crazy is that somehow I can become a 7th grader when I’m around them. Or a 9th grader. Or a 5th grader. Being an age chameleon is exhausting, by the way, but it is in part how ministry is most effectively done for these campers. Becoming all things to all men (1 Corinthians 9). My goal is not to train 7th graders how to live the college life for Jesus. My goal is train them how to live 7th grade for Jesus, and then in a few years we’ll get around to how to live high school for Him. But for the time being, I cannot afford to have unrealistic expectations about their development. I just have to enter into their developmental stage and show how Christ impacts it.

Which means I cannot get mad at my 4th graders for being homesick — but I can use it as an example to talk about how Jesus was away from home for 33 years and missed his father tremendously. Nor can I get mad at my 8th graders for wanting to date every girl at camp — but I can show them how our priorities for who to date are mostly set in scripture in Proverbs 31 and 1 Peter 3. Neither can I get mad at my 11th graders for complaining to me about their college search — but I can help them think of ways to use their interests in Business, in Engineering, in History to further advance the Kingdom.

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9. The awkward balance of belonging and believing. There was a phrase used by this dumb youth group I went to my senior year of high school. They would say, “You can belong before you believe!” all the time. But something that God has taught me this summer is that that doesn’t always work. For example, if 51% of your Christian community doesn’t believe, then you no longer have a Christian community. If even 20% do not believe, I am not sure how you will get anywhere with discipleship. So maybe the number is 10%. Or maybe there is no ideal number because the number goes up and down based on how extraverted or intraverted those people are. I don’t know.

But I do see the importance of making space for people who aren’t all the way there yet. That was me just two years ago! Christian community is always reaching out with the out-reaching love of God, and that means we will always have people who aren’t all the way there. But including those people can be a huge problem, especially for those who believe and are young in faith. Like campers at a Christian summer camp. I have a few examples in mind of times when that went south quickly. I’m not sure how to balance this tension, but I know that Jesus found a way to do it.

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10. Humble service because God can use anybody he wants. One week, the speaker talked in chapel about SOAP: Scripture, Observation, Application, Prayer. It is a basic framework to show students how to not just read a passage of scripture, but also interact with it. I love this already. But then my favorite camper, ever, says to me that night, “Ross, I really liked what the speaker said about SOAP. Can you show me how to use that?” and yep youbetcha I can. So the next night we read through Philippians 2:1-11.

Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by becoming like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.

In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:

♪♫♪ Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God
something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature
of a servant, being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death — even death on a cross!

Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above every name,
That at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father. ♪♫♪

This is a passage about the unity that Christians can have by looking out for one another. Our primary example of this is Jesus (though Paul also gives Timothy, Epaphroditus, and himself as examples in the book of Philippians). As this camper and I read each verse, observed things about it, thought of places in our life we can apply it, and then prayed over it all, something struck me. He is the most humble kid I’ve ever met. He doesn’t need this passage at all. (That’s part of why I appreciate him so much). I, on the other hand, am the owner of rossneir.com and anyways could use some lessons on humility.

Here’s what I was wrestling with. God by his providence can work miracles in these campers lives through any counselor he wants. It isn’t about us in particular. Our ministry is enabled by the Holy Spirit, not our own authority or persona or years of experience. Romans 1:16. The power of God brings salvation to all who believe. Not me. The power of God. The question I had been wresting with is whether next summer I should return as a counselor or as a village leader, which while one step up on the org chart is honestly a way worse job. My former VL called the position a “glorified janitor” because all you do is clean up vomit all day, seemingly. I don’t want to do that. I want to be with the kids. But maybe that is just a reflex of my pride, my unwillingness to serve others, my confidence in my own effort to make camp ministry work, my deep lack of faith in God to be the God of the impossible.

I don’t know. Maybe all those reasons are hyperbole and I just don’t want to do it because vomit is gross and wet beds are gross and bossing people around is inherently confrontational and I’m comfortable where I’m at. But God was convicting me not to rule it out just because it is service to others. Jesus was all about humble, self-giving service.

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Conclusion

My 10 points of reflection, in bullet fashion, are:

  1. Vulnerability in mentoring
  2. God’s sovereignty
  3. 14 year olds are adults
  4. Helping boys express their emotions
  5. The Local Church is where it’s at
  6. Christians appreciate it when you call them out on sin
  7. The Church is failing to teach Christian Sexuality
  8. Show a 7th grader how to be a 7th grader for Christ, not how to be a college student for Christ
  9. The awkward balance of belonging and believing
  10. Humble service because God can use anybody he wants

This summer was a season of seeing firsthand the goodness, the sweetness of God, through magical, super-human highs and through frustrating, embittering lows. I saw God relight a passion in the hearts of students who you would never think would come around. Only He can warm and soften a cold and stony heart. At least one of my campers openly professed faith in Jesus for the first time. Several others basically did too, but having not grown up in the church, they didn’t have the categories to be able to describe what they were feeling for the first time. My prayer for the summer — that God would create a love for the Bible in the hearts of my campers — was absolutely answered affirmatively. (More than my prayer for good health…). I saw a few junior high and high school students who had struggled with a lot of pain in their walk with Christ find new healing and redemption in Him.

For this summer, I, like David in Psalm 16, have nothing but thankfulness to God, because “apart from him I have no good thing… because he alone is my portion and my cup… I keep my eyes always on the Lord. With him at my right hand, I will not be shaken; therefore my heart is glad and my tongue rejoices… because you make known to me the path of life; you fill me with joy in your presence, with eternal pleasures at your right hand.”

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Helping a student understand the existence (and presence) of God

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With my group of middle school campers this week, one pulled me aside during the day to talk about his struggles and doubts with faith. Let’s call him Aidan. Aidan had a really hard school year with grades and sports and family life, where it seemed like a lot had fallen apart. He felt like God had abandoned him, but then got around to questioning if maybe what was happening was that there is no God at all.

This is not an uncommon train of thought. I have asked the exact same question at times over the years. If it wasn’t for a really solid background in Christian Apologetics, I would have certainly become an atheist. (Instead I continued to believe in God while writhing in pain over his abandoning me. Doesn’t feel much better.)

So as we talked, it became clear that several different issues were mixed up in Aidan’s thinking. And I wanted to sort them out, one by one, before answering any of them. The first question is why God would abandon me if God is good. The second question is, implicitly, can God be real even if we do not experience him? The third question is, does God exist at all? And a fourth lingering question is, how can I trust God if he has abandoned me before?

In order, these are the answers. First, there are a number of good reasons God could have for leaving us on our own for a season. Sometimes God knows that we are proud and wants to humble us by allowing us to see the fruit of life without him. Other times, God will lovingly withdraw himself from us so that we can grow in faith in different ways than those we have already grown in. Some call this “pruning.” A tree can bear good fruit, yet need to be cut back so that it can bear better fruit. Similarly, in our Christian lives sometimes we are doing well but God has unseen horizons for us to cross. He must allow us to fall so that we can rise in Him. (All of these answers, of course, leave out the most common answer of all: that we have no idea why God does what he does, but in retrospect he works it all out). These “dark nights of the soul” are bitter but common. David experienced it in Psalm 42. Mother Teresa described a period lasting fifty years like this. So too can God use it in our lives to further what is good.

Second, yes, God can be real even if we do not experience him. I drew two pictures for Aidan on my cabin chalkboard. Here they are:

Does God exist?

Y-N

Can God be experienced?

Y—————N

And the point that I was trying to emphasize was the further space between Yes and No in the second question. The existence of God seems to be a binary. Either he exists or not. But there is a whole other dimension to the existence of God, in a pragmatic way, that sees God not as a truth but as a lived experience. Can I experience God? At times the answer to this is yes, and at times the answer is no, regardless of the actual existence of God. When a person believes God exists yet does not experience him, this is the dark night of the soul. When a person does not believe in God yet does experience him, this is what Charles Taylor calls being “haunted” by God. God is dead to you, yet his presence lingers on in your life. These two mismatches between reality and lived experience are very uncomfortable. Nobody likes them. So while the actual question of the existence of God can be argued all day from the merits of scientific evidence and philosophical reasoning… the question of the presence of God is elusive to these types of argument. This is so true that I even said to Aidan that there have been points in my life “where I have experienced that God is not real… even though he is.” The phrasing is intentional.

The answer to the third question, on the existence of God, is that yes, God does exist. We know this because of a demonstration called the Kalam Cosmological Argument. In this argument we find that everything that begins to exist has a preceding cause. (A preceding cause is something that comes before and leads to another thing happening. Also, it cannot just be the thing it causes, or else it isn’t really a “preceding” cause at all). Because of new developments in astrophysics the past 100 years, we know that the Universe began to exist. So, it must be true that the Universe has a preceding cause. What could be the Universe’s preceding cause? Well, the Universe is made of matter, time, space, and energy. And the preceding cause to these properties cannot be the properties themselves. So whatever is the preceding cause of the Universe, it must be immaterial, outside of time, not bound by spatial dimensions, and not just energy (must be a being). These fit the classical description of God, and at minimum imply that atheism cannot be true. It doesn’t get you all the way to Jesus, to the Trinity, to the Bible being true. But this argument does offer strong support than there must be something beyond the physical world and the five senses.

Can I trust a God who has abandoned me? This fourth question is much harder than the others. My own past is riddled with situations (some still sting today) where it feels like God has abandoned me. In my youth ministry in junior high. In my school as an eighth grader. Once, as a junior in high school, I lost a really important student council election that I had invested a lot into. In that moment, I prayed that God would give me the emotional courage to handle the loss well. I did not handle the loss well, at all. Why would God not agree to a prayer that is so obviously the right thing? Why would God abandon me when all I asked for was his comforting presence? More recently, through a bizarre turn of events, I have landed on academic probation at school and I’m not sure anymore how the future looks for me. This is unsettling because of how obvious God’s direction was of my college choice and program choice. He wanted me here. So why does it now look like that may not be true anymore? Has God abandoned me halfway through?

And, again, I’m not sure that this question has an answer in words. Or in categories. Maybe the answer to this question is one that must be a lived experience. That our relationship with God cannot play out in theory, it must take place in time, in history. And so the answer to the question, “Can I trust a God who has abandoned me” is not actually an answer but instead an action: to trust him anyways and see what happens.

Of course, in my life, I have seen in retrospect that God works out all things according to the good of the those he has called. That each of those times I had felt abandoned had been for a greater purpose and ultimately for the glory of God. While my feeling of abandonment was real, that I had been abandoned was not real. God was there, intervening even in times of his silence to prepare me for the season of life that was next.

As I tried to communicate this perspective, I would ask Aidan how he was feeling, and what his thoughts were. Over the conversation it became clear that I had left my own voice behind and was speaking from a different voice. One richer than my own, one fuller than my own, one more graceful than my own. And this voice, while materially coming from me, was the Spirit of God intervening to give Aidan exactly what he needed to hear. He would later share with our cabin — nay, with our village — nay, with the entire camp — that in this moment he felt moved in a new way to follow God and live for him. Something clicked in a way that gave Aidan hope for the future in his faith. He wants to find a youth group in his town so that he can be mentored by people who love God and so that he can learn more about the Bible.

What more could I ask God for?

Preach purity without losing the Gospel

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Imagine a pastor comes along who does not understand the Gospel, but still gets invited to speak anyways. What would happen? How would you confront the person? What, exactly, about the Gospel do you think they have wrong, and are you sure that you are right about that?

This was the situation in Galatia when Paul wrote their church a letter. Word had gotten back to Paul that the church was divided between the Jewish and non-Jewish Christians. A new group of pastors had come into town teaching that non-Jews had to be circumcised to enter Christianity. (Circumcision was a ritual practice marking a boy as Jewish; in other words, non-Jews had to become Jewish first before they could become Christians). As this division grew, the Jewish Christian believers stopped eating with and then associating with the non-Jewish Christians.

Grasping his flowing white beard and preparing his long quill pen, Paul looks at the situation and concludes, clearly, you don’t understand the Gospel. 

What about the Gospel did they not understand? I’ll tell you what they didn’t get wrong. They didn’t mistake who was at the center of it. That would be Jesus. They didn’t mistake what happened next. That would be the resurrection and ascension of Jesus. They didn’t mistake who can be included in it. That would be everyone.

The mistake was how deep the Gospel goes. And to explain this, I will have to go into some depth.

How does Life in Christ work?

The wrong way to understand life in Christ is “God made the rules, and now we have to follow them.” Of course, these rules are the bedrock of most religions. Islam has lots of them. Way back to Hammurabi. Judaism definitely did. The idea is that God has set them down, and now we are morally obligated to follow them.

But the weird thing about these commandments is that just being given them doesn’t make you any better at following them. Actually, because there is a dark energy inside us called “The Power of Sin,” we tend to do worse once we are given the commandment. Ironic, but true. When you give The Power of Sin a law, it schemes to break the law (or keep the law only when convenient). Shouldn’t knowing the rules make us more moral? Only if we start out at neutral. But we start out with The Power of Sin inside. The human condition cannot be solved by education; only transformation.

God, by the way, is pissed. Livid. Full of wrath because he is full of justice and must punish anyone who breaks the moral law. He must destroy them — or worse, leave them alive yet suffering forever. This is the natural consequence of upsetting Justice: It comes back to bite you. God will not be mocked. A man reaps what he sows.

Nobody could actually meet his moral standards. God knew how far short we fall, and so he sent himself as Jesus to do meet the standards. Jesus lived perfectly, never breaking the Law. In his whole time on earth, facing all the temptation Satan could lob at him, he never sinned. Not once. (This sinlessness is what just happens when The Power of Sin is not alive in you).

Now — and this is what I’m building towards — Jesus’s death has satisfied the wrath of God. A man reaps what he sows, yes, but in this case, Jesus reaped what we sowed. God will not be mocked, yes, but God punished someone else for our mockery. God has to destroy sinners, yes, but Jesus chose to be destroyed on our behalf. He was destroyed in a way that was somehow more excruciating than eternal conscious torment in Hell.

As a result, God’s wrath being satisfied, only God’s love remains. This is true for everyone who participates in Jesus by faith. If you have nothing to do with Jesus, the wrath remains. But if you have faith in Jesus to have satisfied the wrath of God for you, you “participate” in Jesus. This is the great irony, the great switcheroo of Christianity. Jesus was perfect and we were sinful, yet Jesus received God’s wrath and we receive God’s love. Now that God’s wrath has been satisfied for us, we can have a relationship with God.

The result of this newfound participation in Jesus by faith is that The Power of Sin is gradually being put to death. A new power is now gradually growing within us, The Power of the Spirit. If you are living in this new power, your default life will be marked with love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. And since there are no anti-love laws in the Bible, no anti-joy laws, no anti-peace laws, by living in The Power of the Spirit you will not break any laws. So you will just, by default, follow the Law.

But the key is the order. You have to become right in God’s sight, and now you follow the law. The order is not: following the law to become right in God’s sight. Such was the error of the new pastors in Galatia, who thought that to become a full Christian, you had to follow the Laws. Not only was the circumcision law not a true moral law — it was just a cultural identifier — it was a commandment, and so it could not be the basis for salvation.

I feel like I have to reexplain all this every time I talk about anything in Christianity because so many people don’t get it. Or they get it, but they don’t live like they get it. The Apostle Paul confronted Peter because Peter “was not acting in line with the truth of the Gospel” (2:14). People so often understand the truth of the Gospel but they then go back to the Law – Obedience method. If you would live according to the truth, you would go to the New Life – Fruit method.

What does the New Life – Fruit method look like? What does it look like to “live in step with the Spirit” (5:25)? Instead of describing this in general terms, let’s look at specific example.

An Example from Purity

Suppose a pastor comes along who does not understand the Gospel, but still gets invited to speak anyways. (This is the scenario I was imagining at the beginning). And that pastor preaches a whole message about Purity, which boiled down to: God has commanded you to be sexually pure, and by extension, God has commanded you to wear modest clothing and not wear makeup. Also, you should feel guilt and shame if you do not do this.

This message gets wrong exactly everything about the Gospel. The Gospel does not work like this. Law (modest clothing) and Obedience (so you can avoid feeling bad about yourself) — full stop — is as antithetical to the Gospel as requiring non-Jews to be circumcised to become Christians. Paul would throw a fit at someone teaching like this. Even if they know the Gospel deep down, clearly their knowledge has nothing to do with their message.

We are looking for a true and better message on sexual purity, one informed at its core by Jesus’s righteousness, given as a free gift instead of an earned reward. What does that purity message sound like? I will hazard something like this.

We are not, on our own, able to keep the commands of sexual purity. Even if you’ve never “done anything,” Jesus raised the ante by saying that even looking at someone with lust is just as sinful as “doing something” about it. Surely, from puberty onward, there is nobody who escapes this law. For this the wrath of God is coming; God has commanded you otherwise, and he will not be mocked.

So God sent Jesus to live a life of perfect sexual purity. He was single the whole time and never sinned in this way. He was tempted, for sure, but since he was never beholden to The Power of Sin, he brushed past the temptation. Then, Jesus took the punishment for our sin (in this case, sexual sin) by dying in our place.

We must now give up the futile game of working to earn our own satisfaction of God’s wrath. To continue playing that game is to reject what God as Jesus has sacrificed for us. God looks at those who have faith and sees not their sexual sin but the sexual righteousness of Jesus.

The Power of Sin to control us to break sexual commandments is now being gradually put to death in us, while The Power of the Spirit to live a life of patience, faithfulness, and self-control is gradually growing.

The clear result is that guilt and shame have no place. Guilt and shame are what happen when we are commanded to do something and fail. (Which is true in this case; God has commanded it, and we’ve failed). But if we participate in Jesus by faith, God only sees Jesus’s success, not our failure. So instead of guilt and shame, we move on. We repent. We seek new ways to solve the problem. Isolate the temptation. See the joy it pretends to give us, and then recognize the true joy available in the life God has designed for us. Continue to abide with God even when we recoil against God at our own sin, because by continuing to participate in Jesus The Power of Sin gets put to death just a little bit more. Get practical and find ways to eliminate that particular sin. Look for guidance given by the Bible, which was written by people who have gone through all this before (including God). See the community of Christians around you as people going through the same things, and see that God has put you all together for that reason. And on. And on.

Don’t just wallow in guilt and shame because you cannot, on your own, follow God’s commandments about sexual purity. Keep participating in your relationship with Jesus and watch the sin die from the inside out. Also, get a filter for your devices. Delete snapchat, and probably twitter too. Unfollow the meme pages you know have become problematic. Learn to bounce your eyes when someone is wearing revealing clothes (without shaming them). Break up with the boyfriend or girlfriend who is leading you away from God’s calling for you to be single in this stage of your life. Better yet, next time around, just don’t date someone who isn’t a Christian. Not because you should be ashamed, but because it is the most practical, realistic thing to do to live out the New Creation you are in Christ. Get open enough to talk to other Christians about your struggles with sexual purity, and join with them as you all seek to submit this domain of your life to Jesus’s authority. And on. And on.

This is the difference between working hard to satisfy the wrath of God, and trusting Jesus that he has already done so. The new pastors in Galatia did not understand this — nor does our hypothetical Purity Slam pastor — but Paul did. This is the message of Galatians as clearly as I can summarize it. No matter what topic you are considering, from sexual purity to greed, from anger to gossip. This message is also the only mindset that should seep into our self-worth, into our encouragement for other Christians, and into our messages from the stage. Or, in addition to pointing everyone away from Jesus, you may have someone like Paul screaming from the audience, Anathema! Anathema!