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Doors and Windows

My true personality will be fulfilled in the Mystical Christ in this one way above all, that through me, Christ and His Spirit will be able to love you and all men of God the Father in a way that would be possible in no one else.

Love comes out of God and gathers us to God in order to pour itself back into God through all of us and bring us all back to Him on the tide of His own infinite mercy.

So we all become doors and windows through which God shines back into His own house.

When the Love of God is in me, God is able to love you through me and you are able to love God through me. If my soul were closed to that love, God’s love for you and your love for God and God’s love for Himself in you and in me, would be denied the particular expression which it finds through me and through no other.

Because God’s love is in me, it can come to you from a different and special direction that would be closed if He did not live in me, and because His love is in you, it can come to me from a quarter which it would not otherwise come. And because it is in both of us, God has greater glory. His love is expressed in two more ways in which it would not otherwise be expressed; that is, in two more joys that could not exist without Him.

Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation, 67.

My morning Resurrection liturgy

I have felt lately that my morning devotional time could benefit from structure. So I wrote an outline. It takes about 45 minutes to follow. This liturgy isn’t entirely about but still centers on the Resurrection. Here it is:

I. Opening Prayer
Father God, thank you for today and the daily gift of life. Grant me this morning your holy presence. Allow me to focus in the fog of early morning hours. Help me to see Jesus, resurrected and embodied, in all of today. Be with me in this time. I pray these things in the authority of Jesus’s name. Amen.

II. The Resurrection of Jesus
(Read these passages aloud, in this order, without stopping)
– Mark 16:1-8
– Matthew 28
– Luke 24
– Acts 1:1-11
– John 20, 21
– 1 Corinthians 15:1-8

Thank you, God, for your Word this morning, both written in the text and living in the resurrected and embodied Jesus.

III. Confession of Sin
Father God, against you alone have I sinned. Hear my wrongdoing, remind me of the forgiveness given to me at the Cross and confirmed at the Resurrection, and give me courage to seek reconciliation wherever needed.

(Confess particular sin, why it was wrong, and whether I need to right the wrong, then repeat with next sin)

If we confess our sins, you, Lord, are faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. Because I am forgiven by you, empower me by the Holy Spirit to go and sin no more.

IV. Prayers of Invocation
Father God, hear today my prayers and intervene. In Christ you are reconciling all things to yourself, even these friends and situations and problems for which I am praying.

(Have a pre-written list. Pray for the first request. Short sentences, short prayers. Then, go on to the next prayer request)

Hear these prayers and do them as you will, Lord. As Elijah prayed and it did not rain for three years, and then prayed again and it rained, so you hear my prayers.

V. Reading from Barth, CD V/1
(This volume is the index to Church Dogmatics. The editors have compiled a year of weekly liturgies, from which I read one section every day. Each section is a Bible passage, seemingly at random, followed by a paragraph of Barth’s commentary on that passage. The Bible readings take me out of my comfort-zone passages (yesterday was in Leviticus!), and the commentary introduces some ideas to continue to think about throughout the day)

VI. Closing Prayer
Father God, lead me, accompany me, and enable me to Walk the Way of Jesus today. All of these things I pray in the authority of Jesus’s name. Amen.

Joker (2019) and Mental Health

Joker has always been my favorite villain. Throughout the comic lore and the two Joker movies I saw growing up (1989 with Jack Nicholson and 2008 with Heath Ledger) the character was wild and unpredictable, a force of sheer anarchy, in d&d terms a Chaotic Evil. He sat on a billion dollar cash throne, just to torch it for fun. He had no ideology. He “just wanted to watch the world burn.”

Todd Phillips reinvents the character. His incarnation of Joker (played well by Joaquin Phoenix) is the victim of unspeakable child neglect and abuse at the hands of a psychotic mother. Phillips portrays him not as a supernatural force of chaos but the very regular and predictable outcome of a society that left him behind.

Until the 1960’s, mental health patients were placed in insane asylums (“institutionalized”) which were a cross between hospitals and prisons. But eventually, new psychiatric drugs hit the market which could help most of those institutionalized be functional members of society. This, combined with a human-rights-based pushback against asylum imprisonment, created a movement called Deinstitutionalization. Rather than house mental health patients in prison-hospitals, the government would fund “community-based mental healthcare” so that a local distributed network of doctors at small clinics could meet regularly with patients. For most, mental illness was no longer a totalizing thing. It was one illness among others, so why not be free in society, as long as the needed support system is there?

JFK signed the CMHA (“Community Mental Health Act”) in 1963. The asylums were slowly drained of patients and new distributed networks became available so that former patients could integrate into society well. However, unlike the jumbo asylums that could not be easily defunded, the community-based systems had their budgets cut annually. They were never fully funded anyway, and over time shrunk at the hands of austerity. At the same time, the cost of private medicine continued to rise. Mental healthcare was less and less available over time.

Notice that Phillips sets Joker in the 1980’s. This is intentional. During the Reagan administration the budget cuts to mental healthcare accelerated. Reagan repealed the Mental Health Systems Act of 1980 (passed during the Carter administration), allowing state-level austerity to continue to dismantle the system. What happens in the movie? Joker goes to his local mental health office weekly, checks in with his therapist, and goes on with his normal life. Until the city government cuts the facility. Joker asks his therapist, “how am I going to get my medicine?” “I’m sorry,” she replies.

Then, absent his medicine, Joker slowly but absolutely loses his mind. Many people are killed. His bizarre fantasies become grandiose and violent. The film picks up its pace at this point, and the rest is pure showbiz.

Phillips didn’t make a movie about the Joker. He used the Joker to make a movie about us, and about those we have left behind.

After deinstitutionalization and the decimation of community-based mental healthcare, many people with mental illness have become homeless, and even more have become victims of mass-incarceration (so, prison-hospitals without the hospitals). For example, it is estimated that 1/3 of Cook County jail inmates have mental illness. This is why, rather than hire another warden, a few years ago they hired a psychologist as executive director of the prison. This is the insane asylum, but worse: less funding, less treatment, less patient rights, less trained staff, and on an unprecedented scale.

Joker may seem to pose the question “How could someone become so far gone?” Instead, it poses the reverse: “How could we do this to them?”

Listen, Care, Pray

I tutor and TA the undergrad Intro to Philosophy classes. Today I met with a student who didn’t understand Kant and synthetic a priori knowledge. (Been there). We met for an hour. I explained the idea to him in simpler terms until he got it. Then we were out of material but I wanted to get paid for the full hour so I showed him my writing editing website. We did a few examples and he saved the page to use again next time. He was glad for it, since his major is Com. He talked a bit about his experience on campus and the culture on his athletic team. He had some not bad ideas about how to change the school culture. Even though he’s only been here a few months, he has his finger right on the pulse of the real problems.

As we ended I asked if there was anything I could I pray about for him. Yeah, he said. He wasn’t sure if he had the money to keep coming to school. He might have to drop sports to get a job to pay for school. He also wants friends on campus, and hasn’t found almost any good ones. I prayed that God would generously provide for everything he needs. That God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, would give him wisdom to decide what to do with athletics. That God would bring new friends into his life so he would have meaningful and deep relationships.

His eyes held tears. “Hey, its okay,” I tried to say, but he said, “I didn’t know anyone here cared about me.” Oh. Wow. Here I am, the philosophy department tutor, only expecting to explain Kant’s synthetic a priori knowledge to a student. Suddenly I am in a position to speak a Word of grace into his life. “Hey, Jesus cares about you, my friend, so I’ll care about you too.”

He asked if there was anything he could pray about for me. Yeah, I said. My whole life felt upside down since I left my church a few weeks ago, and that I was trying to adjust to a new place where I can grow and serve. He prayed for me. We then talked the whole way from the student center back to the other side of campus. He pointed out a teammate of his along the way. He showed me a meme. He asked for my phone number. We set a time to meet next week, since, inevitably, there will be something in class this week he won’t understand. Yes, welcome to philosophy.

This was no radical act of Christian subversion of our social structures or the entire juridico-political order or something. This was not me pushing myself to live BOLDLY for JESUS amid PERSECUTION by SECULARISM or whatever. I sat there, listened to him, cared about him (and really meant it), and prayed with him. Maybe Christian life-together is that simple.

Photo by Michael Browning on Unsplash

BCP and Columbus Day

This morning I proctored a test for the Intro to Philosophy class that I TA. Before we began, I said welcome to class on Columbus Day, our worst holiday, and that I have a theologically subversive prayer from the Book of Common Prayer of the Church of England. Here it is:

O God, who hast made of one blood all the peoples of the
earth, and didst send thy blessed Son to preach peace to those
who are far off and to those who are near: Grant that people
everywhere may seek after thee and find thee; bring the
nations into thy fold; pour out thy Spirit upon all flesh; and
hasten the coming of thy kingdom; through the same thy
Son Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

The reconciling work of the Son who preaches to those near (Jews) and those far (Gentiles) confirms God’s creation of humanity as of one blood. Our reconciliation is no more than, and certainly no less than, a participation in the redemptive reconciliation that God has already begun in the death of Jesus and decisively achieved in his resurrection. I don’t have much power, in the world or over my life or at my university, but I do get to pray before Philosophy tests, and the reconciling power of the Gospel can be proclaimed here as well.

Photo by Paula Vermeulen on Unsplash

A good word from Barth

The promise of the Word of God is not as such an empty pledge which always stands, as it were, confronting man. It is the transposing of man into the wholly new state of one who has accepted and appropriated the promise, so that irrespective of his attitude to it he no longer lives without this promise but with it. The claim of the Word of God is not as such a wish or command which remains outside the hearer without impinging on his existence. It is the claiming and commandeering of man. Whatever may be his attitude to God’s claim, man as a hearer of His Word now find himself in the sphere of the divine claim; he is claimed by God. Again, the judgment of the Word of God is not a mere aspect under which man himself remains untouched, just as the same man may seem to be a giant from the standpoint of the ant or a dwarf from the standpoint of the elephant without in fact being any different either way. The judgment of God as such creates not only a new light and therewith a new situation, but also with the new situation a new man who did not exist before but who exists now, being identical with the man who has heard the Word. Again, that would not be the blessing of God’s Word which as benedictio [declared blessed] was not immediately and as such seen and understood to be beneficium [actually blessed] as well, a real placing under God’s good-pleasure and protection.

We find all this expressed in the strongest imaginable way in James 1:18, where (cf. also 1 Peter 1:23) there is reference to the fact that the Christian is begotten of the λογος αληθειας. Then in v. 21 goes on logically to speak of a λογος εμφυτος, i.e., a λογος which, so to speak, belongs to man himself, without which man would no longer be himself.

Church Dogmatics I/1 p. 152-153

Ostriches

For three years I have been hunting for a verse my OT prof showed our class that absolutely slams ostriches. It never occurred to me to just google “ostrich in the bible.” Anyways, today I was translating 2 Corinthians 4 and saw a cross-reference to Jars of Clay in the OT (Lamentations 4:2) and found it in the next verse: Lamentations 4:3b, “my people have become heartless, like ostriches in the desert” (NIV).

Unfortunately this does not seem like a good translation. The Hebrew text is corrupted (someone tried to put the first letter of Ostrich as the last letter of “like”) but we can quickly resolve that to mean “Like ostriches,” not “Likeo Striches.” Okay. So assuming we now have the right word, the other problem is that there is a clearer text (Job 39:13-18) that mentions Ostriches being terrible moms and letting their eggs sit on the ground where they can be crushed. And that word for Ostrich, ranan, is totally different from Lamentation’s word for Ostrich, ya’an. So why would we think Lamentations 4:3b means “Ostrich”?

But it gets worse. Lamentations 4:3 gets translated in the Greek OT (the LXX) as “Sparrow” instead of Ostrich, so that it is the same word Jesus uses to say “are not two sparrows sold for a penny?” Leaving aside the synoptic issue that Matt 10:29 says “two sparrows for a penny” and Luke 12:6 says “five sparrows for two pennies,” and 50¢ is not equal to 40¢ —just totally leaving that aside — I honestly do not think that an ostrich would sell for less than a dollar, period. In modern Capitalism that would never fly, much less the Roman patronage honor/shame economy. I’ve just googled it and found that an Ostrich egg costs about $1000, which given the current minimum wage is 3 weeks wages, or 21 shekels. Just for the egg!

But it gets even worse. Remember how I said that Job 39:13-18 is clearly about an Ostrich? Well, there is no reason to think that is the case. The word ranan is also a single-use word, and the Greek LXX translation of ranan is totally missing! The translators of the LXX just skip it. “Wings flap joyfully,” it says, refusing to specify which bird’s wings so flap.

BDB helpfully connects ya’an with the feminine form of the same root, ya’anah, or Greed. Their implication is that “bat ya’anah” is “daughter of greed, of ostrich as voracious bird.” Similar cognates in Aramaic and Arabic gloss as “daughter of the desert or steppe, from [an Arabic word I can’t transliterate] meaning hard, unproductive soil.” It seems like there is some semantic value as Desert Bird or Greedy Bird, though it probably comes between those, with some broadly Semitic “Desolation Bird.” BDB also connects ya’anah to “wailing (as mourning) (Micah 1:8)… a symbol of loneliness (in Job 30:29)… of desolation, as dwelling among ruins (Isa 13:21, 34:13), and living in a desert (Isa 43:20).” Most interestingly of all, it is associated with “unclean (Lev 11:16 (&par. Deut 14:15)),” where it is a bird prohibited from being eaten along with many other strange birds whose exact translations are uncertain.

Enter A. Walker-Jones and his balls-to-the-wall article “The So-Called Ostrich in the God Speeches of the Book of Job (Job 39,13-18).” He argues that Job 39:13 should be translated as “Sand Grouse” not Ostrich, for a number of biological and contextual observations, not to mention linguistic. He found an early Christian reflection on nature which blurs together Job 39:13 and Jeremiah 8:7, which influenced Jerome to translate ranan as Ostrich. He also compares the physiology of sand grouses, hoopoe larks, and stone curlews, ruling out the latter two for the lines on its neck and the sound of their mating call, respectively. He thinks Lamentations 4:3b refers to owls, not Ostriches, and that it would not make sense in the ANE for Ostriches to be criticized, since their feathers were the symbol of truth and justice. Instead, “The danger here is that impressive, modem folk stories are being read back into an ancient Near Eastern text,” especially Pliny’s criticism of Ostriches, which was particularly unfounded anyway. Owls are chaos creatures, while Ostriches associate with truth and justice. Which is more likely to neglect its eggs? That’s right, the chaos creature.

There are more links I cannot trace down (I’m supposed to be translating 2 Corinthians 4 for my Paul class) to Ostriches: vision strong enough to hatch their eggs by looking at them, Ostriches that can eat glass and metal, and tremendous confusion throughout the ancient world about whether Ostriches were birds or mammals. (Aristotle thought mammals, because they have eyelashes). Three years. I spent three years trying to find that Ostrich slam, just to find it was never about Ostriches at all.

Photo by Dušan Smetana on Unsplash

Against “Creation, Fall, Redemption, Consummation”

I will start this post with a long, overloaded quote from John Goldingay in his book Do We Need the New Testament? pp. 173-4.

It is true that the Rule of Faith provides a horizon from within which we may come to understand the Scriptures, and it may open our eyes to see things from within the horizon of the Scriptures themselves. It thus fulfills a function analogous to that of a concern for the gospel’s significance for the whole world, which makes it possible to look back at the First Testament [JG’s term for the Old Testament] and see that this concern is also present there, so that theological interpretation is missional. But its role is to enable us to see things that are there; it does not determine what is allowed to be there. It is not the “definitive hermeneutical framework for understanding the Scriptures.” The Scriptures do not need to be rendered coherent and relevant; they are coherent and relevant. The Rule of Faith can help us see how that is so. But where they have a broader horizon than that of the Rule of Faith, we will be wise not to narrow down their horizon to ours; we allow them to broaden our horizon. In practice the church has followed the Rule of Faith in a way that did constrain what the Scriptures are allowed to say, and the Rule of Faith has thus been a disaster for the hearing of the First Testament. The Rule of Faith has no room and no hermeneutic for any episodes in the scriptural story between Genesis 3 and Matthew 1. As Robert W. Jenson put it, “The rule of faith saved the Old Testament as canon for the church — or rather, the church for the Old Testament canon — but in the process it did not open itself to the theological shape of the Old Testament’s own narrative, and so it could not support the Old Testament’s specific role in the church’s practice.” One recalls the alleged statement about a Vietnamese city by a major in the United States army, that “it became necessary to destroy the town in order to save it.”

I have bolded the idea I want to highlight. A story line of “Creation, Fall, Redemption, Consummation” tells the Old Testament too simply. This is bad enough on its own: we should want to understand the Old Testament correctly. But it becomes outright disastrous later because the New Testament emanates out of the Old Testament. The shape of God’s intervention in history in Israel becomes the setting of Jesus’s ministry and his purpose. So to reduce the Old Testament story is to outright flatten the New Testament gospel. You can’t understand Jesus’s mission statement for the spread of the Gospel (Acts 1:8) unless you understand the question that prompted it: the disciples asked, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6). Why was this their question?

Instead of the Creation, Fall, Redemption, Consummation structure, I want to chart a brief sketch of Exile and Restoration in the history of Israel. This path is not original and has been done many times before.

To live with God is to live in his presence, where he dwells, under his blessing and authority. God made a covenant with Abraham that God would live with Abraham’s descendants in this way. However, in God’s mysterious providence, they ended up in Egypt rather than in Palestine. They were exiles, living in the wrong place under the authority of the wrong ‘king,’ Pharaoh. So God brought them out (the Exodus) and Restored them to their rightful place, and ruled over them directly. They now lived in the Kingdom of God.

Fast forward 650 years and it happens again. The people of Israel/Judah have fallen into great moral wickedness and unrepentant idolatry. God has decided they must be disciplined, and so the neighboring warlord empires (Assyria, then Babylon) come destroy them and take the surviving Israelites into exile for a time. The prophets consciously realize that this is a repeat of what has happened before. They declare that just as God was faithful to Israel before in rescuing his covenant people from exile in Egypt — a first exodus — he would be faithful again to rescue his covenant people from exile in Babylon — a second exodus.

This second exodus happened. Nehemiah 7 even goes on for dozens upon dozens of verses to list how many exiles returned home alive from each tribe and clan. They rebuilt the temple, and the city walls, and God’s blessing and favor was on them. Or, it should have been. But it was not. The Seleucid Empire took control and did awful things. So awful that the Jews tried to revolt and restore God’s kingdom, which worked for a while but then fell apart again. Rome came and conquered Israel, installing a fake “Jewish” king but mostly ruling through the Roman Governor in the region.

As a result, the Jews of the first century were convinced that the second exodus never really happened. Yes, it happened physically, since the people did return to the land and now live there. God, though, is not ruling, and so his blessing is not on the people, and they suffer in “exile” in their own land. God will send a warrior-king to overthrow these enemies and institute the Kingdom of God again.

The Sea of Galilee, looking east. I took this picture last December on a trip to Israel.

Enter Jesus, who claims that “the Kingdom of God is at hand.” His audience would have looked around, noticed a Roman soldier standing across the street, pointed at him and said, “no it’s not.” As a matter of fact the Kingdom of God is not at hand, they would have said. This gets right at the heart of Jesus’s mission. Jesus did not come to achieve satisfaction of the wrath of God to pay the debt of your sin on the cross and regenerate your heart and etc. No. Jesus came to restore Israel. You don’t personally “get saved.” You get ingrafted into Israel, which gets saved. Your sin-debt isn’t cancelled. God’s unique wrath wasn’t against you, silly Gentile who did not have the Torah. You were just going to hell, courtesy of God’s general wrath. God’s unique wrath was against Israel, who had the Torah and did not follow it, which is why he sent them into exile in the first place. Jesus appeases this unique wrath of God, ending the exile. Yes, you are a sinner in the hands of an angry God. But this same angry God has created a covenant with his people, and now you are part of his people, whose unique wrath from God has been appeased. Similarly, you yourself are not “regenerated,” whatever that means, but instead the Spirit of God is poured out on the True Israel and so the Spirit enables you to walk the Way (another exodus term) of Jesus. If Jesus was on a mission to restore Israel, all our doctrines of salvation and holiness flow from that mission.

Of the whole New Testament, Mark focuses the most on the second exodus theme. He outright begins the entire Gospel with a quote about it from Isaiah 40. He keeps quoting Isaiah his whole book. Mark structures his gospel (1:16-8:21; 8:22-10:45; 10:46-16:8) to parallel the structure of Isaiah 40-66, a second exodus text. Mark’s Jesus does many exorcisms and then explains them (Mark 3:27) by quoting Isaiah 49:24-25, a second exodus text. The Jewish people who were called to repentance would not repent and instead killed the innocent messenger: Isaiah by sawing in half, Jesus by crucifixion, in fulfillment of Isaiah 53, a messianic second exodus text. Mark also pulls themes and quotes from Malachi which is all about this second exodus (as is Hosea which is kind of a missed opportunity by Mark but Matthew catches it and adds it to his gospel in Matt 2:15). Anyways, I could keep going since the New Testament is full of this concept and I would even say is defined by it. (See Beale’s New Testament Biblical Theology pp. 694-699 for a good summary of Watt’s book on this topic).

“Creation, Fall, Redemption, Consummation.” What is redeemed? Are we, individuals, redeemed? Hardly. Israel is redeemed by Jesus’s faithfulness as a Suffering Servant. Because of his faithfulness, God has resurrected Jesus from the dead several thousand years ahead of the general resurrection of the dead on the Last Day. Now, Israel is invited to participate in the kingship of God, the kingdom of God, the sovereignty of God, by hope-filled and sanctified presence under any earthly king. Earthly kings can’t stop the power of God (seen in Jesus being killed by an earthly king and then getting unkilled by God). In an unfortunate plot twist, the Jewish people for some reason overwhelmingly rejected this work of God, but that doesn’t change its shape or content. Instead the followers of Jesus were a mix of Jewish and non-Jewish people, which begins to achieve the purpose all along. God was always going to use Israel to reach the rest of the world, and even if 99% of Jews in Jesus’s day rejected the message, God’s mission was going to continue.

What I am getting at is that “Creation, Fall, Redemption, Consummation” hardly captures the richness of the Old Testament second exodus theme and so misconstrues the New Testament from the start. So the Old Testament gets mostly cancelled except Genesis 1-3 and few Messiah prophecies, just to set-up a misconstrued New Testament. Not great.

Even if you understand the Rule of Faith [C, F, R, C] as corporate salvation instead of individual salvation, which is a step in the right direction, it still place salvation outside of history. Who cares when Jesus came to earth? He could have died 1000 years before, or in 1978 for all it matters, our salvation is still understood the same. No. Jesus’s Incarnation is a specific invasion by God into history in a particular time. To take the Incarnation out of its historical time is to screw up the whole picture. Israel has been “already-not-yet” restored by Jesus’s death and resurrection. This wouldn’t have made sense 1000 years before, when Israel was still functioning. The hope for a Messiah was built out of a specific historical reading of the work of God in the world. The Judaism that Jesus fulfilled was a religion in history. God did not just create a timeless ethical teaching that would last for all the ages. God acted in history in a first exodus, and then neglected to do so in the second exodus, which set up the hope for a Messiah and made history itself a Jewish and so then also a Christian concept.

That summarizes what I want to say on this topic for now. There is more — how do the other topics of Creation, Fall, and Consummation fit into this frame? Another time, maybe another nitro cold brew and another late afternoon on a fall day at a coffee shop near campus, to the neglect of my actual homework. The most important and hardest work is to do what Goldingay said in the opening quote: “where [the Scriptures] have a broader horizon than that of the Rule of Faith, we will be wise not to narrow down their horizon to ours; we allow them to broaden our horizon.”

Teenagers, Anxiety, Work

What has caused the rise in anxiety in teenagers?

The go-to answer for this question is social media. Instagram and Snapchat cause teens to compare themselves to one another. They then feel inferior because their hidden self is worse than everyone else’s performative self. This may be true in general, but I think people who answer the question this way don’t really understand how teens use social media or understand the bigger and worse problem lurking in teenage life in America in 2019.

School starts at, say, 8:00 and lasts until 3:30, for a total of 7.5 hours each day, 37.5 hours a week. But that is the bare minimum. Say you are in a sport: 2 hours of practice each weekday and 5 hours of Saturday are now consumed. Then say you work a part-time job. Teens increasingly need to work part-time jobs in high school in order to brunt the rising cost of college tuition (or trade school tuition, also rising). Even if they only work 10 hours a week, that’s 10 hours, gone. Now assume, and this is an understatement, that they have 2 hours of homework each night. Total everything up and this hypothetical student works 62.5 hours each week.

Compare this 62.5 hours per week with the average American adult work week of 44 hours and you may begin to understand the problem. Then realize that the US has the highest average work hours per week of any post-industrial, developed nation. If American adults are worked thin by their schedule, teens are destroyed.

This is not an exaggeration. My own case was clearly ridiculous – I did all honors and AP classes, was heavily, heavily involved in Student Council, was the leader of multiple other groups, did 3 sports for two of my years, worked a part-time job for two years, competed on the Speech team each year (all day Saturdays for 3 months), I volunteered in my “spare time,” and I was chronically over-involved at church. How I survived is beyond me. I was working 85+ hours most weeks. But the original analysis was not of me. It was of a random, probably slightly under-performing, teenager.

For some reason we do not see student hours like adult hours. We think of students sitting at their desk, in their unfulfilling classes, exhausted, burnt out from listening to absurd lectures all day… and we think this is different from adults sitting in their desk, at their unfulfilling job, exhausted, burnt out from listening to absurd lectures in meetings all day. No. They are the same. And students are even less able than adults to cope with high expectations and the ensuing stress.

American labor unions fought a hard-earned battle for the 40-hour work week, which led to new flourishing of family life and community engagement that had not been seen in America since before the Industrial Revolution. If, in another universe, we could cap student work weeks at 40 hours, what yet-unseen goods could our society gain? New social movements among teens, like a resurgence in the now-mostly-dead teen art culture? Would the emerging population of adults, ten years out, begin to perform better and more healthily at work? How would the next generation of young parents raise their kids, and what values of social participation in family and public life would be fostered in those kids? Speculation aside, I am sure that teen anxiety would no longer be the mammoth problem it is today.

The College Admissions System is the god of this age, and he has come to enter the temple of students’ very lives to desecrate what is most valuable, their time, by offering his sacrifice in them. He will sacrifice their friendships, their family, their schedule, even their mental health, to earn for himself the worship he demands. He knows no limits. He will rip out a teen’s proverbial throat and drink their proverbial blood. Will you, like the Maccabean Revolt of old, kill this god and wage war against his all-consuming, imperialist aims? By committing to a simplified, grace-filled lifestyle, you sign on to declare that the kingdom of this world is passing away with all its desires.

Triage on Faith and Homosexuality











Al Mohler wrote this in 2005:

A trip to the local hospital Emergency Room some years ago alerted me to an intellectual tool that is most helpful in fulfilling our theological responsibility. In recent years, emergency medical personnel have practiced a discipline known as triage–a process that allows trained personnel to make a quick evaluation of relative medical urgency. Given the chaos of an Emergency Room reception area, someone must be armed with the medical expertise to make an immediate determination of medical priority. Which patients should be rushed into surgery? Which patients can wait for a less urgent examination? Medical personnel cannot flinch from asking these questions, and from taking responsibility to give the patients with the most critical needs top priority in terms of treatment.

In the same way, Mohler says, when Christians disagree with one another, we perform a theological triage. We stop, evaluate the significance of each disagreement, and remain in fellowship to different degrees depending on how much each issue matters. Because I was raised in the EFCA, this is my default mindset. We call it the “major on the majors, minor on the minors” approach. Doctrine can be sorted into three orders:

  • First-order issues are most important to the core of Christian faith. Mohler lists “the Trinity, the full deity and humanity of Jesus Christ, justification by faith, and the authority of Scripture” as first-order issues. We cannot accept that someone else is a Christian or that their beliefs are Christian in nature if they deny any of these doctrines. If someone believes that Jesus is not divine, I refuse to acknowledge them as a Christian, plain and simple.
  • Second-order issues are issues “believing Christians may disagree on… though this disagreement will create significant boundaries between believers. When Christians organize themselves into congregations and denominational forms, these boundaries become evident.” Mohler lists the meaning and age of baptism, and the ordination of women. I would add the historicity of Adam, the penal substitutionary atonement debate, and whether and to what degree we should take the Scriptures literally. Mohler rightly points out that these are the most debated topics in Christianity. Nobody is debating first-order doctrines like the divinity of Christ (at least, nobody who I consider a Christian!), and the third-order issues are less central, so the second-order issues get the most attention. Denominations split over these questions.
  • Third-order issues are issues “over which Christians may disagree and remain in close fellowship, even within local congregations,” but they not necessarily trivial. Like my denomination as of this summer, Mohler includes “most of the debates over eschatology” in this category, which do matter. Issues are not third-order because they “do not matter.” Rather, third-order issues do not have many other doctrines depending on them, or are highly speculative or unclear, or they regard categories that did not exist in Biblical times (like “undocumented immigrant”), or in some other way are highly disputable. Mohler does not list more examples, but in this debate he included the age of the Earth as a third-order issue (24 min mark). I would include under this label worship styles, some beliefs about spiritual gifts, beliefs about church and politics, and evangelism method.

None of these are unimportant, because all have eventual downstream effects on Christian living and discipleship which can be more or less helpful to a walk with Jesus by being more or less faithful to the Scriptures. Some beliefs may seem “trivial” but wholly depend on other beliefs which are not trivial, and so they are implicated in non-trivial beliefs. All these beliefs matter, even if some are more foundational.

So. Homosexuality. Where is it? Is homosexuality a first-order, second-order, or third-order issue?

This question cannot be answered as asked. “Homosexuality” is an umbrella term that encompasses three different debates in the church right now: marriage, orientation change, and labels. Depending on your answer to these three questions, you will land on one of four sides: A, B, Y, and X. By the end of this post I hope you will understand all four sides and why some of these questions fall into higher and lower levels of theological triage.

First-order debates on homosexuality. There are no first-order debates on homosexuality. Sometimes people leave Christianity altogether over this topic. But few if any are trying to remain within Christianity and support homosexuality by radically revising Christian theology from the ground up.

Second-order debates on homosexuality. There is one second order debate on homosexuality, which is the debate over affirming same-sex marriages. Churches cannot both affirm and not affirm same-sex marriages. They have to decide. When a church decides to be affirming, they make a major division with non-affirming churches, because the latter consider same-sex marriage to be explicitly unbiblical. Both churches will consider the other to be seriously wrong, but at the same time, both can recognize that they agree on all first-order issues. Because affirming same-sex marriage is not a first-order issue, we can continue to have personal fellowship with those who disagree. But because it is not a third-order issue, we cannot have public-ministry fellowship with someone who is affirming or invite them to teach in our churches on this topic. If someone is affirming of same-sex marriage, they are in Side A for Affirming.

Third-order debates on homosexuality. There is one third-order debate on homosexuality. This is whether sexual orientation can change or whether it is a fixed or mostly fixed aspect of a person. Belief that sexual orientation change efforts can be effective or that God regularly does deliver people from homosexuality (or “heal” them, if that’s your language), is a third-order issue. Christians should be able to respectfully disagree and coexist in the same churches. Do not hear me saying “ex-gay theology doesn’t matter.” It does matter, because your answer to this question will impact how your church does pastoral care for gay/same-sex attracted people, which makes a dramatic difference in their Christian living and discipleship. This means that, while individual Christians can agree to disagree and still remain in fellowship, it is wise for leadership at the same church to be on the same page. Those who believe sexual orientations will or often do change are in Side X for Ex-Gay.

Fourth-order debates on homosexuality. Al Mohler does not have a category for fourth-order, so I am inventing one. Fourth-order issues are third-order issues that do not matter. They are petty debates, more like squabbles, that have yet to be demonstrated to necessarily impact Christian living and discipleship in any meaningful way. There are two fourth-order debates on homosexuality right now, and they track together. The questions are, Should Christians use sexuality labels like “gay” and “lesbian,” or use phrases like “same-sex attraction”? and, Should Christians participate in the broader LGBT community? If you think Christians should not affiliate with the LGBT community and should not use sexuality labels, you are in Side Y for “Why Identify as Gay?” Nobody uses that phrase. I just made it up. But the agreed upon letter is Y. Conversely, if you say yes, non-affirming Christians can use sexuality labels and can consider themselves to have affinity with the LGBT community, then you are in Side B, for in-Between the other positions.

Fourth-order issues are third-order issues that do not matter. They are petty debates, more like squabbles, that have yet to be demonstrated to necessarily impact Christian living and discipleship in any meaningful way.

To be clear, this triage is contested. Some say that you are not saved if you marry the same sex, so, a first-order issue. Others think ex-gay theology is so harmful that Christians ought not associate with it, and they accordingly place it at second-order. Rosaria Butterfield recently commented that those in the Side B camp are “another religion,” then compared them to Muslims and Jews, and then called for their excommunication as heretics — whereas I put that debate at fourth-order, a squabble, not a significant debate. By contrast, this interview at TGC, while loaded with other problems, at least managed to make its anti-labels point without denouncing those who use labels as non-Christians.

If I were to play which one of these things is not like the other with Sides A, B, Y, and X, the first one to go is none of them. That is to say, before we play that game, we should recognize the common theological core that all Christians share which is not changed by beliefs about homosexuality. Then, playing that game, Side A goes first. Affirming same-sex marriage places churches out of fellowship with one another for the purpose of ministry because it regards as acceptable what the other side considers explicitly unbiblical. Denominations need to have a stand on this question. Then, playing which one of these things is not like the other again, the next to go is Side X, because ex-gay theology changes pastoral care practices within each church. Pastoral teams need to have a stand together on this question, though the congregation does not need to uniformly agree. Then Sides Y and B remain. These are similar enough that many have questioned whether there even is a Side Y, or if everyone who is non-affirming and non-ex-gay is just, by definition, in Between those two and therefore under the umbrella of Side B. (Others contest this.) Regardless, I believe the positions are trivially different.

There are more nuances to the state-of-the-debate, but that should capture the big picture. “Homosexuality in general” cannot be ranked on the theological triage scale because it is not one question but three. Nothing necessitates first-order disagreement. Affirming same-sex marriage (Side A) leads to second-order disagreement. Promoting ex-gay theology (Side X) is a third-order disagreement, one with important practical consequences. The debate over labels and the degree to which it is wise to affiliate with the LGBT community or in what ways to do so (Sides Y and B), is particular enough that all Christians should grant one another glad freedom and warm hospitality to decide where they stand.

Photo by Austin Schmid on Unsplash