What would Jesus undo? (Sermon Video)

What would Jesus undo? (Sermon Video)

I had a great time preaching this past weekend in Gillette, Wyoming.

Big shout-out to Mike Wilson and the folks at New Life Wesleyan for welcoming me!

They began a sermon series on Sunday entitled “What would Jesus undo?  And as a part of that, I got to preach on some ideas I’ve been working through about what it looks like for Christians to reclaim the sacred ground between (1) crippling doubt, and (2) angry dogmatism.

I’ve written about that topic before (here), and I’m currently writing a book on the subject for IVP Academic. But until then, here’s the video.


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When your tribe is wrong

When your tribe is wrong

We humans are a tribal bunch.

We seem to be designed that way (see here); and it’s not necessarily a bad thing. We are hard-wired to find community, common cause, and a measure of identity within particular groups.  There are:

Evangelicals, atheists, vegans, hunters, gamers, naturopaths, NRA members, Democrats, Republicans, Libertarians, Socialists, teamsters, doulas, environmentalists, and perhaps most cult-like of all: CrossFitters.

But if you stay in your tribe long enough, one thing is certain: It’s going to be wrong.  And not just on some minor point.  Given the fallibility of humans and the tendency of groups toward corruption, chaos, and dogmatism, your tribe is going to err on something important, and in a relatively widespread fashion.

Which raises the question: What do you do then?

As far as I can tell, there are three common responses:

  1. Deny

Perhaps the most frequent human tactic when facing embarrassing or threatening data is to simply deny it.  “Smoking can’t cause cancer! My uncle Ernie’s 97 and he’s a human chimney!”  “And No! My knee injuries are not because of Crossfit; they’re probably genetic; or the work of Russian trolls!” “#FakeNews.”

Similarly, the choice to just stay silent on one’s tribal errors can also be denial.

But if one does this long enough, the result can be devastating.  Before long, you forfeit credibility with all but the most Kool-Aid swilling faithful of your tribal kin.  And for Christians, that’s Kryptonite for Kingdom building.

Now for number two.

  1. Defect

When denial proves impossible, one might simply leave.

In some cases, this is warranted.  Some tribes are inherently toxic, while others start good but have their mission so perverted that one must either defect or be forever tainted.

But there are dangers here as well.

As the saying goes: It’s hard to reform organizations that you leave.  And if the tribe holds certain true or noble values, then defection can be deleterious.  It can simply cede the field to the worst elements within the remaining group.

Likewise, the desire for defection sometimes stems from vengeful and unhealthy motives.  “I’ll show them! They just made the wrong kind of enemy!”

Given the human tendency for knee-jerk reactions, we often swing from one form of tribal dogmatism to another.  In disgust, we embrace wholesale the opposition, while immediately denying the deep flaws and contradictions in this newfound tribal home.  “Anything is better than where I came from,” we say.

In a final twist: some attempt a total defection from mission-driven tribal homes.  “I’m just a member of the ‘human tribe’ these days.”  Nonsense.  If we are hard-wired for these tribal groups, we will either find them or die of loneliness.

  1. Distract

When denial or defection are rejected, a final option when confronted with one’s tribal “wrongness” is simply to shift the focus to the flaws of rival tribes.  “Yes, yes, we have our problems, but when you look at the alternative… .”

Of course, some tribes are worse than others.  The cartel is not the rotary.  But when this “Lesser of two evils” logic is used as a distractor from the obvious corruption or error within one’s own tribe, the result is much the same as with denial: The “distractor” loses credibility with all but the most loyal partisans.  Again: Kingdom Kryptonite.

One doesn’t put out a fire in the attic by pointing to the smoking ruins of a neighbor’s house; or by simply moving to the basement.

Distraction is denial’s evil twin.

CONCLUSION 

What then is the right response to tribal wrongness?

It depends, of course, on a variety of factors. It doesn’t always mean a snarky airing of one’s public grievances (see here).

But it should probably begin with (1) an acknowledgment of the problem, (2) an awareness of these three coping mechanisms (above), and (3) a refusal to go from “tribe” to “tribalism.”

Now to mix the Kool-Aid for my CrossFit pre-workout. It helps with my genetic knee pain.

 


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But I deleted it

But I deleted it

I’ve been on a blogging hiatus lately as I’m been under a deadline to get a book manuscript polished up and sent back to the editor (Yes, Katya, I am working on it!).

But I took time last week to type up what I thought was a pithy response to a particular hot-button cultural issue that had been nagging me.

I wrote it; I rewrote it; and I even had some friends weigh in.

Then, after all that work, I deleted the whole thing. (Which was really hard because it had a corny joke about a “salvation” that is seen as coming sola Twittera–by social media alone.)

I won’t go into the details, but suffice it to say I had an inkling of discernment (which is all I ever have…) that the last thing the world needed was one more pontification on something that I actually don’t know very much about.

On that note, I’ve found the following eight insights helpful for those times that I am tempted to think that I must always open my mouth/keyboard.

These come from the evangelical-Anglican and Baylor English professor, Alan Jacobs.

In his words:

Going off half-cocked is now widely perceived as a virtue, and the disinclination to do so as a vice.

What ‘s more:

that poorly informed and probably inflammatory statement of [My] Incontrovertibly Correct Position must be on the internet . . . or it doesn’t count towards your treasury of merit.

But must I always weigh in on every hot-button issue?

As Jacobs reminds himself:

  1. I don’t have to say something just because everyone around me is.
  2. I don’t have to speak about things I know little or nothing about.
  3. I don’t have to speak about issues that will be totally forgotten in a few weeks or months by the people who at this moment are most strenuously demanding a response.
  4. I don’t have to spend my time in environments that press me to speak without knowledge.
  5. If I can bring to an issue heat, but no light, it is probably best that I remain silent.
  6. Private communication can be more valuable than public.
  7. Delayed communication, made when people have had time to think and to calm their emotions, is almost always more valuable than immediate reaction.
  8. Some conversations are be more meaningful and effective in living rooms, or at dinner tables, than in the middle of Main Street.

None of this means, of course, that I will stop writing on issues that matter–even when they’re considered controversial.  I come, after all, from a theological tradition (Wesleyanism) that refused to shut up on things like slavery and women’s rights, even they had been dubbed “too radical” for respectable Christians to weigh-in on.

So once I’m not buried under a book manuscript (which should be sometime in the next decade) I plan to keep thinking in public with what I hope is a mix of grace and truth–or at the least “grammar.”

And I hope other thoughtful people do too.

Still, it is freeing to recall occasionally that the world’s salvation does not come sola Twittera.  Or in my more long-winded case: sola blogos. 


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Jordan Peterson Cilantro! Dr. Fisher and I on the Wesley Seminary Podcast

Jordan Peterson Cilantro! Dr. Fisher and I on the Wesley Seminary Podcast

I was happy to be a guest on the Wesley Seminary Podcast to discuss Jordan Peterson’s unique take on Scripture, culture, and meaning (here).

I’ve written previously on Peterson (here) and (here); and I was honored to share the mic with my good friend and colleague, Dr. Dalene Fisher, Professor of English at OKWU, and Dean of the School of Arts and Sciences.

Dr. Aaron Perry is a great host. Feel free to check out other episodes wherever you get podcasts.

Amongst other tings, I explain here why Peterson’s reading of Scripture tends to divorce the biblical narrative from history, while reading his own brand of Jungian psychology into the text.

I also talk about cilantro (but you’ll have to listen to get that one).

Here is a quick breakdown of the conversation in case you want to skip around.

  • 0.00 – Intros
  • 4.25 – Dr. Fisher on Archetypes in literature, psychology, and Jordan Peterson
  • 12.05 – Me, talking about Peterson’s “(Not so) Strange” account of Christianity
  • 16.40 -Me, on Jordan Peterson, cookbooks, and cilantro! (Could Peterson’s archetypal reading of Scripture get the same “truths” from a cookbook?)
  • 20.40 – Dr. Fisher on how Peterson can be helpful for young adults.
  • 24.27 – Me, on how Peterson can be helpful.
  • 28.12 – Dr. Perry on Peterson on the danger (and the benefit) of comparison.
  • 31.43 – Me, on Peterson’s overly tragic view of life.
  • 34.12 – Dr. Perry on the lack of eschatology in Peterson’s dialectic of chaos and order.
  • 36.05 – Me, on why Peterson’s self-help psychology is NOT enough.
  • 37.35 – Conclusion

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Is Wesleyanism a “human-centered” theology?

Is Wesleyanism a “human-centered” theology?

I have almost zero interest in the age-old fights between Reformed and Wesleyan-Arminian theologians.

I was trained by some fantastic Reformed theologians in seminary, and my general view is that the various theological “tribes” need to be continually balanced by a dialogue (and a missional engagement!) with one another.

That said, one of the common critiques against my own tradition (Wesleyan-Armininianism) is that it represents a “human-centered theology.”

The idea here is that God’s grace is invariably minimized by any belief in a measure of human freedom to accept or reject the gospel–however enabled that freedom is by the work of the Spirit.

Is that true?

The fine folks at Seedbed just released this video in which I address the subject.


 

Check out my new book (Long Story Short: the Bible in Six Simple Movements), now available at Seedbed.com.


 

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Decorum, the unforgivable sin

Decorum, the unforgivable sin

This past Sunday, I preached on the “foot-washing passage” from the end of John’s Gospel (video here).

Just before his betrayal, Jesus takes up the basin and the towel to demonstrate the full extent of servant-hearted love. He washes the filthy feet of those who will soon abandon him.

Yet when Christ comes to Peter, Jesus is rebuked for an outrageous violation of decorum.

After all, foot-washing was reserved for servants, not Messiahs.

            “No,” said Peter, “you shall never wash my feet” (Jn. 13.8).

To allow such an embarrassing breach of etiquette would be akin to hosting the Queen of England at your house, and then asking her to do the dishes and the laundry.

But Jesus’ response is clear:

“Unless I wash you, you have no part with me.”

While there are many lessons to be gleaned from the passage, I chose to focus on this single moment: the embarrassing breach of “cultural decorum.”

My point was that while “decorum” (i.e., a concern for respectable appearances) is often a good thing, it is not always so. And in some cases, it may actually keep us from experiencing God’s grace.

In this way, decorum is the unrepented sin of the “respectable.” It is the sin of the suburbs—because we value appearance over healing.

Thus the strange, and apparently heretical title: “Decorum: the Unforgivable Sin.”

To be clear, I don’t think any sin is unforgivable from God’s perspective. Still, there are certain attitudes that lead to a lack of repentance and forgiveness from our side—because we refuse to set aside a concern for “respectable appearances” (decorum), and give Jesus access to our “dirt.”

To be served and known (and touched!) like this can be embarrassing and awkward.

Yet while Peter thinks he is honoring Christ by withholding his smelly feet, he is actually cutting himself off from grace.

“Unless I wash you, you have no part with me.”

How often do we do that?

“If I admitted that I have a problem, an addiction, or a hidden darkness in my life… then folks would never look at me the same.  After all, I am a respected member of the community. What kind of message would that send? I’ll work on it alone.”

“If I admitted the extent to which I’m struggling with depression, suicidal thoughts, or crushing loneliness, it would be embarrassing for all of us. And after all, it can be awkward to share such things, even with a pastor or a friend.”

“If I approached someone and asked for prayer—specific prayer—for what’s really going on, they might think less of me.  Or worse yet, they might think that I just want attention. ‘God helps those who help themselves.’”

Respectfully, I call “bull.”

(Even if that violates your sense of pastoral decorum.)

To be sure, there are breaks in etiquette that are problematic–even sinful. “TMI” can be a problem. And there are ways of sharing struggles (publicly, with the wrong person, or in the wrong way) that are inappropriate. Obviously.

But none of that changes the fact that, in some cases, spiritual healing depends upon a willingness to risk embarrassment, to be served, to be known, and to give Christ (and his appropriate representatives) access to our “dirt.”

“Unless I wash you, you have no part with me.”

After all, only those who have experienced God’s servant-hearted grace can pass it on to others.

 


<p><a href=”https://vimeo.com/284719005″>Decorum: The unforgivable sin</a> from <a href=”https://vimeo.com/user16738618″>Grace Community Church</a> on <a href=”https://vimeo.com”>Vimeo</a&gt;.</p>

 

Thanks to all those who shared their embarrassing moments to help with my sermon intro! Apologies that I only had time for a few of them.


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Civilizing the Barbarians

Civilizing the Barbarians

In the words of Hanna Arendt:

Every generation is invaded by barbarians—we call them “children.”

From where I sit, that resonates. Especially since my three-year-old just ran through the kitchen like a tiny, unclad Gaelic warrior screaming “Captain Underpants!”

And in response to Arendt, Jonah Goldberg adds this:

Society doesn’t civilize the barbarians. Schools don’t either. That’s what families do. Other mediating institutions certainly do important work and they can fix some of the problems that come from an unstable home life, but all you have to do is talk to any teacher or social worker to appreciate that everything starts in the home.

People learn virtue first and most importantly from family, and then from the myriad of institutions [the] family introduces them to: churches, schools, associations, etc.

I agree.

And I agree also with Goldberg’s claim that our culture is now imperiled, in part, because families have eroded—leaving many to seek a home in what one might call the “fictive kinships” of tribalism, populism, nationalism, and identity politics. (At least that is his list.)

A WAKEUP CALL

For parents, this is yet another reminder of how important our job is.

Frankly, it doesn’t matter how good I am at my “job” if I fail at being a dad. All the lectures, publications, sermons, and promotions in the world won’t raise “Captain Underpants.” Nor will they guide him to love Jesus, tell the truth, and stand up for the vulnerable.

He needs a family.

On such points, Goldberg makes a strong argument that traditional notions like marriage, monogamy, and child-rearing are crucial for a healthy society. Obviously.  And one doesn’t need to see many stats on, say, the effect of absent fathers on incarceration rates in order to agree.

And yet.

DON’T JUST “FOCUS ON THE FAMILY”

One danger in some modern idolizations of the “nuclear family” is that they may coincide with a withdrawal (or enclave) mentality with regard to culture at large.  Hence, Christians especially may be led to just “focus on the family” and leave the world to rot.  We might call this “The Benedict Option” run amok.

Hence James K. A. Smith has this to say (Awaiting the King):

Curtailing the state’s monopolies in order to devolve power to smaller communities only works if smaller communities actually exist.

That’s not an argument for continuing to prop up the behemoth, but it is the reason why policies that encourage “private” endeavors sound like—and can sometimes be cover for—the pursuit of enclaved special interests that abandon the common good.

If these smaller communities (most notably, the family) do not exist, then all the talk of their importance by folks like Goldberg may sound about as helpful as the 911 operator telling you all the ways you could have prevented the fire that now fully engulfs your home.

Ah yes… sounds like faulty wiring and a lack of smoke alarms. We’ll add you to the statistics! 

Which brings me to the church.

REDEEMING FICTIVE KINSHIP

There was, of course, a time in which western civilization was overrun by so-called “barbarians”—and not the three-year-old variety.

Germanic hordes swept over Rome in the 5th century. And in the 8th century, Viking warriors began their raids upon the West.  Yet in both cases, the “barbarians” were conquered, not so much by armies, but by a culture and a faith.

They were transformed not by the nuclear family, but by a “fictive kinship”—the family of God.

To be sure, such claims must be qualified.  For one, the civilization overrun by these “barbarians” was not always as civilized as one might think. Nor was the church that transformed them anywhere near perfect. (In many instances, it was a hot mess.)

Still, it bears noting that Jesus-movement originated as a “fictive kinship group”–to use a phrase I first heard from N.T. Wright–that sought to relativize the bonds of the (nuclear) family, so that they were made subservient to God’s Kingdom-agenda.

Even Christ’s choosing of twelve (motley) disciples signifies something like this:

“These are my mother and brothers,” says Christ, pointing to his disciples (Mt. 12.49).

And:

“No one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel will fail to receive a hundred times…” (Mk. 10.29–30).

CONCLUSION

None of this changes, of course, the importance of the (nuclear) family in shaping a stable society.

But it does mean that Christians must focus on more than just blood-ties if we want to “civilize the barbarians” (ourselves included); or more rightly: If we want to see the kingdom come.

 


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