you’re gonna love tomorrow

This is going to be a short post because I’m pretty exhausted from a very good day spent in the sun.I’ve been toying with a thought lately about our testimonies, our stories about what we were like and involved in before we came to Christ. In fact, it’s what I think I’m going to preach on Sunday night, something about the goodness of ordinary lives . . . That’s getting ahead of myself.

I hear a lot (mostly from church camps and in youth groups, to be fair) of what I’m going to term “desperation conversion” stories. I have no doubt you know what I’m talking about: Johnny Doe who smoked seven cigarettes at a time and then sliced his arm open to pour the alcohol directly into his body while he staggered from the bed of one immoral person to the other. (This is not to make light of legitimate sin and destruction that Christ very much rescues people from. Christ indeed pulls people out of deep trouble. This is addressing what that becomes like for the rest of us in light of how those stories are shared.) I wonder sometimes about what it means when these conversion stories are presented one after the other, which is common at church camp, revivals, or anywhere where people tend to want God to show up so bad that sometimes they forget He was already there, just maybe not in the way they wanted Him to be. Because when these kind of testimonies are presented as huge testaments to the work of Christ, it leaves the rest of us, the “ordinary” folk, if you will, wondering what then there is for us. We don’t have “good” stories. I asked about Jesus in the shopping trolly in Target. Other friends were simply raised in church too; and, around their younger years, asked on their own. We’re average people with average conversion stories. Then there are people not even brought up in church that I know, who simply came to faith without much devastation in their lives before then. I think we can sometimes begin to feel that we’re not watching testimonies, but watching people try to one-up each other in terms of how awful their lives used to be before Jesus. Someone opens with drinking in secret and we close with abuse. They use a lot of language that draws on crisis-driven spirituality: my life fell apart, I realized then I needed Jesus. Quite frankly, I don’t find this funny but incredibly serious, because I think it communicates a misunderstanding of what the Gospel is. The Gospel is for everyone, so it has to be presumed that there are not going to be people in that group who suffer devastations as a means of realizing their need for salvation. In fact, I would argue against a popular belief that seems to be in a lot of Southern Baptist youth group circles that the Gospel is about jettisoning us into Heaven out of Hell. It is that, in horrendously inaccurate theological understanding, but what is more than that is the most beautiful. The Gospel is less to do with what we were saved from individually and more to do with what we were justified into collectively. It’s about the after, it’s about the life lived walking with Jesus, not the previous life we spent walking away from Him. (I wrote about this previously much more extensively.) When all we have, frankly, when all we present to get a rise out of people, are testimonies ironically glorifying our depravity and not life stories reflecting on our newfound humanity (that is, true humanity through the humanity of Christ), we are left with poorly constructed sand castles waiting for the tide to wash over and leave them in ruins. This is not to exclude the meaningful importance that a testimony can have, but it is to put the question to us about how honest we are when we present it and where do we draw our excitement: from what God has done or what man will applaud us for seeming to overcome. We all did not have fascinating lives before Christ, but we now all have fascinating lives because of Him. I think there’s something to be said for focusing on the story we all share in, while still appreciating the stories we have come from. After all, when we cross from the darkness of the life before into the light after, the latter is always so much more beautiful. You’re gonna love tomorrow. We all are.

blessed are the peacemakers

Elizabeth Esther wrote a heartbreaking post yesterday (well, it was yesterday for me because of when it pulled up on my RSS reader here in the UK, two days ago in proper time) about an experience in church she had that morning. What started out as a comment response to her personally quickly evolved into personal reflection, and while I had already dedicated yesterday’s blog to my internal dialogue about profanity, I wanted to make today devoted to reflecting, along with my very brave and exceptionally honest sister-in-Christ, about the tragedy of the divided Church. First and foremost I need to say something about Elizabeth. If you’re not reading her, you should be. This is not light and flippant dialogue over a cup of coffee pretending to talk about things like depression by advising those suffering to simply recall that Jesus loves them and that the mere (as presented) triteness of that fact, along with a banal pull-quote or two, is enough to address the reality that there are good, blessed people of faith in this world that have too much sense to be simple; and, therefore, from time to time, actually struggle with the fact that we live in an unkind, though beautifully being restored, fallen world. (Example.) She is a hero for the cause of transparency in faith and a beautiful example of a life lived honestly before God and men. (Yes, you really can pick all of that up by only reading her blog.) Elizabeth and I don’t see eye to eye on everything, certainly, but that’s not at all the point, is it? The reality is that we and you and I can all learn from each other because as believers we’re all a part of the Someone that transcends all our differences. That brings me to what I’d like to very briefly talk about this afternoon, because I’m looking out on the coast of Whitley Bay and feel a compulsion for an afternoon walk to the lighthouse. What I’ve reflected on lately and what Elizabeth’s post gets to the painful heart of, is the tragedy that is the Body broken. I of course will be one of the first people to recognize that it is not feasible in this world to unify all the denominations of Christendom together and that such unity shall only be, as St. Bernard of Clairvaux wrote, when Christ returns triumphant and all our subjective understandings of Him are made objectively clear. Nonetheless, I do not think, as some such as Mark Driscoll hold to in the post I wrote yesterday, that in the interim time we have been given license to be derisive and offensive to our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ. I understand the idea of having a private laugh (as in, between close friend where wry comments are not designed to undermine but soothe) at the expense of cults, because the harsh truth is that sometimes laughter is the only way to cope with how awful some sort of perversion of the Gospel is. However, when we’re dealing with general Christianity, those of us who do believe relatively the same things fundamentally, though our hows and our whens and our so thats may be slightly different, but our creedal language (the Trinity, the Fall, the Cross, the Resurrection, etc.) is consistent, then do we not have a great and important responsibility to uplift one another? Hebrews 12:14 says, “Pursue peace with all men, and the sanctification without which no one will see the Lord.” (NASB) It may be a shock to some people, including myself in the past, but Jesus wasn’t a jerk. Why then do we (read that as: I) feel license to be? From our pulpits, it’s not enough to preach what we perceive as truth, we have to preach the Truth that we have certainty of (that is, the Gospel) and then approach the consequential attributes of that Truth (that is, some of our theological differences) with an idea borrowed from N.T. Wright: “40% of what I believe theologically is wrong, I’m just not sure which 40% yet.” Because there are people in our audiences, in our circles, in our lives, that are like Elizabeth, who comes to Him in the Mass, or like me, who meets His peace in the Rites. There’s something important in the pursuit of peace so that what follows from it is sanctification. It demands patience and love, the commitment to meet people where they are and walk with them on their way and not simply slap a vapid theological stamp upon them that will “fix” whatever wasn’t even broken to begin with but was merely a different expression of the same heart of the same Saviour that we are all, hopefully, trying to increase in likeness of. Funny how it all comes down to simply being kind and willing to be honest. The photo I used for this post is from when I was in Romania. I will never forget the grace with which these humble Christians of all denominations received all people. I think it has something to do with the fact that they grew up in oppression, in a time that to be Christian was illegal and punished severely. Somehow that just helps you sort of not care about things like whether you kneel or stand, sing or be silent, preach or meditate. Maybe we’ve gotten a little too comfortable and built too many ivory towers for the sake of our impressive “rightness.” So great our pursuit of the things of God that we run right past Him. Ah well, in the end, these are only the reflections of a reformed (read: reforming) pharisee.

profanity, sex, and some aesthetic theology (or why I’ve stopped swearing completely)

I debated how to approach this post and I think that it’s likely best to start it out giving a clear disclaimers: This is not an argument, but a reflection, explaining why I don’t think it’s good to use profanity and subsequently why I no longer do. This is a public confession of a personal spiritual process, not intending to bestow instruction but to reflect a process. That sorted, I’ll start it out . . .Nearly a year and a half ago now, I was having a conversation with a good friend who told me that he thought it was ok to, when in the company of close-knit brothers-in-Christ, use profanity with discretion. Sometimes, there’s no other word to use than s**t to describe what has happened and using it in the privacy of such a relationship does not violate Scriptural precedents like 1 Corinthians 8:13, which says, “Therefore, if food causes my brother to stumble, I will never eat meat again, so that I will not cause my brother to stumble.” (NASB) It covers, obviously, a lot more with contextual intent. I was amenable to this idea and since then, have on occasion in the company of my closet brothers-in-Christ allowed myself to use profanity from time to time to describe or assert my displeasure over a given situation, especially when it came to vile heresies. I do mean, I suppose it would help to clarify, vile heresies. You come across them from time to time and, keeping with what I had heard a well-respected professor say once, I “save[d] my profanities for heresies; [for] they’re so much more useful that way.”

All this changed a few days ago when circumstances had me thinking about Mark Driscoll. I’m not, nor have I ever been, a huge fan of Driscoll, but to go into all the problems I have would very, very quickly turn into attacking him without warrant, at least for the purpose of this post. Rather, I’m addressing something that is brought up by him frequently but is not merely specific to him. Driscoll has an interesting stance on profanity (frankly, on being nice in general), check out this clip:

I appreciate his stance on “That’s what she said jokes,” and I should say upfront that it’s good he doesn’t support them. What he has to say about mocking other faiths doesn’t sit right with me on many levels (mostly because I don’t see a lot of Gospel precedent for it) but importantly, concerning what I’m addressing here, is the idea of profanity and that Driscoll claims it to be “cultural,” ergo not something that clearly is handled in Scripture. I, however, believe it is handled in Scripture, but it is handled through example and not through command. What do I mean by that? Well, let’s talk about sex and two ways in which God uses sexual language. In Jeremiah, when God speaks to the nature of idolatry, His words are exceptionally provocative and yet with profanity. God uses says things like, “‘For long ago I broke your yoke and tore off your bonds; but you said, 'I will not serve!' For on every high hill And under every green tree you have lain down as a harlot’ . . . Then the LORD said to me in the days of Josiah the king, ‘Have you seen what faithless Israel did? She went up on every high hill and under every green tree, and she was a harlot there.’ . . . Because of the lightness of her harlotry, she polluted the land and committed adultery with stones and trees.’” (Jeremiah 2:20, 3:6, 3:9, NASB) It fascinates me that when it comes to idolatry, which posits the creature above the Creator, one of the most grievous sins to God and a total offense of His creation, the Lord uses very harsh language that is harsh by virtue of description and tone and not by shock-value. Instead of our ears being offended by the language we hear used, we instead sense God’s offense by the harsh picture of adultery that is painted for us. Amazing that He need not use a single profanity to accomplish it but, instead, was able to use a metaphor that is without cultural context, that transcends cultural norms, for we can all sense the disgust of being cheated on, especially when cheated on with someone (or in this case, something) expressly less than the original lover. On the flip-side, how does the Bible portray appropriate intimacy? Song of Solomon, even the portions that may touch on oral sex (Song of Solomon 2:3, 4:16, 8:2), are couched in melodious metaphor that have deeper spiritual meanings running within and around them. It propels the idea of an aesthetic approach to sexuality that is in harmony with God's creative nature. Sex as an expressive act of creation, a crucial attribute of God. All of this slowly draws to an interesting point, as I've used sex to talk about profanity, but I don't think they (or anything, as you know with me) are unrelated. Rather, I look to the way God spoke Himself and spoke through people and I see absolutely no precedent to use profanity. In fact, I see a huge sense of reaction against it, for God Himself does not use profanity to explain the most vile sin but uses sexual language that is not inherently profane but communicates offense. And shall we further consider exactly what we’re saying when we swear? I’m not one of those people that thinks profanities all are the same and do feel that some carry more weight than others, but consider this: the use of damn and hell when outside of a Biblical context carry some serious damage. When you declare damnation upon something you’re inherently, though you may not know it, asking God to damn something. To send it to Hell. How many times have you thought or said that about a person? Obviously, “Go to Hell,” carries a similar flavor. But then there are profanities that step beyond these and by their use and nature communicate a disrespect for creation and in turn a disrespect for the Creator. Using “son of a b***h” or “f***” or “s***” or any others that pronounce upon the creation something that implies it is less than worthy of what ti was intended to be is not an offense to the creation; it’s an offense to the Creator. Driscoll may feel this is all cultural, but I think that’s the very reason God doesn’t use those kinds of words, whatever their equivalencies would have been. Instead, I see God calling us to put to use the minds He gave us, to be selective with our wording, to present accurate descriptions of heresies through the metaphors that God has equipped us with, to keep our speech pure, and to let there be no hint of immorality about us. At least, that’s what I’m reflecting upon right now.

“my eyes are up here”

I’ve been away for a little while and too tired to write properly. It’s been a wonderful time, though and a moment in my life I think I will cherish for a long time, if not forever. I had a wee bit of a personal theological epiphany, or rather theological draw together would be more apt, that I plan to blog on tomorrow and take Sunday off. But for now, I need explain where I’ve been off too and the picture above.
On Wednesday I took a train (well, I took four trains) from Hartlepool up to St. Andrews, Scotland to visit the sensational Anna Blanch and stay with her for a few days. It was a wonderful trip, as I’ve stated above, but I should also clarify that Anna in many ways is to thank for how it good it was. She’s one of those people who has lost none of her appreciation for God in beauty the more she learns. She’s epic in the academic field and will no doubt continue to be a force of exceptional scholarship in the years to come.
All that is to get to this little thought I had during my first day at St. Andrews. On one of the trains there, I was reading Pelikan’s assessment of the christocentric theological developments of the 10th and 11th centuries when I sort of let out a little laugh upon reading one of his explanations of the narrative’s focus. It was a good point, but it inspired the title of this blog. In essence, he said that their thinking was that since Christ was the head of the Church and you look at someone’s head when talking to them, they should look at the Church’s head too. That’s gross paraphrase, but you get the idea.
We all know the rightful claim of young women when boys are less than chivalrous of, “Hey! My eyes are up here!” As in, stop paying attention to everything else that might be earning your focus and pay attention to me, because I am the source of value in my body and the very everything that allows it to be. See how this gets to a parallel to Jesus? Well, there’s a little more.
There’s this pier at St. Andrews, which you see above, that is traditionally walked across. I have a fear of heights and this was proving to be a no-go. Rocks on the right, shallow tide on the left, and only about a wee bit more than feet-shoulder-width-apart space to walk, and then there was a little wind. I. did. not. want. to. do. this. But Anna was in front of me and didn’t even say, “You don’t have a fear of heights do you?” until we were nearly a 1/4th through. At that point, she valiantly tried to take my mind from it with varying comments, but in the end it all came back to my fear. Then I simply looked up at the back of her head as she kept walking forward and found, strangely, that by focusing on the person leading me instead of all the extra, I could make it across. When we reached the end, we turned around and she said, “See? Isn’t it worth it?” And I took the photo above. Apparently, many, many years ago, a St. Andrews student was walking along the same pier and saw a ship in trouble at sea. He dove in, rescued 25 people, and then died from exhaustion. Every Sunday, St. Andrews undergraduates walk the pier in commemoration of this hero. So, yes, I would say it was very much worth it.
The thoughts above swam in my head on the way home and I began to think about the Church. There’s so much wrong and we know it, but I wonder if we miss sometimes focusing on the One who should be our focus. If we were doing that, I imagine quite a bit would get sorted out. I am not, by any means, saying that we should not speak out when we see serious wrongs and strive for better, I feel personally convicted to remember that Christ is in power and I need to put more trust in His direction. The rest shall come as product of His people striving after Him, and Him first. It’s idealistic, it sounds naive, but it’s what He needed to remind me of.

don’t expect a cavalcade

There’s this pitch-perfect scene in An Education that has stayed with me ever since I first saw the film (and “first saw” is quite accurate, as I have seen it a number of times since) back in November 2009. The lead character, Jenny, has had a remarkably eventful and tumultuous year, most of it the product of her own decisions. She’s young and she’s starting to realize just how young she is. Sitting in the apartment -- full of books, music, paintings, and the vibrancy of a quietly expressive life -- of her school tutor, who wants for nothing more than for Jenny to reach her potential and go to Oxford, Jenny makes a vacant comment about the world, haunting in its sound for it attests to how much she has seen over the past several months. “You sound very old and wise,” her tutor says, curiously. Jenny nearly smiles, recognizing how little she could ever explain of all that has happened to her, but she does pointedly and clearly counter: “I feel very old, but not very wise.” I played a little game with myself today and opened iCal, clicking back 12 months to see what I was doing about this time last year. I had just gotten back from spending several days in Chicago, which I have to admit not recalling very well now that I try to think of it. (Addendum: as I wrote this post, I did start to remember some bits and pieces of it. It was good, naturally, but now I’m recalling some specific good moments.) I was also headed soon back to Waco, housesitting for a professor with a friend and spending my time working on a co-authored article about Marie de France’s “Guigemar” and “Equitan.” My, what a difference a year makes. In vague chronological order: my spiritual world was turned upside down; my best friend turned his back on me (or maybe I turned my back on him without knowing, I do have to concede that); my ministry world ended in a whimper, not an explosion; I finished the first draft of the co-authored article; I finished my first novel; I fell in love; I was asked to submit my novel to an agency; I went a little overboard with H1N1 preparation; I was cruel to people without wanting to be cruel, but self-righteousness does that to you; I made a proper fool of myself after thinking I had fallen out of love; I fell back into love, or recognized that I had never not been in love; I started a Bible study for some epic guys; I fell in love with liturgy and stated attending Morning Rites before heading onto Baptist church on Sundays; I became close with another friend, who ultimately was perhaps only for a season; I learned just how human some of my role models in academia are; I watched my extended family battle, come together, and heal; I discovered some amazing and extraordinary godly people in administrative power; I by happenstance discovered all around the same time three men who are now my best friends in the entire world and will never not be my best friends; I was rejected from the agency I submitted my novel to; I figured out my thesis; I presented a paper outside of Chicago at a Uni about watching Gossip Girl through the medieval corpus; I discovered just how petty and malicious people can be; I proved that I could do what I always had said I could do when it came to academics; God called me to be in a church; I watched relationships blossom; I watched my own relationship fall apart and I, in turn, out of love, though not in the angry way, in the way that is best described as peaceful surrender to fact; our article was picked up by a journal, accepted as it was; I started blogging consistently; I properly forgave, and am still in the process of asking forgiveness from, those whom I hurt in the earlier part of this sequence; I moved to the UK for the summer; I started writing a second novel. Written out, and understanding that there is so much missing from this, I realize just how much has indeed happened over this past year. And it was all, in the end, but a day at a time. I’m a much better person than I was last year, though I have a lot to still submit to Him. In the end, this post doesn’t say much, I know. It says something about my recognition here, as I watch the sun sink into the coast, that none of my story seems on its own extraordinary, but taken together really is something. Don’t expect a cavalcade. The most defining moments in life are the everyday. In hindsight, it’s all but a long, beautiful, humbling journey. I feel very old, but not very wise. Ah well, there’s always next year.