A card-carrying member…

in the Post-Evangelical Wilderness.

***

Not that I want to be defined by ‘what I’m against’ or slap on a trendy label, but after being called a ‘good post-evangelical’ recently, I prayed to St. Google and realized it was time to send away for my membership card and decoder ring.

If you require further explanation, browse these links: Wiki Page, This Blog Post, or This One, and This Excellent Article.

No, I’m not draping myself in the mantle of Indignant Victim/Misunderstood Prophet, nor am I jettisoning foundational orthodox doctrines. I’m weary of the bullshit is all. Celebrity ministries, flatulent egotism, unrepentant rationalizations for long-term character flaws, imperious immaturity, moral failures, financial shenanigans, organization politics, dysfunctional and disproportionate sermons… Sad to say if you’ve been in church longer than five years, you probably know what I’m talking about.

Looking over 28 years of following Jesus, plus what I can discern and analyze of the current state of the American church, I wonder if in this Providential place and season, my service to God must be developed and engaged outside the traditional venue of the church. That recognizing the present options are not only less than ideal, but out of my purview, if I am being forced to grow into new areas of faithfulness and fruitfulness. I also wonder if this large shift – which I find myself a part of – isn’t a falling away as critics claim, but rather a divine pruning that requires Christians exercise missional impulse (i.e. obey the Great Commission) outside the traditional pyramid scheme church. Perhaps like the Acts 8 persecution in Jerusalem after the martyrdom of Stephen, this scattering is God’s intention. Maybe He’s saying it’s time to stop congealing around brand-name ministries in mega-churches, and go into the highways and byways and deal one-on-one with people.

If so, I need to move forward rather than drag old modes of thought and practice behind me.

It’s not a little scary – this pushing out into the deep and leaving sight of the shore. But the boat is solid, tempest-worthy if you will. The instruments work. So long as I keep my destination in mind and don’t lose sight of the North Star, I’ll get through it. The shore behind me was the starting point, not the goal. And it wasn’t what was keeping me dry either.

It’s just a thought.

Thought for today


“Somehow or other, and with the best intentions, we have shown the world the typical Christian in the likeness of a crashing and rather ill-natured bore—and this in the name of the one who assuredly never bored a soul in those thirty-three years during which he passed through the world like a flame. Let us, in heaven’s name, drag out the divine drama from under the dreadful accumulation of slipshod thinking and trashy sentiment heaped upon it, and set it on an open stage to startle the world into some sort of vigorous reaction. If the pious are the first to be shocked, so much worse for the pious—others will pass into the kingdom of heaven before them. If all men are offended because of Christ, let them be offended; but where is the sense of their being offended at something that is not Christ and is nothing like him? We do him singularly little honor by watering down his personality till it could not offend a fly. Surely it is not the business of the Church to adapt Christ to men, but to adapt men to Christ.”

― Dorothy L. Sayers, Letters to a Diminished Church: Passionate Arguments for the Relevance of Christian Doctrine

The High Anxiety of Answered Prayer

I attend a local, monthly open-mike story slam patterned after NPR’s The Moth. Here’s my story from two months ago. The theme was ‘High Anxiety”

***

So it’s 1992 and I’m a young pioneer pastor in Nova Scotia, Canada. My wife has just given birth to my second son, Noah, in a Halifax hospital. Because of strange international legalities and the fraudulent financial dealings of certain big-name ministries and charities in the past, I’m barred from working a regular job, so I’m on a monthly stipend. Me, my wife, and now my third child.

My job description is ‘Missionary/Inner-City Ministry’, which sounds more spiritual than it is. I’ve got this little store-front church, which used to be a local credit union. There’s smelly, threadbare commercial carpet, a large room with small offices to the side, and a huge vault in the back. I spend most of my days evangelizing, visiting people, talking with them, praying for them, preparing sermons and Bible studies. I’m trying to see the grace of God touch people, transform lives, preach the Good News. I’m looking to build a congregation not with ‘transfer growth’ from other congregations but from scratch – with new believers, genuine conversions.

Despite the distance from friends and family, the challenges, the fixed income, the odd foreignness of the place, I’m excited. I’m still relatively young in the faith and definitely a newbie pastor, but I’m raring to see souls saved, see the Kingdom grow in hearts and lives. Very sincere, enthusiastic. A true believer.

Now as a Christian and spiritual person, I firmly believe in divine appointments – crucial, specific moments in time when you have the opportunity to reflect God’s grace and redemption to another person, either by what you say or do. All these decades later, I still strongly believe in them, and recognize they’re more common – and crucial – than I could have guessed.

Problem was at the time, my concept of them was very small. Whenever I prayed about them, for them, imagined them, even taught and preached about them, they resembled caricatures – these painfully scripted scenes in Christian books and movies,. They were Chick Tract dialogues where the Believer and Non-believer have this escalating conversation, this perfect Question and Response Ping-Pong of spiritual ideas. They’re short, direct, sprinkled with Scripture, have tears or choked-up moments, and usually culminate with the Non-believer falling to their knees asking, “What must I do to be saved?”

So that’s my mental picture, and here I am, earnestly contending for and on the lookout for just such a creature.

Now back to Noah and my family… After Noah arrives home, I decide I’m going to have a vasectomy. Three kids are fine by us. My wife is a wonderful woman and mother. It’s a relatively easy procedure, much less complicated for me than her, and by the grace of God and the Dominion of Canada, foreign ministers and missionaries receive free health care. So I book the appointment.

I have a brief, initial consultation where my doctor – a very professional, well-mannered Indian man (sub-continent, not native American) – answers all my questions, after which I schedule the procedure.

The day of arrives, and I show up early. A nurse leads me to a room where I strip from the waist down, then go lie on an operating table under one of those big round florescent medical lamps. I’m waiting for the doctor, alone and semi-naked on a metal table like something out of a crime drama morgue scene, or a fetish cyberpunk book.

Kinda weird, but hey – it’s free, for my wife and family. I’m good with it.

After what felt like a long time, (it was getting chilly) my doctor arrived in scrubs. We exchange the usual weather/traffic pleasantries before he donned a surgical mask, told me to relax, and got to work.

Now understand a couple things; the very first thing he did was display the instruments he’ll be using: hypo for the local anesthesia, a very sharp scalpel, a handful of wiry, pokey probes that resemble heavy-gauge dental cleaning picks, and what looks like a pair of needle-nose vise grip pliers. Second thing is he apparently had two plus cups of coffee that morning and is in a very chatty mood.

And you think it’s awkward when the dentist wants to talk.

Well let me tell you this guy was downright garrulous. He started in and didn’t stop. He wanted to know everything about me: where I lived, the neighborhood, my wife, my kids. When he learned I was from the States, he asked where I had moved from, where I grew up. He asked about my parents, did I have brothers or sisters… my life story.

The kicker came when he asked what brought me to Canada.

“Ministry! Really?”

He’s so intrigued when I mention ministry, he gets more talkative, if that were possible. And right then and there, starts engaging me in this huge philosophical, theological debate.

I’m lying there, doing my level best to respond. He’s asking about my ‘journey to faith’, my conversion experience, the validity of the Biblical record… like everything Christianity 101.

So much so, as it continues I break into a sweat because the conversation is starting to sound like something ripped out of a TBN or Cloud Ten script. His questions are so earnest and direct, I’m looking to see if he’s joking.

But he isn’t. In fact, as he keeps talking, it dawns on me: ‘Oh my God… God is answering my prayer. I’m getting my ‘Perfect Witness.’

And I don’t like it. Not one bit.

I mean, the doctor’s talking, I’m trying to answer, but inside I’m praying:

“Really, God? Now? Here?”

“Can you make him shut up? Please God. How about changing the subject? Hockey? Politics?”

But noooooo. I’m riding this train to the end of the line.

Imagine if you will the doctor speaking in stereotypical convenience store clerk Indian-accented English, and understand he’s sprinkling our discussion with updates on the procedure.

He’s saying things like:

“I have always been interested in the teachings of Jesus Christ, but I’ve never fully read the New Testament. Hold on – I’m about to make another incision, so you might feel a bit of a tug.”

And

“Tell me more about the claims of Jesus. Did he really say he was the only son of God? Ah… wait a second – let me find and cut the right tube here.”

And

“So Jesus died for the sins of all mankind? How is that possible? *snip, snip* (holds up tiny piece of me in the needle nose vise grips.) There we go. Got it.”

Now I’m a good evangelical. I know my Scripture: John 3:16, Romans 8: 28, 2 Corinthians 5: 17, Revelation 3: 20 and loads more…. but I’ll be damned if I can recall any of them just then. My mind is empty as a broken bucket. Every time the doctor asks about Scripture, all I can think of is that song:

“Jesus loves me, this I know…”

I must have told him God loved him seventy times. Seventy times seven, in fact.

It was awful.

I mean the whole procedure couldn’t have taken more than 30 or 40 minutes, but it felt like an eternity. The Doc finished up, still talking away. I remember groping for answers (mentally, that is) but can’t recall anything definite or special on my part. Certainly not inspired or anointed.

When it was done, I got dressed, went home and ignored his recommendation to take it easy for a couple days. But that’s another story.

Now I’ve told this to a few select friends and the more evangelical ones always ask, “Did it work?” To which I reply, “It must have. We haven’t had any more kids.”

“Not that,” they say. “The witness. Did you lead him to the Lord?”

Hell no.

That doctor could have informed me he was a neo-Nazi, skinhead, Satanist who read Mein Kampf as a devotional, and I’d have been like “Well hey, you have to start your journey somewhere.”

So that’s my ‘High Anxiety’ story. It was twenty-two years ago and I’ve learned a couple things since then. Like what divine opportunities really look like, and to be more careful about what I pray for.

Thanks for listening.

Plug for ‘Story’

Of the hundreds of ‘How to Write’ books, I suspect there are very few you actually need. “Self-Editing for Fiction Writers”, Gotham Writer’s Workshop’s Writing Fiction workbook, and How to write Science Fiction and Fantasy helped me tremendously. Add in Steven Pressfield’s ‘War of Art’, and Stephen King’s Memoir on Craft.

But STORY by Robert McKee is dope-slapping me in the best possible way. I haven’t highlighted and underlined a book in years. This however is so perceptive and articulate, not only am I marking it up like a middle-schooler, I’m reading portions aloud to my wife. Ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Looking back over the last four years, if I’d only read this first…

By way of example, here are excerpts for all the ideological writers. (that includes Christians) who weigh their stories to the point of painful contrivance.

When your premise is an idea you feel you must prove to the world, and you design your story as an undeniable certification of that idea, you set yourself on the road to didacticism. In your zeal to persuade, you will stifle the voice of the other side. Misusing and abusing art to preach, your screenplay (story) will become a thesis film, a thinly disguised sermon as you strive in a single stroke to convert the world. Didacticism results from the naive enthusiasm that fiction can be used like a scalpel to cut out the cancers of society.

Make no mistake, no one can achieve excellence as writer without being something of a philosopher and holding strong convictions. The trick is not to be a slave to your ideas, but to immerse yourself in life. For the proof of your vision is not how well you can assert your controlling idea, but its victory over the enormously powerful forces you array against it.
Story, Robert McKee. p 121,122

A novel is not a painting is not a symphony is not a film is not a sermon. Each discipline has its own requirements, opportunities, and boundaries. Be true to the one you’re called to. Pick this book up if you write fiction. Read it if you want to learn to write well.

“Fiction is about everything human and we are made out of dust, and if you scorn getting yourself dusty, then you shouldn’t try to write fiction. It’s not a grand enough job for you.”

“The writer operates at a peculiar crossroads where time and place and eternity somehow meet. His problem is to find that location.”

― Flannery O’Connor

Praise Serendipity?

“That’s just serendipity,” he scoffed, when I mentioned an answered prayer. “The universe has a way of giving good things to good people.” (to soften the blow, I guess)

So you’ll attribute subtle, benign intent to an anonymous universe but not God? Affirm this karmic dynamic, yet insist on random, meaningless chance? Intelligent Design and Meta-narrative need not apply.

And you mock my faith?

So how come ‘serendipity’ happens more frequently and specifically the more I pray – to God?

Just asking.

The old has passed away…

Counterweight to the previous post. A friend of mine.

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.
2. Cor. 5:17

Amen.

You’re supposed to pour it out.

The adoration of men, that is.

16So the three mighty men broke through the camp of the Philistines, and drew water from the well of Bethlehem which was by the gate, and took it and brought it to David. Nevertheless he would not drink it, but poured it out to the LORD; 17and he said, “Be it far from me, O LORD, that I should do this. Shall I drink the blood of the men who went in jeopardy of their lives?” Therefore he would not drink it. 2 Samuel 23:16,17a

Reports of the latest evangelical train-wreck/another minister falling victim to his success evokes several painful thoughts. The first is a wince of recognition. I watched the church I was a part of for 22 years morph into a smaller but no less sordid creature. The second is the sad, all-too-common snare of conceit and ministerial success. Without humility and perspective, it breeds arrogance – an ugly parody of godly authority. “Don’t believe your own press” an older man told me when I took a full-time ministry position. Genuine success has more to do with God honoring His Word, the Death and Resurrection of His Son, and His response to peoples’ needs and faith than any human ability, cunning, or position. Easy to remember when you start – easy to forget after a measure of accomplishment.

I’m not diminishing the reward and recognition of faithful service, nor am I undermining the concept of ministerial authority. My problem isn’t authority – it’s with bad authority. And ministers seem to be doing a fine job of ruining their credibility without me. Even allowing a measure of exaggeration and plain old peevishness in the report, this kind of rampant hubris, duplicity, and gullibility is a kick in the stomach to the testimony of Christ and the public credibility of his people.

Yes, Jesus remains true and faithful above the squalor and squabble. He is the same, yesterday, today and tomorrow. He’s the Savior. But I wonder if He gets tired of all the squandered opportunities.

Jesus saves. He’s the only one you can trust all the way to eternity.

Further reading for those considering full-time ministry. (I’d make it mandatory, if I could.)

Redeeming art?

“REDEEMING ART”?

Stumbled across this idea skimming the aether last week. Don’t recall the specifics, but it was some ministry’s call to arms, and it’s been a thorn in my mind since. So wait a sec… ‘art’ needs to be redeemed?

Seems to me it’s one of those high-sounding but utterly inaccurate statements. As a Christian, I believe people need redemption, sure. But if by ‘redeem’ you mean demand artistic endeavor conform to a specific morality or ideology, then all you’ve done is reduce it to propaganda.

As I understand it, ‘art’ is a synergy of techniques mastered and the artist’s exploration/expression. It’s a reflection of person’s soul. Directly or otherwise, who they are comes out in their work. Censorship is a dubious panacea, a definite placebo when it comes to genuine transformation and rehabilitation. Redeem the person and renewed paradigms will manifest in their creations.

I remember the brouhaha over JKR’s Harry Potter books: dire warnings of occult, ghosts and magic, the likelihood of demonic possession if read, the oft-repeated/quoted “interview” wherein she declared her desire to indoctrinate children into Satanism, (which, in a phenomenal lapse of discernment, was lifted from The Onion) I was ostracized by church leadership for defending her and the books, for questioning the source of information, for drawing parallels to Lewis’ Narnia and Tolkien’s Middle Earth… ‘If you need to criticize YA books, (why?) then advise people on Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy’, I said. He has stated his contempt and agenda in real interviews as well as his novels. His convictions are explicit in his work.

Speaking of often-quoted, (at least by me) Flannery O’Connor said “Your beliefs will be the light by which you see, but they will not be what you see and they will not be a substitute for seeing.” ― from Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose
This is one reason I don’t have a problem with Christian crossover artists, or what the market now terms ‘Inspirational’ art. If they’re diluting their convictions for cash and fame, that’s lame. But if an artist’s faith informs and infuses their work, more power to them. A sermon is not a symphony is not a painting is not a novel. Individuals need to be true to the medium they work in and artists shouldn’t have to shoehorn homilies in their pieces to avoid charges of heresy or compromise. So back off and look to your own soul. They are obeying their calling, employing their gifts, and reflecting a facet of the manifold grace given them.

After all, isn’t that the idea?

* In all fairness, I don’t think the top poster is real. At least I hope it isn’t.

thoughts on inheritance

Inheritance
Money already asserts itself,
as will the need for prayer
and that each must find their way
to the God that seeks them.
I have little of the first,
plenty of the second
and the third is not mine to give.
But if I could pass on just two
gifts to my children,
my grandchildren,
(one for their bones
and one for their blood)
they would be Calvin and Hobbes
and poetry.

Scoundrels, Tightropes, and Turncoats.

It was Andy Rooney who tweaked Samuel Johnson’s statement and said Religion (not Patriotism) was the last refuge of scoundrels. I’ve met my share of scoundrels, in and out of church, but don’t let anyone convince you Christian faith is the coward’s way out.

If an unexamined life isn’t worth living, an unexamined faith isn’t worth having. I am truly blessed as a Christian and person, but almost nothing in this journey has turned out as expected. It’s all been stretched and challenged. The struggle to live in authentic relationship with God, to honor and retain what Jesus did in my heart 29 years ago is constant and very real.

Of all these challenges, finding myself in a respectable Baptist church after decades in a controversial, militant, evangelical Pentecostal organization is presently the most difficult, namely because of vastly different approaches to salvation and saving faith. While one can turn the ‘narrow road’ into a precarious tightrope by legalistic regulation and spiritual-sounding addendums, thus undermining the completed work of Christ’s death/resurrection, the other seemingly reduces believers – flawed, precious, noble, fallen, confused human beings – into near inanimate objects arbitrarily selected by arcane process, divorced from response or responsibility. For those in the theological-know, I’m touching the classic Calvinism vs Arminianism debate here.

Richard M Weaver noted ideas have consequences, and it has been said Calvin wouldn’t be a Calvinist today, what with the way his teachings are interpreted. But therein lies the problem: interpretations and their consequences. Now I’m certainly not going to solve the Calvin/Arminian debate with my little blog post, but I’ll exorcise it and hope for some clarity at arm’s length. Maybe dispense with a couple of the more ridiculous caricatures foisted on the general public too.

***WARNING: block of Scripture coming

1And you were dead in your trespasses and sins, 2in which you formerly walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, of the spirit that is now working in the sons of disobedience. 3Among them we too all formerly lived in the lusts of our flesh, indulging the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, even as the rest. 4But God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, 5even when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), 6and raised us up with Him, and seated us with Him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, 7so that in the ages to come He might show the surpassing riches of His grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. 8For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; 9not as a result of works, so that no one may boast. 10For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them.
Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. Ch 2. Vs 1-10

FAITH AND TRUST
In my understanding, salvation comes down to faith and trust: what is real faith, and what do I trust in to address the sin in my soul?

We can all admit ‘faith’ is more than acknowledging the concept, conceding the possibility or fact of the matter. The real article digs deeper – it hinges on personal acceptance. We exercise ‘faith’ all the time: eating in a restaurant, getting on an airplane, shuffling out on an ice-covered lake… Our actions reveal our beliefs, and I submit genuine faith is an inner conviction that prompts an outward action. If I really believe, I act on it.

A GIFT
God offers the gift of eternal life and complete forgiveness in Jesus Christ. God loves you even as a sinner. He deals, reveals, convicts, but you don’t have to accept it. God will not violate your will.

If you do however, if you believe the Gospel, grasp who Jesus is and what he did, then it will radically transform you. Genuine faith changes the way you look at everything: life, death, people, money, sex, position, possessions, yourself… all of it. Not that we suddenly act perfect, selfless and eternal, but the core of our being shifts from small, self, temporary toward God, others, compassion. We start to concentrate on the important over the urgent. That is the essence of true religious conversion. I’m not saved by works/prayer/bible reading/faithfulness/sacrifice/evangelism/doctrinal confession… rather these flow from the forgiveness, redemption and relationship I have with God in Jesus Christ. They stem from my faith – a ‘root to fruit’ thing.

Contrary to a lot of religious spittle and rant, Hell is not the exclusive destination of homos, illegal immigrants and liberal democrats; we must all give account to our creator for our souls. As I understand it, God would much rather be our Savior than Judge – quite literally dying to know us. Knowing this, and that God sees all: the good and the bad, the wounds, the attempts, the dreams and fears – along with my sin and selfishness, the question becomes what do I trust in to be the remedy for my sin on that day? Do I deny it? Rationalize/justify? Demand God grade on a curve? Try to pay it off with good deeds, good intentions, religious ritual and observations? The enormity of moral choice, the gravity of sin, the perfection of God means all that falls short. Way. Short.

The offer of redemption in Jesus is free, complete and eternally secure. Its strength is based on who He was and what He accomplished in His incarnation, death and resurrection. You can’t get ‘more saved’. You also can’t ‘lose’ salvation as in ‘holy crap, it was here a second ago and now I can’t find it’

But you can give it back or pawn it for something else. It’s still your choice.

In the same way a heart decides to trust in Jesus as sin’s remedy, it can come to trust in something else. We are and remain free moral agents – Salvation and Conversion don’t change that. The language and dynamic of free will – calls to choose, invitations, the weight of decisions, accountability, the challenge to continue, to put some things off and others on, etc, etc, is throughout the Old and New Testament. This is nothing to do with ‘works’ or ‘earning your salvation’. You can simply repent of repenting. What starts as reliance on love and grace becomes trust in membership, spiritual disciplines and observances, ministerial success… the evangelical status quo as proof of ‘righteousness’ instead of Jesus. You can pull a Benedict Arnold return to old allegiances. That’s what Paul’s letter to the Galations is all about – indeed, that’s one of his main struggles throughout the New Testament.

Jesus is not a ‘get out of jail free card’ you play on the last day. Salvation is not a flu shot – one time and you’re all set. Grace may be free but it’s not cheap or greasy. Even a cursory reading of the Gospels show following Jesus required serious commitment. He made that quite clear.

The night before the Exodus, the Hebrews put the blood of a lamb on their doors, a sign for the angel of death to pass over them. I submit a Hebrew firstborn out on the street would have been chalked at dawn, while an Egyptian’s eldest son who sought refuge in a blood-marked Jewish home would have been safe. It’s the blood that saves. And any of us scoundrels can take refuge under it.

The struggle is to stay there.