Learning to Lament in the Midst of Tragedy


Christians need to learn to lament. We live in a culture that prefers to hide sadness, and too often, Christians have been found doing the same.

Every day, we encounter people who are suffering because of loss, instability, pain or regret and they lament because of it. And every day, Christians offer intellectual answers to the emotional turmoil that so many victims of tragedy experience, bypassing any need for lament.

We look up our favourite suffering-will-make-me-a-better-person verse and stamp them on the victims of tragic turmoil.  I hear it said all the time that since “Jesus will use your suffering for good to make you a better person,” you shouldn’t be sad.

Though the statement about Jesus is true, the conclusion about emotional repression is absolutely false.

Here’s a question that might be worth asking: How should Christians  respond to tragedies that involve violence, hate, suffering and death without disqualifying the reality and immensity of their grief? How can our faith in Jesus as Lord ultimately be a source of joy while being honest about the dysfunction of suffering and death? How can we point to something worth hoping for without giving pat answers about “sanctification” and how suffering will “make you a better person”?

It’s easy to miss, but there’s something mistakenly unhealthy about this common scenario because it fails to take into account the complexity of the biblical narrative and how Jesus himself responds to tragedy.

On the one hand, the Bible is full of claims that God redeems suffering. He reveals himself as the Redeemer of his people and the whole of creation. Indeed, the entire biblical narrative is largely about the how God promises to redeem a creation inked with suffering, violence, and brokenness.

Despite this, nowhere in the Bible do we get the idea that a victim of tragedy should silence their cry, hide away their tears and pretend that it’s all okay.

Nowhere in the Bible is the suppression of honest feelings equated to holiness.  Instead, an entire book in the Bible is dedicated to the very necessary human response to Lament.

Learning to lament is part of what it means to be human. And we see this throughout the Bible:

The great psalmist David expressed every emotion in his psalms and in the midst of tragedy and grief invited his people to lament with him (2 Samuel 1). Not only did he sing this lament but taught his people to learn and live in it, despite God’s faithfulness to redeem the situation.  When Mary and Martha lose their brother, they lament. Mary laments with particular gusto, expressing her wishes that Jesus should have been there sooner. Was she wrong? 

The narrative of suffering for many Christians doesn’t fit with the next part of the story. For many, Jesus should have just told Mary and Martha to stop being sad.

Instead, Jesus does what nobody could have guessed: he weeps. The God who makes himself into a man reveals how deeply he has tied himself to the creation he loves with real, physical, tears. This is the character of God; one who responds to tragedy not with a simple answer, but with his humanity.

The Gospel is not about a God who takes all the pain away with the click of a button, but one who enters in with great compassion and empathy, making a way possible for a redeemed and resurrected world.

In our pain, in our suffering, when we experience violence, abuse and exploitation, the God of the Bible does not stand afar, but enters into the suffering, offering his tears. Only when we see a tearful God, could we begin to hope for a redeemed future.

This is part of what it takes to become a mature human being: learning to grieve with those who grieve, to cry with those who cry, and to mourn with those who mourn. When we learn to lament with one another, we are learning to take up our cross as a communal act, and only then will we be ready to experience the miracle and mystery of the resurrection.


The One Thing You Need to Stop Doing with the Bible


It’s become increasingly clear in our day that people would much rather use the Bible  than be used by the Bible.

The Bible has become a book for anyone to dissect and use for their own purposes. Though it has been used to inspire good in the world, it has also been falsely used as a means to justify violence, racism, slavery, hatred, and murder.

Even today—through the impersonal means of social media—we would much rather use the Bible to argue with those we believe are wrong, rather than let it have its impact to redirect our misguided lives. Some of the worst and most poisonous uses of the Bible are when Christians use it as a weapon to fight with other Christians. One version of the Bible against another.

Indeed, this unfruitful way of using the Bible does little more than increase the wedge of division in the church, providing ample reason for unbelievers to remain unbelievers—something Jesus warned us about. Rather than be transformed by our interaction with the Bible (because it points us to the One who can transform), we use the Bible to assert our opinions and forward our agenda.

There’s this important doctrine that developed in the history of the Church regarding the special authority of the Bible. How that authority is understood and applied has varied, but its essence has always referred to these two things:

1) authority to reveal the character of God and his intention for his creation and

2) authority to bring the Scripture-reading community (i.e. the Church) into participation with God in his plan to redeem the world.

The Bible’s Authority has to do with God’s sovereign plan for the world and his desire to use a broken humanity for that plan. 

This means that the “authority of Scripture” is most truly taken seriously by the Church, and by Christians, when they get to work in the world on behalf of the Gospel news that Jesus has defeated that powers of sin and death and has begun the work of New Creation. The Authority of Scripture has to do with God’s invitation for humans to participate with him in his work to bring healing and wholeness and shalom to his world that he has neither forgotten nor abandoned.

That means that the authority of the Bible has a lot less to do with our opinions about facts, and much more to do with the lives we live. 

If you think you have a high view of the Bible’s authority because you argue with people who don’t agree with you, you’re missing out on the meaning of the Bible’s authority. If you find yourself repeatedly promoting your  arbitration of what is true and false theology on social media, it is likely that you don’t have a high view of the Bible, you have a high view of yourself.

The Bible’s authority refers to a way of life, and it wasn’t enough for God to give us a list of traits or rules to reveal this way of life. He chose instead to model it himself in the person of Jesus, revealing and making possible this way of life that the Bible’s authority points us to.

When we use the bible as a sword to slay others rather than an invitation into the life modelled by Jesus we grossly misuse the Bible and subvert its authority. You want to know if you have a high view of the Bible’s authority? Take a look at what you desire: do you increasingly desire Jesus and the way of life he embodied or are you more interested in proving a point? How do you remain in a posture that avoids using the Bible, and begins to be used by the Bible?

Discipleship is More than You Know


Over the last half-decade of church work I have wrestled with what it’s supposed to look like for churches to practice discipleship.

The models of church that I’ve seen most are built on the idea that discipleship means accepting ideas about God.  The more “truth” you know about God, the greater disciple you are. But discipleship is not about having information, because if it is, the disciples weren’t really disciples after all. Let’s just say they didn’t have their systematic theology in order. For the disciples, and for us, discipleship is more than you know.

At the180 we are looking at how there are moments in life that we need the courage to unlearn the bad habits we’ve picked up on our journey. Jesus often calls his disciples and listeners to unlearn something—which is hard, scary, and takes courage.  The sermon that kicked off our series on unlearning reminded me of how we tend to reduce the Great Commission to “coming to church to be a christian”, instead of “going out to make disciples.” The church at large has come to the conclusion that disciple-making means giving people a list of things to believe and then making them do the same.

But Christian discipleship is much more than some heady acceptance of ideas about God.  Jesus didn’t commission his disciples to make us into great consumers of ideas or “absolute truths.” This discipleship thing has to do with our hearts, heads and hands.

Here’s something: discipleship is a word Christians use but it’s not something only Christians do. Discipleship happens to every human. Every person is being discipled all the time—something is drawing us into its way of life, teaching us a way of living that we believe will bring satisfaction. Another word for disciple is learner, but not the kind of learner that sits in a classroom to receive ideas, the kind of learner that follows a person in the way that he/she handles life, relationships, people, money, everything. Ideas play a small part.  Apprenticeship might capture what discipleship entails—being with someone long enough to become a lot like him or her. And it always happens in communal spaces, like with friends around a dinner table or a sports games.

“It’s about life!” my professor Rikk Watts is know for saying. Discipleship is about life in the most comprehensive sense. It’s about being with Jesus in order to do what he does. It’s asking the question (thank you Dallas Willard) “what would Jesus do if he was me?”

One of the things we talk about at the180 is how the church is made up of those who are “called out of the world to go back into the world.” If discipleship is more than cranial consumption, if disciples is more than you know, and discipleship has to do with the way we live, then the church needs to be more than a dispenser of ideas. The church learns to be “the called out ones” in a sacred space to rehearse the life of the kingdom through the practices of singing, eating, and sharing together around a common Lord. And it’s in this space that we learn to be disciples together–learning to live the Jesus-life–so that we can go out and make disciples.



The Dusty Ones, by AJ Swoboda

A.J. Swoboda’s The Dusty Ones is about the reality of wandering. All humans wander through life, figuring out who they are and where they fit.

Contrary to what many Christians seem to project about God and the Christian life today, Swoboda wants readers to know that Christianity makes sense of human wandering not because it provides an escape but because it tells us why it happens and what it’s for.

Swoboda draws heavily on the biblical narrative as a whole, highlighting the wandering-like stories of Abraham, Moses, and the people of Israel. The people of God have always been a wandering people; indeed, it’s the experience of wandering in the proverbial desert that constitutes the real saving of salvation.

Wandering, the desert, is for God to meet you.

In every chapter, Swoboda confides in the diverse Christian tradition; from John Calvin, Marianne Moore, and St. Bernard of Clairvaux. He refreshingly draws on poets, singers, novelists, and theologians from every corner of the Christian tradition without prejudice.

Swoboda writes with pastoral candour; you can almost hear him preach what he writes.  His anecdotal style of writing is vulnerable and engaging; he speaks of his own wandering as a pastor, father, and husband. The book itself is a sort of experiment in the art of wandering, frequently offering nuggets of insight on the Bible, singing songs, and  the goodness of a simple life drawn from Swoboda’s own experience.

Swoboda’s honest and vulnerable expression of the slow and mysterious qualities of wandering will make you appreciate the transforming power of being present in the mundane; be careful, he may even convince you to start your own garden and raise your own chickens.

The Dusty Ones will challenge readers to let go of the clean box used for God and to enjoy the wandering mystery of the desert; the place where God encounters his people.


Why Church is a Like Dressing Room


12 Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, 13 bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. 14 And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. 15 And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful. 16 Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God.

Colossians 3:12-16

Childhood Sunday mornings started with the sound of metal hangers screeching down the pole in my closet. The noise informed me that my mother was arranging my Sunday outfit; the weekend was pretty much done and it was time to get up and ready for (what seemed to be) a long day of church. And it was now my responsibility the put on my clothes for church.

In the early days church was a time to see friends within the confines of  Sunday School and Sunday services. As long as I respectfully attended those events, it was fair game; I could hang out with friends before and after and sit with them during the service.

I didn’t have any theological understanding of what church was for; for me, church on Sunday was time to spend with friends.

Even though church, in my mind, was for spending time with friends, I have no doubt that each Sunday gathering was a place of formation: God was forming me in ways I never could have imagined.
While I was getting dressed for church, God was dressing me for a new life.

The life-long process of becoming Christian is God’s main concern. He wants us to be formed into a certain kind of people; that’s why the Bible often refers to salvation as a “new life.”

Paul lays out the characteristics of this new life in many of his letters, and one of his favourite metaphors to describe it is through the everyday practice of getting dressed.  The Christian life is one where we “put off” what is sinful and “put on” what is godly. When you become a Christian, you learn to put on the right clothes; a constant a putting off and a putting on.

Now, it’s easy to know the right answers to most questions about what’s right and wrong, and yet it’s quite hard to live them out. For example, it is easier to preach on 1 Corinthians 13, the famous love chapter, than it is to love my neighbour as myself.  It’s much easier to explain God’s grace to someone than it is to be gracious when mistreated. It’s much easier to sing about surrender than it is to truly surrender our bank account, our time, and our energy. Let’s be real: it’s much easier to receive and relish God’s forgiveness than it is to offer it to those who’ve offended us.

Putting off sin and putting on Christ is far from easy or automatic; at least not at first. Putting on Christ needs to be learned, and it needs to be practiced.

We need help.

Let’s look again at Paul’s clothing metaphor in context. A sermon I heard recently reminded me that getting dressed takes practice. That might sound bizarre at first because you might not remember not being able to get dressed, but I guarantee that you weren’t born into this world with the natural ability to dress yourself. Mom or Dad manipulated your limbs to undress and dress you into the outfit that they imagined for you before you woke up.

Eventually, (I hope), you learned to dress yourself. In fact, you’ve dressed yourself so many times, that now, you don’t even think about it. Getting dressed is second nature to you; you may ponder on the outfit, but the “putting on” takes no thought, it just happens.

Paul chose a brilliant picture: everyone needs to learn how to get dressed. And learning how to do it requires help. And once you learn, getting dressed takes practice, it takes time, but eventually, it becomes second nature, it becomes automatic.

But this is where it gets good: you don’t have to practice alone.

The way we put on holiness, compassion, kindness, meekness, and patience and love is through what Paul describes in verse 16:

“Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another…singing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, with thankfulness.”

Paul’s talking about what happens when the church gathers.

Sunday gatherings is our practice time: As we gather to sing, to worship, to hear the preached Word, to participate in Holy Communion and to celebrate Baptism, we are getting dressed; putting on Christ. God graciously provides the clothes, and now teaches us how to put it on, indeed, he puts it on for us. “Work out your own salvation,” Paul says, “for it is God who works in you.”

And as the Church gathers, it becomes the place where we practice “putting on” Christ. The place where we learn to work out our salvation.

As the gathered church we absorb the Gospel through our senses: we see each other and the elements of communion with our eyes, we sing and pray together with our voices, we hear God’s Word for us with our ears, we consume the bread and wine with our mouths. Every sight, sound and movement acts together as a means to practice the deep love for us in Christ. Hearing sermon after sermon does something to your heart, even though you don’t necessarily remember every single one.

Just as you learned to get dressed, church is the dressing room where you learn to put on Christ, and eventually Christ’s too becomes second nature.

Paul began the letter to the Colossians with the prayer that they would be “filled with the knowledge of his will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so as to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God” (Col. 1:9-10). 

That’s what church is for. It’s the dressing room, where we put on the clothes that God provided for us, the place where we can learn together what it means to put on Christ. Week by week we are putting on God’s love, God’s patience, God’s humility, meekness and compassion, so that we can get back into the world with right kind of clothes.



Can We Know God’s Will for our Lives? Part 2

In my last post, I suggested that a Christian should be able to answer the questions, what is God saying to me and how do I know that he’s saying it?

Unfortunately, some Christians feel they need to discern God’s will about what they eat for dinner. What we eat for dinner is not something that God is really concerned with, provided we eat with gratitude. An important reality, often overlooked in our anxious searches for God’s will, is that many life decisions are left for us to make freely. Some Christians walk with an enormous weight of uncertainty, worrying about every jot and tittle of their lives, when God has allowed a certain degree of freedom.

Through Scripture, we know enough about God to make most decisions. Some questions have been answered with a “no” and others with a “yes,” while many other questions are left to up to us. Imagine God gave you a watch. Would you honour him more by asking him for the time or by looking at the watch? I know that I ought to practice kindness and patience towards my wife, and I know that I ought not hate or judge my brother. However, what I eat for dinner is my choice.

Still, some decisions require more than logical reasoning and biblical knowledge. Some decisions we face beckon us to slow down and listen carefully to God’s direction. Maybe it’s prioritizing tasks for the week in order to make decisions well, or considering a career or relational opportunity that might change the direction of one’s life completely. There are certain matters we know the answer to, other matters in which we are free to choose for ourselves, and still other matters that require thoughtful and prayerful discernment.

Let me illustrate:

Pretend a coach of a soccer team has drafted you into his team. When it’s game time, it would be silly to ask about the rules of another sport, or whether or not you should try to work as a team with the other players. The first question is irrelevant and the second is obvious.

Likewise, to fret about God’s will for my dinner or whether or not I should be “kind” to my neighbour misses the point of discernment. In the first instance, we’re asking a question that has nothing to do with the game or even the sport, and in the second instance we’re ignoring the rules of the game we’ve already been given. There are also moments in the game when passing the ball to player A or player B will be your choice, and to ask the coach for his instruction in that moment would be detrimental to the game.

I know the rules, I know the point of the game, I know that there will be moments where I must depend on my reflexes and choose accordingly. In this way, we can understand “God’s will for my life” as referring to my position on the field and how I can best use my strengths to win the game according to the strategy.

In order for me to play well I will ultimately need to know myself: how am I built to play this game well? This is the task of discernment.

Seeking God’s will for my life does not dismiss everything he’s already revealed in Scripture, but seeks to understand my fit in it. What are my “gifts” in the context of the team and the strategy already given?

The particular will of God we seek is in the context of our participation in the life of the church.

One of the early challenges the church had to wrestle through was individual gifting, or vocation. Every individual equally contributed to the life of the whole, just like every part of a body contributes to the life of the body. And that body, being the church, exists for the common good of society. The question is: what is Jesus saying to me personally (now comes in the individual, the parts that make up the whole), in the context of our calling to be the church in our world.

We must learn to listen to the voice of Jesus for ourselves, but not apart from our team. So how will we do it?

Here are five voices we must be listening to in the dance of discernment:

1) We listen to Scripture, which speaks not only to our heads, but to our hearts as we contemplate its stories and teachings. Scripture has an authoritative power, not because it has special secrets about how old the earth is, but because it has a special way of igniting faith, hope, and love in us. In an overarching sense, Scripture tells us of the gospel news of God’s rescue mission to bring the world to its intended harmony. It tells us the rules of the game and the strategy for winning. But to know how we fit in the game we need to learn to read the Bible personally: how is a passage, a verse, a story speaking to you, in this moment?  When we take the time to slow down, listen, and contemplate God’s word, it has a special power to speak to us in a personal way, because the Bible always brings us to the person of Jesus who is the Word of God in the flesh. Sometimes this means sticking with one word, one verse, one parable or psalm or story that sticks out to you, and letting it resonate with you until your heart catches guides your head. Perhaps you’ll receive a picture, an invitation, a sense of gratitude, or a memory. This isn’t an easy discipline, but a very rewarding one.

2) We listen to people in our lives who can help us see our blind spots. Who are we reading the Bible with? Who are we worshiping with on Sundays? Who knows you enough and loves you enough to be honest with you about who you really are? But beware of people telling you what God is telling you: they may be able to guide, to advise, and even to offer an opinion, but only you can know the inner witness of the Spirit.

3) We listen to the friendships we find in the church, the local and the historical, the present and the past. Scripture has a personal and concrete word for us, yet keeping ancient friends from our Christian heritage will help us keep from making Scripture fit our own designs. Let the creeds of the church be the boundary markers of the soccer field, telling you if you’re in, or if you’re out. The creeds can also help you make sense of where you are on the pitch, providing you with an orientation that helps you know if you should pass or shoot. Our forefathers were at a different level in their prayer lives. Find an old prayer book to help you discover  new ways to foster intimacy with God (Augustine’s Confessions is one of my favourites).

4) We listen to our circumstances: how has God provided the context you are now in? Pay attention to the circumstances of your life. How are you to be faithful in your current circumstances? What do you like or dislike about your circumstances that you would like to change or not change? These questions force us to be honest about what is possible and what isn’t. But don’t eliminate the apparently impossible option, because God may indeed be calling you to something that in this moment, feels impossible. This listening is merely a matter of seeing clearly how God has been at work in your circumstances. Oppositions and obstacles need to be considered, but don’t be quick to take them as signs that this isn’t what God wants: God may very well be asking you to walk through a closed door.

5) We listen to our emotions, which help us identify what we love and what we dislike.   We tend to be suspicious of emotions, for fear of emotionalism, and end up putting too much weight on our rational abilities. However, Descartes was wrong when he proposed that humans are merely thinking beings. We are thinking, loving, and acting beings, far more complex that what Descartes suggested. Emotions are at the heart (no pun intended) of what it means to be human and in order to properly discern the voice of Christ, we need to develop the capacity to articulate what is happening to us emotionally.

All of these activities happen in the context of a life devoted to prayer. Prayer is the glue that helps us make sense of each sphere of our lives. Prayer is our response to God’s initiation; in prayer, we are always responding to God’s YES to us in Christ. Prayer is constant dialogue with the coach, cheering and guiding us on as we play the game.

Seeking the will of God is not as simple as a question and answer session. Discernment is a process, it is a game, or a dance or like being part of an orchestra. We attentively listen and watch the conductor move his baton towards a harmonious composition. As we learn to play in sync with the voice of the coach, God’s team defeats opponents not by beating them but by winning them over to a new way of playing.

Feel free to share your thoughts or experiences on discernment and seeking God’s will below.

Can We Know God’s Will For Our Lives? Part 1

Regardless of one’s stage in life, a Christian should always be able to answer the questions: what do I think Jesus is saying to me and how do I know that he’s saying it to me? These inquiries were advised unendingly by Gordon T. Smith; a scholar who taught at Regent College where I recently graduated. I can still hear him say it from a recent lecture I attended on God’s will.

Before graduate school I frequented a more-than-usual-charismatic bible college that echoed the importance for individuals to “get” God’s will for our lives. I tried, so hard, and for the most part, felt like I failed. I would spend hours on my knees, in silence, in prayer, in Scripture, begging God for a dream, a picture, a word–something for me to share with my peers who, to my wonder, could speak of God’s revealed plan for their lives with beaming grins. Everyone seemed to know their divine blueprint for their lives from start to finish.

I knew there something wrong with the whole endeavour, even though I wanted to believe that God worked that way. One of the reasons for my skepticism was simply because it wasn’t working for me, but another reason, more importantly, was that this way of conceiving God’s way of dealing with us discounted the possibility of being surprised by him. In retrospect, it was evident that the “God told me” language helpfully put accountability from friends, family and peers out of reach.

Upon graduation I went on to listen to what others were saying on the topic. I came across a little book called “Just Do Something,” by Kevin DeYoung. The point was simple: stop waiting for a special “word” from the Lord and get to work–the Bible is enough! The Bible gives us plenty of direction for our lives, so stop “obsessing” over the future. That made sense to me and it made my problem much simpler. We don’t need to waste time waiting, listening, slowing down; just be obedient to what God has shown in Scripture, everything else will follow. And when you have to choose between moving to California or Italy, or studying science or art, as long as you’re not sinning, either decision will be fine.

I have sympathy for those who approach the God’s Will question this way. This answer tells my generation of millennials that our life is vastly different than the lives of our grandparents, and we just need to learn to be grateful for the (too) many choices that we do have, and to stop being cowards who look for fulfilment in the “most ideal choice.” I get that. I too am tired of the millennial problem (or let’s just say realization–it’s a universal problem that we’ve only just seemed to have discovered and named) that humans including myself are in some degree or another ungrateful. Suck it up, make a choice, stop being paralyzed by the fear of not living up to what’s expected of you through your phone. Fair enough, some people need to hear that.

Sadly, this approach is much like the first in that it puts the possibility to be surprised by God out of reach. In both approaches what is complex and difficult is simplified and made easy.  In the first approach we get a clear blueprint for the rest of our lives from the mouth of God himself, and in the second approach we get nothing with regards to our particular context or calling. They’re both minimalist attempts to make a difficult burden go away.

The problem is that life is not as simple as we’d like it to be. And it’s not a new problem. God’s people have always had to wrestle with the question of God’s will for their particular, day-to-day lives. We see it expressed in the Psalms, we see it in the life of Abraham, David, Samuel, Paul, Barnabas and John; we see it in Jesus and in the church and its history. The stories of Gideon’s fleece, and Jacob’s wife aren’t exactly imperatives but certainly attest to the universal human longing to hear from God for direction and the far from simple predicament of our lives.

And in the New Testament, we’re told to do things like this: “discern what is pleasing to the Lord,” and “Listen, I am standing at the door, knocking…” and “my sheep hear my voice,”  and similar direction. The Gospel holds more than the promise of heaven or right standing with God; in it we are promised that Christ is present with us by his Spirit. And living as a Christian is to intentionally respond to the God who speaks.

But the Spirit is not merely present in some general fashion as the sun is present to everyone for whom it is day. The Spirit’s presence to the Christian is in the details of our lives, like the heat and light we feel and see from the sun. The God who takes on ordinary human flesh and institutes a meal to act as a means of worshiping him is the God who encounters us in the earthly realities of food and drink. And the particularity of the voice of Jesus means that the way he encounters person A will likely be different than person B, even though their situations are very similar.

Take for instance the stories we find in Luke 18 and Luke 19. The first story is about a rich young ruler who has obeyed the law as a good Jew. He approaches Jesus to know about what he must do to inherit eternal life. Jesus throws a curve ball and tells him to sell all he has, give it to the poor, and follow him. The man walked away, saddened by Christ’s words.

The second story is about another wealthy man named Zacchaeus, who is just the opposite: a tax collector known for cheating people in his own town.  Zacchaeus, the tree climber, was surprised to see Jesus approach him and invite himself over. Spending time with the tax collector, Jesus announced: “salvation has come to this home” which propelled a promise by Zacchaeus to give half of his money to the poor and pay back those he had defrauded.

What if the rich young ruler saw Jesus’ interactions with Zacchaeus?  What would he say? Perhaps he would wonder why Jesus didn’t tell Zacchaeus to sell all his money, or why he neglected to mention money at all?

The answer is quite simple and yet quite concerning: there is no single rule applied to both men.  Jesus knew what was in the hearts of both and spoke to them accordingly. He spoke the words they needed to hear. God’s will is not that simple.

The concerning implication is this: there is no formulaic voice of Jesus that works for everyone nor is there a divine blueprint provided from start to finish. My first experience in the Pentecostal tradition was right in its emphasis that God does speak today, but it was weak in providing boundary markers and accountability. My second experience with what has been called the Neo-Puritan movement put an important emphasis on grace and the aim of sanctification as God’s primary word to us in Christ, but did so at the expense of the important christian task to discern God’s will of direction in the day-to-day.

Jesus is a person and will speak personally, and he is God thereby speaking precisely what we need to hear in order for us to become what we need to become. There is no blueprint, nor is there a formula. The word of Christ brings new life, and Christ always speaks into a particular context that is always new and always unique. In my next post I’ll unpack how we can listen to the voice of Jesus when we take the time to listen to Scripture, the church, our community, and our emotions, in the context of the Gospel.

Mirror Dimly

We don’t yet see things clearly. We’re squinting in a fog, peering through a mist. But it won’t be long before the weather clears and the sun shines bright! We’ll see it all then, see it all as clearly as God sees us, knowing him directly just as he knows us! 1 Cor 13:12 (MSG)

In Saint Paul’s “love chapter” Paul provides us with a metaphor to explain our earthly limitations. Life before the resurrection is  life lived as though through a mirror dimly.

In context, Paul is speaking about the different aspects of worship that revolve around Scripture; singing, prophecy, preaching. These are gifts to the church to foster and serve love.  If love for God and for one another is not the motivation and goal of worship, then it is nothing more than a clanging cymbal; an out-of-place and misleading distraction. T

Paul goes on to say that we see through a mirror dimly because we and our world are infected by sin, despite our standing with Christ. The metaphor calls attention to the limitations of our ability to see and understand. Our vision is impaired, we’re stuck with a foggy overcast that beckons us to humble dependance on God. 

A mirror is used to see a reflection–of yourself, of others, of what’s around you. Scripture is the primary mirror that we use to see and know God and ourselves. But my reading of Scripture–and of who God is–is faulty and broken, and until I come to grips with this reality, I will not serve love. The God who Augustine calls, “Ever Ancient Ever New” is boundless and beyond full comprehension by me, and when I ignore my limits, I will become a clanging cymbal.

Today, Christians are bombarded with skepticism around Scripture. We are told not to trust the Bible because it’s archaic and erroneous. The temptation is to defend the Bible’s reliability in ways that ignore human limitations-we insist on the certitude and clarity of Scripture; we simplify what is complex and ignore the impaired capacity of a dim vision, the very thing Scripture attests to!

When I think about the authority of Scripture, I think of its role as firstly attesting to Christ, who is the full and final revelation of who God is, and secondarily in forming God’s people into who they are called to be. As Christians we are often good at bible study: thinking and analyzing what the bible means and what it says, while neglecting what kind of life were called to live. We often make knowledge a virtue, forgetting that it can easily become a vice (1 Cor. 8:1-2). What I want for Christians is to trust in the power of Scripture to shape their lives, perhaps only possible when we get out of the way, when we approach it with humility. Humility and acceptance of the dimness of our vision is where God encounters us and we begin to really, and truly see. That alone will serve love.

on Gadamer, Hermeneutics, and the Church

Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method: refuting the “prejudice against prejudice”

For Gadamer the words truth and meaning should be in quotations: “truth” and “meaning” .  He doesn’t simply discard absolute truth entirely but questions the possibility for an infallible method to access this truth. It must be this way if we really expect to learn anything, he claims, and thus  it must have the capacity to surprise us:

A person trying to understand a text is prepared for it to tell him something. That is why a hermeneutically trained mind must be, from the start, sensitive to the text’s quality of newness.  But this kind of sensitivity involves neither `neutrality’ in the matter of the object nor the extinction of one’s self, but the conscious assimilation of one’s own foremeanings and prejudices. . .

Not occasionally only, but always, the meaning of a text goes beyond its author.  That is why understanding is not merely reproductive, but always a productive attitude as well. . . .Suffice it to say that one understands differently when one understands at all. . .

He’s saying that the meaning of a text goes beyond its author, it means more than it’s author could have known, so it’s always productive, not reproductive. If it was reproductive it would give us a system that we could learn. Rather, it teaches what you didn’t anticipate and what the author did not expect to. The overall purpose of his book is the questioning of ‘prejudice against prejudice ’ – a reader always brings to the text his own foreknowledge, understanding, horizon, and the purpose of reading is for the horizon of the writer and of the reader  to merge together to produce a new horizon. It always goes beyond what the writer intends and what the reader anticipated.

We have assumed that in order to read a text accurately we must rid all preconceived notions, but Gaddamer says we can’t possibly do that.  Going back to Heidegger’s Dasein; we can’t see things completely new, but only in terms of what we already know, and what we bring to the situation. All our knowledge is interpreted, mediated knowledge; that is, we don’t simply see a thing, read a text, and see it for itself, but as it is in our experience. This is Heidegger’s deviation and adaptation of Husserl’s idea of bracketing. Usually, this has been seen as a problem (that you can’t remove your bias) – which is seen as a circle, you’re seeing what you want to see (i.e. eisogesis). What Gadamer and Heidegger are saying, is that you can’t read a text without bringing something to it. The only way arrive at a common understanding is through a common tradition. Tradition protects us from misunderstanding. But Heidegger is saying something more radical than that; we are always bringing something new to a text. We can never arrive at a completely pure knowledge of a thing apart from our own experience.

Perhaps this is how the Spirit speaks to his Church. Indeed, the task of the church in every generation is the read the bible with fresh horizons–horizons handed by the tradition of the Church, the narrative of Scripture and the culture it is calling to life.

Thoughts on Art, Salvation and Being Human

The question of vocation has loomed over my head and heart for many years. I’ve heard that most people don’t discover their true vocation until their mid 30s, likely because they’ve reached a certain degree of self-awareness. I’m in my late 20s and fighting to discover where my heart is. I’ve heard it said that God calls us to things we love, and makes us love the thing he calls us to. Joy is a big part of the process. Someone asked me recently: when did you last experience joy? Sadly, I couldn’t remember. As I thought about it, I realized that one thing that gives me great joy is helping others discover their creative potential, whatever that may be.

A few months ago I taught a two-part series on salvation. The first part was more of a doctrinal survey, and the second part asked the question: what does salvation have to do with culture? What are we saved for? With help from Andy Crouch, I discovered that salvation has a lot to do with restoring our human, creative calling. Man’s ability to create was not lost at the Fall, but his motive for making was marred. After the Fall, Mankind explored his creative powers for his own glory—for violence, oppression, idolatry. Christ, the true Culture Maker and Redeemer, transformed a cultural symbol of violence and evil—the cross—into a symbol of victory, power, forgiveness and redemption.  In our being reconciled to God, we are being restored to our original human calling as co-creators with Christ in this great drama of redemption.

I am thrilled to help others find their creative gifts, move past the insecurities that inhibit them, and watch them flourish as they contribute to what God is doing.  Let’s move past the typical stereotypes of who an artist is and what art is.  If you’re a human, you are made in God’s image, and you were made to create–you are an artist. Cultivate those creative impulses and put them out into the world in a way that glorifies God—and by that I mean, in way that reflects his plan for a New Heavens and New Earth—one in which suffering, oppression and injustice are wiped away.