Jonathan Martin

The Pentecostal Elephant in the Middle of the Room.

This is the kind of post that demands multiple disclaimers, starting here: I am first and foremost a part of the kingdom of God that knows no denominational or ecclesial barriers.  One of the reasons we say the apostles’ creed regularly at Renovatus is that I want our congregation constantly reminded that we are part of one catholic (universal) Church, so much bigger than our local body or our tribe.  But that being said, in the words of Dr. Steve Land, “There is no such thing as a generic Christian.”  We all have a particular context and social location within the body of Christ that marks us (including non-denominational Christians who claim to “just love Jesus” and “just believe in the Bible.”)  It just so happens that I was planted neck-deep into the Pentecostal tradition, with a grandfather and father who are Pentecostal ministers.

I’m here not only by tradition but by choice, despite my lifelong lover’s quarrel with the Pentecostal movement.  I’m in in, and it is in me.  It reminds me of when Stanley Hauerwas was asked why he at the time was still Methodist despite his robust and frequent criticisms of the United Methodist Church.  “I’ve just always believed you stay with the people who have marked you,” Hauerwas said, and that pretty much sums it up for me–though I do find plenty to love about our quirky tradition.

Doing an unusual amount of travel in the last month, I’ve had the opportunity to see different expressions of the movement a lot as of late.  In Germany, I spoke at the Church of God’s European Theological Seminary, and had the opportunity to experience the unique community of students there from 16 nations.  I was able to experience the multi-cultural, multi-ethnic Solid Rock Church in Ireland led by my friend Nick Park, the overseer of the Churches of God in Ireland.  And last week, I was humbled to be around a truly remarkable cross section of Pentecostal leaders and scholars from around the world at the Converge21 conference in Virginia Beach, VA.

Thus I continue to have a ringside seat to see the unique gifts at work within the Pentecostal movement.  Not unique in that they are not accessible to other parts of the body of Christ, but unique in that their distinct gifts are cherished gifts that can bring renewal to the global Church.  I am so encouraged not just by the charisms but the creativity I see among young Pentecostal believers.  And yet for all the ways that the movement continues to re-shape the face and character of global Christianity, I find that Pentecostal Christians (at least in my North American context) are especially reluctant to drive the kind of robust theological conversation we most need, settling instead for a reactionary posture to other segments of the body of Christ.  To be more direct, I was amazed at how many of my colleagues in recent weeks have commented that they feel like the younger resurgence of Reformed Christianity impacting young Pentecostal leaders.  It is fascinating (and a bit alarming to me) to see us consistently swept up into conversations within a Protestant framework that allegedly the Pentecostal movement has kind of already blown up!  In a session I led last week, Dr. Cheryl Johns said it well: “Pentecostals still seem comfortable being the icing on the cake, when we ought to be baking the cake.” (I am of course partial to any analogies that involve cake)

Case in point: a couple of weeks ago I wrote an entry in response to Mark Driscoll regarding women in ministry. I wrote it not because of any particular interest in or dislike for Driscoll, but because that is one of the issues within the body of Christ I care about most deeply and feel most required to speak into..  It is the most widely read blog entry I’ve written, and its been especially encouraging to hear from women in ministry around the world who felt they were well represented.   I have had no second thoughts or regrets about anything I said in the piece per se, save this one overarching problem I have with myself: that by writing it at all, I fear I  somewhat entered into that peculiar evangelical airspace in which everyone seems to be reacting, positively or negatively, to what is happening in neo-reformed world.  I do not wish to express undue negativity towards my reformed colleagues.  I think they have their place and their contribution to the larger body of Christ.  I just don’t think so many of the important conversations within the American Church need to be shaped by a monolithic voice.

One of the reasons I felt the need to respond initially was that I felt that on that issue, as well as a host of others, the distinct vision of Pentecostal spirituality was largely underrepresented.  I consider the modern movement to be the third great historic movement in Christianity, neither Catholic nor Protestant but an entirely different way of being with God in the world.  As Land notes, global Pentecostalism operates both in continuity and discontinuity strands of Christianity in a variety of contrasting ways.  (As I have argued elsewhere, I personally think that if comparisons are to be made, Pentecostal spirituality is if anything perhaps more fundamentally catholic in character than it is Protestant—but that’s another story for another time.)  For the purposes of this piece, I just think it should be established that Pentecostalism provides a very different approach to spirituality than Protestantism in any form (Land argues this brilliantly in his landmark Pentecostal Spirituality: A Passion for the Kingdom).  It is not, as popularly conceived, garden variety of evangelicalism with the addendum of speaking in tongues (and maybe divine healing), though Pentecostals have done more villainy than any of their critics ever could in feeding this reductionist approach.  Because we like sitting at the big table with other evangelicals, we have been happy to play down our differences so that we can have a seat within the Protestant conversation.

We do this because we have a rather brazen inferiority complex.  Pentecostals were birthed on the wrong side of the theological railroad tracks, persecuted from virtually all sides from the beginning of the movement for our emotionalism, apocalyptic urgency, and radical deconstruction of racial and gender barriers.  Since we have superficial commonalities with other fundamentalists, that’s where we’ve sought acceptance.  In our need for acceptance, we have softened the more edgy and more interesting contours of our way of understanding God, church and world, minimizing our potential to be a renewal movement for the entire body of Christ.  There is really no one to blame but ourselves for all of this, and I could go on for days about the maddening tendencies towards self-sabotage that are so pronounced within the movement itself, especially in North America.

Yet even given all of this, the fact remains that on the ground, this renewal movement is sweeping the globe.  It isn’t sweeping the blogosphere or the evangelical coffee tables quite so much, and that is not really an indictment.  Those circles are predictably white, North American (and not always that interesting).  I do not think Pentecostals should be so preoccupied with what is going on in these circles as to be distracted from making their own distinct contributions to the body of Christ and set the agenda for theological conversations they are uniquely qualified to further.

A couple of days after I wrote that piece I took my staff to watch this year’s Elephant Room seminar, put on by James McDonald.  I went largely in support of my friend Steven Furtick, who handled himself with great grace and humility.  There was a lot to like about the tone and tenor of the conversations that day (yes, even from Mark Driscoll).  I appreciated the warm, conciliatory tone that underwrote robust theological discussions.  I appreciated the inclusion of slightly more diverse voices from across the body of Christ.  It was less focused on the young restless and reformed, and while of course there were no women present (that would have gotten a really stern letter from the little high Jedi council of the gospel coalition I bet), there was more racial diversity.  There were many reasons to be encouraged.   Yet my central critique remains thus: that given the theological backgrounds of key figures, the neo-reformed/baptistic circle still really set the agenda for the kind of conversations that were being had.

That’s by no means all bad, mind you.  It is just fine to have a theological dialogue that, while incorporating some other voices, is largely representative in tone and scope to one part of the body.  I have no complaint with that, only frustration that Pentecostals are so beholden to such forums and never attempt to drive or steer these conversations ourselves.  Perhaps it is as natural as the fact that Reformed people, more systematic by nature, are more intentional than we free-wheeling Pentecostals in our approach to such things.

I like the Reformed guys fine enough.  I’m fine for them to have their gospel coalition and even their gospel coalition Jedi council.  I do think that in posturing themselves as the arbiters and guardians of truly orthodox theology, they can be smug and self-referential, but Pentecostals can also be (and often are) smug and self-referential of course.  The neo-Reformers can have a new Vatican if they want to.  I just don’t think it has anything much to do with me.  Since I see the Pentecostal movement as no more Protestant than it is Catholic, I have no reason to feel any particular kinship to say, John Piper than Pope Benedict.  (While Pope Benedict hasn’t been the friendliest to the charismatic renewal within the Catholic Church, I actually find him to be a far more interesting and nuanced theologian for that matter-but of course I have room for both.)

I just wish Pentecostals would step up to the plate and be as bold and creative and provocative as people of the Spirit ought to be, instead of just following these guys around and carrying their bags—that’s all.  I though the Elephant Room was a great event.  And I’m sure TD Jakes can rest a lot better at night knowing that Mark Driscoll offered him the fist bump of fellowship after quizzing him on the apostles’ creed.  (Because between the two of them the honorable and generally gaffe-free Jakes is the one who needs to be asked hard theological questions?! Naturally.  Now I have permission from Protestant white people to listen to Jakes preach without guilt.  Thanks for that guys!)

The Pentecostal movement is not just the future face of global Christianity, it’s the present one.  We produce great leaders, great preachers, and I’m sure much to the surprise to some of the Reformed Jedi, great scholars.  If we aren’t doing the same thing in the blogosphere and the coffee table or the pages of Christianity Today, that’s not a major tragedy.  But what would be a tragedy is that if young leaders within our movement neglect the resources within their own tradition in order to emulate those outside of the tradition—especially if its motivated by a theological inferiority complex and a desperation to be accepted.  We’ve got a unique, particular message that not only the world but the Church in these times desperately needs to hear.  I think its high time we start saying it instead of stumbling around in Saul’s armor, not trying to convince cherished brothers and sisters who need our distinctness that we are actually just like them.

Pentecostals don’t just need to be contributing, they need to be conducting.  We need to be driving instead of just glad to be along for the ride.  We are long past the days where, feeling shunned by the Protestant establishment, we should walk around feeling lucky to be invited to anybody else’s party.  (There are an awful lot of metaphors flying around here. I may feel guilty about that later.)  We’ve got our own party and we are baking our own cakes.  People who make a claim to be people of the Spirit should be among the most creative voices in the Christian world.  Too many of the conversations that are dominating the landscape of North American evangelical Christians are either redundant or asking the wrong questions.  I am by no means presumptuous enough to assume that Pentecostals have all the right questions or answers–we need the whole Church.  But I do think we have some of them.  At the very least, we’ve got interesting claims because we are an odd people.  And in the increasingly monolithic caricature of Christianity in North America, I think our oddness is called for.

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the nothing: reflections on loneliness and ministry.

I don’t recall when I had ever felt healthier, stronger or more greatly used by God in ministry.  In every single sermon, meeting, phone conversation and really any encounter with another human, I felt like I was absolutely on fire.  I was in that unique place of feeling yielded and used, that place where humility and confidence collide in a way that can only be attributed to the Holy Spirit.  In our time together, my friend (and elder at Renovatus) Jim Driscoll was telling me just how powerfully he had seen God using me.  He also commended me because he felt like, while God was in fact at work through my preaching ministry, I was allowing myself to be human in between (i.e., honest with God and others, not pretending to be Superman) rather than just becoming addicted to the adrenaline of those moments.  But then he said something that surprised me.  He said that as I continue to God’s anointing and call on my life, that he hoped I would not become too lonely.  That this was one of the chief markers of being used by God, a correlative loneliness that seems to grow alongside even gracious gifts.

I didn’t think much about it at the time, because I did not feel particularly lonely in that moment.  But I have come to believe there are unique afflictions that go along with being used by God (in and outside of vocational ministry), that are not only not contrary to His gifts and anointing, but almost prerequisites for them.  And I do believe loneliness is one of those blessings/afflictions.  It is a deep, aching thorn in the flesh that is not healed from healthy marriage and vibrant friendships, because it is not intended to be fully healed.  I have been deeply moved by the writing of Henri J.M. Nouwen about the role (constructively) of loneliness in the life of the minister, of how necessary it is to allow one’s loneliness and wounds to be used by God rather than buried and concealed.  I am aware that Nouwen’s context was unique in that he was a celibate Catholic priest.  But at least as far as I can tell, loneliness is universal for all of us.  It is not unique to pastoral ministry, but perhaps unique in intensity.  If we are to speak with authority to lonely people in a lonely world, we must be acquainted with the sorrow of loneliness for ourselves.  That’s ministry 101 as far as I’m concerned.

I no longer feel odd that, even given a network of great support, there is something insular, withdrawn and isolating that lives inside me.  I could not be used of God without it.  It drives me to need Him and to need others.  In the face of all my temptations to independence, it keeps me dependent.  No matter how mightily I may feel used by God or how significant the victory is, it keeps me needy.

People tell me sometimes they see a certain transparency and vulnerability in my preaching and leadership, and of course that is much appreciated.  But for me, that requires no effort, no courage, no special humility–it comes from a deep awareness of just how weak and powerless I am apart from God.  No amount of great sermons or books written or good works performed will ever be able to overcome the depths of that profound loneliness.  Strangely enough, being used powerfully by God at times does not make me puffed up, it ironically makes me feel weaker.  When I see God doing something good through me, I become all the more aware of how alien that goodness is–a complete gift of grace that does not originate from me.

The challenge of course is to keep that loneliness before God, offering it up as a gift rather than allowing it to isolate and debilitate me.  I am ever aware that this legitimate gifting, this anointing that brings so much grace and life to others, also creates a black hole in me–a vortex of need.  It is too great and too heavy for any person in my life to bear exclusively.  My favorite fantasy film since childhood is The Neverending Story.  When the little boy (Bastian) travels to the mystical land of Fantasia, it is being ravaged by a force called “the nothing.”  It is difficult to describe.  The only thing that we really know about the nothing is that it is a sort of blackness that swallows up everything in its path, a consequence in a sense of a lack of imagination.  For me, the phenomenon of loneliness in ministry is much like the nothing.  With it come the real fear that this vortex of need, the neurosis required of people crazy enough to hear from (much less speak for G0d) would swallow up the people around me.

What I’ve learned is that the loneliness of the called life cannot be eradicated (and probably is not supposed to be), it can be only managed.  Channeled rightly, offered as a sacrifice to God and for others, it is a resource for hope and healing.  Turned away from God, it is tornado in a trailer park.  For people who understand ministry as just another gig or merely a religious form of leadership, this probably sounds strange or unduly dramatic.  But if you know anything first hand about the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the undomesticated one–it probably makes sense to you.  The same anointing that will take you to the highest heights of ministry and miracles will take you to the depths.  Climbing Mt. Sinai to be with God will make you delirious with joy, but can also make you plain delirious.  Being used by God on Mount Carmel like Elijah will allow you to share in the delight of seeing God move, and it will drag you down below the juniper tree where you beg God to let you die.

Anytime I talk about something like this, I’m afraid those who do love me will panic or want to know whats wrong or think I’m on the brink of suicide.  But I am not, and I don’t even write this because I feel especially lonely today.  Nor do I write it as a complaint about the life I’ve been given, which is so profoundly blessed.  I rather acknowledge loneliness, not only as a universal human experience, but a particular occupational hazard that comes with the good life I’ve been granted.  Accepting that this doesn’t exactly make it go away, but it does enable me to at least rest in the fact that I am not crazy.

At least no crazier than anybody else who thinks they hear the voice of God and speak on His behalf on a regular basis.  If you’re not a little bit crazy, you may not be called by God.  Or maybe its the calling itself that makes you a little bit crazy?  Either way, recognizing something of the loneliness that is part and parcel of life with God (and its usefulness) is the first step toward managing it well.

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a manifesto for discipleship in the 21st century.

For the last year, I’ve been part of the commission on discipleship convened by the Empowered 21 USA cabinet.  Empowered 21 is a movement that is an initiative that is bringing together the Pentecostal/Charismatic movement.  Right now, I’m at Regent University in Virginia Beach, VA for Converge 21, a joint conference between Empowered 21 and the Society for Pentecostal Studies.  As one of the framers of the manifesto on discipleship, today I debuted the document in a session here at Converge21.  I’ve been very much encouraged by the response we got today as our commission looks now to work out these ideas strategically through Empowered 21.  Now that we’ve made the document public (though it is still a bit of a work in progress), I wanted to share it with you here:

A Declaration by the Commission on Discipleship

A Commission constituted by the Empowered 21 USA Cabinet

Spirit Empowered Discipleship is a dynamic process of union with Christ, transformation into His image, and participation in His mission to restore all creation (Missio Dei), actualized and evidenced by the presence and work of the Holy Spirit in the life of the believer, in the fellowship of the church, and in the experience of scripture.

With keen awareness of the age in which we live and the challenges that face the Christian community, we who sign this declaration do so as members of one of Christianity’s fastest growing movements: the Pentecostal/Charismatic tradition.  We speak for ourselves and do not serve as representatives of our denominations, schools or organizations.  However, we speak out of our rich and multi-faceted tradition and desire to express what we see to be the heartfelt cries of a worldwide movement that is facing both challenges and opportunities for witness in the twenty-first century.

The purpose of this declaration is to address the urgent need for authentic, Spirit-empowered discipleship in the twenty-first century.  We believe discipleship is the central challenge for our movement as we traverse the uncertainties of our time.   We say this with respect for those who have paved the way, but we are also keenly aware of the need for radical departure from the business as usual approach to our task.  In light of our high calling toward the reconciliation of the world and the beauty of a new creation we offer the following affirmations, assessments, confession and call toward authentic discipleship.

 Affirmations

We affirm the faithful witness of anointed teachers, who have labored sacrificially in the Word and in prayer so that Scripture might come to life through Sunday School classes and small groups around the world.

We affirm the richly textured, experiential Spirit-led worship that has not only incited appropriate response to the presence of God, but also deeply initiated our congregations into the reality of daily life with God.

We affirm the sense of community that has been fostered in both small and large Pentecostal gatherings, as it has marked the Spirit’s presence in our midst alongside tongues of fire—as it was in Acts Two.

We affirm the liturgy of testimony that has ordered our worship experiences from the beginning of the movement, the first-person accounts of salvation, sanctification and Spirit baptism.  These stories continue to embed the individual stories of the people of God into the broader story of our life together with the saints throughout time and space.

Assessment 

Pentecostals and Charismatics are not immune to cultural influences that emphasize a personal spirituality void of commitment to the core traditions of the Christian faith.  As the Pentecostal/Charismatic movement moves further into its second century of existence it is critical that the movement reclaim as its core identity a vision of the Christian life marked by Spirit-filled communities of faith engaged in the ongoing mission of Christ.

Current trends suggest that if we do not achieve this renewal in identity and purpose we will cease to exist as a people marked by the presence of God.  In short, we have failed to make of our children and of our converts Spirit-filled disciples of Jesus who can effectively communicate the full-Gospel of Christ to the next generation.  This failure flows out of fundamental shifts in our core values and identity.

First, The Pentecostal and Charismatic church has at times lost its eschatological urgency in mission and its longing for the full realization of the reign of Christ.  As a result we have distorted our understanding of the Spirit-filled life to center on personal actualization and abundance.  This loss has shifted the underlying meaning of the Spirit-filled life from union with the Triune God in His mission toward His creation to one of privatized experiences.  The disciples we are making are empty of a sense of call and divine purpose for existence.

Second, the Pentecostal and Charismatic church has lost too much of its sense of existence as a holy, inclusive community.  Privatization of religious experience has morphed our worship services into events aimed at personal spiritual enrichment and entertainment rather than occasions to encounter God’s Sovereign, convicting, transforming presence.  All too often we gather to feel better about ourselves more than to give glory to our Savior.  This move toward emotional indulgences has co-opted the call of God for us to break through barriers that divide us within the Body of Christ.

Given early Pentecostals viewed Pentecost as the breaking of barriers, they addressed race, gender and ethnic concerns. Once derided for such integration, we are now more segregated than ever. Our segregation also includes social, economic, and generational divisions.

Third, the Pentecostal/Charismatic church has followed the pattern of other Christian movements away from the Scriptures and sound doctrine.  Our people are Biblically and theologically illiterate.  Once known as “People of the Book” who craved sound doctrine, we have come to be derided as those gather around teachers “having itching ears.”

Fourth, the Pentecostal/Charismatic church has become self-serving and void of a sense shared mission and personal holy vocation. Though we celebrate the availability of the Spirit for “all flesh” and subsequent equalization, we often fall prey to a compartmentalized or dichotomized theology of vocation.  The Spirit as the great equalizer creates the possibility of the priesthood and prophethood of all believers and thereby should enable all of our lives, for church ministry to family life, from jobs and careers to our engagement of communities, local and global.

Confession

We confess that we have adopted the values of a culture of narcissism, consumerism, materialism that promotes self-gratification as the supreme end of life.  We have failed to disciple believers to be ministers of the cross.  We have turned a deaf ear to the call of Jesus: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.” (Luke 9:23)

We confess that we have failed to honor the Bible as Spirit-Word, a living reality that is God’s very presence with us.  Instead, we have adopted fundamentalist approaches to the Bible.  These approaches, while emphasizing the truth of the Word, fail to honor the active presence of the Holy Spirit in the text and in the community that reads the text.

We confess that like David attempting to wear Saul’s armor, we have adopted generic discipleship curriculum, believing that the addition of lessons on the Holy Spirit would make the curriculum “Spirit Empowered.”   In doing so, we have failed to teach our children and our grand children the contours of a Spirit-filled life.

We confess that we have failed to honor the disciplines necessary for authentic discipleship.  At times, we have become satisfied with little or no transformation.  On other occasions, we have overzealously sought miraculous intervention as a short cut rather than develop practices rooted in Scripture and observable by previous generations to posture us for transformation.

We have failed to cultivate the gifts and fruit of the Holy Spirit in both corporate and individual existence. We have not born witness to the dynamic, activating experience of Spirit baptism to our children, nor the holiness of heart and life that this experience demands.  As a result, we have given the next generation an impoverished understanding of the Spirit-filled life.

We confess that we have failed to incorporate our children into our worshipping communities.  By needlessly segregating them we have removed children from the life of the churches, the gifts of the Spirit and testimonies of previous generations.  We have also kept the gifts of children away from the adult community, and in doing so, impoverished our corporate life.

We confess that we have focused on the maintaining of established programs at the expense of authentic missional discipleship.  We have failed to distinguish between the mission of the church and the programs of the church.  We have thus failed to create new structures necessary to implement mission in a post modern world.

The Call toward Authentic Discipleship

We commit ourselves to cultivate a cruciform culture, making disciples who will share in the cross of Jesus so they might participate fully in the resurrection power of Jesus.

We commit ourselves to recapture the Bible as Spirit-Word, embracing the active presence of the Holy Spirit in the text and in the community that reads the text.  We will allow the Word to lay claim on us as experiential reality, rather than laying claim on the Word as if it is ours to control.

We commit ourselves to the pursuit of God’s empowering presence in Spirit Baptism and to the full scope of the Spirit Empowered Life so that our dynamic belief in the Spirit of God might inform and shape our discipleship process and resources.

We commit ourselves to the ancient disciplines/practices of the Church that make gradual but lasting transformation into Christ-likeness both possible and sustainable.  We commit ourselves to both the experience of God’s presence and the long participatory process of spiritual formation.

We commit ourselves to cultivate both the fruit and gifts of the Spirit, respectively.  We commit ourselves to bear witness to the dynamic, activating experience of Spirit baptism to our children, and the holiness of heart and life that this experience demands.  We commit ourselves to give the next generation a fully-orbed understanding of the Spirit-filled life.

We commit ourselves to integrate children fully into our worshipping communities, embracing the continuity of the story of God across the generations.  We commit ourselves to be our *grandmother’s Church and our great grandmother’s Church, a Church that brings reconciliation between the young and old.

We commit ourselves to authentic missional discipleship, not mere discipleship programs.

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The Shrine of the Holy Ghost

This little piece (and I’m not entirely sure what “this” is) was inspired by my time exploring Cathedrals in Europe these last 2 weeks.  I am not oblivious by any means to the idea or the effect of sacred spaces.  Beautiful buildings can in fact inspire me to want to worship or to pray.  And yet for all of their beauty, there is a hollowness to any space in light of the glory of God revealed in the humanity of Jesus–and perhaps even in contrast to our own humanity.  All this time, and I’m still not anywhere near getting over the mystery of incarnation, the mystery of the embodied God.  So with disclaimers out of the way that this kind of writing is not precisely my forte–I hope you enjoy. 

It is only good and proper that a deity so great
would demand a temple as great as we can build you.
We are well suited for this,
as our species is quite partial to building buildings.
We build cathedrals of stone and gold,
able to survive the centuries,
even a good sacking from the Vikings now and again.
We build sports arenas with state of the art sound and lightning,
able to change the ambiance at a moment’s notice.
We can do gymnasiums and multi-purpose rooms.
We can do kneeling benches or stadium seating.
Both if you like.

Yet in our buildings you are restless, unsettled, agitated,
Even buildings intended for your rest chafe you like the coarsest of ropes.
Indeed for all splendor, your taste in real estate remain most peculiar.
For where we are partial to buildings, you are partial to bodies.
Where we are partial to houses, you are partial to housing within us.

This is curious, even disturbing.
For while our buildings are hardly indestructible,
compared to our bodies they seem almost impervious.
Bodies of such eclectic sounds and smells and colours,
bodies that are shocking in their simplicity and their sophistication.
Bodies that are fearfully and wonderfully made perhaps,
Yet bodies so fragile and finite.
Bodies that we are so at home in,
Bodies we can’t begin to understand.

These bodies that house and enable
All of this heartbreak
All of this tenderness
All of this temptation
All of this affection
All of this DNA
All of this chemistry
All of this duplicity
All of this blood
All of this bone
All of this marrow
All of this joy
All of this brokenness
All of this wanting, aching, hurting, dying;
All of this hoping, rejoicing, receiving, living.

How could it be that you are so infinitely interested
in all of this breathing and digesting and touching?
That you could be so enamored with these bodies you made,
not merely to call us art, but to make us a shrine?
To take these fragile tents
and make a temple of the Holy Ghost?

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Why I can’t be indifferent to The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

I am not among the 800 billion people who’ve read Stieg Larsson’s bestselling trilogy.  But I did see The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo just after Christmas.  Since I don’t live on an igloo in Antarctica, I was aware that it would be a dark thriller.  For better or for worse (I am a pastor and all), I enjoy such a thriller every once in a while.  I think David Fincher is a brilliant director.  I loved Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ score on The Social Network, and had already listened to their rattling but beautiful score for The Girl with a Dragon Tattoo before going and duly enjoyed it.  I very much like Daniel Craig as an actor, and I’m thrilled when Christopher Plummer gets good work in his advanced age.  The Girl with a Dragon Tattoo also had, quite frankly, the coolest and best-edited trailer I had ever seen.  So I had a number of reasons to be excited even having not read the books.

Watching the film turned out to be an unsettling experience for me.  I actually sat down and composed some thoughts a couple days after viewing it, but never quite felt like my thoughts were clear enough to share publicly.  On the heels of my last post, which had me thinking all the more about how I am to love my sisters and mothers in the faith (and in the world), as well as a conversation with a friend in our church who ministers to victims of sexual abuse, I felt like finally expressing them.

For those that aren’t familiar with the story (SPOILER ALERT): Fairly early in the film, we get a graphic scene where the lead character Lisbeth is sexually abused on screen for the first time.  It was intense and uncomfortable to watch, but I assumed it set up who this character is and what makes her tick.  Then came the second scene in which she is sexually abused.  Her abuser chains her to the bed and gags her.  The door to the bedroom is slammed shut, and the camera slowly fades from the door as she howls in terror.  I expected this would establish the pattern of abuse and we are moving onto another scene—until a jolting shot takes you back inside the bedroom for a lingering, terrifying anal rape sequence.  This is all of course part of the back story of how Lisbeth will team up with a journalist to find a serial killer.

I did not doubt that the intention in the film is to depict these as reprehensible acts.  But through the lingering lens of the camera, there was something that felt disturbingly voyeuristic about the entire experience.  Keep in mind, this is hardly Schindler’s List.  For me, this felt like a popcorn thriller, an edgy nihilistic whodunit that, plot wise at least, exists at the intersection of Agatha Christie with the Dan Brown, John Grisham and Patricia Cornwell, not high art.  It was fairly muddled procedurally as a thriller.  If its intended to be social commentary (and I’m basing this exclusively on this film adaptation), that strikes me as disingenuous.  I’m not certain that a story this superficial really gets to masquerade as subversive truth telling.  The very presence of this kind of explicit sexual violence in a movie this relatively unsubstantial trivializes the issues it would attempt to “expose.”  I am aware that in this era of so-called “torture porn” (Saw, Hostel, etc.), this may not be the worst thing movie audiences have been subjected to.  But I wonder if it does in fact mark a shift for a film with that level of sexual violence to make it into the main artery of American culture.  This is not a niche story where greasy fan boys who do little but watch horror movies and play video games come to the theater.  This is a near-universal cultural phenomenon.

I have no problem with the fact that sexual abuse is a plot device, part of what makes this character who and what she is.  While it wouldn’t be a redemptive story regardless, there is room to discern different kinds of stories that are unpleasant to us.  Some of which, not unlike many I read in the Old Testament, will unsettle us or revolt us or make us say “I would never want to be like that,” or make us care more deeply about the plight of a discarded person.  My problem is specifically with this: I think the level of explicit, graphic sexual violence on display in the film, regardless of the intention, serves the function of both fetishizing and minimizing rape—an awfully horrific scene for a movie with the weight of cotton candy.  I am amazed at our inability to differentiate between what art sets out to do and what it actually does.  In the same way that I think that the Church needs the reminder that means are not neutral, that is to say how we convey the message of the gospel is as substantive as the message itself, and indeed in most cases is the message—the manner in which a story is told/presented matters as much as the intended message.

I later heard that the author of the books, Stieg Larsson, had apparently witnessed a rape early in life that he never got over, and that part of what motivated him was a desire to address sexual violence constructively.  If there is anything smart or novel about Girl with a Dragon Tattoo however, it didn’t translate on screen for me.  (Again, I can’t speak intelligently to the novel)  It was only afterward that I was able to go back and read press and listen to interviews, to find that there have apparently always been split reactions to the novel and the preceding Swedish film.  Some felt that in print Larsson was successful in highlighting sexual violence in his native Sweden where many of the stories of victims had been suppressed.  Some have judged that regardless of his intentions, the use of such graphic sexual violence in such an otherwise fairly conventional crime novel unravels any positive effect he could have hoped for (and that the sexual violence then plays out as misogynistic fantasy even in print).   There are others who claim the books handle the sensitive subject matter well enough, that it is in fact the translation to film that is the problem.  Both the Swedish film and the recent US adaptation have ran into similar criticism–that the films leave less to the imagination than the novel.  (While this piece in The Guardian was focused on the earlier film adaptation, it’s a good summary of the diverse reactions to both the novel and the problems with film adaptation)

But I do not write this to give a drive-by survey of pop culture as a distant bystander, but as a pastor grappling with how we handle these issues as the Church.  I think a lot of Christians are afraid to have any of their pop culture interests called into question.  We do not wish to return to an over-simplistic moralism that suggests that anything with strong content cannot have redemptive value.   We do not wish to make too much out of one particular film or initiate a tail-chasing “how far is too far” conversation that lends itself towards new legalism.  For my part, I have no judgment towards brothers and sisters who disagree with me about the film (and am very aware that I have tastes in my own movie-watching that other believers would find offensive.)

But while I have no desire to make too much out of the film per se, I do think it’s an interesting moment in our culture that raises broader questions about ethics and entertainment we desperately need to engage.  Sometimes I’m concerned that in the Western church we aren’t capable of having an informed enough conversation about such matters at all.  The rather vapid, uncritical moralism of the past (if it’s got a dirty word or a sex scene it must be from hell) has been largely replaced with vapid, uncritical laissez-faire moralism in which the morality of our entertainment is not seriously called into question.  It is possible for redemptive stories to be told that are in fact quite explicit, it does not follow that all explicitly told stories are redemptive.

It is not that I don’t think we should be open, discerning students of popular culture who are able to engage difficult content in a meaningful way.  It is that I don’t think we are frankly smart enough to be open students of popular culture who are able to engage difficult content with discernment.  The baseline of being able to discern popular culture in a broad, comprehensive manner is that we maintain enough detachment from the broader culture to see it what it is.  Most Christians in America, quite frankly watch more than they read.  And in the most broad oversimplification I’ve ever written: I don’t think you can discern media at all if you watch more than you read (and I’m not just talking about the Bible here).  We are often not robust enough intellectually or formed deeply enough spiritually to even think about the higher stakes.

We do not want the church to be known primarily for what it does not do or does not watch.  That would be a failure of Christian witness.  We do not want to be known as people who define holiness as prudishness.  We do not want to be the sorts of people who are unable to look eyeball to eyeball with deep human pain and brokenness with compassion and empathy, in real life or popular culture.  We need not run from everything that is sordid or difficult or complex, because that is where the gospel is most at home.

Conversely, what does separate Christians from the world is a relentless tenderness toward human bodies.  We consider the care for all earthly bodies to be directly under our jurisdiction because we believe God inhabited a human body, meaning there is nothing more holy than human anatomy.  God tabernacled in flesh, then decreed that that our very bodies would be the temple of the Holy Spirit.  It is why Christians, while we need not be squeamish, must in turn be protective of fragile bodies.  A body taking shape in a womb, a body rotting in a prison.  The body of a screaming baby and the body of an incontinent senior citizen.  A body in west Charlotte and  a body in Afghanistan.  It is the birthright of the church to show the world what it means to cherish, value and care for human bodies on an unprecedented level, since we believe both that human beings are made in the image of God and that God touched the ground in human form.  We know holiness when we see it, because the most holy people touch and regard other bodies with the greatest tenderness.

I have not yet gotten over the heartbreak I experienced when I read Chris Hedges’ Empire of Illusion, which has the most chilling (and accurate) critique of the effect pornography (and more open depictions of sexual violence) are having on our culture. These concerns are not simply academic.  It is difficult for me to separate the mainstream appeal of a film like Girl with a Dragon Tattoo from the very untrivial real stories of sexual violence I hear as a local pastor.  It is not that I think that everyone who watches a film like The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo are going to go out and become serial rapists.  But rather that I think the popularization of such films calls for a robust, prophetic witness for tenderness that can only come from the people of God.

It has never worked out well for us to attempt to bury our heads in the sand and ignore the darkness or the violence all around us.  I am not proposing that.  I am not proposing a return to a Puritanical refusal to engage with anything that we find unsettling or disrupting.  What I am wondering though, is what effect a prophetic witness for tenderness could have in the world we live in.  What if we were known not for squeamishness towards broken bodies, but a protectiveness of them that not only means that we bind up the wounded—but that pushes back at “entertainment” that does not honor those bodies?  It is true that many of our former markers of holiness have been arbitrary and unhelpful.  But is it not also true that holiness does in fact demand markers and distinctions?

Without retreating into a new legalism, I think we should be able to say collectively as the people of God that we care enough about these issues—that we care enough about broken bodies—that we exercise discernment when it comes to how sexual violence is represented on screen.  That we are attentive not only to what is intended but what is actually depicted.  If in fact someone else found the film unsettled them in a way that caused them to be more attentive to these matters, then I celebrate that.  But my larger concern is that in this culture of death, as accustomed as we are to a non-stop onslaught of visual stimulation, that it is possible to walk away from a film like The Girl with a Dragon Tattoo and not feel anything.  That there is no amount of bodily degradation left for us to see that could not be objectively, and perhaps coldly, judged only the merit of whether or not we were sufficiently entertained without any thought to the broader ethics of what we have seen, how it affects us, and how it might affect those around us.

I heard Elie Wiesel speak in Charlotte a few years ago at an event where he re-visited his famous quote: “The opposite of love is not hate, its indifference.  The opposite of faith is not heresy, its indifference.  And the opposite of life is not death, but indifference.”  The holiness that sets God’s people apart from the world is that we are consumed with the tenderness of God for broken bodies.  If we become so satiated by entertainment as to become indifferent to the real horrors inflicted around us, what else do we have to offer the world?

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Why Mark Driscoll is wrong about women in church leadership.

I hope that title isn’t misleading.  In truth, it would take a book-length work to document all the reasons why Mark Driscoll is wrong about women in church leadership.  These are only a few of them.

Since this kind of response is uncharacteristic for me (at least digitally), let me give a little context for my thoughts first.  Last year, I contributed a chapter to a book for Dr. Raymond F. Culpepper called The Great Commission Connection.  I was asked to write about the connection between the great commission and media, with a special emphasis on social media.  In it I wrote at length about not only the promise, but the peril of social media, especially with the ability to so quickly speak destructive words within the Body of Christ without safeguards of Biblical accountability.  I tried to address this constructively in the broader construct of a theology of online life.  To quote myself:

When we have such powerful tools at our disposal, making it possible for us to broadcast our every thought and whim to the world with such ease, the key to using media in our mission may lie as much in our restraint as in our creativity.  Within a matter of seconds, I have the capability to share my opinions about any conceivable topic or issue with the world in a matter of seconds.  But just because I can, doesn’t mean that I should…

I try to heed my own counsel and be cautious about what issues I do in fact choose to address in this kind of format.  I share that to give a bit of context to what I did this week—when I fired a rather uncharacteristically angry tweet about the “pompous” recent remarks by Seattle megachurch pastor and neo-reformed guru Mark Driscoll.   While there is much about Driscoll’s ministry to admire and appreciate, I have taken exception on many occasions in the last decade over remarks he made about gender issues (in general) and women in ministry in particular.  And I have, for the most part, remained silent—as healthy diversity in the body of Christ should be tolerated and I don’t relish the idea of “calling out” other pastors or church leaders.

For my part, I am about as ecumenical as they come.  From my studies at Duke, where I focused on constructive dialog with Catholic Moral Theology from a Pentecostal perspective, to my relationships on the ground (here in Charlotte just this week I’ve spent a lot of time at Elevation Church celebrating a city-wide revival with my dear friend Steven Furtick), I think I model a kingdom-first unity in both my life and my preaching.  I also attempt to be a very gracious, civil voice in a world that is so unaccustomed to civility these days.

Given such a preface, it might seem like I am setting up for an apology.  But alas I am actually writing my non-apology.  I don’t think I should swing at every pitch.  But I don’t feel bad in the least about the pitch I swung at this week.  I’m swinging a little harder with this post.  I have no problem being charitable to brothers and sisters with whom I have deep disagreement with, even on issues I hold to be sacred.  I never engage in gossip or innuendo about other leaders.  Even in the case of extreme sin and moral failure, I have nothing but compassion to those in leadership who fall and fail—and am ever aware of the depth of my own need for grace.

But I don’t like bullies, and I don’t like bullying remarks.  And for as easily as I find it to be compassionate to the failings of leaders, there is such a thing as justice.  For me, when oppressed and/or marginalized groups within the body of Christ are maligned, you stand up every single time and you tell the truth.  That’s what preachers do—we stand on behalf of people who are bullied.

I don’t think Pastor Mark intended to bully in this recent interview.  But I think that is what he did.  And given the consistent pattern of commentary (and subsequent apologies, and subsequent occasions for him to say what he really thinks all over again), I don’t find this to be a one-off fluke.  You can listen to the entire unedited interview here.  The sections that I took exception to are printed here (while dealing only with this section, I find it to be an accurate depiction of the tone and spirit of the interview), in which Driscoll suggests that the church led by the interviewer’s wife is ineffective in evangelism, church growth and discipleship (as well as somehow unable to deal with complex sexual issues because it is led by a woman).  It would seem perhaps such a church would, for Driscoll, be unable to be blessed by God.  In a staggering display of arrogance, he compares his own numbers at Mars Hill to that of this smaller UK church and says, regarding the gender of their pastor, “You look at your results, you look at my results, and you look at the variable that’s most obvious.”  For Driscoll, churches that have female leaders inevitably embrace a sort of bland liberal tolerance in which lives are not transformed by the gospel.

The big question from everybody has been “have you listened to the whole interview? Have you heard Mark’s side?”  The answers are yes and yes (Mark’s blog response is here).  Though given the history of these kinds of remarks, including in his own teaching and blogs, I fail to understand why it is that whenever he says very plainly what he thinks there is always this tiresome backlash from people just who say he is “just taken out of context.”  Pastor Mark claims the interviewer was combative.  I don’t agree with that characterization.  I thought the interview was indeed tough, but fair.  Given his history regarding sex and gender issues, I don’t think it was off limits in the least to bring up some of those remarks in context of discussing his new book on sex and marriage–it all seemed in-bounds to me.  But you can listen and judge for yourself.  Even if the interview was antagonistic, I still don’t see how you get around the fact that his essential response to women in leadership absolutely reflects his consistent beliefs on those issues.

To be clear, my reason for taking this on has nothing to do with Mark Driscoll personally, per se.  I have been just as passionate about defending women in ministry inside my own tradition.  (Those are other stories for another time—I just think its important to note that this is an issue dear to my heart in general that I have spoken to consistently, as opposed to just being a bandwagon critic of Driscoll’s.  People within my tradition know my, um, reputation for speaking to these matters well enough)  I am very aware of how my reformed brothers interpret some key texts on the role of women in the church differently than I do.  The argument that Mark lays out implicitly here, however, is not so much from Scripture but his own culturally conditioned assessment of the role of women in leadership.  I come from a very different cultural context that tells a very different story, so I will limit my remarks to that today (though the Biblical debate is one I would love to have anytime).

As a third generation Pentecostal preacher who has been and continues to be shaped significantly by women in ministry, this time I had enough.  Within my tradition, which is theologically very conservative, we have never had prohibitions about women in leadership.  From the beginning, we have believed that the Spirit given on the day of Pentecost causes both “sons and daughters to prophesy.”  We had women pastors and leaders while at the same time forbidding our congregants for many years to wear make-up or jewelry, go to the movies, swimming pools or beaches; play cards or play sports.  Women were not allowed to wear pants or wear their hair short, men could not wear their hair long or wear shorts.  And yet in all of this—women were fully authorized to preach, teach, marry, bury, baptize and serve communion.

We did this all in a tradition that had an extraordinarily high view of the Bible (I would argue a much higher and even more terrifying understanding of the Word of God than the fundamentalists).  We did it because we did not interpret the apostle Paul’s teachings on the role of women in leadership the way many Protestant traditions had.  We did it because we believed there was in fact serious evidence in the New Testament that women were in fact leaders in the early church.  We did it because we had a dynamic belief that what happened on the day of Pentecost set us ablaze with tongues of fire and altered our perception of reality.  Now there was neither male nor female, Jew nor Greek, slave nor free.  We did it because we no longer believed that institutional structures were the source of authority in the Church, but the Spirit of God that moves on both male and female alike to preach and prophesy.

We had no connections to liberal social movements, but were demonstrating racial equality in pockets all around the world years before the modern civil rights movement.  We weren’t demythologizing the Bible or playing down the blood or the cross of Jesus or the judgment of God (as Mark’s logic would suggest these are interrelated with the ordination of women as pastors).  There was a new social order coming in not through politicians or seminarians or professors, but from ordinary people who were taking the Bible and the Spirit seriously.

Today, depending on whose statistics you use (and the rapid growth of the gospel in places like Latin America, Africa and China right now make it hard to keep track with the explosive growth), but around one in three Christians in the world are part of the global Pentecostal movement, with staggering growth in Asia, Africa, and Latin America.  And now more than ever before, female pastors and leaders are bringing the gospel empowered by the Spirit into the most volatile parts of the world—to remarkable results.

Such is the case with my spiritual grandmother, Sister Margaret Gaines, whose work in the Palestinian community of Aboud has brought the kingdom of God into the Middle East with devastating effectiveness.  Still today, the Muslim clerics in the area send their children to the school she founded even though they know they will learn about Jesus, because the legacy of Sister Gaines so changed the character of the village.  (One leading cleric said “Sister Margaret changed the character of our entire community” when she left)  She led both a church and school there, and even served as the Regional Overseer for the Church of God in the Middle East.  After 50 years of missionary service, health problems forced her to retire to her home of Pell City, Alabama.  But in the last year, at 80 years old and never married, she came out of retirement to pastor a Church of God of about 20 people that was about to get shut down. I was there a few weeks ago to help her dedicate their new worship space, and saw how among poor rural people she is doing just what she did in her Arab community—loving the marginalized and the oppressed, teaching them the gospel of Jesus and growing them in the faith.  It’s a thing of beauty.

Now given Pastor Mark’s rubric for success, I guess none of this would count.  Her church does not have 12,000 people.  She does not have a popular podcast, and her books have not sold as many as yours.  She does not have a “bold” reputation for sophomoric remarks from the pulpit or witty one-line smack-downs to her critics.  I don’t think she’s delivered edgy talks about masturbation or the morality or lack thereof of oral or anal sex in Christian marriage.  She has had the audacity to lead both men and women, not only as a woman, but as a single woman.  (how relevant could she be?)  Perhaps this is evidence, per Mark’s logic in the interview, that God isn’t blessing what she’s doing?  She is after all only leading a congregation of twenty at this point.

The reason I can’t let Driscoll off the hook here is that he does in fact travel the world (as he notes in the interview).  While I’m not convinced that any of the insufferably know-it-all current crop of neo-reformers are nearly as smart as you they think they are, I find it hard to believe that he has not noticed that most women in ministry on the ground are not, in fact, mainline Protestant liberals who are embracing some leftist agenda, but fire-breathing Pentecostal females who are preaching the whole gospel with other-worldly boldness.  Or is the neo-Reformed movement so elitist and self-congratulatory at this point, that this escapes their attention?  I don’t mind you differing with me about the role of women in leadership.  For heaven’s sake, my academic work has been all about constructive dialog between Pentecostals and Catholics—who has a more traditional understanding of gender roles in ministry leadership than they?  Yet they don’t seem to hold these views nearly as, shall we say, pretentiously.  And at this point I’ve heard so much grating “we deserve a merit badge because we don’t ordain women” rhetoric in these circles that the act is getting a bit tired for me.

If numbers is going to be the judge though, I’ll play by those rules.  How about the many Latin American and African female mega-church pastors out there?  Or my dear friend Pastor Roselen, a Brazilian woman who got kicked out of her Catholic convent for speaking in tongues and went on to start the largest evangelical church in Milan, Italy?  I celebrate the unique work Driscoll is doing in Seattle, where he loves to remind us that he is making disciples in the most liberal city in America.  I might suggest it is no small feat to have a thriving Pentecostal church with explosive growth in the fashion capital of the world, a city far more cosmopolitan, liberal and secular than Seattle. In 2013, she is hosting a massive city-wide revival and celebration where Christian leaders from all over the world will come and celebrate what God is doing in Italy.  And yet in all of this, her fiercest opposition has not come from her intensely secular culture, but from area church leaders who look down on her as a woman.  From Margaret to Roselen down to many other female evangelical and Pentecostal pastors I know serving around the world right now, there is more than enough opposition from the devil, the world and yes in some cases still the church without additional discouragement from people like Driscoll.

You can only be so offended at me for this.  I am, after all, just trying to be the kind of man Mark Driscoll wants me to be—confident, secure, comfortable showing some healthy testosterone.  Mark has taught us it is good and right for men in general and male Christian leaders in particular to have balls.  Well I do, and since I do I have no problem saying that the boorish, middle school remarks have gone far enough.  I respect his right to interpret Scripture differently than I do when it comes to issues of women in church leadership.  But I find the suggestion that churches that are led by women are either blanketly liberal, intrinsically cursed by God and/or unable to grow or win lives to Jesus to be not only false but slanderous.  There is no way he doesn’t know better at this point.

Mark Driscoll is now 41 years old.  He’s got an enormous platform, and sometimes he stewards it quite well.  I agree with his frequent assessment (reiterated in the interview) about the phenomenon of prolonged adolescence among males, that many young men in our culture are stunted by their obsession with pornography and video games and unable to step into the responsibility of adulthood. I applaud the way he is challenging young men to rise beyond these cultural expectations.

I just think that in this area of leadership, it’s time for him to take his own advice and grow up.

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Church image: from excellence to authenticity

I was recently asked to contribute to a feature article for a forthcoming issue of Engage Leadership Journal on “Creating an Influential Church Image.” Several pastors are contributing for a variety of perspectives.  It’s a short piece, but I think it gets to the heart of the unique message and approach we believe God has given us at Renovatus.  So here’s an advance preview:

The dominant message most churches have heard in the last twenty years is that we need to create an excellent image—and of course there is something to that.  At Renovatus, we strive to do things well, from graphic design to web presence.  But what is often missed in our efforts to reach people that are over-marketed to is their increased suspicion that we are trying to sell them a used car.  In such an environment, where people are becoming increasingly suspect of slick methodologies and want to see all the way underneath the hood, there is a need not just for an excellent image, but an authentic image.

At Renovatus, our goal is that there be no discrepancy between who we really are and who we proclaim ourselves to be.  Since the Church is both beautiful and broken, we do not pretend to be less broken than we actually are (or less beautiful, for that matter).  The tagline for our church from the beginning is that we are for “liars, dreamers, and misfits,” an apt description of the odd assortment of characters caught up in the story of redemption from Genesis to now.  We do not oversell ourselves.  We promise only what we know we can deliver—an authentic Christian community of people deeply devoted to following Jesus in our day-to-day lives, fully aware of our deep brokenness.  We are desperately dependent on God and on each other.  As a church established on the baseline that we are all in deep need of God’s renovating grace, we feel that we can in fact promise to provide a safe place for people to confess their sins, praying for one another that we may be healed (James 5.16).

The Church of the present is attempting to catch up with the culture in terms of presenting herself attractively to the world.  The Church of the future is one that presents herself as she really is—broken, wounded, and desperate—but desperately beloved.

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The inevitable.

I am generally not a fan of any sort of thinking about God that is too deterministic.  I don’t tend to think that God scripts everything in advance and then just leaves us to run through the paces.  It is not just that those systems don’t appeal to me, but that they are deeply at odds with my own understanding of Scripture.  I grew up so intensely wrapped up in the narratives of the Old Testament, where the relationship between God and his people in the world seemed so open and dynamic: the way not only that God’s creation responds to Him, but that God responds to His creation.  I’ve also grown to dislike it when various notions of God’s providence or sovereignty make people feel like they are left out–or they at least wonder if they are the sort of person who might be left out, the sort of person who just drew the cosmic short straw and are stuck with a destiny not of their choosing.

I maintain all of that, and yet cannot ignore the sort of inevitability of grace I see in my life and the lives of people around me.  I don’t believe God chooses some and not others for salvation–that for me is a wrong understanding of the word “election,” which I will not go into here today.  For me it is very much possible to reject that sort of elite pre-determinism and yet still recognize the vast, conspiratorial nature of grace to bring about good in our lives against ridiculous odds. God’s intentions to bless his sons and daughters is an overwhelming thing, even given our most clever attempts to escape Him.  I don’t know that I think grace is irresistible (that it literally cannot be resisted), but that grace absolutely is inevitable.  That the grace of God when released moves with fearsome velocity towards happiness, peace and blessing–towards our good.  That grace that is not gentle but hard and substantive, less like a wind or breeze and more like a midwestern tornado.

I’ve lived much of my life in fear that I was destined to mess everything up.  And while I don’t doubt my capacity to create a mess, in light of the sheer scope of God’s grace and mercy at work in my life, I may not be big enough to derail things as much as I once thought.  Who I am to stop a cyclone of love?  I’m a big guy, but I don’t think I’m big enough to stop the beauty of God.  In this way, I am diminutive compared to the swirling grace and destiny that surrounds me.

Thus, in our staff meeting today, my text was not from Scripture but from Tolkien’s The Hobbit:

“Surely you don’t disbelieve the prophecies, because you had a hand in bringing them about yourself? You don’t really suppose, do you, that all your adventures and escapes were managed by mere luck, just for your sole benefit? You are a very fine person, Mr. Baggins, and I am very fond of you; but you are only quite a little fellow in a wide world after all!”

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