Review: Paul Tripp's Sex in a Broken World

Imagine you’re a stranded early 20th century pedestrian on a back road of Georgia, and you need to get to Atlanta in a hurry. Suddenly a man comes along and says, “You can’t do it on your feet! But guess what, you can use a car! A car can get you there!” Delighted, you say, “Great! How do I operate a car?” But instead of teaching you to drive, the man just goes on and on about how powerful the car is, and how beautiful the car is, and the fact that it can carry you great distances, without really mentioning how to put the key in the ignition and put the gas pedal into action.

As someone who has struggled significantly with sexual sin—particularly in my early years as a Christian—this is how I would have felt after reading Paul Tripp’s latest book, Sex in a Broken World: How Christ Redeems What Sin Distorts.

Let me explain.

It must be stated that there are many things in this book that Tripp does well. For example, there is certainly no book about sex in the Christian market in which God features so prominently. Naturally other Christian volumes take God into good account, but Tripp represents God as big, personal, and ever present. God’s character and motivations are always in view, and no one could escape this read without understanding that Tripp is fully convinced that God in Christ is full bodied and our only hope.

God is that only hope not merely because he is so grand, but because we are so wretched. Tripp walks his readers slowly and convincingly through biblical and real-world evidence that we are our biggest problem when it comes to sex. This is a point that needs to be underlined for most conservative Christians, who love to publicly and privately hand wring over the depravity of the world around us in 2018. Tripp wants to pop this bubble with good-old fashion theological anthropology: we are sinners, and everything we touch we break, no matter our circumstances.

Tripp works wonders here because he doggedly pursues the root of sexual sin, which is ultimately a rejection of God’s authority over us. He works logically through to bring this point out as self-evident by the end. He begins with a rejection of the sacred/secular dichotomy that compartmentalizes sexual behavior, and shows how sex is always a contingent set of acts related to all of a person’s life. Because it is, just like any part of life it must be exercised in God’s way, which is fundamentally relational. Tripp in fact doubles down on this last point, to great effect.

By the closing of the book, the reader has been exposed to dozens of realistic stories of sexual problems, thoughtful biblical theology, and many, many expressions of the gospel truth that only God can save us from our “sexual insanity,” Tripp’s rallying cry. So how does it fall so flat?

While Tripp is explicit about the fact that we are our own problem, and that only taking hold of the gospel can transform us, he fails at explaining how—just like the fictional man praising the car to the pedestrian. For a book to get theology so right yet miscarry on application is heartbreaking. Tripp rebukes us for being so individualistic in our view of sex, but in the end, he’s as helplessly individualistic in his presentation of sanctification.

What do I mean by individualistic? Simply that he affirms that a believer must grasp on to God’s truths as revealed in His word, but he says nothing of service about the other two things Jesus has given us to actualize these promises: His Spirit and His church. Learning a truth can truly be life-changing, but what about when we know a truth that doesn't seem to be penetrating our hearts? God is not limited, he can work with reflection questions at the end of chapters. But he has given us so much more in the Spirit and in each other. So while Tripp doesn't mean to, he will leave many with a functional white-knuckling through sexual sin, despite his good intentions. This is tragic.

There is another way that the book disappoints, which would have been unnoticed fifteen years ago but is inexcusable in 2018: it does not in any way speak to the goodness of God’s design of sexual complementarity nor to the challenges that same-sex attracted believers face, save a one sentence mention of a woman attracted to women near the end of the book. It feels as if the topic is an afterthought to Tripp, which is a luxury the church can’t afford right now. We have failed those in the church who are sexually broken in this way by ignoring them, why perpetuate this? Tripp had such an opportunity to paint a picture of God’s grandness in sex in this area, and he declined.

I have no doubt that Paul Tripp loves Jesus with all his heart and has been a great service to many people in the body of Christ. I have no doubt that this book will sell and encourage. But Tripp can do better—and the church must say so.

*I received an advance digital copy of this book from Crossway for reviewing purposes*

A Resolution for Redemption

The back end of Christmas can fall with a thud. The anticipation has built for weeks, especially if you’re a kid, and how can any single day bear that weight? Yes, the presents can give you a thrill, and the time with family may truly be precious. But even the best Christmas ends, and then we’re cleaning the dirty dishes and fixing the toys that have already broken, and piling up all the garbage into overstuffed containers.

For some, Christmas isn’t even joyful to begin with. It can be a harsh reminder of a loved one who isn’t there because of death or estrangement, or it can confront you with the fact that you can’t give or receive the nice gift, that you weren’t blessed with the family you have in your mind.

And then in the midst of Christmas hangover, we gear up for New Year’s Resolutions, which are often promises instantly broken, or expressions of our desperate desire to be different than we have been. As Americans, it’s hard for us to shake our instinctual belief that we can make ourselves into the best versions of us if we just have enough time and willpower.

In the face of all of this, it is so helpful to remember that Advent is the season of anticipating a birth, and a birth is never just about one day. We rejoice in birth because it’s a beginning, it’s the promise or the hope of years to come. It bursts with potential. After all, it’s not as if Jesus came only as a baby.

In Galatians 4:4-5, Paul writes “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons.”

I love this verse about the birth of Jesus, because it is alive with the purpose of it.

First of all, Paul teaches that it came at just the right time. When his prophets had been silent, when his people had been conquered, and way before the invention of YouTube to broadcast it all, God said Yes, this is it. It’s comforting to know that he loves to work in situations that to our eyes look questionable.

Second, Paul centers us on the reality of Jesus’s personhood. Yes, he was without sin, but he decided to place himself under the law he wrote. He decided to take on the limitations of flesh that he created. In love, he became one of us, from diapers to puberty to brutal death, all while demonstrating his deep care for us miserable sinners. He wasn’t just born, he was a man who really lived—and in him, we can too.

This is what I need in this sluggish, dark cold week between holidays. I don’t need to dig down deep and make myself new. I don’t need more stuff. I need to breathe in and welcome my redemption, to stop and speak with my Father who loves me. I need to remind myself of the goal of Christ’s life, and that he achieved it to the full.

For 2018, I don’t have any grand promises to make myself about me, but I do have a grand good news to share, as do you. May the Holy Spirit give us courage and opportunity to do so.

Review: All But Invisible

I had the great pleasure of writing a joint review with Ed Shaw of Nate Collins's All But Invisible for The Gospel Coalition, which you can read there, or below.

There has been a recent avalanche of books from a biblical and traditional perspective on same-sex attraction. Each brings a different viewpoint, with many writing from their own experiences of same-sex attraction. Both of us also experience same-sex attraction; we’ve benefited immensely from the variety books on this topic and trust that the church has as well.

The latest addition is from Nate Collins in All But Invisible: Exploring Identity Questions at the Intersection of Faith, Gender, and Sexuality. Collins—a partner associate at The Sight Ministry, a Christian organization based in Nashville that provides resources and support for individuals, families, and Christian organizations regarding LGBT issues—likewise writes out of experience and from a traditional, biblical approach.

But what justifies yet another book on these subjects? More books are justified by the other, more powerful cultural avalanche that has nearly buried us all—the new attitudes and approach to gender and sexuality created by the sexual revolution of the last 50 years. More recently, acceptance of same-sex marriage has slipped in the evangelical church through the influential books of James Brownson (at an academic level) and Matthew Vines (at a popular one).

Complex Differences

In response, those of us coming from a traditional perspective have had a lot of rescue work to do. But both avalanches have left us with a new landscape where some differences of opinion have emerged among those who espouse a traditional view on same-sex attraction. There has been friendly fire on issues like:

  • Origins: What causes same-sex attraction—is it nature or nurture?
  • Identity: What contemporary labels can—or should—a Christian use or avoid?
  • Orientation: Is it just sexual acts and fantasy that are sinful, or is it every aspect of someone’s same-sex attraction?
  • Change: What expectation of change is possible or necessary for the same-sex-attracted Christian?

These complex and subtle differences require deep thought, and Collins’s book is an important entry in this category. He provides new vistas in this conversation which deserve our attention. Though he lands in some different places than we do (for instance, in how we choose to label our sexual orientation), we both benefited from reading his book.

All But Invisible has some considerable strengths. Collins is well-read and engages with more secular texts (especially on gender and minority groups) than many of us have time or ability to. His description of the way church culture has encouraged the internalized shame of “nonstraight” brothers and sisters is crushing and highlights what we need to repent of and work against. Perhaps most helpful is his call for same-sex-attracted Christians to acknowledge—rather than hide or minimize—such attraction as a real part of their experience, and, like all truths about us, to put it into submission to who we are in Jesus Christ. It’s not erased; it’s transformed.

Aesthetic Orientation?

The most important idea is Collins’s presentation of aesthetic orientation. He argues that viewing gayness and straightness through the primary lens of sex urges misrepresents the experience of gay people and furthers the stereotypes of gays and lesbians as sexual deviants. Instead, he proposes placing the locus of orientation in beauty, rather than sex. This move has at least two strong positives that are desperately needed in the conservative church.

First, it militates against both shame and stereotype: we don’t need to feel guilty when we notice God-given same-gender beauty; we do need to confess sin when we imagine having sex with the beautiful person in question. Moral culpability is rightly placed on our response to temptation, not on the presence of temptation itself.

Second, it rightly captures the nuance of attraction. That pull toward another human is so much more than physical, and those of us who experience same-sex attraction deal with this pull in many ways.

However, the label of “aesthetic orientation” also presents some mild problems. It relies heavily on the subjective experience of each person’s attraction, and may overemphasize the difference between straight and gay responses to beauty on this basis. Collins writes:

If we are to speak of an aesthetic orientation and use it to differentiate between gay and straight, we would say that both gay men and straight women are, for example, less aware (in general) of the beauty of feminine personhood than straight men or lesbian women. (150)

And it isn’t merely among females; straight males, too, can have a deep draw towards male beauty that manifests in joy, appreciation, and intimate friendship, though it’s true that the art of friendship has seemed to wane in the recent generations. Beauty itself doesn’t seem to be able to hold the key to what it means to be gay, because deep same-gender appreciation and draw exists across orientations. Though Collins has excellent reasons for wanting to disassociate the center of being gay from sexual and romantic feelings, those feelings are precisely the difference between those who are identified as gay and those who are not. Instead of taking up the mantle of aesthetic orientation, the church should become more nuanced in our discussion of what same-sex attraction is, recognizing that it’s not less than sexual attraction, but also more.

Notably, Collins acknowledges that “one of [his] main arguments in this book is that being gay (understood as an aesthetic orientation) is not sinful in itself” (303). This is also why he engages extensively with Denny Burk and Heath Lambert’s counterclaims in their recent volume Transforming Homosexuality. Pastors, theologians, and strugglers throughout the church are making good-faith efforts to parse this question.

We believe with Sam Allberry that “desires for things that God has forbidden are a reflection of how sin has distorted me, not how God has made me” (Is God Anti-Gay?, 30); that is, our sexualities are fallen. But ever since we responded to Christ in repentance and faith, our union to him has removed the need for any lasting guilt or shame about our sexual feelings. This leaves us free to unashamedly acknowledge any ongoing same-sex attraction and use all the tools of the Spirit to say no to temptation. Our moral responsibility concerns what we do with our attractions, which leaves us in a remarkably similar place to Collins, which needs to be underlined. This conversation is between brothers and sisters—it is no war.

Weaknesses

The biggest weakness of All But Invisible is its academic tone. While we need well-researched, carefully argued books, the pace and language of this volume means that most won’t be able to get to the best parts or have the patience or time to digest its arguments fully. The temptation will be to soundbite it, which would be a travesty.

Though the structure of the book is clear, and Collins constantly references where he’s going, he often muddies the waters through digression and wordiness. A longer conclusion that drew together the different strands the book explored would’ve been much appreciated and would’ve help alleviate confusion. Because of these deficiencies, this work wouldn’t be our first recommendation for someone just beginning to explore these issues—they should start with Allberry, Butterfield, or Hill.

Still, Collins has provided us with a number of thoughtful reflections on some of the more puzzling and contentious aspects of the new landscape we’re living in today. Many of us writing on—and living out—this experience from a biblical and traditional perspective are actually closer to each other than we often think. We long for the same things: dignity, holiness, and fullness of life for all people in the church, but especially for nonstraight Christians who have experienced exclusion and shaming for too long. We’re grateful that Collins has joined this much-needed and continuing conversation.

They Both Lead to Fire

“There are only two paths in life, and they both lead to fire.”

Fire and brimstone preaching is a well-known, and often mocked, feature in certain types of ministry. The technique centers around the motivation of fear. By stoking the listeners’ imaginations around the horrors of hell, and the certainty of their going there, the preacher hopes to spur to repentance. Salvation from this motivation can derisively be called “fire-insurance” for this reason. People don’t want to burn, right?

I heard a pastor open up Matthew 3:1-12 this past weekend, and he made the provocative statement above. What if the choice isn’t between fire and no fire, but rather between types of burning?

The Matthew passage contains the introduction of John the Baptist and his ministry in the wilderness. A fulfillment of prophecy, John was preparing the hearts of Israel to receive their coming Lord. But it seems that some of the religious elite came to spy out what was going on, or at very least they came to participate but in a compromised way. John understands them immediately and warns them: Every tree that does not bear fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.

There it is, that stark message. Turn or burn. He’s not being cheeky though; John is deadly serious.

Directly after this word, he compares his ministry to that of the Coming One. John is known for baptizing in the river, but he declares to those surrounding him that there was a more dramatic baptism on the way. That one would be administered by someone much mightier than John, and it would be with the Holy Spirit and—there again—with fire.

Some debate has circled around just what this fire means. Is it just a representation again of judgment for those who don’t accept the Spirit? Perhaps. But I side with Greek scholar Grant Osborne here, who sees this construction as representing a total package, not an either/or. That is, some would be baptized with “Spirit and fire.”

Who would these be? Well, who were the ones who were baptized with water? They were those who were repenting of their sins, those who responded to John’s message. Similarly, those who would be baptized with the Holy Spirit and fire will be those who respond to the message of the one who brings that specific baptism, that is, Jesus Christ.

The pastor who preached this sermon did an admirable job exhorting his congregation to consider which path they were on—the fire of judgment, or the fire of the Spirit? But it stirred up in me a connected thought: do we in Christ expect fire, do we welcome it? Should we?

Fire is used to destroy, but also famously to refine. Unlike wood or straw, fire applied to gold doesn’t destroy. Instead, you find that impurities in the gold rises to the top, and can be skimmed off the top. If this process is continually done, you can work the gold over to a level of purity never found in the natural world, when gold is pulled from out of the earth.

The gold during this process is in a distressed state. It isn’t solid, but molten. It’s vulnerable in a way, to spilling, to its shape changing. It’s only in this state that the gold can be remodeled into jewelry or bars or what have you. The comparison to spiritual formation is clear: to receive the purifying fire of the Spirit is to be completely at his mercy, but also to be moving towards greater and greater purity.

Frankly, we wouldn’t mind the purity, but the process is unwelcome. We don’t want the fire of hell, but isn’t there a way to sit happily in the middle, safe from all this burning?

This safety is less desirous than we imagine. Safety from vibrant relationship to Christ.  Safety from developing our gifts to serve and bless. Safety from transformation, from putting away the habits that depress and haunt us and putting on Spirit empowered practices that give us access to joy and peace. Safety from a life fully lived. Perhaps we can have this safety—but do we want it? Is too much of this counterfeit safety a signal that it’s not Jesus we’re after, but a crude self-preservation? Is this a self worth preserving?

The advent of Jesus into the world, into a life, never leaves things the same. To expect any different is not to know him. This is a threat, but it’s also the fulfillment of what we’re chasing after all day long. If we have said yes to Jesus, let’s keep saying yes. Let’s today put ourselves under the influence of the Spirit by faith, trusting that he loves us. He alone can bring us to himself, and give us a new, forever self along the way. The refining fire is a fire of passion, and the one who wields it is skilled for our good. Can we trust him enough to choose it? What, really, is the alternative?

Shadow Catcher

Missionary, in some circles, is like a curse word. It represents the very worst of colonization, the impulse to vacuum up “pagan” cultures and replace them with what the colonizer has deemed proper. Like a spiritual Manifest Destiny, this kind of missionary expands religion hoping for grateful acquiescence but willing to extract obedience through force if need be.

This is unrecognizable to me, as a staff member of Cru, one of the largest missionary forces in the world. But I was confronted with how painfully real this image was and is to many as I read the biography of Edward S. Curtis in Tim Egan’s Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher: The Epic Life and Immortal Photographs of Edward Curtis.

One hundred years ago, Curtis, a man I have never heard of before, gave his life to capturing the cultures of Native Americans as they were before Europeans came to colonize. That is, as much as he could capture. Many of the peoples and ways were rapidly slipping away. As Curtis traveled amongst dozens of the people groups of North America, he began to truly love them. Perhaps he even idealized them. Nonetheless, his heart burned against the injustices they had faced, and he worked tirelessly, even recklessly, to preserve authentic customs and real, powerful lives on film and in writing.

Curtis had grown up the American West, the son of an itinerant preacher. His father never made much of himself, and is presented by Egan as a tragic figure. The reader isn’t exposed to what that man thought of the gospel, what methods he used, or even the primary audience he was ministering to. But it was clear that whatever exposure the younger Curtis had to the Bible left him unmoved.

How opposite his interactions with the various native faiths he encountered. Through patience, observation, and humility, Curtis gained access to many sacred rituals, such as the Snake Dance of the Hopi and the Yeibichai Dance of the Navajo. He was transfixed. While stereotypes and gross misrepresentation of Native life abounded in white America, Curtis saw real humans. He experienced communities of integrity, warmth, and deep spirituality, not confined to ceremony alone but certainly present in it. And he was transformed.

Paradoxically, this gave him a kind of missionary zeal to explain the Native life for the broader American culture. For example, during a traveling exposition of his work, he stated “It is often said of certain tribes that they are sun-worshippers…To call them sun-worshippers is, I believe, in most instances about as nearly right as it would be to call all Christian people cross-worshippers. In other words, the sun is but the symbol of the power”(211,12).

By drawing this analogy, Curtis was working hard to communicate well to a predominantly Christian audience - culturally, at least. But he didn’t hide that it was often “Christian” workers who had spread false views of native religion, and missionaries who traveled far and wide to crush native ceremonies, to wipe them away. A missionary to him was one who destroyed, not one who brought life. The most vibrant community of natives Curtis ever met were the only ones that missionaries hadn’t yet reached, way up in the arctic north near Russia.

The drive to preserve, interpret, and protect pre-colonization Native life consumed Curtis, destroying his health and family. Late in life, literally on trial for how he could be so famous and yet possess zero assets, working for free to support whole peoples but neglecting his wife and children, Curtis was asked by a judge why he would do such a thing. This masculine symbol of American fortitude cried on the stand as he answered, “Your honor, it was my job. The only thing…the only thing I could do that was worth doing” (293).

On reading this, my heart overflowed for this broken man, long dead. I have felt the same pull myself, but towards the gospel mission.

I have no reliable sense of what irony actually is, but this feels ironic to me: a man on a mission for the faith of others, whose greatest enemy seemed to be Christian missionaries, embodying the self-sacrifice that their Lord asked of them. It produced two tragedies, equally weighty.

The first is that Curtis pursued a beautiful thing in destructive ways. To pour out one’s life for the sake of others is truly Christlike. To neglect one’s family, the wife of one’s youth, is not. Nor was Curtis able or willing to offer the gospel. He was unable to save the native cultures he loved, nor was he able to offer them reconciliation with the God who made and loved them-a double loss.

But the second tragedy is more severe, because it is a failure of the church. How could those coming in the name of Jesus, Jesus who would never break a broken reed or tread on a vulnerable heart, how could they come with such cultural imperialism? It is great sin to conflate the universal gospel with any specific cultural expression, a sin which wreaks unspeakable damage. If you can read this book, and its story of native demise, without weeping, I suspect you have no heart.

This story demanded that I look at my own heart, and my own expression of mission. Are there any places where I would demand a person change beyond what the gospel asks, to conform to something in me or my culture that is unnecessary and even harmful to God’s purposes? The gospel is God’s beautiful power, but it is wielded by imperfect, sinful humans. We must take great care, friends. We must go, but we must go in God’s Spirit, asking much forgiveness for what has been wrought before us where necessary. God help us to have courage and humility in equal measure—to love like Curtis, but even more, to love like Christ. 

Hurricane

 

When the water comes, you don’t think in inches. You think in furniture, in body parts, in whole buildings. It starts walking up the steps, swallowing to the waist, to the neck, drowning the neighbor’s home to the roof.

“The floods have lifted up, O LORD,
               the floods have lifted up their voice;
               the floods lift up their roaring.”

Hurricane Harvey began as a small storm on the western coast of Africa, and made its way across the Atlantic. Thirteen days later, engorged with water, it slammed into the United States, the strongest to strike Texas in a generation. The water lifted, constantly lifted, disfiguring and disorienting Houston and swaths of the area around it. Its departure was meager relief, disaster and death strewn in its wake.

“The floods have lifted up, O LORD,
               the floods have lifted up their voice;
               the floods lift up their roaring.”

These words from Psalm 93, with their rhythmic build, mimic the terror they describe. The floods, the floods, the floods—Hebrew poetry doesn’t major on three-fold repetition, it jars the reader intentionally. The floods are personified too, and they don’t just speak, their voices lift like a watery host, building to a roar.

This menace rises in the middle of the psalm after its opening declaration of the LORD God’s power, visualized in the imagery of royal robes. The poet proclaims, “Your throne is established from of old; you are from everlasting.”

But these rebellious floods. In the face of the God who speaks stars into being, they roar, they taunt, they bring destruction and death. The sea, chaotic water, is a frequent symbol of evil in the Bible, a potent picture since humanity is so vulnerable before its power. Too many of our neighbors have wailed in grief these past months, realizing this bitterly, even in the safety of modern life.

Then immediately the response:

“Mightier than the thunders of many waters,
                mightier than the waves of the sea,
                the LORD on high is mighty!”

The LORD is not vulnerable, he is high above. The waters can’t crush him—they don’t even reach his feet. Their rebellion and chaos are matched, more than. He will calm them.

But is this good news for us?

We are born rebels. Whether roaring or murmuring, we are born hating God’s claim to authority, distrusting his goodness, his beauty, even his existence. We say, Surely we are wise enough to rule the world. Surely we know enough to make the best choices for ourselves. Surely we are self-made people, mighty and good.

God’s might in this poem, his forever-robed power, is meant for the staying of rebellion. While some rebellions in history have been just and right, rebellion against God only masquerades as righteous. It borrows the heroic narratives of the justified but brings the destruction of a flood: all encompassing, smothering death. Lungs filled, but with counterfeit substance.

Is it a forever-drowning? After all, as the psalm ends, the verdict is clear: God’s laws and covenant are trustworthy. The holiness that adorns his house is forever. We are unholy covenant breakers, how can we stand?

We stand because he is not only mighty, but full of rescuing love. In the aftermath of Harvey and the other storms, it was the rescue stories that showed the reflection of God in us. Women and men who plowed into the waters to save their children, their neighbors, even strangers. Some lost their lives in the effort, and we feel the nobility of it, the humanity of it, the love of it.

Jesus became human to perform this rescuing love. His whole life bore its marks, and it was demonstrated finally when he was dying. The flood of God’s wrath crept up his body, swallowing it totally on the cross that was lifted from the earth, even up to the heavens which went dark. He was drowned by the cup, saving us. Mighty, he went under while lifting us over his head. His lungs filled with the water of judgment, our lungs breathed true for the first time with new life.

Psalm 93 tells of God’s steadfast might against the chaos of watery death. The whole Bible tells of his steadfast love for its victims and perpetrators. He is robed in majesty, and he offers you the clothes of salvation—beautiful, breathtaking wedding clothes, so much more than the wool blankets of rescue workers. They are held out for you to take, they are held out for your joy in the LORD who loves you. An everlasting joy for an everlasting God.

Original Diversity

“Xenophobe Triggered By Great Multitude In Revelation 7”

The humor of this Babylon Bee piece sparks to flame because it pits a realistic stereotype of a political conservative against an established biblical fact: God has always been about all nations— the coming consummation of the kingdom will famously feature every tribe, tongue and nation.

Jesus became incarnated as a particular male in a particular culture and place, in order to rescue the whole church, scattered across space and time. This is should come as no surprise to any Bible reader, and should be fruitfully used in our witness to a world that cares increasingly about diversity. Their heart in this, though imperfect, echoes God’s, and this should be celebrated.

But diversity isn’t something that God is waiting to institute, a final act to show his benevolence. Diversity has been a priority for God from act one.  

So God created humanity in his own image
in his own image he created it
male and female he created them

There is more to be said about this small poem than can be contained in any one post. It has captured imaginations and started fights. But as I turned it over in my mind the other day, it was the diversity that struck me.

It celebrates unity of course, as the male and the female together make up the collective noun translated humanity, or mankind, or people (and hence the “it” of line two). But that noun, and that reality, was designed to embody one necessary diversity: male and female.

Before heaven, we will never experience full cultural diversity; any church in rural New Hampshire can amen to that. We’ll have to wait for that coming multitude, as we’ll need brand new upgraded hearts to be able to contain that kind of joy, I suspect. In fact it will be more than just intra-human diversity—it will be God with his people, diversity of kind on a different level. But even the primal diversity of female and male in the first humans points us to both of these types of new earth diversities to come.

First, it was the source of all human diversity, since God made from one man all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth. That is, this first diversity spawns all the others, and is its seedbed. Each of us owes our very lives to it and to the male female diversity directly responsible for us. Second, it was in itself a picture of God and his people, different yet united in love and commitment, as Paul points out about marriage in general in Ephesians 5.

This is one reason why gender diversity within marriage remains such a powerful good today. Just like the first marriage, it points to these same two realities, performing the beauty of unity amidst fundamental diversity in all seasons, without sugar coating, in the thickness of real life. It is the seedbed of new life and thus new difference, just as the first couple. It is also a living, moving replica of the one marriage in heaven, however imperfect. Of course married couples have more differences than just their sex and gender, but there is something visceral, visual, powerful, about the diverse nature of male and female together making up full humanity. In a generation that loves diversity, can we make this vision sing? I think it is there for the taking.

 

Guest Post: Love Without Boundaries

Hey friends--today I'm featuring a wedding speech that my good friend Dr. Greg Nelson wrote and delivered on the occasion of his brother-in-law's wedding this past summer. I found it deeply moving; even though written for a particular couple on a particular day, its theme is universal. I have lightly edited it, and present it to you for your joy and consideration:

A love without boundaries: It speaks to the supernatural and the transcendent as well as to the practical daily realities you bear with one another.

Integrating two people with different cultures is an obvious challenge. However, I think every couple should reflect on this, whether from opposite ends of the world or opposite sides of the same street. Even if you both came from the same small village with one faith, one language, and one skin tone, once you live together, you will discover that your mate is crazy. And each person is her own microcosm of little "C" cultural preferences and observances.

But what I most want to share with you today are thoughts on the greatest and most guarded of boundaries - the self. 

As you have and will continue to discover, even the most ardent love must lay siege to the fortress of self-preservation. This is where the transcendent and poetic meet the mundane and everyday. Our self-preservation takes many forms - the need to win an argument, the desire to meet our needs first, the lies that hide our imperfections, the retreats that avoid vulnerability.

But a real love without boundaries is one that razes even this final wall of self protection - daily laying down our own agenda and looking first to the other's good.  In our generation, this is heresy. We are taught you cannot love another until you love first yourself. Shouldn't love make me happy, we ask? Isn't all this selflessness just for fantasies and fairy tales?

Let me add another layer to the discussion. Our generation prizes keeping doors open, having a multitude of options at our fingertips, disposing of things the moment their newness fades. "Love without boundaries" is appealing to us because it sounds like freedom - no constraints, no rules. Many think of marriage, a commitment to only one person for the rest of your life, as a dungeon door slamming shut; we joke about a spouse as one's "ball and chain." But I want to encourage you both that in fact, the opposite is true.

As you stand here today, making this commitment to forsake all others and stay by each other's side until death do you part, you are in fact on the precipice of a truly limitless love.

I know that Le Petit Prince is a book with special meaning to both of you. Many of you may be familiar with it. In it, a child-like prince from another planet travels to Earth learns what it truly means to love another.

You will remember that in his journey, the little prince meets a fox. In the beginning, the fox is just an ordinary fox like a thousand other foxes in the world, and the prince like a million other boys. But as they cultivate their friendship, day by day, in the words of the fox, they "tame" one another. Through their mutual investment and connectedness they become priceless to one another.

Sounds nice, right? Well, don't be mistaken, this comes at a cost - the lost opportunity to experience other competing relationships and the certainty of future pain and loss. But this exclusivity is the doorway to the most fundamental of human hopes: to be fully known and fully loved.

As you stand here today, it is not that you have found "the One" who will make you perfectly happy. Instead, you are choosing to be "the One" to the other. Through your regular daily life, you will practice saying "no" to other people or things you may want, SO THAT you can say "yes" to each other. This process repeated will transform this person standing in front of you today into a diamond in a world full of shiny rocks. The boundary of your exclusive commitment to one another in marriage is actually the foundation for the limitless love you seek.

Remember the shock of the prince, when he finds out that the rose he thought was unique in the whole universe in fact looks just like the other thousands of roses on Earth? But after he has tamed and been tamed by the fox, he recognizes the true beauty of his rose lies in their shared experience.

He says this,

"People where you live grow five thousand roses in one garden ...yet they don't find what they are looking for. And yet what they are looking for could be found in a single rose. But eyes are blind. You have to look with the heart."

This is the real fulfillment of the love you seek. Not every couple finds this path. Alas most do not. Where can such a transformative power be found?

It is apparent that the fox's teachings on connectedness come from his personal experience. A single act of romantic heroism, I can imagine, but a sustained conscious effort is difficult to fathom, harder to imitate - unless you have received it from another.

The Christian Bible tells us of another Prince who comes to earth and faces death for his beloved, triumphantly conquering the grave for her. The New Testament describes the love of God displayed in Jesus Christ as a marriage between God and men. And rightly so, for commitment is at its center.

Therefore, no matter your faith background or perspective, we can all look to this shining example of love and receive from God this great gift. In the experience of His transcendent love, we find ourselves transformed to reproduce the same for one another. I encourage you, never stop seeking the source of this limitless love.

Once again,

"People where you live grow five thousand roses in one garden ...yet they don't find what they are looking for. And yet what they are looking for could be found in a single rose. But eyes are blind. You have to look with the heart."

Here is your rose. Here is your prince.

 

Gospel in the Bardo

“It was the touching that was unusual.

                                    the reverend everly thomas”

What are ghosts in our stories? What are their goals, their hopes? Why aren’t they resting in peace? In this year’s Booker Prize winning novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, George Saunders spins an unusual ghost story—a historical fiction that exhumes these questions with pathos and humor. A ghost love story. It is one of the strangest novels I have ever read, and I loved it.

Trust me, you need some context.  During the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln lost his beloved son Willie.  The records of his grief are profound. Saunders orients his novel around the day and night of Willie’s interment, in a D.C. cemetery, and Lincoln’s visit there after hours to hold the dead body of his son—which may or may not have happened in real life.  It’s the stuff of rumor it seems.

The cemetery holds a wide cast of characters, who we might call shades, or ghosts. They are given backstories and it becomes clear that they are each lingering, sometimes for decades, because they don’t believe they are dead. They are in denial, and it pegs them to this in between state (the bardo of the title), where they wait to have their life finished out. Hans Vollman assures himself that he’s merely sick.  Soon he will recover and consummate his marriage with the wife he loves.  Roger Bevins III regrets having injured his wrists so violently.  He is sure someone will find him and revive him soon. Etc.

Ghosts are people who can’t admit that they’re dead.  That open secret haunts them.

For me, this raised the specter of Ephesians 2:1: You were dead in your trespasses.  God diagnoses our state: dead.  Before we know him, we are in denial. Yet our hearts sometimes whisper that secret, and it haunts us.

In the novel, the ghosts wait and wait. Their false lives are punctuated only by arrivals and departures.  Some who have lingered give in to the truth and explode, gone forever. One night, though, Lincoln comes, after hours, and shocks them all.

He comes, heart rent and heavy, and holds his boy. The ghosts have never seen anything like it, and their witness of the act becomes a key turning point in the novel.  As one ghost puts it, “It would be difficult to overstate the vivifying effect this visitation had on our community.” It’s not that people don’t come—they come, but disconnected. If they do touch, it is roughly: to steal a body or mock it. But mostly, they never seek to touch.

“But this—this was different.

                        roger bevins iii

The holding, the lingering, the kind words whispered directly into the ear? My God! My God!

                        the reverend everly thomas

Healthy.

                        hans vollman

As if one were still worthy of affection and respect?

It was cheering. It gave us hope.

                        the reverend everly thomas

We were perhaps not so unlovable as we had come to believe.

                        roger bevins iii”

This broken father-love does not shrink away from embracing even death, even a body in the midst of decay. This broken father-love, the touch of it—even witnessing its touch on another—stirs up their deepest hopes. This broken-father love, I recognized it immediately. It is the same love that saved me.

“You were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked. But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ.”

The course of the novel is so much more than can be touched on here, and I encourage you to read it. But at its core, it holds out a vision of salvation for these ghosts: Willie receives broken-father love.  It tells him a truth that sets him free from the bardo: that he is dead, but he is still loved. This truth works its way through the cemetery, and Saunders spins a brilliantly human picture of its consequences. But in the end, he leaves no space for the love to actually vivify. It merely gives the peace needed to let go – surely a blessing in the context of the book.

God’s love is so much greater. He is the Father of broken-love, the Christ weeping over death, the Spirit who comes to make alive—to bring new birth. His purposes for us are drenched in affection, soaked in tenderness. This truth sets us free, not to embrace our death, but to embrace him, and live.

This novel gave me renewed hope that not only do we need to hear this story, but that this story salves the wounds our contemporaries can barely articulate, the wounds they deny - that we deny. We were truly dead, but not beyond the reach of our Father. He did the unthinkable, reaching into death, pulling it right into his chest and defeating it. Raising us in love. Tell it to yourself, again. Tell it to a friend.

Boasting

Recognizing boasting is a little like the old definition of pornography: you know it when you see it. It’s not simply a positive declaration. No, it has a flavor of triumph, the aroma of conquest or achievement. A little more than self-satisfied, boasting only exists as far as it is expressed.

Christianity must speak against this braggery, right? I know you’re not fooled by such an early hypothetical question, dear reader. You’re anticipating that the New Testament holds nuance on this question which should be profitably mined.

Absent one occurrence in Hebrews, Paul alone uses the word which is translated “boast” in our English versions. His usage uncovers a key truth about this word: its morality is revealed by its object. Additionally, the variety of objects available to this verb suggests that we should not be concerned about whether or not we are boasting, but rather about whether we are boasting in the right things. Just as David Foster Wallace and Tim Keller have popularized the notion that we all are worshippers, so we should recognize that we are each of us boasters.

Would it surprise you to know that this word is used more often in a positive way than negative? It surprised me. In this positive usage, the word gets translated thrice as “rejoice” in Romans 5, and “glory” twice in Philippians, along with the more common “boast.”

Its objects in these cases flow downstream from the primary one, the Lord Jesus Christ. After boasting in the great work of Jesus for his people, we see boasting in weakness, and frequently, boasting in other people. There is an ignorance of, a lack of interest in, the achievements of the person doing the boasting. They are case studies in self-denial, as Paul demonstrates how his rejoicing in the accomplishments of others leads him to bragging.

What then makes up the negative cases? When we think of boasting, it’s easy to think of the person who is bragging about her nice things, her spate of amazing travel opportunities, or perhaps her career accomplishments. In certain circles it can look like incessantly pointing out how well one’s children are doing in school or an activity. It’s always obnoxious, and we all find ourselves doing it at times.

But that is not at all what Paul focuses on when he’s talking about boasting. His target is more insidious: boasting in religious activity, in churchiness. Because of Paul’s context, this most often revolves around keeping the Mosaic Law, or even simply possessing it. For us, that can look like boasting in Christian heritage, or in ministry activities.

I heard one teacher put it this way: Our boasting reveals what defines us.

It’s deadly to have your pious activities define you. It’s that spirit that seeks to put God in our debt, that if we do that right things, are the right people, then he’ll owe us. Then we’ll have something to point to that justifies our existence. And it can just all look so good, like we’re checking all of God’s boxes. We’re praised. But we’re rotting—a branch snipped off, close to the vine as it lies on the soil, dead all the same.

So what about Paul’s own boasting in his ministry? Is that not a defining of himself by his works? We shouldn’t gloss this. It has troubled me for a couple of days, so what I offer here is perhaps preliminary.

As one example that would point to the acceptable nature of Paul’s ministry boasting, consider his discussion in 1 Corinthians 9. He recalls there that he has a specific assignment for ministry from the Lord for gospel preaching, a necessity. Because it is required of him, he has a right to be paid, a worker receiving his wages. However, his desire is to do it for free, to offer Jesus his services at great cost to himself. Remember, he became all things to all people that some might hear and respond. He suffered immensely, but penned that one could give his body to the flames in ministry, and without love, it would be nothing.

I believe we see in Paul an extreme test case in what boasting can look like. While the circumcision party boasted in traditional Judaic rule keeping, while the Corinthians gloried in the amazing power of their spiritual gifts, Paul kept on identifying himself as a slave to Jesus. A slave. His heart was constantly caught up in the concern for the churches, that they not wander from their first love and his, Christ the Lord. He had been struck blind and rerouted, reprimanded and restored, and lived his life broken for others. A boasting apart from weakness, apart from being rent, is suspect.

Paul wasn’t a perfect man, even in his post conversion life I’m sure. But Jesus is perfect, one who greatly deserves our boasting. His strength, his patience, his tenderness, his intelligence, even his humor, each of these and more calling for our affection and bragging. How he stooped down, wiped us clean, resurrected us, accepted our punishment. Watching him draw out of dead stumps like ourselves the vigor of green life, how can we not point at each other in wonder, praising each other’s growth loudly, praising the God who is accomplishing it?

Our boasting reveals what defines us. How I long for my identity, and for the identity of my church, to be bound up in the Groom, and his spotless Bride. How then could we fail to produce raucous wedding-day bragging in their heroism and beauty? 

Embracing the Dark Dark

If God is light, is there value in dark?

Children learn early to separate the good guy from the bad guy in a story. Darkness is a north star, navigating them toward the happy ending, the triumph over evil. These norms make soothing promises, and indeed we serve a triumphant God. We identify the hero early and map ourselves on to them.

Yet from my youth, I’ve been drawn to the tragic ending, to the promise broken. Sad stories are my savored sweets, drawn out, extracting every drop. I’ve found that this taste has not dissolved through 13 years of growing closer to the God of joy and comfort. It was inevitable that I would pick up Samantha Hunt’s The Dark Dark—the title alone wooed me.

The promise of the title asserts itself quickly. The themes weave in and out of death, infidelity, infertility, futile love, abandonment, loneliness, and even getting trapped under an ocean tanker in the dead of night. The epigraph from Eudora Welty quarters the work and shows us its organs: “Then she raised the hoe above her head.” There is violence, drama, female protagonists, and if you’re willing to admit it, humor.

All of the laughing I did surprised me. LOL is rarely literal, but there I was, cackling on my couch over Hunt’s perfect delivery, her ridiculous, obvious metaphors. But what won my heart was how everything she wrote felt real in the way that only fiction can. Even when holding up the absurd—a perfect sex bot designed to explode a terrorist, teenagers riding a horse to Walmart, a resurrected dog ruining a sexual encounter, a husband and wife becoming deer—Hunt feels in control. She’s telling you the truth.

We all know how real fear and anguish are, how real are betrayal and regret. We dream of framing our lives on the sure boards of success and happiness, but the truer studs are frequently our failures, the secrets we will never tell. Hunt doesn’t describe the dark dark for its own sake, a published voyeur. She presses us to acknowledge that sometimes the most universal story is expressed in the specifics of exquisite loss.

How can I pull out just one gem for you to look at in this embarrassment of riches? Perhaps you’ve never conducted an affair with your professor, and then yelled out at an academic party that everyone is “just angry because of what I do with my queer vagina.”  Hunt uses language we may avoid and find uncomfortable, but it is not gratuitous.  She is framing the outburst as pathetic, childish, and desperate -  an attempt to dress up sin in words that are both smug and insecure, which we are all guilty of. Hunt’s narrator recalls the yelling woman and ponders: “‘Queer’ once meant strange. ‘Queer’ once meant homosexual. ‘Queer’ now means opposition to binary thinking…How did common, old, vanilla adultery ever become queer?” Why is it that we always try to cover our evil, even to ourselves, by giving it a bold name?

Perhaps you’ve never stood, spade in hand in your backyard, ready to kill a homeless woman who has the audacity to share your name and be carrying a child while you menstruate, unwanted, again. But we’ve all felt the rage of deciding that we deserved a thing more than someone else who got it, especially if that someone else is poorer, dirtier, or less educated than we are. Suddenly we can imagine how it could be us in the afternoon sunlight, contemplating coldly how to best hide a woman’s remains. Our real selves are exposed in fiction, and it makes us shiver. We can’t resist mapping ourselves onto the antihero.

Therein lies the value. It’s common to complain that we need to slow down, we need to notice, we need to put down our smartphones and be mindful. If nothing feels particularly urgent, it’s easy to ride our habits all day long, lulled. But a story wakes us, shaking our sleeping shoulder. The darkness asks frightening, urgent questions, and doesn’t supply the answers. Suddenly we’re paying attention.

This is what keeps Hunt’s work from being simply bleak. She allows the questions to linger, and a hope that they can be answered hovers—is it just within reach, or just outside? There is no moralism here, no tied bows. In this way, The Dark Dark recalls the excellent short stories of Flannery O’Connor. They share a spiritual connection despite the distance in the personal piety of the authors. Both women demand that you look, that you reckon. They will not be pleased until you relinquish your easy answers.

How shall we respond? Jesus Christ is the yes and amen of every one of God’s promises. His unconquerable life is our great joy, our forever wealth. He is the answer, but never the easy one. We betray his person if we use his presence in the world today by his Spirit as a reason to look away from the dark. The response of God to thick pain was to enter it, touch it, be overcome by it, and only then to rise. Jesus demonstrated the strength of his answer by becoming vulnerable. He knew the magnitude of what was against him; and the magnitude of who was behind him.

We have an invitation to this same Spirit empowered vulnerability. All of us can pretend that strength is conquering the dark by our own spirit, or by a well-placed Bible verse, or by ignoring the pain. But this is garbage. Our light is not enough, and trying to contain God’s light into a package that we can control will never do. Let’s enter in to each other’s dark questions, and invite the Spirit to show us himself, to show us Jesus. While this dark dark persists, it can serve as a path to the one who knows its reality, acknowledges its power and breaks it with his own body. Not easy, but won.

Review: A Better Story

A sense of defeat in certain areas of the church has been smoldering. With the rapid change in public opinion on a host of moral issues these past ten years, not least 2015’s Obergefell’s decision, hand-wringing and pearl-clutching can come as quickly for the faithful as prayer and offering.

But what if our cultural moment isn’t a death knell, but a trumpet call to something new? What if what faces the church is only the loss of the deadweight of Christendom, while what the Spirit wants to give birth to is a fresh wave of winsome witness?

Some within the church are beginning to believe and sketch out what joyful Christianity can look like in our day, even and especially in the field of sexuality. One of these is Glynn Harrison, who this year published A Better Story: God, Sex & Human Flourishing.

This volume is a worthy entry to the field. Harrison devotes Part One to a thorough explanation of how we got here, but more importantly, provides tools to understand that our current culture is not a-moral, but rather differently moral. Incorporating the work of men like Jonathan Haidt, Charles Taylor, and Jamie Smith, he walks readers through what matters to the modern individualist, specifically the power of story and the reason why many who hold traditional beliefs have chosen silence—namely, shame. This opening section alone is worth the price of the book for distilling for the non-specialist an accurate picture of the sea we’re swimming in.

If the reader left this first section in despair, Part Two is where Harrison begins to open us up to hope. Like Tim Keller and Preston Sprinkle, he calls the church to boldly declare that we have much to repent of in how we have spoken about and handled human sexuality, and like in all repentance, there is opportunity for new life. He then turns to the promises of the sexual revolution and shows how it not only has not kept them, but cannot keep them. Those promises revealed true human desires, but by being broken, left a generation open to disappointment, disillusionment, and pain.

The third part of the book is then dedicated to Harrison’s proposal for how we might get it right. He captures various possibilities for how sexual desire can help us understand God’s love for us, capitalizing on the point that there is not no marriage in heaven but one marriage in heaven—Christ and his bride. He invites us to see how sexual desire pictures God’s intense passion, his faithful character, and the fruitfulness of union with him.

Crucial to his theme as he moves down into the earthly community is beginning to build a case that sex is never solely personal, but indeed a community act. That is, it always impacts the wider community, and is never isolated from it. Most importantly, he pleads with the church to take singleness seriously, to honor it. He writes, “Single people should not be tagged on to families, but should seek to become more integral to them, providing wisdom and skills, helping buffer against inward-looking selfishness” (171).

Harrison has done a great service to the church in explaining why we need to take emotion and aesthetic seriously in our presentation of God’s goodness, and in his call to seize this opportunity that the sexual revolution’s wake has provided to form our churches into the communities of faithfulness and thriving they were meant to be.

However, Harrison was clear that he hoped his work would “spur on others to produce something better,” (xi) and the weaknesses of the book reveal this need. For example, while he demonstrates the power of emotional engagement, his presentation of the better story can feel flat at times.  But perhaps even more crucially, he does not achieve--so pressing in our moment--an explanation of why sexual difference in marriage is a necessary and positive good, nor does he give voice to how an individual can in fact find her best calling in serving the community.

We love to be swept up into grand visions and holy schemes, and if we are able to move beyond fear of this moment, we will see its prospects. What Glynn Harrison has produced is a good beginning. It will serve the church best if it raises up our best storytellers, our best artists, and our sharpest minds, to cast for the next generation the light drenched glory of God in his good design for our joy in the midst of our sexuality.

One City One Story

Have you ever felt hopeless in communicating God’s love? Have you ever hit a barrier of apathy or antagonism and stopped dead?

What if even people who reject God still need what he offers? What if we can meet this need, and even create recognition of it, with pure compassion?  A type of kindness that could lead to repentance?

Even a city with leadership as secular as Boston can leave clues of what their needs are, if we are a watchful people. Recently they published a short story called “Relativity” by professor and author Daphne Kalotay as part of their “One City One Story” campaign. It’s linked to the Boston Book Festival, an annual event that celebrates everything literary and provides a context for Bostonians to self-congratulate on how cultured we are.

Little did they know they were sowing a type of gospel seed.

I imagine it’s hard to find a story that is fit for all. Our city includes hundreds of nationalities, every socio-economic group, and plenty of history. So “Relativity” stays safe: aging holocaust survivors and a decent man who has just lost a child. How many people can’t find something to connect with there? It’s like the literary version of This Is Us.

Unfortunately, the safety was a noticeable constraint on the narrative. The prose was undistracting, but not beautiful.  The characters were likeable, but I didn’t care what happened to them. Still, there was one remarkable scene, one moment I didn’t expect.

The main character, Robert, has a flashback to the hospital where he and his wife despaired over naming their just-born daughter. The baby’s death is imminent due to birth defects. It’s not that they don’t value her; they love her immensely. But the act of naming feels cruel, pointless in the face of death.

The father remembers an encounter with the hospital chaplain. We are primed to not take him seriously, as he “looked to be in his late twenties, with an unlined face and a shaggy haircut that curled at the tips…an air of leisure about him, as if he had just come in from a round of volleyball.” What does this guy have to do with weighty things? Yet, to Robert’s surprise, his wife calls the young man in.

Now, as the resident of a city that either ignores or rejects Christianity, I was prepared for a caricature. Instead I found a description of what the work of Jesus can look like.

The chaplain looked at the baby, “and it seemed he was no longer simply performing a ritual, nor the automatic motions of his day, but seeing, taking in, their child.” The chaplain fights back his tears and tells the parents that their daughter is like a little jewel. Precious. Robert spends much of the story trying to make sense of his tragedy, and the first sense we get that progress toward healing is made is because “this other person had held some portion of their grief.”

He saw, and he blessed. 

Though we serve a God we cannot see, we serve a seeing God. Seeing reflects his desire to relate to us, his intention to pursue us. One of my favorite places this is expressed is at the end of Exodus 2. Moses paints how Israel got into their predicament of slavery after having been so blessed in Joseph’s rise. Right when things seem to be at their worst, with Moses’s pathetic human attempts at salvation crushed, Israel cried out. What happened? God heard. God remembered. God saw—and God knew.

When Robert’s wife called the chaplain over, she asked him to look at her daughter. It was her specific answer to the chaplain’s question of if he could offer any help. Of course the young man can’t save the girl. He can’t provide silver bullet theology that will take the edge off—nor should he try. But still, the ministry of truly seeing and knowing was one of power. It grieved rightly, and dignified rightly. The chaplain honored that family, and brought relief.

If we know Jesus, we have experienced being seen, and known, and loved. We have his Spirit and all we need to bless in this same way, even in antagonistic places. What person would reject a blessing for their child? Do we think that our coworkers and neighbors wouldn’t respond to being seen, known, dignified?

The gospel of Jesus’s forgiveness-earning death and transformation-securing resurrection is the power of God to save. One City, One Story. In longing to see those around us swept up into the strong love of Christ, the act of seeing can introduce, or remind, the human heart that it aches for this from God and not just from his image-bearers. God has put into your life people only you have access to to bless in this way, and invites you to join him. As Matt Chandler says, if your Christian life is boring, you have only yourself to blame.

New Yorker Fiction on How to Save Your Marriage

Why do happy people cheat?  In this month's Atlantic, Esther Perel argues that cheating is not so much an abandonment of the partner, but of our inauthentic selves.  And why not? This logic is meted out to us on the reg, the natural fruit of self-fulfillment mantras.

It’s not that Perel thinks the partner doesn’t matter. The piece is clear: the pain to the other is real, and the cheating partner in “happy” relationships knows this intensely, guiltily. However, it feels more imperative to say "yes" to the self unconstrained than "yes" to the face of the beloved. As Perel writes, “So often, the most intoxicating “other” that people discover in an affair is not a new partner; it’s a new self.”

Intoxication is right. As I was chewing on this article, I was reminded of Miranda July’s fiction piece in the September 4 New Yorker, titled “The Metal Bowl.” In this story, the married female narrator describes her sexuality this way: “To explain my sexual orientation; I was oriented around myself in that video and anyone who’d seen it.” The video, dear reader, is a pornographic movie of just the narrator that she starred in for desperate rent money.  The image becomes the controlling sexual moment of her life.

She experiences continued disconnect from her husband because he doesn’t know about this video - a pivotal part of her. The story hinges around a bizarre moment of tenderness she experiences with a married neighbor, while both of their spouses are away. At first, she thought this neighbor knew about the video. But he didn’t.  With him - to her surprise - she was able to experience her real self without that, new and fresh and exciting. She decides to keep it secret from her husband, and plots further connections with her neighbor. This lines up with what Perel has experienced in her practice of helping clients process their cheating.

And this is where July’s story, like Perel’s article, could have remained predictable, another entry about the bland heroism of selfishness.

Instead, the narrator encounters her neighbor recreating their secret tenderness with his own wife. This is her reaction: “Joel had taken the exquisite energy of our experience and plowed it back into his marriage. How wise. This option had never occurred to me. I had always detonated each thing in the very place where I found it.”

I had always detonated each thing in the very place where I found it.

These sentences blew me away. I would not recommend July’s full story, because it is sexually explicit in ways that are distracting; frankly, if I had known about them ahead of time I probably wouldn’t have picked it up at all. But this observation was pure gold. The story finishes with the narrator being able to share with her husband about the video from long ago, and his overture  (best not written about here) to show that he accepted her, loved her, and wanted a real marriage with her.

What Perel is talking about in her article is that very detonation July’s narrator describes. Perel’s clients know that their choosing of self and the energy of newness will completely explode their lives, which they do in fact love. Yet they persist. Our flesh, the world, tells us that this energy we feel so very powerfully MUST be obeyed. The Holy Spirit tells us that this energy, so very real, must be redirected, or properly applied. I’m thinking of the call to be intoxicated with one’s own wife in Proverbs 5, to marry rather than burn (now there’s an image of detonation) in 1 Corinthians 7, and the drastic measures Jesus calls us to to fight sexual sin in the Sermon on the Mount.

God is not unaware of how difficult marriage is between sinners, or of how powerful the sexuality is that he gave us. How could he be? He engineered its raw vitality to reflect, even dimly, the joy of intimacy between himself and his people.  Miranda July, as far as I know, does not know the Lord, but she named her wise neighbor Joel, which means, The LORD is God.  In her story, Joel plows that energy back into his marriage. In our story, we often feel unable to do this, but we are not left orphaned. The LORD is God; he has given us all we need in the Spirit to live as he did on earth. Seek him, seek his strength, and he will provide. 

Our Perfectly Human Hero

A long time ago, a baby came to earth, sent from above by his good father. He was given to a couple who weren't asking for him, and he was aware from a young age of his incredible power. As he entered manhood, he sought to use it for the good of humanity. 

He had an almost indestructible body, and ridiculous physical strength. His only nemesis—kryptonite. Clark Kent sure looked like a human, but in order to save us he actually had to be something more. He had to literally be Superman, his quasi-humanness a connection to us but also a pedestal lifting him above us. He continues to be an iconic hero in America and around the world.

We flock to superhero movies every year, sensing our human frailty, longing for someone awesome. For those of us with exposure to Christianity, we may think of Jesus as an ancient Jewish Clark Kent, a God wrapped in a better version of human skin here to save us. But what if the opposite is actually true: that Jesus came to earth fully humanly frail, because that was the only way to save us.

There are many places that communicate this, but Hebrews 2:5-18 depicts it clearly.

If comics assume that we need a hero, the Bible underlines and highlights it. But in the Scriptures, we’re not just the defenseless crowds of Metropolis—we’re also Lex Luthor wreaking all the damage. This is implied by the way Ps. 8 is used in Hebrews 2. Originally it was a poem about how God had given them responsibility to care for the whole world--in spite of how tiny and mortal we are. As God’s deputies, our job was to protect, cultivate, and rule Creation. Our glory would consist in joyfully fulfilling this role in right relationship with the one who made us. But sadly, that’s not what we’ve done. We’re wrecking the world that has been given to us.

Even worse, we’re wrecking ourselves, and each other. We find ourselves often overwhelmed by desires to do what God has forbidden: with anger that wants revenge, with lust that wants pleasure apart from sacrificial care, with greed that wants security over community flourishing. We find ourselves wounded by others, scarred. Sin is something in us, and something we do, and something that is done to us. We desperately need a hero. And that hero had to be human.

Why? First, God designed the world to be run by humans. He was showing something about his power and goodness: that if a frail thing like a man or a woman relied on God alone, that person would have what it took to rule justly. Second, the penalty of the failure was death, as is required of high treason. Humans had failed, and human death was required. You can’t pay a real debt with Monopoly money.

This is what Jesus came to do: to be the perfect God-trusting human, and to provide the human death justice required. So the author of Hebrews applies Ps. 8 now to him: he’s the one made a little lower than the angels, with everything in subjection under him. In the gospels, we see how Jesus gave up so many of his rights as God: his right to be everywhere at once, his right to perfect knowledge, his right to super-human strength. He lived as a human relying on the Holy Spirit, and he was always obedient. He didn’t cheat, he was tempted in every way. He really passed the test.

And then, of course, his death was real, because he was actually human. His flesh was able to bleed, and did. Able to feel pain, and did. Able to die, and did. As Hebrews 2:17 says, he was made perfect through suffering, perfect as in complete.

But the heart of Christianity is that Jesus isn’t dead. He is risen! He is risen indeed. And he lives forever—as a human. His time on earth changed him forever. He will always have a resurrected human body, forever identifying with us. Hebrews 2:11 says he is not ashamed to call us brothers. No, he is proud of us! He is glad to be ἐξ ἑνὸς πάντες with us, variously translated as having one source, one family, one Father.

Jesus is at God’s side now, as a human, serving us faithfully. Notice verse 17 describes him as our faithful high priest, which only a human can do, because a priest must be a representative. And touchingly, verse 18 states that is because he has experienced not just temptation but real human suffering in that temptation that he is able to help us. He gets it. He gets us.

When God created humanity, he had such glorious things for us in mind. We were made for greatness, but we threw it away. But God didn’t throw us away. We had dishonored him, and dishonored ourselves, but Jesus honored us by becoming one of us. He became the glorious, Spirit filled man so that we can become glorious, Spirit filled humans ourselves. He is our perfectly human hero.

National Coming Out Day

“Our ability to stay with God in our closet measures our ability to stay with God out of the closet.”

Thus wrote 19th century Methodist minister, E.M. Bounds in his book, Power Through Prayer. Because he was writing some time ago, Bounds referred to one’s “prayer closet” as the private place of prayer, based on the KJV of Matthew 6:6.

The spiritual point is almost lost in how silly it sounds to twenty-first century ears. After all, we’ve been using “closet” colloquially to mean a place of secrecy and shame for gay people for decades.

That’s the basis of the phrase “coming out of the closet,” or more simply, “coming out.” It means the self-disclosure of one’s orientation, which for so many has been an act of courage. Courage because of the ramifications it can bring: social cost, complete rejection and even threat of death. To be out of the closet for most of history was literally dangerous.

We like to think in 2017 that this would be different, but gays and lesbians still take a risk by coming out. The threat of being “outed” unwillingly can still loom large. That’s why National Coming Out Day remains a beacon; it gives voice to those who were for so long voiceless, a chance to step out of hiding.

Here in Boston, like other politically liberal places, Coming Out day is less about trepidation and more about celebration. The tone can be triumphant, reflective of how far the gay community has come. Indeed, the relative safety of those in the LGBT community here should be celebrated, compared to the violence and discrimination gay people face in some other parts of the world. 

But what does it mean for those of us who experience same-sex attraction, who have bound ourselves in love to the Lord Jesus Christ and want to serve him with our sexuality, even through self-denial? Is Coming Out Day for us, too?

I think it can be. Many of us have carried this secret weight for years, perhaps even marrying opposite-sex partners hoping to “make ourselves straight.” We have been wracked with fear that even though we love the Lord, there would be no place for us in his body if people knew.  We have prayed for God to take away our orientation, and sweated and nervously laughed when gay jokes or misguided commentary have come from the mouths of our brothers and sisters.

But there is hope that this can be different. While secrets fester in the dark and threaten to own us, disclosure can bring intimacy, accountability, and new life. To be known and appreciated in all parts of our life can be transformational. Even more, it can give courage to the others just like us in the church who tremble with fear that perhaps they could never come out. We can be a part of the change we want to see.

Now, I DO NOT mean you need to tell the whole church or world your business. Some may be called to that, but not all. But I do mean that we were never made to do the Christian life alone, though something as deep as our sexuality should only be put into the hands of those who have shown themselves trustworthy. We can’t wait for the church to be perfect, for our own sanity, but we can start small. If you feel like you can't think of anyone safe enough in your own life, pray that God would reveal to you, or provide for you, such a friend.

This brings us back to Bounds. It’s not just that revealing our sexual orientation takes bravery, which it does. As followers of Jesus, it also will require spiritual power and protection. To come out while a Christian, especially one committed to the Bible’s sexual ethic, is bold and confusing to the watching world, and sometimes even to believers. You will be misunderstood, perhaps maligned. To stand with God “out of the closet” will in strong measure relate to how we’ve approached him “in the closet”, that is, in our secret times of prayer. Do you trust him?

His face towards you is complete love, and not a shred of condemnation. He has promised you every help along the way to honor him with your body and mind, and longs to give you family through his people. Take strength from his character and promises and Spirit. Gather courage from drawing close to the One who sees you, hears you, and loves you. For the sake of yourself, you can come out. For the sake of the church, you can come out. For the sake of the world, you can come out. Like Jesus called Lazarus from the tomb, you can come out! This can be a day for you, as well.

Proust on the Surprising Threat to Real Self

The joy of reading Proust, for me, consists in his masterful combining of beautiful prose with astute, often humorous observations of why people are so ridiculous and self-contradicting. In The Guermantes Way, the third volume of Proust’s masterwork In Search of Lost Time, the unnamed narrator is on the cusp of breaking into society life. In a scene where he faces a crushing disappointment, his friend Robert de Saint-Loup unexpectedly appears to comfort him. For me as the reader, Saint-Loup’s entrance felt like a balm, until I was accosted by this line from the narrator: “What I think about friendship: namely, that it adds up to so little”

Proust’s protagonist is explicit about the sham of friendship in the ensuing paragraph. At one point he describes friendship as “totally bent on making us sacrifice the only part of ourselves that is real and incommunicable to a superficial self that, unlike the other, finds no joy on its own.” That is, he posits a “real” self that is intrinsically private, and from his logic here we can deduce that this real self is in fact capable of “joy on its own” and so must not have any need of friendship. Therefore, to get to friendship, one must construct a superficial self that is capable of relating, because it feels a need. Unfortunately, because of this need, that superficial self becomes “hospitalized in the individuality of another person.” It is weak, and entrapped.

What a dreary, desperately sad image! The natural outcome is that the narrator declares wonder that anyone could find “any sort of sense in an act like putting one’s work aside to go and see a friend.” This in some way must be the outworking of the insistence that one’s real self is isolated and immaterial.

I felt embarrassed to see so much of myself in it, in fact. I have struggled throughout my life in Christ to turn towards others as opposed to being caught up in my own projects and work. My theology would never embrace such a low view of friendship, but my life patterns betray me; it is those closest to me that have felt my assumed belief in Proust’s real, private, self-contained self the most.

In reading Janet Martin Soskice’s excellent The Kindness of God: Metaphor, Gender, and Religious Language, I found that this feeling in myself is not only a personal failing but a warped feature of my Christian inheritance. The early Fathers were wooed by the Stoics, who sounds very Proustian in declaring that “one should have no goal outside oneself, and then, being dependent on no one else for happiness, one cannot be made unhappy.”

This belief like a yeast has worked itself through the dough of lived Christianity, such that there is “a spiritual ideal in which the demands of others, even of one’s own babies and children, are not merely indifferent to the task of gazing on God, but in competition with it.”

If the real self is immaterial, and it is crucial to connect one’s real self to God, then of course spiritual acts framed in this template will have difficulty accommodating the material.

In demonstration, Soskice reflects on the fact that mothers can understand their work as a good fulfillment of God-honoring work, but not experience it as spiritual in itself, which I sadly relate to. Where are we being taught otherwise? How do we not continue on a path which “privileges the detached life over that of human affection and its attendant disruption”? Won’t this force us to destroy the Biblical vision of Christ as head of a family, of us as brothers and sisters in messy household life together, even as we supposedly press towards a pietistic vision of real spirituality?

This assertion of the private, sealed off, individual thought-life as truly real is as old as time. It is found in the most venerated of intellectual heritages. But it is profoundly un-Christlike.

As Soskice reminds us, “All life, even protozoic or plant life, is such as to be affected by the world it inhabits.” To pretend to be sealed off is folly. All life forms attend to those around them, to the world about them. Therefore, “Attention is rewarded with reality. This is the principle of growth.”

We see this most strikingly in Jesus Christ himself. Though all things were created through him and for him, he submitted to become a baby in a particular time and place, to a particular family. He grew, and participated in community, he was known. Though never married and thus childless, he created the possibility of rebirth and the creation of a new forever family; when his soul made an offering for guilt, he saw his offspring, as Isaiah 53 says. He is still growing this family, reproducing it, a vine with a million branches as humans are continually brought in and transformed through relationship with their God and with his people.

Proust’s narrator’s vision of friendship as a painful distraction from reality is sterility boasting of fecundity. He wants to be left to his world of ideas, thinking that sitting alone he will birth into the world an endless flow of ideas and productivity, whereas time with his friend is wasted on posturing and pretending.  But his productive reflections are chiefly about others, gained through time spent with people and indebted to the material world he lived in. Perhaps this makes him as ridiculous and self-contradicting as his characters.

The Cross as Perversion

“When the falsely innocent Christlike figure of pure suffering and sacrifice for our sake tells us, ‘I don’t want anything from you!’ we can be sure that this statement conceals a qualification, ‘…except your very soul.’ When somebody insists that he wants nothing that we have, it simply means that he has his eye on what we are, on the very core of our being.”

-Slavoj Žižek  

I stumbled across this quote reading Mona Siddiqui, a Muslim scholar, in her writings on the cross of Jesus. Having seen what the cross can mean for Christians, Siddiqui explains that that cross creates no desire in her. She protests that the cross can have other meanings than sacrifice for sin, which is flatly offensive to her, and offers up the above quote from Žižek as an example of how the death of Jesus can be construed as “an act of perversion.”

What is perverse about it? Apparently, at least in part, its dishonesty. It claims to ask for nothing yet asks for everything; it claims to be easy, but is actually impossible. But dishonesty itself is not perverse. Where perversity comes in is that what it asks is immoral or indecent. It is too high of a demand to give your whole self to someone else.

I was so refreshed to see that Žižek understood clearly what the call of Jesus Christ really is—a call to complete surrender. Would that every Christian understood that call with the same open eyes!

At the same time, I reject that this understanding of the gospel is dishonest, much less perverse. Was not Jesus brutally honest about the cost of following him? What else is it supposed to mean, when he declares that it is only that person who will lose their life for Jesus that will find it? Or when he teaches that a true disciple must take up their own instrument of execution, with their very hands and will, in order to walk behind Jesus.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German theologian who famously gave his life trying to stop Nazism, understood this. He wrote, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” The life of a Christian has never been less than Galatians 2:20.

It is only because of two other dishonesties that the call to give your full self to Jesus can be construed as a bait and switch.

The first is easy-believeism, that poisonous yeast that has long worked its way through evangelicalism. There is no life in a prayer offered once in fear or ecstasy, which is followed by no relationship with Jesus, no fruit of the abundant life that always flows from that connection. To be surprised at the totality of Jesus’s claim on you is to have never heard it. Someone lied to you—and it may have been you yourself.

The second dishonesty is that it is impossible and perverse to give your whole self to someone or something outside of you. Our worship of the autonomous individual makes us hate the idea of any source of authority outside the authentic self. It preaches that the only way to be true to oneself is to be able to fully construct the self, independently of any external constraints. But this is madness; no one lives like this.

We cannot escape our birth, our cultural moment. We can tell ourselves that we are bold prophetic voices, when all we are doing is marching to the drum of the faddish new theological impulse.

But even apart from this, our most powerful love stories continue to be about the complete giving of ourselves, willfully, to someone else. The allure of being wooed, of possessing our beloved and being possessed, fills our songs and movies, our fanfiction and TV. It takes a million specific forms, it constitutes the air we breathe. Even causes like environmentalism and social justice can catch up our hearts in entire surrender, and we feel the goodness of it.

Let’s not lie to ourselves. It is not impossible to give the core of ourselves to something else—it is impossible not to. Perhaps what is impossible, though, is to give ourselves to the truly good and beautiful. After all no one has lied to you more than you about what would make you happy and fulfilled.

But nothing is impossible for God. Jesus Christ woos us, desiring to possess us and even to be possessed. He calls us into passion, into great adventure, and to lose ourselves in all of it, only to find ourselves again. He has never lied about this, and his call still stands.

 

 

Israel's Labor, God's Delivery

In Spring 2017 I had the pleasure of spending a lot of quality time with Isaiah 26:16-19, a unique passage of lament and miraculous reversal. What drew me initially to the passage was the preponderance of birth imagery, which Isaiah navigates brilliantly, building suspense and then transforming the metaphor to reveal the spiritual reality.

It’s helpful to note that the background of this passage is political distress and failure. Israel was unfortunately susceptible to relying on alliances and strategy for their national survival, as opposed to looking to the LORD, and as often as not, their schemes failed. When Isaiah enters in to 26:16 (where the Hebrew is difficult and disputed), he is beginning a corporate lament for just such a political situation. We enter in to imagery of discipline, distress, and desperation, but the details of the situation are unspecified.

In 26:17 the Isaiah introduces a metaphor that will carry us to the end of the movement. We are confronted with a woman in labor, and her anguish and pain are fronted. This is not the cute, round belly stage of pregnancy, but the imminently dangerous stage, the moment where no one is sure who, if any, will come out alive. Labor and delivery is cursed in Genesis 3, and it relates not just to the pain of intense cramping, but the blood and specter of death involved.

Isaiah wants his hearers to inhabit this space mentally, and then he owns the image in 26:18. The first person plural becomes the laboring woman; all Israel is implicated together. They are shown in all stages: they were pregnant, they writhed, they gave birth. That is, the nation was responsible for the conception of their misery, they took into themselves the consequence, and they were faced with what it brought into the world. And what was it? Nothing but wind.

To labor, in danger, for nothing but air! The futility is palpable, miserable. Part of the covenantal blessings of Sinai was the promise of healthy children; the Scriptures of Israel celebrate the birthing of children as a beautiful, flowering vitality of their people in God’s eyes. By employing the potent imagery of pregnancy and birth in service of lament, Isaiah communicates the disgrace of their impotent maneuvering. It was not just political, it was covenant failure.

The end of verse 18 carries a tone of dejection as the metaphor breaks apart. For all their labor, they have not worked deliverance. And starkly, Isaiah spells it out: the inhabitants of the world, their foes in this case, have not fallen. While the NIV continues the birth imagery up to the end because of the role that the Hebrew verb behind the word “fall” plays in the broader passage, it is much better to take it as the ESV does, which is to communicate that the Israelites failed to fell their enemies, and they are still in danger. The tone is sorrow, helplessness.

And suddenly, there is rejoicing. How? Why? Verse 19 brings an utter reversal, and more. Three different words for dead people are used, and three different images for coming back to life, all reinforcing an idea that is scarcely whispered in the Old Testament: bodily resurrection. And indeed, each triad of images becomes livelier as it progresses. From the simple dead, to the specific corpses, to the living-while-dying dust dwellers. Similarly, they are described as living, then rise, and then even commanded to sing for joy, surely one of the most vibrant actions a human can take. The word resurrection is not used, but it is not needed.

The passage concludes with God producing birth without labor, in strong contrast to his people. The metaphor of dew is used to communicate morning, newness, and life, as it was an important water source in Palestine. By connecting it with light, Isaiah clarifies that this isn’t merely water, but an image of spiritual nourishment and production. The result is that the earth gives birth, a mother paired to God as father, and brings back those long dead, and the original metaphor is returned and transformed. 

They had dreamed of the death the enemy; their covenant LORD promised them in response life unknown, life refreshed, life beyond death. Israel struggled and did not accomplish a normal human goal; the God of Israel without working produced an unthinkable, unhuman accomplishment.

In the New Covenant established by Jesus, resurrection has become so prominent as to be thematic. This might dim our ability to see the shock of Isaiah 26:19. But let it not dim our hope in the God of Isaiah 26:16-19. We worship that same God today, who is overflowing with life, who stoops to untangle sinners in the midst of destroying themselves, who plots for us joyful singing in a world undreamed of. There is a sure reality, a true inheritance waiting for us. Let’s run for it.