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Thursday, December 26, 2013

Why Did Phil Robertson Say That?

[Note: Since posting the following I've realized that because of the media haze around Phil Robertson and what he is purported to think about homosexuality and because of the high passions on the subject, it is exceptionally easy to conclude that I stand by whatever you have heard about the man, true or false. I don't know what all you have heard, but I probably don't. I strongly recommend that you read the GQ article linked to below as the background for my comments.]

I've never watched more than five minutes of Duck Dynasty, because I don't like "reality" TV voyeurism regardless of who is doing it. I don't identify with the Robertson family and so get no buzz from their successes and no downer from their stumbles. But a few weeks after Philgate broke via a GQ article that led to the patriarch's deep freeze by the A&E Network, I found myself going to that article to see what the fuss was about. (Incidentally, the article is excellent and humane, and I highly recommend it to those who won't be terribly turned off by the author's very crude language.)

As an ABC News story pointed out, Phil Robertson's comments about homosexuality were far from the only hair-raisers in the interview. I got to thinking about the ingredients that go into Robertson's bold pronouncements. I came up with four.

1. Personality. I've been told that I don't beat around the bush—I uproot the bush and beat you in the face with it. If that's so, then Phil Robertson uproots redwoods and smacks any target he can find as long as he's conscious. That's who he is. As the article makes plain—and as fans of the show probably know—he's a unique individual, and the other members of the family have different personalities too. Don't we all.

2. Life experience. Phil's individual life story, centrally featuring his Christian conversion, makes him who he is. So also does his experience of growing up in the rural Deep South in the generation that he did.

3. Culture. Not only the content of what Phil Robertson says but the way he issues the content has a natural fit and logic within a culture (and in a particular stratum within that culture) that is glaringly out of place, bizarre, and incomprehensible in a different culture. Like it or not, cultural sensitivity is required to interpret his cultural insensitivity—unless you want to fight fire with fire by being a cultural imperialist yourself.

4. The Bible. Robertson really believes it. And some of the most controversial and offensive things that he says—namely, most of his remarks about homosexuality—are almost verbatim quotes from it. Robertson didn't invent stuff that is propounded today by hundreds of millions of people worldwide.

I don't identify with Phil Robertson or support him without qualification or agree with a lot of what he says. The reason is simple: I have a different personality and different life experience and am from a different culture. So even though I share Phil's taste that "a vagina—as a man—[is] more desirable than a man’s anus," I don't think that that's particularly relevant. And even though I concur with Robertson that 20th-century anti-Christian regimes were monstrously murderous—I mean, who doesn't?—it looks like conveniently selective history to me. And even though I don't outright deny the factuality of his personal experience of racial harmony in pre-Civil Rights Louisiana, I couldn't disagree more with the conclusion that he draws from it.

But the one thing I do have in common with Phil Robertson—perhaps the only thing—is that we both believe that the Bible is worth believing, and that it describes a Savior, Jesus Christ, who is making all the wrongs right for those who trust him. As Phil put it to the GQ writer,
If you simply put your faith in Jesus coming down in flesh, through a human being, God becoming flesh living on the earth, dying on the cross for the sins of the world, being buried, and being raised from the dead—yours and mine and everybody else's problems will be solved. And the next time we see you, we will say: "You are now a brother. Our brother." So then we look at you totally different then. See what I’m saying?
I see it, Phil, and despite how different you are from me, I look at you as my brother. That's the united diversity that Christ makes possible.

I don't know if Phil Robertson deserves to be back on TV. (I mean, really, does anybody deserve to be on TV?) But I'm going public with this: if our society draws a line and puts Phil Robertson on one side of that line, I stand with him on that side of the line too.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Being Small

[Cross-posted from the Gordon-Conwell blog.]

Two astounding, must-read books from my D.Min. program have newly illuminated how small I am.

The first is James Davison Hunter’s To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World. Hunter adroitly demonstrates how quantity and even quality of cultural output does not shape a culture, nor does the size of the consumer base. Rather, the culture is shaped by the few institutions, locations, and social circles that all, including those who resent them, tacitly agree are more prestigious than the rest.

I am small and far from these high points. I am not close to the center of my denomination’s culture. I am unimportant to the evangelical subculture—you won’t see my mug on conference junk mail anytime soon. I live in an ignored part of the country. Almost no one in any of my subcultures has the regard of elites in Hollywood, Harvard Yard, and Midtown Manhattan.

I am small in another direction too, as revealed by Philip Jenkins’ The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity. As Christianity drains out of Europe, it is exploding in Latin America, Africa, and Asia, partly because of the fecund demographics of those regions but also through a burgeoning wave of conversions. Christianity in the United States is holding steady because of help from immigration from those continents as the faith resumes its ancient position as one of the great Eastern religions. The awakening and the miraculous seem to be going on almost everywhere but here, and I can’t read Jenkins’ statistics about ten million of this and a hundred million of that for long before feeling very small again.

I don’t call myself small out of self-pity—well, I hope I don’t—but from a healthy dose of reality for the sake of humility. I need that. But this is not the whole story.

No matter whom I am small by comparison to, I am big to someone else. My town, a modestly affluent county seat, gets more undeserved attention than any other in my region. I’m an evangelical nobody, but unlike many I actually know a few somebodies, and they know even better-known somebodies. And wherever I live in the United States, to the Mexican believer peering around our southern wall I’m at the center of it all.

More importantly, no matter how small I am in my profession because I see only fifty people on a Sunday, I am huge to those fifty people. My significance is enormous to the sick for whom I pray, the weary to whom I speak the gospel of hope, and the children who call me pastor. And to my own children and to my wife, I’m colossal—to them, whether or not I exist is the whole world.

Finally, and most importantly, I am staggeringly valuable to the infinitely large God. As David observed, his thoughts about me are beyond comprehension—not only their number and their content but his desire to think about me at all.

At the beginning of Matthew 2, men come from a foreign power to find the king of the Jews, whose birth alarms Jerusalem’s elite and triggers a state crisis. At the end of the chapter he is called a Nazarene, a no-name denizen of a backwater town.

The paradox of Jesus’ incarnation is not only metaphysical—the union of complete and unadulterated deity and humanity in one person. It is a cultural paradox too: the one who is the center of all things lives simultaneously at the extreme margin; he really bears the name above every name while he really is a no-name. This both-and image is the one that God is conforming me to—I shrink while I expand, plunging lower, rising higher.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Science, Religion, and Defining Terms

One sexy, thinky debate/discussion topic that arises regularly is the relationship between science and religion. ("Are science and religion compatible?" "Has science defeated religion (or vice versa)?" And so on.) For this topic to generate as much light as heat, two clarifications must be made before debate begins—and they pretty much never are.

First, what is "religion"? To frame the polarity as between "science" on the one side and "religion" on the other is to bias the discussion from the start. That's because those who prefer "science" to "religion" are almost the only people who lump all religions into one category called "religion." Few actual religious people do this.

For example, I read part of a book by one partisan of science who lumped together Christian fundamentalism and Islamic fundamentalism. Notice the word order here: to this author, the ideological Other is a thing called "fundamentalism." It happens to have a Christian species and an Islamic species, but fundamentalism is the genus. But very few Christians and Muslims think of it this way. To them there is no Christian fundamentalism and Islamic fundamentalism. Rather there is fundamentalist Christianity and fundamentalist (Wahhabist) Islam. They are two different religions, two different genera. They each have a species that is similar to its counterpart in some way, but those are really quite different animals, like a blue jay and a blue whale. In fact, fundamentalist Christians and fundamentalist Muslims are the least likely in their respective religions to see themselves as proponents of "religion" in general or to see each other as fellow "fundamentalists."

It does no good to talk about the relationship between "science" and "religion" because different religions have different postures toward science. Different tribes and traditions within a particular religion have different postures toward it. For that matter, even the same tribe or tradition may have different postures toward science in different places or at different eras of its existence.

Let's take as an example the popular whipping boy, evangelical Christianity. Evangelical Christianity earned its antiscience reputation in its fundamentalist phase in the early 20th century when Darwinian evolution was the flashpoint. But few people know that in America before the Civil War, evangelical Christianity wasn't just pro-science, it drove science; antebellum developers of "natural history," as it was known then, were motivated by religious belief. Today the posture of evangelical Christianity toward science is muddled and mixed. There is still much fear, suspicion, and disinterest. There are also many evangelicals quietly working in the sciences along with a few luminaries like Francis Collins, who headed up the Human Genome Project and currently directs the National Institutes of Health, and Stamatis Vokos, who is a pioneer in physics education.

The point is that it only confuses matters to talk about the relationship between science and "religion" in general. To do any good you must get much more specific as to what religion you're talking about.

The second clarification needed is, do we mean science or Science?

Lowercase-"s" science is composed of two things: a method and a body of knowledge acquired through that method. Uppercase-"s" Science is also two things: a philosophy and a culture that reflects, reinforces, and passes on that philosophy, which combine to orient their adherents to ultimate things. In other words, Science is a religion. Admittedly, it's a rather unusual religion; it's hard to think of many religions that deny the existence of the supernatural, either ontologically or merely functionally, as a major tenet, or who make rejection of faith an article of faith. (They call it "reason," because most of them have not studied epistemology.) However, it does have points of contact with certain strains of Buddhism, and perhaps Science is another tribe or tradition of the secular religion I wrote about previously. Uppercase-"s" Science's appeal is not as broad today as it was during Isaac Asimov's and Carl Sagan's careers, but it is still very much alive.

I don't know enough about Science to sketch its contours accurately, but I can give you an example of what I mean. There is a marvelous series of electronica songs and videos called Symphony of Science that use "auto-tuned" statements by popular scientific thinkers. My favorite, "We Are Star Dust," features supercool astronomer Neil DeGrasse Tyson "singing," "We are part of this universe; we are in this universe . . . the universe itself exists within us. . . . We are part of the heavens. . . . We are star dust in the highest, exalted way, called by the universe, reaching out to the universe with these methods and tools of science."

Tyson (and the others in the song) are talking about how all heavier elements were "cooked" and built inside stars that later exploded and sent their "enriched guts" flying through the galaxy. These elements gravitated toward each other and collected into planets and the things on those planets, including people. So all the atoms in our bodies were once part of a star—we are star dust.

But note how Tyson expresses this scientific conclusion. "We are part of the heavens," a carefully chosen, old-fashioned term from an age when the sky was more than a physical location but also a spiritual one in people's outlook. "We are star dust in the highest, exalted way." Very complex star dust, certainly; living star dust, indeed. But highest and exalted are statements of ontological value, honor, and significance, categories that do not exist in science. "Called by the universe"—really? The universe as a sentient, deliberate, communicative entity summons humans to "reach out" to it and establish a communicative link—this universe that "exists within us"?

I don't know how far to press these out-of-context comments by Tyson; I don't know how literal and accurate he means them to be. Perhaps he just has a natural gift for poetry that can't help but find an outlet. Maybe he is so driven to interest people in the science that he loves that he uses provocative, figurative speech to seize their attention. Or maybe there is something primal within him that longs for contact with a transcendent being that he doesn't believe in that shapes his language. In any case, the statement about where our atoms came from is science. But how Tyson states it is Science.

One listener commented, "Now, this is art. All songs make you think about future and universe. Science's 'Gospel'." It is Science's praise-and-worship music—actually, I listen to it to worship too.

Naturally, you arrive at quite a different answer if you ask about science and religion versus Science and religion. Answering the question about science and religion means observing religious individuals' comfort employing the scientific method and interest in its results. But answering the question about Science and religion is really about Science and other religions—it's a question of comparative religion.

Now, I expect that many adherents of Science believe that you aren't really committed to science if you don't believe in Science and probably even reject the distinction between science and Science. I think they're wrong on both counts.

In sum, as with every question, answering it starts with defining terms. "What's the relationship between science and religion?" That depends: what do you mean by "religion"? What do you mean by "science"?

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Loving Enemies and the Selfhood of Jesus

Luke 6:27-38 is one of those really tough passages of the Bible. It starts with, "But I say to you who are listening: Love your enemies . . . ," and it just continues from there.

Verses 27-30 are about choosing to be taken advantage of by people who are stronger than you, people who hate you, curse you, mistreat you, hit you, take from you. You're supposed to let them do it, give them more besides, and try to help them by action and prayer.

Verses 31-36 are about choosing to be taken advantage of by people who are weaker than you, people who need help and money. You're supposed to help them even if though they won't thank you and lend to them even though they won't pay you back.

Verses 37-38 sum up the preceding. Don't judge or condemn the people who molest you or mooch off you. Instead forgive them—that's the only way you'll be forgiven too. Give to them—in due proportion you will get far more back, or you won't if you don't.

There are several reasons that I strongly resent Jesus' commands here. I resent losing my stuff. More, I resent losing my pride. I resent still more losing the boundary between me and someone else. The fact of invasion is more abhorrent than the result of invasion. Worst of all, I think, if I don't defend my boundary, who will? And why would anyone defend my boundary if I don't?

But it occurs to me that Jesus himself was never invaded. Losing stuff to those weaker didn't violate his boundary. Losing his life to the strong didn't either. In fact, no matter how severe the demand or the drain, it never made him less than he was, nor does he ever betray a suggestion that he felt that it did.

The reason is that Jesus' selfhood was extremely tightly constricted around one thing, which he mentions in v. 20: "Blessed are you who are poor, for the kingdom of God belongs to you." Jesus' self was 100% secured in God's soon-to-come government. Therefore, no loss was really loss. Nothing begged of him, demanded of him, or taken from him was actually him. It was all flimsy, disposable, temporary stuff that would soon be replaced by the real thing, where he really was. Even the life in his mortal body was easily given, as it was temporary too. Jesus' essential Jesus-ness, the stuff of him that he could not yield without losing some of himself, was in heaven with the Father beyond the touch of anyone who might invade it. It could not be touched, was eternal and imperishable, and would very soon be revealed to replace whatever people might think they were taking from him now.

Jesus knew this. If I knew it that well, if 100% of my treasure was in heaven and speedily on its way to earth and that fact was beyond doubt or question to me, then Jesus' commands about loving my enemies would suddenly become much more achievable. Because even though it might look to all the world like I'm being taken advantage of, I would not experience it that way. There is nothing anybody could take from me that was part of me. No possession would be part of me; not even my mortal body would be part of me, really. My life is hidden with Christ in God (Col. 3:3). Nothing taken from me would be a violation, because none of it is mine, or me. From that vantage point, the worst that any enemy could take from me seems really pitifully small and easily forgiven.

On the other hand, even though from one point of view Jesus' selfhood was tightly constricted in heaven, from another vantage point it was expansive enough to encompass all of creation. He is, after all, the Word of God through whom all things were made, in whom all things hold together (John 1:1; Col. 1:16-17). Because his selfhood includes everything, again, nothing could be taken from him and his boundary could never be violated. No one could ever invade him, because there is no outside of him from whence to invade.

It's funny: we tend to think that as human Jesus suffered but as God he didn't. As to injury, this is certainly true. The man Jesus of Nazareth in degradable flesh could be deformed, crushed, and minimized, while the Son of God (who Jesus is) could not be any the less God than he is, no matter what one might pretend to do to him.

But as to the experience of pain, I rather think that the reverse is closer to the truth. It was as human that Jesus' selfhood was perfectly committed to the security of heaven, just as he commands ours to be. But it was as God that Jesus' selfhood extends across the cosmos, encompassing everything. And therefore every disorder, injustice, wrong, and sin Jesus feels acutely, like an internal disease. Though he is not compromised by it, if he centers his attention on anything narrower than the perfect beginning-to-the-end totality of it all, he must be incomprehensibly pained by the least evil.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

6 Big Questions about Your Purpose in Life

God made each individual in a unique fashion, and when he redeems someone it is for specific purposes. God calls us to various missions and tasks through our lives that together compose the unique reason he chose us. Though those calls often come as a surprise, in many cases God has already offered us knowledge about ourselves that may fuel our prayers and prepare us for his next call.

Discerning this knowledge takes a good deal of thought, prayer, and usually conversation with trusted mentors and advisors. Though this is large and serious quest, I offer six simple questions to get you started. I have found these half-dozen questions to be among the most profound, useful, and revealing.

(Let me also give credit where credit is due. I didn't come up with these. 1 and 3 are from Lee Spitzer; 2, 4, and 5 are from Will Mancini.)

1. What are the 4 to 6 most important milestones in your life?

2. What accomplishments have meant the most to you, even if others wouldn’t be impressed by them?

3. Who is your favorite Bible character and why?

4. What bothers you the most about the world that you would change if you could?

5. What one thing would you do for God if you knew you couldn’t fail?

6. What do your answers to questions 1 through 5 have in common?

Saturday, July 20, 2013

"A Common Word between Us and You": A Response from Just above the Roots

To the Islamic scholars and clerics who signed "A Common Word between Us and You," and to all those whom you represent:

Mercy and peace be yours.


First, forgive me for being late to the party. I only recently became aware of this thoughtful and gracious overture from global Islam to global Christianity composed five years ago.

At one level, my response to your letter means next to nothing. I do not have the kind of position of prominence and responsibility that the original recipients of your letter have. In fact, even in the position of responsibility that I do have as the pastor of a small American church, I do not write representing the group of believers that I lead but only representing myself.

Nevertheless, there may be some value in my response. As some Christian respondents indicated and as surely at least some of you agree, in order for there to be peace between Muslims and Christians in our world as a down-payment of peace for the rest of the world the sort of message of peace in "A Common Word" must echo not merely at the peaks of religious eminence but also among the rocks where the feet of the mountains meet. Or to change the picture, peace cannot come merely from the flowers but from the roots of the grass. As an ordinary pastor, I am part of the blade of grass just out of the ground, connected on the one side to the roots—the laity, who must make peace work—and on the other to further up the stalk eventually terminating in global Christian leaders. So I hope my vantage point lends a peculiar value to the conversation.

I also wish to indicate that of the responses you have already received, some of them represent me, either formally (organizationally) or by affinity. The one that I particularly would like to point out whose content best represents my views is the response from the Baptist World Alliance.

I want to begin by affirming your perceptive insight that the two Great Commandments to love the Lord our God with all one's heart, soul, mind, and strength and to love one's neighbor as oneself are at the center of the Christian faith. In fact, I affirm that those two commandments are the Christian faith entirely—as Jesus simply said, "Do this, and you will live" (Luke 10:25-28)—but only as these commandments are unpacked Christianly. If Christians and Muslims can all together affirm these two Great Commandments, then they truly do form "a common word"—so "common," in fact, that we may genuinely be able to call each other fellow worshipers with no boundary between us. But if the content, definitions, and relationships between these two commandments are not agreed upon, then the "common word" is actually not common between you and us after all.

Loving the One God

The heart of both of our faiths is the Godhood of God. For us, this includes his oneness, his onlyness; for you God's oneness dominates the entire doctrinal edifice, and that is where your letter to us begins. On the surface, it would appear that this is the ideal starting place for commonality between our faiths, but it obscures a difficult question.

As Christians discuss Islam among ourselves, one of our most controverted questions is whether we and you worship the same God. On the one hand, this would appear to be easily answered. Both you and we affirm that there is only one God. If there is only one, then by definition there are no alternatives. So if we claim that there is only one God and we worship that God, and you do the same, it would seem that there is no logical room for the idea that we worship different gods. In addition, when we talk about God's attributes and character and when you do the same, we use the same words to describe him, words like infinite, all-powerful, just, merciful. This also would indicate that we endeavor to love the same God with our whole being.

But on the other hand, when we say that there is one God, we do not mean exactly the same thing as when you say that there is one God. We mean that there is one Divine Nature or Divine Essence, one "Godness" that comprises all that it means for God to be God, his infinity, his power, his justice, his mercy. We also mean that three Persons revealed as the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit each entirely possess that one Divine Nature so that they are exactly the same; that these three have total access to, knowledge of, and love for each other; that their loves and hates, choices and actions are all perfectly aligned; and that the only distinction that can be made between them is who comes from whom and how. All of this is what we mean when we say "one God."

I also note by way of explanation something that could easily make our faith especially confusing to you. In the Christian Scriptures, the word rendered in English "God" sometimes refers to all three Divine Persons as One and other times refers specifically to the Father. Similarly, the word rendered in English "Lord" sometimes refers to all three Divine Persons as One, sometimes to the Father, and sometimes to the Son. In the First Great Commandment, we believe that "God" means all three Divine Persons as One; therefore the command is to love the One God Who Is the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit with all our hearts, souls, minds, and strength.

This is important, because it would seem that the very least we can do to love this God, especially with "all our mind," is to believe what God says about God's self. No one can love anyone without believing that the beloved's self-description is trustworthy. That trust is something of a base level of love. We believe that God has described God's self as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We trust God's self-description, and this trust is essential, our bare minimum of what it means to love God.

We realize that at this time you cannot agree with this and do not accept this revelation, and therefore it is not certain that we and you agree in a meaningful sense on the Great Commandment to love God with all our being. It also suggests that if we worship the God Who Is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit while you do not that we actually do not worship the same God. But whether or not that is the case, it still raises serious doubt that we and you are actually pursuing the same goal when we each speak of loving God.

Why We Love Our Neighbor

I could not help noticing that the section of "A Common Word" on "Love of the Neighbour" is strikingly brief compared to the rest of the document. I wonder why this is, and I hope that you have produced or will produce resources that explain this and more generally explain love of neighbor in Islam. I also noticed that in that section you do not describe the connection or relationship between love of God and love of neighbor. In other words, why are these two particular commandments the greatest, and what do they have to do with one another?

In Christianity, the relationship between love of God and love of neighbor is grounded in the relationality within God. As one of our apostles (John) wrote, "God is love," not just that God does love (1 John 4:8, 16). The love between the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit is part of the very being of God.

Because relational love is inherent in God, relational love is a necessary part of human nature, since, as you and we agree, God created humanity in God's image and likeness. Among other appropriate inferences from this idea, it means that the relationality among humans is a reflection of God's inherent relationality, and love among humans is our God-intended imitation of God. Therefore, loving one's neighbor as fully as one loves oneself is love of God with one's entire being, because it is by loving one another that we obey God by displaying his image as he created us to do.

We hold that God did not only create humanity to reflect his relational love, but God saved (began redeeming and re-creating) humanity to reflect it also. We hold that by disobeying God and plunging into sin, humanity severed its connection to the love of God in crucial ways. In the same way that an irrigation system's water turns stagnant, stale, foul, and limited by being cut off from its water supply, so humanity's love soured as humans recirculated a finite quantity of tainted, impure, inferior, ignorant, often destructive, mortal love amongst each other. But God, being Love itself, began restoring us by reconnecting us to God and pouring God's infinite love back into us again. We hold that God did this through the incarnation and sacrifice of the Son. As John again put it, "By this the love of God is revealed in us: that God [the Father] sent his one and only Son into the world so that we may live through him. In this is love: not that we have loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins" (1 John 4:9-10).

Based on what you wrote in "A Common Word," it would seem that in Islam the love of neighbor is essentially legal, whereas in Christianity it is essentially relational though sometimes expressed in legal terms. It also appears that in Islam God's love is God's response to those who love (Aal ‘Imran, 3:31), whereas in Christianity God's love is primarily God's enablement of those who love—in other words, "We love because he loved us first" (1 John 4:19).

With, For, and Against

In "A Common Word," you thoughtfully compare two of our own Scriptures, "Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters" (Matthew 12:30) and, "For whoever is not against us is for us" (Mark 9:40; also Luke 9:50 which replaces "us" with "you"). However, both of these sayings need to be looked at more closely in their respective contexts.

You cite Theophylact of Ohrid as interpreting Matthew 12:30 to refer to demons as the ones who were against Jesus. As Jesus is teaching about demons in that part of Matthew, that is assuredly the case. But just because Jesus' principle applies to demons, it does not negate the saying's application to humans as well. Theophylact himself pointed out that Jesus' human critics were the ones "scattering" people away from hearing and being healed by him so that, to Jesus, the critics were like the demons.

As it happens, the saying in Mark (and Luke) also involves demons. When Jesus' disciples were jealous of a stranger who threw demons out of people in Jesus' name, Jesus replied, "Do not stop him, because no one who does a miracle in my name will be able soon afterward to say anything bad about me" (Mark 9:39). The man in the story who was "not against" Jesus and his followers was a man who worked a miracle through his faith in Jesus as the source of power over supernatural evil.

What both sayings have in common is Jesus portrayed as the peerless Savior of human beings from demonic forces. The sayings also agree, from different angles, that a person is either "for" and "with" Jesus or "against" him. There is no neutrality or third option.

I am grateful for the respect that you have shown us Christians by the respect that you show Jesus Christ in "A Common Word," which is founded on the honor paid to Jesus by the Prophet Muhammad. But a crucial word of clarification is in order. Though the English word "Christ" and the Greek word it roughly transliterates quickly evolved into a name for Jesus as early as the 1st century C.E., it did not begin this way. "Christ" comes from a Greek translation of the Hebrew word for "anointed" (in English roughly transliterated "messiah"). "Christ," then, is a title: he is Jesus "the Anointed."

The background of the title "Anointed" comes from the richness of the Hebrew Scriptures, which we Christians call the Old Testament. Formally anointed men were leaders: prophets (for example, Elisha, 1 Kings 19:16), priests (for example, Aaron, Leviticus 8), and kings (for example, David, 1 Samuel 16:1-13). Each of these three roles was mediatorial—prophets, priests, and kings were go-betweens between God's people and God. When Christians call Jesus "Christ," the Anointed One, we are naming him the "one intermediary between God and humanity" (1 Timothy 2:5-6), the final, complete, superior, living bridge between us and God. Jesus the Christ, God the Son, fulfilled this role not only in what he did by serving as "a ransom for all" through his death but also in his very person as the one who possesses all that is inherent in God's nature and also all that is inherent in human nature.

Therefore, when Christians think about being "with" and "for" Jesus, we think the same as we do about loving God with all our being. The least we can do to be "with" and "for" Jesus is to believe what God has revealed about him, including what he says about himself. Distrust about something that basic is incompatible with being "with" and "for" him. If he truly is the Christ, the sole Anointed Intermediary, with all that that means, then any honor shown to Jesus that falls short of that acknowledgment is in the end mistrust—in the end, it is standing "against" him. Thus, despite the sincere honor that you and all Islam endeavor to pay to Jesus, if it does not affirm what Jesus said about himself as the most minimal honor, it casts serious doubt onto whether our honor of Jesus and yours truly cohere in "a common word between us and you" and if we really are both "for" Jesus.


To conclude, thank you for the concern for our world and indeed for our lives that led you to do the difficult but well-done work of composing "A Common Word" and submitting it to us. It is in the same spirit of grace that I compose this response to you. I write in the belief that whether or not this word truly is common—an assertion about which I have grave doubts, as my response describes—nevertheless sharing a common word is not a requirement for us to love each other as we both believe we ought to do. We can, we should, and I pledge to you that I will. Your affirmation of the basis for religious freedom in Islam—a principle that historically has been especially beloved to us Christians in the Baptist tradition—gives me hope that you truly do and will too.

I notice that you have explored the first three of our four books called Gospels in your search for "a common word between us and you." That is an excellent place to start. However, let me suggest that for further exploration, the best Christian writing you might peruse is the First Epistle of John (commonly abbreviated "1 John"), which I cited in this response. I mention 1 John because the book carefully considers love of the one God, love of neighbor, what it means to be for Jesus, and the relationships between all these ideas, and it does so in a remarkably small space. Some study of this short book would likely reveal the essence of Christianity more efficiently than any other approach.

Once again, thank you for the thoughtful care and careful thought you have given us. I join you in praying for peace in our world. And I pray that you and we both would excel ever further in our pursuit of loving God. Wal-Salaamu ‘Alaykum.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Appealing to the Secular Religion

A few months ago I was sitting in the "multipurpose room" of a moderately swanky suburban private day school. Various brightly colored, encouragingly instructive messages and iconography adorned the walls (like stickers about "the wilderness" and composting). Among them were five signs that I took to be the official values of the school:
  • critical thinking
  • diversity
  • integrity
  • community
  • empathy
It occurred to me that these values are among the basic tenets of contemporary secular religion. I use the term "religion" a bit boldly, because the accoutrements of traditional religion—including priesthood, liturgy, pantheon/saints, festivals, doctrine, purity codes, etc.—manifest themselves subtly in secular religion and can be difficult to pick out, though one could brainstorm examples of all of them. But because it is an integrated, though at times self-dissonant, worldview and lifestyle that orients a person and community to Ultimate Matters, I think that "religion" is the best word for it. It also casts in a somewhat amusing light another word on the gym wall:

I thought about how all five of those values are positive things that I agree with and believe in but about how if the Christian school that I graduated from were to articulate its top five values, they would be entirely different. Some people have pointed out that what makes values valuable is not the values themselves but their comparative ranks. This is because almost everyone affirms almost everything put forth by anybody as a value. What makes an institution or individual unique, however, is which values take precedence over other values if a crisis forces us to choose among them.

So even though I affirm all these values to one degree or another, at first I smirked cynically (and self-righteously) at this display of secular religion, thinking, "I'd never send my kids here (as if I could afford it)."

But then I opened my Bible to pick up my daily reading in the Book of Acts, and I realized that Paul the Apostle would not look at these tenets of secular religion as I just did. He would view them as a bridge, a means to connect with people of a different religion in order to introduce them to the Lord, Jesus Christ.

Paul would affirm critical thinking. He would make common ground with the honing of the mind to look at the roots of ideas and where ideas lead, cutting through thoughtless foolishness along the way. He would then point out that this is exactly what God does when he looks at humanity's best thinking: "Has God not made the wisdom of the world foolish?" (1 Cor. 1:20). He would note with Isaiah that God's thoughts are higher than our thoughts (Isa. 55:8-9). Nevertheless, "God has revealed these to us by the Spirit," and therefore "the one who is spiritual discerns all things" because "we have the mind of Christ" (1 Cor. 2:10, 15-16). Therefore, supreme critical thinking is possessed by those who have been enlightened by the Spirit of God.

Paul would affirm diversity. He would celebrate the joining together of a vast array of cultures, nations, languages, sexes, classes, educational attainments, vocations, and gifts. He would then argue that the only way to achieve this diversity authentically without it blowing apart is if the bond among diverse persons is Christ himself. In him "there is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all and in all" (Col. 3:11). But this is not a melting-pot eradication of diversity, because through him are (not "were") all things (Rom. 11:36). Christ is the only one high and worthy enough and also accessible enough to connect all peoples, and he is also the only one broad and deep enough that each unique person or people is a precious, irreducible manifestation of his beauty.

Paul would affirm integrity. He would wholeheartedly insist on it in all one's being, thinking, speaking, and acting. But he would set a far loftier standard for integrity than people usually settle for. Then he would give the good news that integrity can be secured by justification—the reception of God's undeserved gift of a "not guilty" verdict by nothing more than faith that Christ is our comprehensive, sacrificial substitute by his death on the cross. He would then announce the further good news that "now we have been released from the law . . . so that we may serve in the new life of the Spirit" (Rom. 7:6), who transforms us inwardly into the sort of people who do live with integrity as Christ himself lives through us (Gal. 2:20).

Paul would affirm community. He would maintain strongly that human beings are more than individuals—they are part of a whole, and always will be. He would claim that the question is not whether one is in community but which community one is in. He would contrast the community into which we all are born—the community "in Adam," a community doomed to die, in which natural ("of the flesh") warring subcommunities of race, tribe, and faction prevail—with the community into which we may be born again by faith—the community "in Christ," which is "one body" that shares one bread and drinks of one cup (1 Cor. 10:16-17). This community of peace lives forever and tastes that eternal life as its members live together even now.

Finally, Paul would affirm empathy. He would sketch numerous examples of empathy in action, as for example to "rejoice with those who rejoice [and] weep with those who weep" (Rom. 12:15). He would describe empathy as "be[ing] of the same mind, by having the same love, being united in spirit, and having one purpose . . . be[ing] moved to treat one another as more important than yourself" (Phil. 2:2-3). As Paul hints here, empathy is not a strong virtue on its own but only as an assistant of love, "which is the perfect bond" of all the virtues (Col. 3:14). Love goes beyond empathy, beyond merely understanding or even feeling for one's neighbor to sacrificing oneself to help them, deserving or not, just as God did for us in Christ Jesus (Rom. 5:8). Only those who have received this love in fullness have the resource within to pour it out on others.

We don't live in an irreligious world. Even in its most irreligious places, there is often a covert religion humming in the background. It is not a religion that saves. But like the rest, it is a religion that contains signs that point to salvation in the name of Jesus. We who have the mind of Christ are to help people to see the signs and walk with them on the way.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Christian Pacifism and Christian Fellowship: A July 4th Meditation

I stand by the response I wrote to my friend about pacifism in my previous post, especially the parts about not forming a "canon within the canon" of Scripture and sensitivity to both the personal and the social consequences of the Bible's ethical teaching, which sometimes coexist in paradox. However, I wrote the response to my friend months ago, a bit before I attended my latest Doctor of Ministry residency, an experience which unsettled my confidence on this issue.

But before I talk about that experience, I need to sketch background by describing my personal journey of understanding and evaluating the American Civil War.

I'll never forget my 5th-grade teacher giving me her weighty copy of The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War, which I still treasure. As a boy my excited thoughts on the Civil War were simple and predictable. War was glorious and thrilling. And the Union forces were the good guys for straightforward reasons: (1) they were from the North, like me; (2) what they did freed slaves; (3) they won. Then and through Ken Burns' awesome documentary a few years later, the war was fun for me. The good guys prevailed against an honorable foe.

I dropped the subject for a long time, picking it up again as a young adult. My perspective had changed. Suffused with political theory as I had become, the war seemed to me a tragic bloodbath over rival constitutional truths, a sweet tension between the One and the Many delicately arranged by our Founders turned into a tug-of-war and wrenched to one out-of-balance pole not by reason but by force. A war that in one way nobody won . . . except for slaves, who didn't in fact really win for another hundred years or more.

Now I'm back at it again, older still. I am doing a doctoral thesis on an abolitionist active during the Civil War, and research has propelled me into the war and its causes at much greater breadth and depth than I have ever looked at it before. In my study over the last year I found myself taken out of what I thought was my mature balance, thoughtfulness, seeing-all-sides-of-the-question and sent back to my childhood. The magnitude of slavery, the true, deep, often invisible rottenness of it, and the extent of its tentacles suffused through American life in all states, in all classes, has staggered me. Now, despite my sympathy for soldiers on all sides, despite my loss of youthful bravado and my fear of war, despite my realist's appraisal of the impurities in the Union cause . . . if I was suddenly transported back to 1861, I would enlist under the United States flag in a second.

At least, that's what I thought before my last residency. My cohort is composed of a healthy mix of Northerners and Southerners (with a Canadian and a Korean to boot) who love each other dearly and who have very different takes on the war. We are more intimate friends now than when we started our program, and at our last residency our subject matter took us closer to the Civil War era. There was some good-natured banter about nomenclature—is it "The Civil War" (or "The War of the Great Rebellion") or "The War between the States" (or "The War of Northern Aggression")?—but there was an edge that you could feel under the joking, an edge that sometimes emerged into serious (and, thank God, peaceable) conversations.

It was here that I was forced to confront something that my friend X pointed out in his message to me weeks before. If I know a believer who is my brother in Christ, with whom I have shared sweet fellowship, with whom I have prayed and worshiped and embraced and even wept, how could I go into battle with the possibility that I could intentionally slay him? It is unthinkable. No matter how wrong he is in his political convictions it is difficult to imagine any justification for personally putting a Christian brother to death because of it.

But that experience of fellowship with a Christian brother is just an outworking of the union we have with Christ and with each other in Christ. We would have that union whether we had ever met or not. That means that even if the men across the field from me were total strangers, if any of them were born from above in Christ then we have that very same union that it would be ghastly to strain by purposely killing each other.

Three days ago I stood on the ridge where the first shot was fired in the Battle of Gettysburg exactly 150 years before. 150 years ago thousands of men, most of them professing Christians, slaughtered each other on those fields and woods and hillsides. I believe that the war was a pitiable, tragic shame though I also believe in my bones that the Union cause was right, if not without flaw. But would I really have shot or bayoneted or clubbed to death an anonymous Christian brother for it? Would I have endured the terror of impending death in the roar and smoke and sprayed blood and shattered bones, eyes fixed in fear and rage on my enemy, only to suddenly, in the blink of an eye, find myself dumbstruck in the blazing throne room of Almighty God looking at the very man I had just killed, who had also just killed me?

The day after the battle both sides remembered that exactly four score and seven years before a group of revolutionary leaders ratified the text of America's Declaration of Independence. Both sides believed they were fighting to secure the result of that revolution. I think about the earlier struggle in much the same way as I do the Civil War. I believe that the principles of the Declaration are right, that they elevated a revolt against paying taxes into a moral stand worth taking and a cause worth fighting and dying for. But would I have bayoneted an unknown Christian Englishman or attacked my Christian, Loyalist neighbors for it?

The dilemma is this: if I believe that a cause is just, but I refuse on principle to fight for it, then do I really believe that the cause is just for anyone to fight for it? But if no one fights for it, then how will the government do its duty to uphold justice?

Monday, July 1, 2013

Pacifism and "Red-Letter Christians": A Letter from a Friend

"On the one hand" today. "On the other hand" later this week.

Hi Cory and J,

On Wednesday I read this blog post written by a current U.S. soldier who is in the process of becoming a conscientious objector. I found it to be very powerful, especially the link to a clip of Tony Campolo telling a story he heard from Philip Yancy about a Christian purposefully blowing out the brains of another Christian (in war).

I will gradually be viewing this video series, which the blog author says was instrumental in his conversion.

That's all for now. I try not to become one of those people who is always passing something on for you to read or watch, but this really hit home for me.



I finally read this. Thanks for your patience. I didn't take the time to watch the videos or read the links though.

First, I want to say that I admire this young man tremendously for being so principled—for seriously grappling with the Scriptures and being willing to stick his neck out alone and go against the grain because of his obedient love for Christ. That's awesome.

Nevertheless, let me bluntly warn you that I have a MASSIVE level of irritation with the so-called "Red Letter Christian" concept (notwithstanding my great respect and appreciation for my fellow American Baptist, Tony Campolo).

The irritation can be summed up in two critiques.

First, prioritizing the "red words" as "the words that Jesus said" implies that the "black words" are not ALSO "the words that Jesus said" through his Spirit who inspired the prophets and apostles. I have sharp distaste for the deliberate construction of a "canon within the canon," no matter who makes it and no matter what its shape (notwithstanding the Christ-centered exegesis of the Old Testament modeled by Jesus and the apostles). It violates Jesus' own theology of Scripture (cf. Matt. 5:17-18 in the Sermon on the Mount of all places; also John 10:35). I greatly resent a theological ethic of state use of force that presupposes the superiority of Matt. 5 over Rom. 13.

Second, peace-and-justice Christians do not improve the inferior hermeneutic of politically conservative Christians; they simply invert it. Political conservatives read what the Bible says about showing distributive justice and mercy to the poor, and interpret it in the most narrowly individualistic fashion—that it is all about voluntary charity from one individual to another. Then they read what the Scriptures say about war and retributive justice and construct a far-reaching social ethic regarding the state's use of force.

All peace-and-justice Christians do is flip this around. They read what the Bible says about the poor and construct a complex social ethic of state-administered wealth (or at least income) redistribution and social safeguards on the market. Then they read what the Bible (actually only a portion of the Bible) says about war, violence, and criminal justice and interpret it individualistically—"I can't shoot a person and love him at the same time, so war is wrong." Note that at no place in this young soldier's testimony does he say a word about what the Bible says about the state's obligation to its citizens and the scope of its God-given authority.

The right method for theological-ethical construction is to take what the WHOLE Bible (Christocentrically interpreted) says about wealth and poverty and derive (1) an ethic for individuals and (2) an ethic for societies and states, then to do the same for what it says about war, violence, and criminal justice. The ethic for individuals may in some ways easily cohere with the ethic for societies and states. In other ways the ethics may coexist in paradox (e.g., "Individual, don't steal; state, tax and redistribute"; "Individual, don't retaliate in kind; state, retaliate in kind, preemptively if necessary").

Finally, though, I am glad for Christian pacifists, because they force the rest of us to be careful that we don't get lazy by just giving lip-service to "war as the last resort." Also, pacifists have been motivated to pioneer peacemaking strategies that prevent conflicts from getting to "the last resort" or backing it down once it gets there. Every Christian should support and celebrate this, and too often we don't. Nevertheless, I have never seen a case made for thoroughgoing pacifism that does not appear to me to be biblically narrow, selectively individualistic, and unbalanced.


Monday, June 24, 2013

The Vision Thing (28): What Keeps Us Going

A true vision from God cannot but entail hardship.

Every person in the Bible who saw a vision of God and a vision from God suffered because of it. All were hated by someone. Some were cast out. Some were even killed. All had to give up something comfortable and familiar as a result of what they saw and step into the air where only God could support them.

Amos the Prophet is illustrative (Amos 7:10-17). A priest at Bethel, where Yahweh was worshiped in golden-calf form, vigorously opposed the prophet for his doom-and-gloom messages. "Leave, you visionary!" he said. "Run away to the land of Judah! Earn your living and prophesy there!"

Amos, the visionary, replied, "I was not a prophet by profession. No, I was a herdsman who also took care of sycamore fig trees. Then the LORD took me from tending flocks and gave me this commission, 'Go! Prophesy to my people Israel!' " Amos' vision impelled him out of an ordinary life into a world of hostility.

But the vision that drives us into suffering is the very thing that keeps us going through the suffering. What we see ahead is what makes it all worth it. Paul's magnificent exposition of the implications of seeing the glory of God in the face of Christ bears this out. "[W]e are not looking at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen," he writes mysteriously. "For what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal" (2 Cor. 4:18). It is this vision of the invisible that compels us to endure "momentary, light suffering"—which in Paul's case, as he describes elsewhere, included severe floggings (five times with the lash, three with the rod), stoning, shipwreck (twice), hunger, exposure to the elements, muggings, and rejection and disgrace from all directions—because it "is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison" (v. 17). So "we live by faith"—vision of and from the invisible God—"not by sight" of this world (5:7).

All the heroes of the faith did this. Abraham lived and died a nomad, seeing the eternal city promised him in the distance (Heb. 11:13-16). Moses "regarded abuse suffered for Christ," who was to come far in the future, "to be greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt, for his eyes were fixed on the reward. . . . [H]e persevered as though he could see the one who is invisible" (vv. 26-27). And finally the climax of this train of visionaries, Christ himself, "endured the cross, disregarding its shame" because his eyes were fixed on "the joy set out for him." Therefore, as we keep our eyes fixed on him, we too "may not grow weary in [our] souls and give up" (12:2-3).

Paul prayed for the church at Ephesus that, because "the eyes of your heart have been enlightened . . . you may know what is the hope of his calling, what is the wealth of his glorious inheritance in the saints, and what is the incomparable greatness of his power toward us who believe" (Eph. 1:18-19). That enlightenment, God's opening of our heart's eyes so that we can see his glory, the glory coming for us, drives us inexorably into conflict with this dark world and into suffering at the hands of its human and angelic powers. But it also keeps us going, driving ever onward, ever upward into the glorious rest that is himself that our heart's eyes have beheld and can't be torn away from.

True vision is not a light thing. It is not a buzzword; it is more than a diagram on a napkin, though those things might in a humble way exhibit it. True vision compels people to sacrifice everything. But the same vision assures us that the suffering it requires is worth it. Oh, yes—it is so worth it!

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

The Vision Thing (27): Our Failures or Christ's Glory

When the disciples went to the other side, they forgot to take bread. "Watch out," Jesus said to them. "Beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees." So they began to discuss among themselves saying, "It is because we brought no bread" [Matt. 16:5-7].
True vision from God starts with having a true vision of God. One of the many obstacles to attaining a vision of God is one's own failures. I don't mean that your failures disqualify you from seeing God. If so, no one would see God—at least, no one would see him and live to tell about it. I mean that your failures can grab your attention so fully that you are blind to the glory of God right in front of you.

This is Jesus' disciples' situation in Matthew 16. Jesus warns them against "the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees," and all these poor guys can think is that Jesus is chastising them for not having remembered to bring the bread. Jesus could certainly be cryptic, but comparing their supply of bread to "the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees" is a stretch even for him!

Besides that, as Jesus reminds them, they had recently experienced him multiply five loaves of bread to feed 5,000 men and later multiply seven loaves to feed 4,000. Why would Jesus care about whether they had remembered to bring bread? Hadn't Jesus already proven that they would never starve as long as he was around? Almost exasperated, Jesus sighs, "How could you not understand that I was not speaking to you about bread?" (v. 11).

And yet, this is exactly what Jesus' disciples thought he was speaking about. Their eyes were so quick to look at how they had messed up that they couldn't see what Jesus was saying to them. And they couldn't see what Jesus was saying to them because they couldn't see Jesus himself—the true bread from heaven that a person could eat and not die, who proved his inexhaustible power to give life by astoundingly multiplying bread twice.

Fortunately, Jesus' admonition broke their gaze from their mistake of forgetting bread and redirected it to his glory. "Then they understood that he had not told them to be on guard against the yeast in bread, but against the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees" (v. 12).

May Jesus' word interrupt our focus on our failures and replace it with a focus on his all-sufficient excellency! Then we too will see the world around us rightly, be warned of dangers, and recognize the mission he has for us.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

The Vision Thing (26): Seeking and Seeing

In a previous post I claimed that a person doesn't attain true vision by merely looking harder at the world around them. No matter how hard one looks, God's supernatural revelation is required. This comes entirely from him by his sheer grace.

Nevertheless, that does not mean that vision and attention are totally unrelated. What we're looking at—and more importantly, what we're looking for—goes a long way toward determining what we see.

Consider Jesus' teaching. Jesus proposed a truly novel solution to individual poverty. "So then, don't worry saying, 'What will we eat?' or 'What will we drink?' or 'What will we wear?' . . . But above all pursue [God's] kingdom and righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well" (Matt. 6:31, 33). In other words, look for, anticipate God's just government that's coming over everything—even let it come early into your own life by obeying him above all other demands and desires—even pray for its arrival before you ask for your own needs—and before the day is done you will see God providing for your needs when you need them. If you look for God's reign, you will see your needs met, but ironically if you look to meet your needs you may fail to see it happen.

If we look for God's reign, it's because we consider it to be supremely valuable. Jesus instructed not to be about accumulating earthly valuables, because they are inherently insecure. By contrast, what is valuable in heaven—that is, what is valuable to God—is inherently secure; it is eternal and can never be lost. Jesus points out that "where your treasure is, there your heart will be also" (v. 24). Our minds are on our money and our money is on our minds. But if what is most valuable to us is God's reign, then that will be on our minds all the time. Then suddenly having enough money becomes no problem, both because we have a revised standard of what constitutes "enough" and because God fully supplies it.

Where things get really interesting is when what we are looking for affects what other people see. There are people around us who have trouble seeing God's coming-and-already-here reign. Sometimes we think we see what the obstacle is that is obscuring their vision. But if, because we are looking for what blinds other people, we fail to see what is blinding us (which may be much larger!), then we are of no help to the other person. "You hypocrite!" Jesus says. "First remove the beam from your own eye, and then you can see clearly to remove the speck from your brother's eye" (7:5).

As I've maintained repeatedly through this series, if we seek a vision of God and for all obstacles to that vision to be taken away, we will not only see God but everything else besides. Indeed, our vision may allow others to see him too. But if we seek a vision of anything less than him, we will remain blind—and since we compare ourselves favorably to other people, we will not know that we cannot see.

Monday, June 10, 2013

The Vision Thing (25): More Given, or Taken Away

One day Isaiah had a vision (Isa. 6). He saw himself in the innermost recess of the temple of God, and he saw the Lord in blazing, humanoid form sitting on an elevated throne, and in a mysterious, impossible-to-picture phrase, "the hem of his robe filled the temple." Fiery, multi-winged beings swirled around him crying out, "Holy, holy, holy is the Lord who commands armies! His majestic splendor fills the entire earth!" The sound of praise was so deafening that the building shook, and smoke filled the temple.

It was only by seeing the terrifyingly awesome, barely describable visage of God that Isaiah could truly see himself: "Woe is me, for I am ruined! Because I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; for my eyes of seen the King, the LORD of hosts" (v. 5, NASB). When Isaiah saw God's holiness, he saw his own uncleanness, and he saw the uncleanness of the people of whom he was an inseparable part, and he believed that he was a dead man for having somehow disgustingly invaded the presence of the all-powerful, unyieldingly clean God.

But God intervened. The unimpeachably Pure One purified Isaiah with the symbol of a burning coal on his mouth, separating and sanctifying Isaiah from among his people to speak God's pure words to them. And at that moment, having seen God and then seeing himself, Isaiah saw his people, Israel, as God saw their present and future:
Listen continually, but don't understand!
Look continually, but don't perceive!
Make the hearts of these people calloused;

make their ears deaf and their eyes blind!
Otherwise they might see with their eyes and hear with their ears,
their hearts might understand and they might repent and be healed.
Isaiah had seen a vision of God and did exactly the right thing—he humbled himself and submitted to the One he saw. As a result, Isaiah was given a vision of his people. He was given many more visions from God—according to the first verse of his book, all 66 chapters of it describe them. He received more vision because he cherished and obeyed the vision that he had already been given.

Israel had been given a vision too—a vision of God on Sinai, visions of him through his acts of deliverance on their behalf over centuries, and prophets' recounting of their visions of God as instructions for the people. But rather than cherish and obey the visions, they treated them casually and neglected them. The result for them was that rather than getting more visions, they received less. Even the visions they did receive were hidden from their eyes. Having chosen not to see, they could not unchoose—they could not even see enough to recognize seeing as an option.

Isaiah asked God how long he would have to proclaim this message: see, you will be blind! God replied that it would be until Israel's blindness took them all the way into devastation and exile.

So Isaiah proclaimed this message. One time he excoriated the people for going to occultists for a message when the vision in God's Law and prophetic oracles were right in front of them. Their stubbornness revealed that they had "no dawn" (8:20, NASB), no light by which to see. Hungry, angry, in "distress and darkness, gloom and anxiety," they would perish in their blindness (vv. 21-22).

The very words that God gave Isaiah in Isaiah 6 were on the lips of Jesus in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, were commented on by John, and were on Paul's lips as recorded in Acts.

Jesus taught using figures of speech that he sometimes deliberately chose not to explain, because the lack of understanding of those to whom he spoke was a self-confirming judgment, just as it was in Isaiah's day (Matt. 13:13-15). But Jesus called out a few students to see truly and listen fully just as God had called Isaiah. "You have been given the opportunity to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven," he said, "but they have not. For whoever has will be given more, and will have an abundance. But whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him" (vv. 11-12).

This is the awesome, frightening, and exciting principle of vision: God gives more vision of himself, of ourselves, and of the world to those who keep our eyes fixed on the vision we already have. On the flip side, whoever neglects or ignores the vision God has given them lose even that and wander around blind.

This applies to all people. The person who obeys the little light they have gets more; the person who avoids the vision of God for the self-concocted or world-promulgated vision they want for themselves winds up with no vision at all.

It also applies to all churches. The church that devotes itself to seeing God, seeing what God sees, and obeying what God has shown that church to do will find its vision widened, deepened, and multiplied, touching lives that would have been unimaginable. The church that neglects the vision of God for a vision of its own institutional comfort, stability, and security loses all its sight and soon wanders, gradually but inexorably, into annihilation.

What a high-risk privilege! We have access to more of God's sight than we can conceive if we only follow what we have. And yet if we neglect it, we may never see God again.

However, if you have stumbled into darkness by neglecting the vision God gave you, there may yet be hope. Sometimes by his grace God does break the deserving blind out of their trap so that they see again. Isaiah prophesied, "The gloom will be dispelled for those who were anxious. . . . The people walking in darkness see a bright light; light shines on those who live in a land of deep darkness" (9:1). Jesus himself is the light of the world who shines in the darkness, and though the darkness cannot make sense of it, some do take that second chance to see and believe.

But if you have taken that second chance, why risk it again?

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

The Vision Thing (24): False Claims

El Greco, Christ Healing the Blind (c. 1570)
God is delighted to give true vision to those who lack it. But he is equally determined to withhold it from those who insist that they have it but do not. Making an empty claim to vision is the worst thing we can do.

John 9 contains a fascinating story about spiritual vision that involves literal, physical vision. Jesus heals a man born blind so that he sees. The Pharisees are trying to figure out how this happened, especially as it happened on the Sabbath when no work was to be done, and what this event indicates about Jesus. As the story develops, the once-blind man increasingly "sees" Jesus to be the One Sent from God while the Pharisees become hostile to the seeing man and strenuously reject his conclusion. "You were born completely in sinfulness," they say, seething. "And yet you presume to teach us?" (v. 34).

Upon meeting up with the once-blind man again, Jesus asserts, "For judgment I have come into this world, so that those who do not see may gain their sight, and the ones who see may become blind" (v. 39). In other words, Jesus came into the world so that those who lack vision could gain it. However, those who claim to have vision Jesus would judge on the basis of their claim. If these people actually lack vision because the vision they claim to have is merely self-invented, then Jesus would punish them by cementing them in their unwitting blindness. Jesus confirms this verdict when Pharisees around him bait him with the question, "We are not blind too, are we?" Jesus' reply: "If you were blind you would not be guilty of sin, but now because you claim that you can see, your guilt remains" (vv. 40-41).

I don't believe that God is pleased if a person has a vision of God and from God and modestly claims not to have one. Imagine what God would have done if one of the prophets had pulled that stunt! But on the other hand, vision is an awesome, precious thing, because it is a faculty of God himself that only he can bestow. If you don't have vision, and you humbly admit it, you're in a good place, because the Son may give it to you. But the false purveyors of vision that have concocted it themselves, copied it from others, or (still worse) mimicked it from the world get blinder all the time the more they claim to see.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

The Vision Thing (23): God Withholds It

If true vision comes from God, then not to have true vision is also from God in at least some sense. Undoubtedly our failure to see what God sees is because our perception has been obscured and perverted by our depraved nature. But if God bestows vision on some people despite their depravity, then God's disinclination to give it to others constitutes his decision to withhold it from them.

This idea might make people uncomfortable, but there is some subtle corroboration of it in the Gospel of Luke.

In Luke 9:43-45 Jesus tells his disciples that he is going to be betrayed. "But they did not understand this statement; its meaning had been concealed from them, so that they could not grasp it."

In Luke 19:41-44 Jesus weeps over Jerusalem: "If you had only known on this day, even you, the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes."

In Luke 24:13-35 two of Jesus' disciples (not among the Twelve) are walking to Emmaus two days after Jesus had died. The risen Jesus encounters them and explains to them why it was "necessary for the Christ to suffer these things and enter into his glory" (v. 26), but "their eyes were kept from recognizing him" (v. 16).

Who concealed Jesus' prediction of his betrayal from his disciples? Who hid the things that make for peace from Jerusalem? Who kept the disciples' eyes from recognizing the risen Lord? God did.

The underlined phrases above are best understood as what are called "divine passives." Divine passives are verbs in the passive voice that respectfully avoid identifying God directly—e.g., "they are hidden" rather than "God hid them." Divine passives are not unusual in the New Testament, and these three examples seem to fit the mold, because God could tear the veil off whenever he wanted to (as he did with Saul/Paul, for example). And in fact, he did.

Notice that though God concealed the meaning of Jesus' prediction of his betrayal in Luke 9, in chapter 24 Jesus "opened their minds so they could understand the scriptures" that were fulfilled by that betrayal.

In Matthew's rendition of Luke 19:41-44 Jesus says, "You will not see me from now until you say, 'Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!' " The one who hid the things that made for peace will eventually make Jerusalem yearn for the one coming from him, and he will open their eyes to see him.

And with the two disciples headed toward Emmaus, God kept them from recognizing Jesus only until the moment that Jesus broke the bread, when "their eyes were opened" (v. 31, another divine passive).

So why does God do this? Why does he choose to keep people from gaining vision? Timing. God is a God who reveals, but he gives the vision at the right time for each person according to his perfect plan. So what does this teach us about vision? Two things.

First, we simply cannot take credit for vision, ever. The God who gives it is just as powerful to keep us in the dark. He deserves all the credit, we none.

Second, if we have the vision but others don't yet, we must remember that they never will until God is ready to open their eyes. Jesus did not successfully communicate true vision about his impending suffering to his disciples, and it wasn't because Jesus was a poor communicator. It was because God had concealed the plain truth that Jesus was speaking.

Though we can't blame people for our poor communication, our excellent communication of the vision must be accompanied by patience, because we know that only God will open their minds to grasp it. And the patience must be accompanied by confident trust that God's timing is always best, and he won't let them see until it is just the right time.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

The Vision Thing (22): Musicians

You know who needs true vision? Musicians.

A composition professor at my college used to groan when a kid in chapel would introduce his musical offering by saying, "God gave me this song." "If God gave you that song," the prof would intone to those around him, "it wouldn’t have parallel fifths and octaves. And it would have more than four chords!"

No doubt, the "God gave me a song" thing is way overplayed (pun intended). But it does happen—in fact, for the sake of God's people, it must happen. (And incidentally, though it isn't fair to attribute to God lousy-to-mediocre music, if God inspired the awful grammar [parallel fifths and octaves] of the Book of Revelation and the small vocabulary [four chords] of the writings of John, then he may be inspiring more dull or ugly music than refined tastes care to admit.) The point is that those who make musical worship possible in the church need God's vision if worshiping God is really going to happen.

Of the many notable things King David did in his life and reign, one of the less familiar is his thorough reform of the organization and duties of the tribe of Levi. During Israel’s journey from Egypt to Canaan the Levites were responsible to transport the tabernacle, the mobile temple, but once Israel settled in their new land the Levites had kind of lost their way. One of the jobs David gave to a particular subgroup of Levites was to make music in the temple that David’s son Solomon would build. David selected three families, one from each of the three Levite clans, to constitute these worship choirs and bands forever after. The leaders of the three families were named Asaph, Heman, and Jeduthun (a.k.a. Ethan), and all of them were prophets.

We know they were prophets because they wrote Psalms (including some or all of these), and writing God-breathed, holy Scripture makes one a prophet by definition. But we also know this because they are called such in the Bible. Heman was David's seer. So was Asaph. During David's reign, other seers, Gad and Nathan, gave musical directions that came from God himself about the playing of cymbals and stringed instruments. Seers see. These worship leaders had supernatural vision.

If worship musicians don't have vision, they do something like this:

If they do have vision, they do something like this:

( . . . which, incidentally, was written to be entertainment, not worship music; it takes some vision to make entertainment something like that.)

Or (in my opinion, submitted just so that you know that I am pro-contemporary music) they do something like this:

I met a young woman from a non-religious background who had been exposed to Christianity by her aunt. Once she got to college she connected with the Christian group on campus. As a musician, what was most appealing to her about Christianity was the abandon with which she could sing and sway to songs like The David Crowder Band's "How He Loves." Please understand that I really dig "How He Loves" as an element of a well-balanced worship diet. But this poor girl had never heard the gospel (or at least never knew that she heard it or had never been invited to do anything about it) and never knew that sleeping with her presumed Christian boyfriend was contrary to the very love of God that she loved to sing about.

Where there is no vision in worship, it is easier for this kind of thing to happen. This is why the church needs its musicians to have true vision of God, the origin of true vision from God.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

The Vision Thing (21): Unusual Connections

Jean Restout II, Ananias Restoring the Sight of St. Paul (1719)
Quite often, true vision creates connections between people that wouldn't happen otherwise.

In the Book of Acts, a man named Saul was on his way with a band of Sanhedrin-authorized thugs to kidnap Christians in Damascus and haul them back to imprisonment or death in Jerusalem. Then he saw a vision of Jesus, and he discovered that he was bound not only to serve this Jesus as Lord and Messiah, not only to be connected as a brother to the very people he was doggedly hunting down, but even to have a special mission to bring the good news about Jesus to unclean Gentiles that he had never met and would never dream of associating with.

Three days later, a Christian in Damascus named Ananias was praying and saw a vision of Jesus, and he discovered that Saul had been completely turned around and that he, Ananias, was to pray for him in person to regain his sight. When he entered the place where Saul was staying, he addressed him as "Brother Saul."

In the following chapter, a Roman officer in Caesarea named Cornelius saw a vision of an angel that told him to send messengers to Joppa to bring back a man named Peter. Peter saw a vision of a weird sheet full of all sorts of animals being lowered from heaven and heard a voice call them clean to eat, because God can call the unclean clean. When the messengers showed up at his door, Peter heard the voice tell him to go with them. When he got to Cornelius's house and heard the Roman's story, he saw that God doesn't play favorites but accepts the person from any and every nation who fears him and does what is right. Then he saw Cornelius and his household filled with the Holy Spirit, and he saw that if Jesus saw fit to baptize them in the Holy Spirit, then surely he shouldn't withhold baptism in water. Suddenly the Christian movement extended beyond the borders of Judaism.

A few chapters later, Saul (known as Paul now) was wandering through modern-day Turkey, prohibited by the Spirit to announce the good news in all these places that had never heard it. Then once he got to the Aegean Sea, he saw a vision of a man of Macedonia, across the water, urging him to come and help them. A few days later, the good news had a new foothold in Europe.

There are so many barriers between people in the world—barriers of prejudice, of conviction, of custom, of affinity, and of mere routine. Whether obvious or covert, what surmounts the barriers is a willingness to go and do the unnatural thing, and what spawns that willingness is a vision from God of the strangers who turn out not to be so very different from us after all: people with the same desperate need of the salvation in the name of Jesus Christ and the same surprising craving to receive it.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

The Vision Thing (20): One for Others

Louis Cheron, Le prophète Agabus prédisant à saint Paul ses souffrances à Jérusalem (1687)

In my last post I asserted that since the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, true vision is available to everybody. But that doesn't mean that it's available to everybody at the same time. Sometimes one person gets the vision for everyone, and everyone else has to trust the visionary.

That one-person-speaking-to-all-people model isn't just an Old Testament thing. The activity of Agabus in the early church bears this out. Even in that assembly that was full of people who saw visions and had dreams from God, at least twice Agabus received messages for the whole church that no one else received directly.

The most amazing example of this in the Bible in my opinion is the crisis Judah faced under King Jehoshaphat when they were threatened with invasion by the combined forces of Moab, Ammon, and Edom. Jehoshaphat calls the people together to pray for deliverance and guidance. God answers their prayer right away by filling a Levite named Jachaziel with his Spirit. In front of thousands of praying Israelites, Jachaziel informs the nation exactly where their enemies will be positioned and also that they won't have to fight because Yahweh will do all the fighting for them.

Can you imagine the guts it would have taken for Jachaziel to break the silence and effectively take responsibility for Judah proceeding on this unusual course of action? And can you imagine the guts of Jehoshaphat, who so believed Jachaziel's message that instead of placing elite warriors as his vanguard on the way to meet the enemy, he had his worship team go first! (Think about your church's worship team. Would you do that?)

Even today, sometimes God only gives the vision to one—not necessarily the expected leader either—but he expects the rest to trust and follow.

As I read the Old Testament, I am struck by how prophets emerge and people just know that they're legit prophets. (See Samuel for one of many examples.) Sure, after a while a prophet could develop a track record. But in Jachaziel's case for instance, the assembly (or at least Jehoshaphat) knew that he was the real deal just by hearing it the first time.

On the other hand, there are many examples in the Old Testament of false prophets, prophets who say whatever people want to hear, whom people believed even though they hadn't really seen a vision from the Lord. (See a good example of the contrast between false prophets and a true one here.)

So when someone says to your church, "I have a vision; here's what God wants us to do," how do you know that it's true? Paul gave practical instructions about this kind of situation, which he expected to be routine in the church. He wrote, "Do not extinguish the Spirit—do not despise prophecies—but test everything: hold on to what is good; stay away from everything that looks wrong" (1 Thess. 5:19-22, my translation). In 1 Cor. 14:29 he says that as a general rule, prophets should be allowed to speak when the church gathers, but once they do "the others should evaluate what is said."

Without going into much detail here, suffice it to say that the primary criteria for evaluating the vision that someone recounts are (1) does it cohere with what we already know to be true, especially from Scripture? and (2) does it enjoin an action we're supposed to take or adjustment we're supposed to make that glorifies Christ? Beyond these criteria there is also a certain gut-level sense that believers full of the Spirit have. Like in Jachaziel's day, when a true vision is recounted, the Spirit-filled believer often just knows—and they often just know when it isn't true.

So what does this all mean for vision in our churches? First it means, when you get a vision, don't expect someone else to go first. Don't hold back until someone else has seen the same thing. Sometimes God gives the vision to one person for the sake of all the others, and that one person might not be in charge either. It might just be ordinary you. If you don't speak it, it won't be spoken, and the church will stumble into danger. Speak up!

Second, be open to hearing the vision coming from only one person, including someone you don't expect. Leaders, be open to the vision coming from a person outside of the leadership circle. Be as wise as Jehoshaphat was—listen to your Jachaziel wherever they're located on (or off) the organizational chart and submit to the message even though you're the king.

Imagine how nimble and faithful the church would be if everyone was prepared to adjust and obey as soon as a mere one of us received a vision from God.