Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Plot Twists and the Old Testament

Thanks to some problematic comments by a prominent evangelical preacher about the Old Testament, much has been said lately about how we as Christians should think about it. I don't intend to retread all that ground. However, it does seem like a good time to discuss how we think about the relationship of the two testaments in Scripture. To get there, though, we first need to discuss something I am only slightly less passionate about: plot twists in books and movies.

The plot twist is a favorite modern narrative device. The first two acts seem to be unfolding in a predictable direction and then, as the third act opens or climaxes, something unexpected happens. Our preconceptions are upended and the story becomes something different than we thought. The best plot twists are powerful and memorable. The worst leave me raging and reaching for the remote (as my wife will gladly attest). They can leave us feeling inspired or cheated. Which leads to my core question - what makes the difference between a good and a bad plot twist? Let me suggest two elements.

Monday, May 7, 2018

The Litany of Consumption

"He who loves money will not be satisfied with money, nor he who loves wealth with his income; this also is vanity. When goods increase, they increase who eat them, and what advantage has their owner but to see them with his eyes?" (Ecclesiastes 5:10-11)

All hail the market, lord of lords, in whom we hope and for whom we labor. Forgive us for our contentedness and our half-heartedness. Teach us to trust alone in thee.

Hail fulfillment, that which is and is not and is to come. Let us know the happiness of buying, the discontent of having, and the lasting happiness in what is yet to buy. Let us seek the joy lost as soon as it is owned, by faith trusting that it is to be found by purchasing again.

Hail growth, and her daughter envy. Surely we must fuel our industry to sate our appetites, and we must stoke our appetites to consume what we have made. May our gods keep us employed, and may we sacrifice all they pay us so that our employment may continue.

Hail the destruction of creation, holy fire. Refine us of all that is not buying and making and wanting. Take from us place and family and history and give us work for today and new entertainments tomorrow.

Hail progress and freedom. Bind all who would bind us. Let us be who we desire, and teach us to desire what you sell. When we are lost, may the ad-man guide us home.

Fill us with the wine of distraction. Anoint us with the oil of productivity. May we so be fruitful gears in the body of your machine.

All hail the market, lord of lords, in whom we hope and for whom we labor.

Saturday, May 5, 2018

Mine (Walk Beside Me) (Song)

I've never been any good at writing love songs. I actually wrote the first verse and chorus of this song years ago, but it never really went anywhere. Somehow it was processing our mortality together that inspired me to finish it. As much as the grief of probable mortality is stabbed into the heart of our love, and as much as there is much sadness, it also brings the joy and wonder I feel for her into a vivid relief. There is a delight in moments we share that is just as sharp as the grief, and I want as much as possible to lean into that delight as we walk through this season. This is my attempt to express that.

Friday, May 4, 2018

Controversy, Critique and Cannibalism

"But if you bite and devour one another, watch out that you are not consumed by one another." (Galatians 5:15)

We live in an age of controversy and criticism, of outrage over what someone (purportedly) said or someone else (purportedly) said in response. The internet is sometimes called an "echo chamber," but the image that seems more apropos is two angry men standing at the mouth of a cave. Each one screams indignantly at the echo of the other, and at the echo of that echo, and those rebuttals echo and are indignantly screamed at in reply. The cavern thunders with the thousand reverberations of outrage layered one upon another. More than that, this online cacophony has infected the larger culture. As those who live in it walk out of it into the world, they start to treat human beings as incarnate tweets or sound bytes, needing to be rebutted or affirmed. For years now my heart has carried a grief as I listen to the angry rumble and see how it dehumanizes and destroys our communities.

This cyclical outrage is something different than simple critique or conversation. The good part of social media, reflecting one good part of society, is that it allows us to grow better through challenge. When someone shares a thoughtful opinion and someone else shares a thoughtful response both sides grow. That is wonderful, but using that to excuse the destruction and resentment around it is like roasting marshmallows over a campfire while ignoring the fact that the surrounding forest is a raging inferno.

We have lost sight of the purpose of critique. It is always about building someone up. Trying to understand their perspective in the best possible light, seeking to find their best arguments, and then challenging them in a way that helps them grow. Good critique says "Brother, let me help you be better." Controversialism says, "You are wrong and I will destroy you."

The problem with this attitude is that, as we destroy the other, we are really destroying ourselves.

Sunday, April 29, 2018

Lie With Me Lover (Song)

As we have been walking through the reality of my wife's diagnosis with terminal cancer, music has been one of my main outlets. I've been recording an EP of these songs which will be released fully in a few weeks. I'll post more information when that happens. For now, here's the first song from that album.

Monday, April 23, 2018

What Does Prayer Do?

High on my list of "questions pastors get asked" is that of prayer, and particularly one thing about prayer - what does it actually do? When we pray for help, for healing, for God to move in some way, how do we understand it? Inparticular, how do we understand it when those prayers don't result in the things we ask for? Does prayer change anything?

There are actually several levels on which we should think about prayer as "working." First, prayer always works on us. It changes our hearts and our perspectives.

Before it is a discrete set of requests and thanksgivings, prayer is a meeting with God. We often lost sight of this profound reality - that in prayer we are actually drawing near to God Himself. It is a relational activity, and like any relational encounter, it shapes and changes us.

This can manifest in lots of ways. One is that prayer shifts our priorities. When we start praying for help for someone we are often spurred on to be that help. When we pray for a friend to know Jesus it motivates us to share Jesus with them. In addition, prayer comforts our hearts. Even if we are praying for a situation beyond our control, simply entering into God's presence can bring a peace and reminder that He is there and He is in control. When Peter reminds us to "cast all your anxiety on Him because He cares for you," (1 Peter 5:7) it is not simply that he will solve the things we are anxious about. It is even more that simply being in the presence of our caring Creator transforms our experience of fear.

We need to start here because this is always true. Below we'll talk about what else prayer does (and doesn't) do, but even if it doesn't seem to be accomplishing anything outside of us, meeting with our Father does something inside us that is powerful and necessary.

That said, prayer's power for self-transformation is not the full answer. Saying only that can cheapen the idea. It reduces it to simply some meditative spiritual exercise, a sort of God-tinged mindfulness activity. When James says, "The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working," he certainly doesn't seem to just imagine some internal power of positivity. (James 5:16) So we must join that reality with two other considerations.

On the one hand, prayer never "works" on God - which is to say, it doesn't give us the power to make God change His mind. While there is a "but" coming below, we need to be clear on this point. Sometimes what people imagine happening in prayer is that they might somehow alter God Himself. That by force of words or faithfulness His eternal decrees will be changed.

It is true that there are places where God is pictured as "changing." For instance, Moses intercedes on behalf of Israel after the nation fell into idolatry and the text tells us, "and the Lord relented from the disaster that he had spoken of bringing on his people." (Exodus 32:14) That said, Scripture is also full of direct statements about the reality that God does not change. (Numbers 23:19, Malachi 3:6, James 1:17, etc.) Given these declarations, theologians have long held that those passages where God relents are not describing a change in his internal being but rather a change in His actions in the world - more on that in a minute.

There are moments when we don't like this reality. We as creatures have vested interests in the world, and we often wish we could force God to honor those interests. Yet there are any number of reasons this would be a problem. We are much less wise than God. Our knowledge has limits. Our hearts are selfish. C.S. Lewis, recognizing his often foolish requests in prayer, remarked that "I must often be glad that certain past prayers of my own were not granted." If we were to have the power to change God through prayer, it would certainly be for the worse. It would make Him more like us, robbing Him of His perfection.

However, while this is true, the other side is that God often works through prayer. It does not change God, but God uses our prayers to change the world.

James tells us that "the prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working." (James 5:16b) There he is speaking not of some internal change but of an actual power over the external world. He goes on to use the example of Elijah, by whose prayers the heavens were shut and then rain was caused to come.

Of course, this power cannot overrule what we said above. Jesus in the garden prays that He might be spared the cross, but famously says "not my will but Yours be done." (Luke 22:42) This must be implicit in all of our prayers, and it is where what we just said can go wrong. There are those who appropriate James's words in such a way that prayers which don't result in powerful acts of God are regarded as indicating some defect in the prayer. Nothing, though, could be further from the truth. Prayer does not put us in a place of sovereignty over God, and He will do as He pleases in the world.

However, prayer can be a means He sovereignly uses to work this pleasure. Scripture's insistence is that there are events in the world which would not occur without our prayers. There are people who are healed and saved and delivered from hardship because of prayer. God wills our prayers as the means through which He accomplishes remarkable things.

This means that prayer should be an avenue of humility and of hope. Humility because we recognize that we cannot force the hand of God. Hope, though, because we know that through prayer He might move in ways that seem otherwise impossible. God is at work in the world, and prayer is one of the main ways we join with this work and see it accomplished.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Purposeful Dying

I have a friend who teaches a class on Christian theology. Near the end of the class, confronting the task of discussing how Christianity views the future, he starts by looking at the students and offering some version of this simple observation:

"For any of this to make sense, we all need to acknowledge an essential fact. You are going to die, and in a hundred years or so no one is going to remember who you were."

Compared to almost every culture in our world, past or present, we in the West are ill-equipped to confront our mortality. Some of this is an artifact of how we have structured the modern world, espeially health and end of life care. However, I suspect even more of our struggle is because of how death interacts with our ideas about purpose.

Death and Purpose
Consider some of the options different cultures adopt for life's purpose. In one culture we might view it in terms karma. Life is reincarnated iteration, each one a chance to put some positive notches on a cosmic belt so that, in our next life, we'll be better off. In another time and place, we might view life in terms of individual honor. What matters most is being dignified and recognized. In still another, life's purpose is to serve the community. Any particular person's needs are subsumed into those of the family or nation.

All of those systems can be found on our planet, and all of those systems can make sense of death. It can fit with those purposes and even in a sense be a part of them. Death is necessary for reincarnation. Death, like life, can be approached honorably. While a person might die, the community lives on, made better by both how the individual lives and how they die. Christianity has its own notions on these points, but we'll get there momentarily. They aren't always what we think.

What is the purpose of life in the modern West? It is self-actualization. It is the freedom to be what you wish. It is the pursuit of happiness and comfort. Unlike karma or honor or community, death stands as an essential threat to all these goals. In it the self is de-actualized. It overrides our freedom, reducing us all to the same thing: mortal. Death presents the ultimate unhappiness and discomfort that, for all our prosperity and plastic surgery and political ingenuity, we cannot escape.