What is a Human Being? Part 4

In the first three parts of this series I did my best to provide a basic biblical answer to the question, “What is a human being?” Because we now live in a world where the statement “I am a man trapped in a woman’s body” is seen as coherent and acceptable, it is incumbent upon Christians, churches, and pastors to have a well-thought out biblical understanding of human personhood, identity, and sexuality. Our engagement with LGBTQ+ issues requires it. If we are going to know what it means to live out a Christian worldview–to love God and our neighbours–we need to take seriously what Scripture actually says and then figure out how we apply what we learn there to our relationships and our conversations with those who do not share our perspective.

In other words, what we believe is about a great deal more than what we hold to be true in our heads. It’s about everyday life. It’s about how we interact with our neighbours, co-workers, friends, and classmates. More specifically, we need to wrestle with how to relate to our transgender neighbour, a friend who admits to having same-sex attraction, or a family member who simply doesn’t share our view of matters relating to identity, gender, and sexuality and maybe even thinks the Bible contains hateful, intolerant language. The possible conversations and situations we will face are many. No matter how difficult we find these issues, we can’t avoid them. Not when there are Pride flags hanging in every public school classroom and on the occasional community flagpole. Not when Disney executives are talking about injecting a specific ideology around LGBTQ+ matters into all of their children’s programming. Not when our kids are on TikTok, YouTube, Snapchat, and a multitude of other social media platforms that expose them to all kinds of ideas before parents are prepared or have had the opportunity to talk about them.

So, yes, there’s a lot to think about. But let’s slow down for a moment. Because I want to point out that whatever our theological position might be with respect to LGBTQ+ issues, when it comes to people we know, people we love–the people that we encounter from day to day who are transgender, same-sex attracted, or who would place themselves somewhere else along the sexuality-gender spectrum–they are first and foremost people made in the imago Dei. Every person we meet and know, whatever they believe about their sexuality or gender identity, has been made by God and is loved by God. We’re not simply dealing with what we might consider a set of difficult and complex social, ethical, theological, and political issues. We most certainly are doing this. But that’s not all. Not even close. We are, in fact, dealing with real people, genuine human beings who deserve respect and consideration and kindness. This is true even when we have profoundly deep disagreements that seem intractable.

To put it another way, if we are related to or are friends with someone who identifies as transgender or same-sex attracted, non-binary, or whatever, as Christians we first and foremost need to see the individual person right in front of us. As an individual person created with worth and purpose. Because to look at them as an example of what we disagree with dehumanizes them. It turns them into an object for our scrutiny, not an irreducible personal subject we’re called to love. People are not reducible to an issue. After all, the foundational biblical ethic is to love our neighbour as we love ourselves. Would we want to be treated as an object? Would I want someone to look at me but only see all the problems they have with Christians or pastors or churches? Or would I want them to extend me the courtesy of seeing me as an individual human being?

Unfortunately, we also live at a time when many believe we can’t love someone unless we also affirm without question the gender or sexuality with which they identify. I say unfortunately because love has never meant affirming without question every aspect or characteristic of every person we know or meet. Instead, to love someone means to want for them what God wants for them–and to encourage them to want that for themselves (and to pray towards this end). And we learn what God wants for us in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testament. Now, I get it. For me to say this raises all kinds of questions for some. Not everyone believes the Bible to be the inspired word of God. And I can’t make the case for the truthfulness and reliability of the Bible here. But at the very least we ought to speak the truth we do know with the love of Christ–with an attitude of kindness and generosity towards the person with whom we are speaking.

This will most certainly mean learning to be aware of and sensitive towards the specific person in front of you. What is your relationship with this person? Are you willing to ask questions and listen, rather than try and inject your point of view every chance you get? I think it’s important to remember that when it comes to our relationships with people who hold to a different perspective on these matters that quite often winning the person over takes precedence over winning an argument. If you’re deadset on aggressively defending the biblical view on sexuality and gender (and, yes, I am assuming there is one), you might risk alienating the person you’re talking to and this might not be the most fruitful approach. Not if you want to keep the door open to more conversations.

And we also need to be ready to articulate the biblical view of human personhood rather than simply quoting the Bible passages that refer to homosexuality. We ought to be ready to answer questions. And we need to be humble enough to admit we don’t have an immediate answer when that’s the case. As Christians, we also need to remember that loving the person in front of us means telling them the truth. But how we speak the truth is very important. Sometimes we can be defensive. We can feel like our beliefs are threatened. So we need to bear in mind that the posture we adopt when having these conversations matters. The relationship with the person we’re speaking with in many ways determines the kind of conversation we have.

I write these words because the first three posts in this series might come across as impersonal and theoretical. Yet I know these are intensely personal matters. There is nothing more intimate and important about us than our personal identities, our intrinsic humanity. It touches on our friendships, on our families, on conversations with people we work with, and those who sit in the classroom and in the pew next to us. And while I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t have all the answers about how to handle these questions in the context of everyday relationships, nothing of what I’ve said matters unless it is lived.

Of course, even when we as Christians agree theologically, we might differ on how we apply our theology to specific conversations and situations. There are Christian parents wrestling with how to handle conversations with their kids who want to identify as transgender or pursue a same-sex relationship. Some Christians think that experiencing same-sex desire is itself a sin, whereas other Christians believe that only giving into the desire is sinful. So even when we as Christians are talking with one another about how to handle the various nuances of these matters, hopefully we can show the same grace and humility we want others to exhibit.

For many churches and pastors and believers, these may be new and confusing waters to navigate. For others, they already have had to wade deep into them. Certainly many Christians are looking with alarm at the many congregations and denominations that have already abandoned the traditional biblical perspective, thinking this is the only way to show the love of Jesus. So if we don’t begin with a solid biblical foundation, then we will find ourselves at the mercy of every whim of the cultural tide. Yet though this is true, it is also crucial that we do not abandon the biblical call to see each person we encounter as created in the image of God–and to love them accordingly in the way that God in Christ loves us. Because while the love of Christ we seek to show may not always be understood, it must never be withheld.

Living Now with Eternity in Mind #3: Living By God’s Word

Since you have purified yourselves by your obedience to the truth, so that you show sincere brotherly love for each other, from a pure heart love one another constantly, because you have been born again—not of perishable seed but of imperishable—through the living and enduring word of God. For

All flesh is like grass,
and all its glory like a flower of the grass.
The grass withers, and the flower falls,
but the word of the Lord endures forever.

And this word is the gospel that was proclaimed to you.Therefore, rid yourselves of all malice, all deceit, hypocrisy, envy, and all slander. Like newborn infants, desire the pure milk of the word, so that by it you may grow up into your salvation, if you have tasted that the Lord is good.

1 Peter 1:22-2:3

It is said that when the famous missionary, Dr. David Livingstone, started his trek across Africa he had 73 books in 3 packs, weighing 180 pounds. After the party had gone 300 miles, Livingstone was obliged to throw away some of the books because of the fatigue of those carrying his baggage. As he continued on his journey his library grew continued to grow smaller, until he had but one book left—his Bible. He could live without all of those other books; but the one book he couldn’t live without was the word of God. In our passage from 1 Peter, Peter tells us about living by the word of God.

Peter says to his readers: You have been born again by means of the living word of God. The question is: what does he mean when he says this? Now when Peter talks about God’s word in our passage, he’s not talking directly about the Bible as we know it. Peter would not have had the Bible as we have it; he would have had the OT. And more specifically, when he talks about God’s word here, he means the good news of Jesus: what we call the gospel. He’s talking about the overarching story of Scripture—the narrative arc that culminates ultimately in the person of Jesus. And as Peter says: This is the word that was preached to you.

So, it is the message of Scripture that God uses to bring us to faith. Put simply: We only come to faith in Christ through the message of Christ. The Spirit uses the message of the gospel to bring us to life. Which means: Living by God’s word means having new life in Christ. In Romans 1:16, Paul says, For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for everyone who has faith.

If we think of Peter’s original readers, they would have heard someone preach the good news. The Holy Spirit would have used the preaching of the good news to change their hearts and minds and lives—to bring conviction, repentance, and conversion. It was through the means of his word that God changed the hearts of Peter’s audience.

God’s word is also the means by which we come to faith. Think about yourself. What did God primarily use to bring you to faith in him? Was it through someone’s testimony or witness or friendship or a sermon or a special experience of God’s presence at church or VBS or Sunday School or a Christian camp? Whichever it was, no doubt it was the message about Jesus that led to your conversion. There are lots of ways and situations in which we could hear God’s word, but it is the message of salvation in Jesus that leads us to faith.

So: How did you first hear of the good news of Jesus? What was it like hearing about the salvation we can have through Jesus? What makes the message of the good news in Jesus unique? How does it differ from other messages we can receive? If you’ve already come to faith in Christ, what role does the word of God have in your life now?

Being changed by the power of God’s word is not only about our own personal salvation. When we come to faith through hearing the good news, this should also have an effect on how we relate to one another. Writing to the believers in Asia Minor, Peter says: So you have an honest and true love for each other. So love one another deeply, from your hearts. He’s describing a love that is sincere, not sentimental; that is based on our faith, not feelings; and that is not only about our attitudes but our actions. He gets down to the nitty-gritty here. Listen to what he says: So get rid of every kind of evil, and stop telling lies. Don’t pretend to be something you are not. Stop wanting what others have, and don’t speak against one another. We’re being instructed here to cultivate healthier, holier relationships with one another. This is significant because it means that our new life in Christ is not just “between me and Jesus.” It’s between me and Jesus and the people around me.

This is why John says: whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen . . . And he has given us this command: Anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister (1 John 4:20—21).

Now, it’s important to realize that the love Peter is calling us to have is rooted in God’s love for us that we have received through his word, the proclaimed good news of Jesus. In other words, only once the word of God has taken root in us can we love one another deeply, from our hearts. It’s a love based on and rooted in the kind of self-sacrificial love we see at work in Jesus, the love that is at the heart of God’s character.

Eugene Peterson, in his book Eat This Book: A Conversation in the Art of Spiritual Reading, he writes: “Christians don’t simply learn or study or use Scripture; we assimilate it, take it into our lives in such a way that it gets metabolized into acts of love, cups of cold water, missions into all the world, healing and evangelism and justice in Jesus’ name, hands raised in adoration of the Father, feet washed in company with the Son.” Do you see, then? When we’re really living by God’s word, it changes who we are and how we live. And in this case, it should transform our relationships with one another.

So: How do we treat one another? What is our attitude towards the people around us? What’s the connection between loving God, ourselves, and one another? Can we truly love someone else if we haven’t learned to receive the love God has for us? What are we doing in our church to grow in our relationships? Do you see this as part of your responsibility? In what ways do you actively show others the love of God and seek to build stronger, healthier, more loving relationships in your church?

John MacArthur writes: “I have found that my spiritual growth is directly proportionate to the amount of time and effort I put into the study of Scripture.” And I don’t quote him to make us feel guilty about whether or not we think we’re reading the Bible enough or whether we struggle with it. I quote him to point out two things: first, we are called to grow spiritually. Once someone has been converted to faith in Christ, ongoing transformation and spiritual growth has to occur. In Ephesians 4:15 Paul says: we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. Second, this happens as we allow the Holy Spirit to apply the word of God to our lives. So, if we’re going to grow up as believers, and therefore grow in love, then we need ongoing nurture from the word of God.

Our passage puts it this way: Like newborn babies, you should long for the pure milk of God’s word. It will help you grow up as believers. You can do this now that you have tasted how good the Lord is. Here’s the thing, however: the word of God is not always going to be a welcome or comfortable word. Even for Christians, it might be a convicting word, one that ought to lead to further repentance and further transformation into the image of Jesus. Hence, Hebrews 4:12: For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart. God still has (much?) work to do in all of us, deep work that penetrates our hearts and minds.

But that’s why our passage also says this: You can do this now that you have tasted how good the Lord is. In other words, once you have come to faith in Christ and come to know the love and grace and mercy and power of God in your life, it is all easier to trust him to continue his work in us. This means putting ourselves under his word. It means being in his word. It means submitting to his word. Not something we always find easy to do. It’s like a small child submitting to their parents because they’ve experienced their parents’ love—having received their love, having tasted the goodness of their parents, means they find it all the easier and, dare I say, desirable, to follow their parents’ instructions.

So: What does it mean to grow spiritually? Have you experienced this kind of growth? Do you want to? What difference does reading God’s word make in your relationship with him? What difference does it make if you don’t read God’s word? When was the last time God challenged you through his word and invited you to deepen your faith further? What was that like?

In our passage, Peter also says: His word lasts forever. You were not born again from a seed that will die. You were born from a seed that can’t die. In other words, the message of salvation, the good news of Jesus, is not a message that changes. This is what makes the word of God reliable and trustworthy. It’s not a truth that changes with the circumstances. It also means the new life we have in Christ won’t go away or end. Which also means our changing circumstances don’t affect our life in Christ. I don’t mean to say that reading the Bible is always easy. Nor am I saying that growing spiritually is easy. Being a follower of Jesus isn’t easy.

Of course, this is also why God’s word is such a gift to us. God has given us his word so that we can grow spiritually, so that we can grow in our understanding, in our attitudes, in our actions, and in our relationships. I think of Jesus in the wilderness being tempted by Satan to turn stones to bread. He quoted Deuteronomy 8:3: “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” Look how Jesus relied on the word of God! Indeed, feeding on the word of God is how we learn to trust and walk with the Word made flesh, our Saviour Jesus.

The Struggle with Doubt as a Sign of Faith

To struggle with one’s faith is often the surest sign we actually have one.

A.J. Swoboda, After Doubt: How to Question Your Faith Without Losing It (2021)

By quoting from A.J. Swoboda’s new book, I’m sort of cheating. Because I’ve not read it yet. It just arrived in the mail today.

But I am looking forward to reading it. Partly because I’ve heard him give a few interviews about it on podcasts and my impression is that he treats the subject with honesty and depth.

Though not only for that reason.

You see, I’m attracted to books like this because at one level I’m always wrestling with doubts. With questions. With what I was raised to believe and what I’ve held to be true for the majority of my 48 years on this planet.

I’m the kind of person who wants and seeks answers to big, hard, profound, life-altering questions. I listen to apologetics podcasts, read books that pertain to subjects I struggle to understand, or that help buttress my faith with encouragement, sound biblical interpretation, and good rational arguments.

And at the risk of offending someone out there, the “just believe it because the Bible says it” simply doesn’t work as a response to genuinely difficult questions. At least not for me. Besides, for someone of my temperament, that approach only manages to push the question a further back: Why should I believe the Bible is trustworthy? How do I know it is reliable as a source of truth about God? Again, I believe the Scriptures of the Old and New Testament are utterly reliable, and are the revelation of God. But I also believe I have good reasons for believing this.

Do I ever seriously doubt my faith in the person of Christ, you ask? Well, I don’t think that’s quite the right question. Instead, it’s much more about, say, building up my confidence in the historical reliability of the resurrection. Or about wrestling anew with the problem of why God—who we believe and confess is loving and all-powerful—allows so much pain and suffering in the world.

And sometimes the struggles aren’t simply intellectual. Doubt is also an emotional experience. We feel the weight of hard questions. Not only do we want answers for our minds but our hearts too. After all, as Christians we live in the real world as flesh and blood human beings, as vulnerable to tragedy and fragility as anyone else. Faith doesn’t shield us from pain; instead, faith ought to be what gives us perspective right in the midst of it.

To be honest, when it comes to believers who say they have never had any doubts, I confess I am skeptical of such claims. Have they never wrestled with anything they believe, with the hard questions of a family member or neighbour, or with a particularly tricky or difficult biblical passage? Or is it that they‘re somehow content with staying at an elementary Sunday school level of understanding?

Granted, in the same way that I’m predisposed to wrestle with hard questions and to find simple answers unsatisfying, others are not. Not everyone is cut from the same spiritual cloth. Even if I find it hard to understand Christians who never wrestle intellectually with their faith, no doubt some Christians I know find me equally odd.

And of course there’s a difference between seeing a problematic passage of Scripture that you’re not sure what to think about and finding yourself struggling to believe as a Christian. One’s confidence as a follower of Jesus doesn’t only come from the intellect and the ability to figure out what the Bible really means here and there. That is, our faith and our confidence as believers also comes from our experiences of God, and our relationships with other Christians who love and support us.

In other words, as Tim Keller says, the Christian life “requires both intellectual and emotional engagement: head work and heart work.” Some might need one more than the other, but in some measure we all need both.

All this to say, experiencing doubt is not an indication that someone lacks faith. It might well be that such an experience—entered into intentionally—will actually grow our faith and steady us in a world full of questions. Think of doubt as God’s invitation to think more deeply about him and to draw more closely to him.

Here’s the thing: none of my doubts and questions have come close to derailing my faith. No, my faith isn’t perfect. Questions remain. Yet somehow my experience of wrestling with doubt has only strengthened me. But that’s in many ways because of my willingness to face the questions rather than avoid them or pretend they don’t matter. And because I’ve been intentional about seeking out resources that provide help and encouragement—both for my head and my heart. So if you find yourself struggling with doubt, with hard questions about what you believe, realize that you’re not the first and that there are ways of dealing with doubt that strengthen rather than undermine your faith.

Where are the Dividing Lines?

Let’s take a brief inventory:

Trinitarian versus Arian.

Calvinism versus Arminianism.

Infant baptism versus believer’s baptism.

Cessationism versus continuationism.

Young earth creationism versus old earth creationism.

Complementarianism versus egalitarianism.

Church organs versus guitar and drums.

Carpet versus tile.

Ok. So those last couple of examples might have been a little facetious. Churches never fight over music or buildings.

Right. Ok.

But my real question is: At what point do differences between Christians become something worth dividing over?

I could add to the above list more current hot-button cultural talking points such as Critical Race Theory, LBGTQ issues, COVID restrictions, masks, and vaccines, Liberal or Conservative, and Democrat or Republican.

I don’t think I have ever seen politics and culture have as profound an effect on Christians and churches as much as I have over the last few years or so–and maybe especially over the last year. I know it’s always been a reality, but with COVID-19 it feels like everything has gone up several notches. Whether the last year has simply exacerbated pre-existing differences or has given rise to new ones, I don’t know. But it’s incredibly frustrating and discouraging as a follower of Jesus and as a pastor.

What differences are fundamental and which are secondary? How do we define what we might call a “gospel” issue? Because not every conflict or issue listed above ought to carry the same theological weight. So, how do we weigh these matters?

Part of what I am wondering is how much difference of opinion can exist within one congregation, in one body of believers? If in one congregation you have significantly different political perspectives, can people of such deep but differing convictions still serve together for the sake of the kingdom? What about theological differences regarding the age of the earth and how to read and interpret Genesis 1 and 2? What if two people in a group of believers reach different conclusions? Can they still serve in the church alongside one another, pray together, and worship together?

At what point do differences become intractable? And is this always necessarily a matter of conviction or is it sometimes relational rather than theological? That is, might it be that the issue is more about my inability to accept that someone else doesn’t share my view which I hold so strongly?

In other words, can I accept someone else as a brother or sister in Christ even if they don’t believe everything exactly as I do? And where do I draw the line? Or better put: how do I determine where to draw the line?

Are Christians destined to gather only in groups where there is agreement on virtually every issue, both theological and cultural? Are we only comfortable having fellowship with Christians who never challenge our assumptions and ideas?

Look, I’m not saying that a Christian can never have a good reason to leave a church or even switch denominations or traditions. I am a trinitarian who thinks Arianism was heresy. I am a continuationist with respect to spiritual gifts. What I am asking is how we make that determination. What is our standard? And before you say our standard is the Bible, remember that people reach very different conclusions based on their interpretations of Scripture. Not that I disagree with saying the Bible is our ultimate guide to faith and practice, just that it’s a little messier than simply making that assertion.

Maybe I can put it this way. What was Jesus praying for in John 17? In case you don’t know what I mean, John 17 contains what is often called Jesus’ High Priestly Prayer. He prays for his disciples and for those who will believe because of their ministry. After he prays for his disciples, he goes on to pray this way:

I pray not only for these, but also for those who believe in me through their word. May they all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us, so that the world may believe you sent me. I have given them the glory you have given me, so that they may be one as we are one. I am in them and you are in me, so that they may be made completely one, that the world may know you have sent me and have loved them as you have loved me.

John 17:20-23

What kind of oneness is Jesus praying about for his disciples and future followers?

Better yet: Has Jesus’ prayer been answered? What would that look like?

I think of what I read elsewhere in the Bible too.

Therefore I, the prisoner in the Lord, urge you to walk worthy of the calling you have received, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to one hope at your calling—one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.

Ephesians 4:1-6

What sort of unity is Paul talking about? And is it the sort of unity that can exist between believers who do differ from one another on some matters? Can unity even exist if there aren’t differences? Without differences, isn’t unity simply uniformity?

Paul’s words also point to the underlying relational aspect to unity. Such unity requires humility, gentleness, patience, love, forgiveness. This unity requires effort to maintain. It is grounded in the very unity of the trinitarian Godhead of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Given the current tenor of cultural conversation on divisive issues, and the inability of many to have such conservations in a civil and winsome way, ought not the church, by the power of the Spirit, be able to provide a better example about how to deal with differences? Rather than join the arguing, are we not able–together!–to bring more light than heat thanks to the gospel of our Lord Jesus?

Perhaps more of us who say we are followers of Jesus ought to turn the above passages from John and Ephesians into prayers of our own. Maybe then we will more clearly see what unites us rather than what divides us.

Preparing for Sunday Worship

For the last two weeks I have been on vacation. It’s been very nice to have the rest. When I am back to work on Monday, my family and I will have had the chance to visit two other churches on a Sunday morning. One blessing, of course, is that I have been much more relaxed on Saturdays for the last couple of weeks. Even though I usually have my sermon done before the weekend, on Saturdays I sometimes still have some last minute preparations for the worship service.

And that’s what I want to touch on here: Preparing for Sundays. Because I bet most Christians don’t think about preparing for Sunday worship. That’s what the pastor, worship leader, and Sunday school teachers have to do. The rest of us can just show up.

You see, we often think of Sundays as a time of worship and fellowship that prepares us for the rest of the week. It’s where we get our spiritual fill-up. It’s our boost so we can face life’s trials on the other six days. And of course there’s truth to this.

But maybe we can also think of it another way.

What if the other six days are also preparation for Sunday? What if the quality of our experience on Sunday morning in part depends on the quality of our prayer lives the rest of the week? What if our heart’s receptivity to Scripture during the pastor’s sermon depends in part on reading the Bible between Monday and Saturday? Indeed, what if experiencing God’s presence and leading in our lives depends not only on our attendance in church, but on whether or not we are intentionally attending to God’s presence in our lives beyond that one hour or so on Sundays?

Bottom line? Each and every believer has to prepare for Sunday worship.

Here are a few suggestions about how to prepare.

  1. Read your Bible. Yes, yes, I know. Every pastor and church leader says this. But maybe we say it over and over because it’s true. That said, it helps to have a plan. Choose a book of the Bible to read through. Alternate between the Old and New Testament. Don’t be intimidated. Start simple. Read prayerfully through a shorter book, like 1 John. Read a Psalm or a chapter of Proverbs a day. Read it at your pace. Take notes, if that helps. There are resources to use if you come across confusing or hard to understand portions of Scripture. Ask God to open your eyes to the simple truth of his word.
  2. Pray for Sunday morning. Ask God to prepare your heart and the hearts of the congregation to meet with him together in worship. People arrive on Sunday morning with a mixture of expectations and emotions. Maybe some feel anxious. Others could feel complacent and distant. Some might feel guilt and shame. Pray that God would meet people where they are with the good, liberating, powerful news of Jesus! We can also get so used to our worship services that we don’t expect anything of spiritual significance to happen. Pray that God would move in a special way during your time together. Pray for those who lead the service.
  3. Think about who you can invite or encourage to come to church. Who do you know who hasn’t been in a long time? Who do you know who might be open to coming to church? Maybe you can pray during the week for someone you’d like to invite. Ask God to place someone on your heart and mind and to give you the courage to talk to them about joining you. What an encouragement to your pastor (and to everyone else) it would be if you showed up with a friend!
  4. Ask your pastor how you can help during the service. I’m serious about this. Pastors are busy, whether they pastor with other leaders or are a solo pastor. There’s a lot to think about for a Sunday morning. It could be something as simple as volunteering to read Scripture, to lead in prayer, to share a testimony about how God has been at work in your life, or to greet people at the door. Or perhaps you have a gift that would really bless people on a Sunday morning: poetry, a song, a dramatic reading of Scripture, or fresh baked goods to pass around. But take some initiative.

Taking time to prepare for Sunday worship is about recognizing that you are a member of the Body of Christ. Whether or not your church’s Sunday morning worship is life-giving and encouraging depends not only on how hard your pastors and leaders work but on how God is working through you.

How can you prepare for joining your brothers and sisters for worship tomorrow?

Here are two collect prayers from The Book of Common Prayer (2019) that you may find helpful as you reflect on attending your church’s worship service tomorrow:

“O God, the source of eternal light: Shed forth your unending day upon us who watch for you, that our lips may praise you, our lives may bless you, and our worship on the morrow give you glory; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”

“Almighty God, who after the creation of the world rested from all your works and sanctified a day of rest for all your creatures: Grant that we, putting away all earthly anxieties, may be duly prepared for the service of your sanctuary, and that our rest here upon earth may be a preparation for the eternal rest promised to your people; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”

I pray that your time of congregational worship tomorrow would be encouraging and life-giving, because our Lord Jesus has met you, and those around you, through one another by the power of his Holy Spirit.

Learning to Pray from Scripture Part 2: Prayer Priorities from Paul

In my last post on learning to pray from Scripture, which you can find here, I talked about how the Bible reveals the truth about the God to whom we pray and why who God is matters to our prayers. This time around I want us to consider what Scripture teaches us about prayer priorities. To do so, I’m going to discuss a few passages from the letters of Paul.

Now, before I get there let me first draw attention to The Lord’s Prayer once again. It’s no coincidence that when Jesus teaches these words to his disciples that he begins with petitions that concern God’s glory, kingdom, and will; and only after that does he teach us to pray for our needs. If we are followers of Jesus, then God’s concerns and priorities ought to be ours also. Think about Jesus’ words elsewhere:

But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be provided for you.

Matthew 6:33

Becoming a Christian, a disciple of the Lord Jesus, means putting him first in our lives. And this means, in turn, praying in accordance with God’s purposes and desires for our lives.

But if we wonder what exactly this looks like, then turning to Paul’s letters is especially helpful. You see, Paul wrote most of his letters to churches, to small communities of believers, many of which he started on his missionary travels. Therefore, he writes with the heart of a pastor who wants these Christians to grow and mature in their faith. This is why when you read the majority of Paul’s letters, there is a prayer at the very beginning. He shares how he has prayed and how he will continue to pray.

Since these churches consisted largely of newly converted first-generation believers in Jesus, from both Jewish and Pagan backgrounds, Paul wrote his letters to correct, guide, and support them as they lived our their faith in decidedly un-Christian territory. These new disciples didn’t have two or three, much less several, generations of Christians and church life to draw on for wisdom. It was new ground they were plowing. They needed wise and firm counsel if they were going to remain faithful and obedient.

So even though Paul wrote these letters and prayers to first-generation churches, we can glean a great deal from him about how to prioritize our prayers. As Paul puts elsewhere:

All Scripture is inspired by God and is profitable for teaching, for rebuking, for correcting, for training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.

2 Timothy 3:16-17

When Paul tells Timothy that Scripture is profitable for teaching, it stands to reason that this includes teaching on prayer. And though Paul’s prayers in his letters are not direct teaching, we are, I believe, to learn from his example. Put simply, Paul’s prayers in his letters show us how to pray for ourselves, one another, and our churches.

So here is one example:

I give thanks to my God for every remembrance of you, always praying with joy for all of you in my every prayer, because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now . . . And I pray this: that your love will keep on growing in knowledge and every kind of discernment, so that you may approve the things that are superior and may be pure and blameless in the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ to the glory and praise of God.

Philippians 1:3-5, 9-11

First note why Paul is thankful. The Philippians bring him joy because of their partnership in the gospel. Every time he prays for them, gratitude wells up in his heart. He declared the gospel to them and now they are living it out. For this he is glad. And because he knows God is the one who has made all of this possible, it becomes a part of his prayers.

Paul then tells them how he continues to pray for them. Though we could say a great many things about his intercession on behalf of the Philippians, we can simply say that Paul prays here for the spiritual growth of these believers. He wants their love to grow in concert with a deepening grasp of the gospel; for their lives to bear the fruit of the Spirit and of witness; and for their entire perspective to be Christ-centered, oriented towards the day when Jesus will return.

In other words, he prays, as Jesus teaches in The Lord’s Prayer, that God’s kingdom would come and God’s will would be done in the lives of the disciples in Philippi. Because such lives are what hallow God’s name.

In case we think Paul’s prayer for the Philippians is an anamoly, let’s look at another example. This one is from Colossians.

We always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we pray for you, for we have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love you have for all the saints because of the hope reserved for you in heaven. 

Colossians 1:3-5

Once again, Paul expresses his thanks to God for the faith of those to whom he brought the gospel. He is grateful for how the good news has changed their lives, and how they are showing love to one another.

I never hear anyone praying like this. For some reason, I don’t even pray like this in church when leading a pastoral prayer.

Maybe we should pray that we would have more and more reasons to pray like Paul here. Either that God would give us eyes of faith or that his kingdom would come and his will would be done more clearly in our midst!

For this reason also, since the day we heard this, we haven’t stopped praying for you. We are asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of his will in all wisdom and spiritual understanding, so that you may walk worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him: bearing fruit in every good work and growing in the knowledge of God, being strengthened with all power, according to his glorious might, so that you may have great endurance and patience, joyfully giving thanks to the Father, who has enabled you to share in the saints’ inheritance in the light. 

Colossians 1:9-12

How does Paul pray for the Colossian Christians here? He asks God to give them knowledge of his will, that they would grow in wisdom and spiritual understanding, that they would live lives worthy of Jesus, that they would bear spiritual fruit, that they would be strengthened by God so that they can endure hardship with patience, and that through all this they would have an attitude of joyful gratitude towards God.

Another example of prayer in Paul I love is from Ephesians:

For this reason I kneel before the Father from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named. I pray that he may grant you, according to the riches of his glory, to be strengthened with power in your inner being through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. I pray that you, being rooted and firmly established in love, may be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the length and width, height and depth of God’s love, and to know Christ’s love that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.

Ephesians 3:14-19

Let’s be honest. Is that not a beautiful prayer? And look at what he’s praying for on behalf of this church. He wants their faith to be firm and he wants them to grasp more and more the height and depth of God’s love for them. Imagine how an answer to such a prayer would transform many who attend church today. Imagine if our intellectual knowledge that God loves us would more fully descend and fill our hearts. I’m not sure we’d know what hit us.

Of course, I suspect some of us may read Paul’s prayers here and elsewhere and think, wow, I could never pray like that. Perhaps we find his example a little intimidating. Maybe we think Paul is a little wordy. His prayer is, after all, quite a theological and spiritual mouthful.

But think of it this way. We don’t have to pray exactly like Paul to learn how to pray from Paul. Ask yourself: what is Paul asking God to do in the lives of the Philippians, Colossians, and Ephesians? Isn’t he asking God to enable them to grow spiritually, to become increasingly mature followers of Jesus? Doesn’t he want these believers to live more Christ-centred and therefore joyful, thankful, and faithful lives? And isn’t he asking God to sustain them in faith whatever circumstances or troubles come their way?

Now, let me ask an obvious question: isn’t this how we ought to be praying for one another as followers of Jesus? Not only that, but shouldn’t this be our first concern for our brothers and sisters in Christ? Yet, is it? I humbly suggest that prayers like this are almost entirely absent from church prayer meetings, church worship services, our prayer request lists, and pastoral prayers (and, yes, that’s on me too). Instead, our prayer lists almost entirely consist of everyday matters, especially for health concerns and people’s difficult situations.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying we shouldn’t pray that someone would experience recovery from an illness or that our friend or family member would see a turnaround in a challenging relationship. Or whatever. Certainly we should pray for these things.

But should those things be our priority?

Well-known pastor and author Timothy Keller says this about Paul’s prayers: “It’s remarkable that in all of his writings Paul’s prayers for his friends contain no appeals for changes in their circumstances.”

No prayers for physical healing or a change to trying situations. None. Nada. Zip.

Yet prayer permeates Paul’s letters. His passionate, loving concern for the churches he writes overflows naturally in prayer. The reality of the good news, of the centrality of Jesus and our salvation in him, fills his vision. Nothing is more important.

Do such concerns–does such passion–fill our prayers for one another?

Do we pray for our fellow church members, that their faith would grow, that they would experience God’s love more deeply, that they would become more resilient as life throws curveball after unexpected curveball?

Or instead are we so focused on the here and now that we neglect such petitions and forget that our real lives will take place on the other side of Jesus’ return in eternity?

What does a lack of prayers like those in Paul’s letters say about us, our churches, and our priorities? What does it tell us about what we value most?

I don’t say this to lay a guilt trip on anyone. Including myself. But there’s a difference between experiencing guilt and experiencing conviction. We don’t only need to experience conviction with respect to obvious things we’ve done wrong. We need to experience conviction about the good, spiritual priorities that we tend to neglect.

Here’s the thing: what does such neglect reveal about what we believe about God? What does it say about what we believe God can and desires to do in our lives and in the lives of our churches?

Imagine for a moment if more–maybe even most–believers in most churches began praying by following Paul’s example in his letters. What might God do? Well, I think the apostle Paul helps us there too. And with his words I will end.

Now to him who is able to do above and beyond all that we ask or think according to the power that works in us—to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.

Ephesians 3:20-21

Next time I will talk about how we can bring all of ourselves to God in prayer.

Thoughts on Prayer: Learning to Pray from Scripture (Part 1)

There is a wide variety of literature in the books of the Old and New Testament: poems, historical narrative, letters, and Jewish apocalyptic writings, to name but a few. And, amazingly, God in his grace and wisdom divinely inspired the various authors of the Bible to reveal himself and his purposes through all of them. Indeed, Scripture is our all sufficient well-spring of truth to draw from to be obedient people of faith.

And woven throughout many of the books of the Bible are passages of a particular kind that, while not a genre of literature all their own, have the power to inform and transform our relationship with God. I speak here of the many passages that feature people praying or that talk about prayer. Prayers feature in many narratives, prophetic books, epistles, and books of wisdom. Abraham prays, Samuel prays, Hannah prays, Jacob prays, Hagar prays, Job prays, Isaiah prays, Jeremiah prays, Moses prays, Miriam prays, Deborah prays, King David prays, the apostle Paul prays, Elizabeth prays, Mary prays, and, of course, Jesus prays.

And we can learn from their prayers.

We even have a whole book of the Bible that consists of prayers: The Book of Psalms. These 150 chapters of praise, confession, lament, and petition are themselves enough to keep us busy learning about prayer.

Jesus, of course, teaches his disciples to pray by giving them the words of The Lord’s Prayer. He also instructs his disciples about prayer in other ways.

So over the next few posts, I want to suggest three ways we can learn about prayer from Scripture.

The first is this: we learn about the God to whom we pray. This is no small thing. Often when our prayers are hindered by confusion or doubt or worry, it’s in part because we fail to grasp the character of the God of Scripture. If we are worried that God is angry or disappointed with us, this will affect the manner of our prayers. If we think that God doesn’t care about the everyday details of our lives, we will likely avoid praying altogether or pray without any assurance that God hears us.

To take one basic example, look at the prayer of praise and thanksgiving of Psalm 136:1:

Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good.
His faithful love endures forever.

Psalm 136:1

Here we see that God is good. His goodness is a reason for gratitude, because his goodness means, in part, that he seeks our good. He is therefore trustworthy. His will towards us is not ambivalent, much less malevolent; rather, he looks upon us with love.

And not only that, but he embodies faithful love. That is, his love is not dependent on us or our circumstances. It’s a reliable, consistent love, not the sort that’s fickle or subject to the whims of the moment.

Think about praying while knowing these things about God. Here is a God who you can trust with the deepest cries and longings of your heart. He cares for you. Such truths ought to instill our prayers with confidence. Knowing that God is good and loving ought to open us up to prayer. Think about what the apostle Peter says:

Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God, so that he may exalt you at the proper time, casting all your cares on him, because he cares about you.

1 Peter 5:6-7

However, if the picture of God in our heart and mind ever begins to drift away from these foundational aspects of his character–his love and goodness–what would happen to our prayers? Maybe we would find ourselves asking: “Will God listen to my prayers?” “Does he really care about me?” Who God is matters to how we pray.

But there’s more. Scripture also reveals that Christian prayer is trinitarian in nature. That is, we pray not to some vague, non-descript God, but to the God who reveals himself as Father, Son, and Spirit. We see this, for instance, in the prayers of the apostle Paul:

For this reason I kneel before the Father from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named. I pray that he may grant you, according to the riches of his glory, to be strengthened with power in your inner being through his Spirit,  and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. I pray that you, being rooted and firmly established in love, may be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the length and width, height and depth of God’s love, and to know Christ’s love that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.

Ephesians 3:14-19

All three Persons of the trinitarian Godhead participate in our prayers. And we can’t fully understand what it means to pray without knowing God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We pray to the Father in the name of the Son through the power of the Holy Spirit. Our God is irreducibly personal. He is intrinsically relational. He is not the impersonal Force of Star Wars.

The basic Old Testament affirmations of God’s goodness and faithful love (that we see above in Psalm 136:1) also come to full flower in passages such as the one from Ephesians. Here Paul expresses in a beautiful, profound way that we can know and experience the fullness of God’s love only through the Son; and that it is the Holy Spirit who makes that love real to us.

So when you and I pray, we pray to a personal, relational God who is actively seeking our good, who seeks to pour out and make known his love for us, and who wants his love and goodness to be the driving force of our prayers for ourselves and for others.

In other words, we don’t have to convince, persuade, or manipulate God to listen to us. He is firmly predisposed to listen. He is the listening God. He is infinitely inclined to listen; and the more this reality takes root in our hearts, the more inclined to pray we will be.

This leads us to a third way we learn about God from the prayers in the Bible. Scripture shows us the good news that God seeks to have intimate fellowship, a genuine relationship, with us.

Consider the language of Genesis 3:

Then the man and his wife heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze.

Genesis 3:8

Though this happened after the man and his wife had listened to the serpent, the portrait of God here is of one who seeks out human beings. He came to the man and woman even after they had disobeyed him. Not even their sin would ultimately keep God from graciously reaching out.

This is also true for us. Sometimes we think that because of stuff we’ve done, things for which we feel ashamed or embarrassed, that we’ve cut ourselves off from God. Now, in a sense that is the case. Sin breaks our fellowship with God. It becomes an obstacle to the intimacy he seeks to have with us. Yet just as God reached out to the man and woman in Genesis, he also reaches out to us. In the Scriptures we also see that through the good news of Jesus God makes possible the restoration of this fellowship.

When the time came to completion, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. And because you are sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba, Father!” So you are no longer a slave but a son, and if a son, then God has made you an heir.

Galatians 4:4-7

Based on what Paul tells us here, God the Father sent God the Son into the world precisely in order for us to receive God the Spirit so we could have this most intimate and personal of relationships with the very One who created us and sustains us.

So, in other words, God redeems us through Christ and he does this so that we might be adopted as sons (and daughters) and enter into a profoundly personal relationship with him. The Holy Spirit prompts us to cry out to him as a child would to a loving, reliable parent.

Notice Paul says that those who receive the Spirit will cry out Abba! Father! The term Abba is an Aramaic term for Father that has a much more informal, personal tone, like “Daddy” or “Papa.” It is the word for Father that Jesus uses when he is in the Garden of Gethsemane before going to the pain and humiliation of the cross: And he said, “Abba, Father! All things are possible for you. Take this cup away from me. Nevertheless, not what I will, but what you will.”

Put another way, being adopted as sons and daughters of God the Father means sharing in the intimacy that exists between the Father and the Son through the Spirit.

Imagine trying to pray without the knowledge that God is good and loving, that he is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and that he even entered his own creation to restore the relationship he has always intended us to have with him.

Here’s the thing: we needn’t imagine such a scenario. Because our prayer can rest on the bedrock of what Scripture teaches us about him. This is the good news.

And this is why our understanding of God needs to be the foundation for our prayer.

Next time I’m going to look at how in Scripture we learn what we are to pray about.

Reading to Slow Yourself Down (Or Why Spending Time in Middle-Earth is a Spiritual Discipline)

For the last few weeks I’ve been re-reading J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy. I’m about halfway of the way through book 2, The Two Towers. Since I don’t read a lot of fiction, I’m enjoying the refreshing change from the books on theology and pastoral ministry that I usually read.

Still, there are two aspects of Tolkien’s writing in particular that I find challenging to get through without skimming. First, there are several places where a character in the narrative breaks into a poem or song. For example:

“Roads go ever ever on,
Over rock and under tree,
By caves where never sun has shone,
By streams that never find the sea;
Over snow by winter sown,
And through the merry flowers of June,
Over grass and over stone,
And under mountains in the moon.”

J.R.R, Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring

That’s one of many stanzas. I confess, I’m not a big poetry reader.

The other aspect of Tolkien’s style that I’m often tempted to skim are his descriptions of landscapes and locations. For example, from The Fellowship of the Ring, there’s this passage:

“To the east the outflung arm of the mountains marched to a sudden end, and far lands could be descried beyond them, wide and vague. To the south the Misty Mountains receded endlessly as far as sight could reach. Less than a mile away, and a little below them, for they still stood high up on the west side of the dale, there lay a mere. It was long and oval, shaped like a great spear-head thrust deep into the northern glen; but its southern end was beyond the shadows under the sunlit sky. Yet its waters were dark: a deep blue like clear evening sky seen from a lamp-lit room. Its face was still and unruffled. About it lay a smooth sward, shelving down on all sides to its bare unbroken rim.”

J.R.R Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring

Both of these elements of his storytelling feature all through The Lord of the Rings.

That I am tempted to skim these bits is not a criticism of Tolkien. What it shows, rather, is my impatience. And perhaps my lack of imagination. I want to get to the action, to the more interesting and exciting parts of the tale. I’m anxious for the story to get going. This is a sign of a mind far too influenced by visual media, more likely to watch Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings film trilogy than to read Tolkien’s novels. This is not necessarily a good thing.

For this reason, it occurs to me that taking the time to read Tolkien’s poetry and vivid prose means forcing myself to slow down. Deliberately paying attention to the words I would rather skim might have value beyond enjoying the book in my hands. So even if I never come to appreciate Tolkien’s poems (much less love them) as others do, actually allowing my eyes and my mind (and perhaps my heart?) to flow leisurely over them means entering a process that anchors me in the moment.

You see, my thoughts—my internal world of reflection—can be subject to anxiety and impatience. Anxiety and impatience, in turn, are not about the present. Being impatient or anxious means dragging our feelings of what might or what will happen into the present. Therefore, in the present a part of me is experiencing my desires for or the pressures of the future rather than being in the moment.

Imagine reading, say, the Bible this way. Indeed, there is a lot of poetry in the Scriptures of the Old Testament especially. Psalms, prophets, and wisdom books are largely poetic. Do I skip these books? Do I merely skim the verses in order to say that I’ve read them? Isn’t impatience of this sort an impatience with God, an unwillingness to slow down and allow his revelatory words to penetrate my consciousness more deeply? Shouldn’t I instead let these words slowly dissolve like a lozenge? Certainly God chose to reveal his truth through poems as well as prose.

Speaking of reading the Bible, the late pastor, professor, and author Eugene Peterson says this about reading and writing in his book Eat This Book: A Conversation in the Art of Spiritual Reading: “All serious and good writing anticipates precisely this kind of reading–ruminative and leisurely, a dalliance with words in contrast to wolfing down information.”

Sadly, there are times when I’m tempted to wolf down a book, even the Bible, as if it’s a cheeseburger and I haven’t eaten all day.

Even writing this blog post is an act of intentional and patient reflection, forcing me to slow down. I didn’t write this quickly and easily. It’s taken several days to figure out what I’ve wanted to say, of allowing the quiet, gentle yet insistent whispers at the back of my mind to work their way into the foreground of fully formed sentences and paragraphs.

You see, I think the very act of reading patiently and leisurely forms us. This is also why reading a book, an article, or a blog post that stretches my patience with the act of reading itself is valuable. Maybe because what I’m reading is hard to understand. Perhaps because it forces me to consider another point of view–at least to understand if not agree to it. It gets my brain working in ways it wouldn’t otherwise. Just as lifting weights challenges physical muscles by stretching them, so too our imaginations and our thinking require the challenge of being stretched in order to be healthy and strong.

By and large we live in an impatient world, one strewn with quickly spoken words and lacking in extended reflection. Sound bites, obviously, are not at all congruent with nuanced, careful thinking of the sort cultivated in part by the willingness to slow ourselves down to consider the words right in front of us. Slowing down to read requires attention, removing myself from distraction, sidestepping the immediate dopamine hit of seeing likes on my social media posts.

Applying this to our Bible reading means allowing the very words of God to have their way with us. It means, in one sense, reading the Bible like any other book. Now, before you cite me for heresy, let me explain. Often the chapter and verse divisions, while helpful in their own way, actually prevent us from reading the Bible well. We chop up the prose and poetry into bite-sized pieces, effectively disconnecting them from their larger context and treating them as pieces or advice or promises written directly to us. The Scriptures become a reference manual for doctrine and moral principles, not a grand story spanning all of creation and history with Christ ultimately at the centre of it all.

One interesting development in recent years that addresses this head-on are all of the reader’s edition Bibles out there now. Almost every major translation publishes a version of the Bible without headings and chapter and verse divisions. Read the narratives as narratives. Read the Psalms and prophets as poetry. Read the apocalyptic literature as . . . well, you get the picture.

Heck, you can still read the Bible a few verses at a time, but do it slowly, deliberately, prayerfully. Read it patiently. Let the psalmists capture your imagination. Let Jesus’ parables penetrate your heart. Let Paul’s exposition expand your thinking. Don’t worry about getting something out of it. If you’re a preacher, don’t worry about finding a three point sermon.

If we can learn to read the Bible with patience and prayer, without being anxious to find what we need, and feeling guilty if we don’t “feel” something or “get” something, we might just become more and more able to hear God himself speaking through his word. More than anything our reading of Scripture is about forming and directing us to the God who reveals himself in the mess and beauty of everyday life, about having our thinking so steeped in the words of the prophets and apostles that we eventually begin to experience life biblically. The Scriptures become like coloured lenses in a pair of glasses; they colour everything we see.

And as it happens, through this process we also become more patient, deliberate people all around. Reading to slow ourselves removes us from the hurried, busyness for its own sake, nature of our surrounding culture, with its constant and often unnecessary and unreasonable demands on our time and attention. Reading to slow ourselves down helps to free us from the tyranny of the urgent. Charles Hummel, in his book Tyranny of the Urgent makes this comment: “There is an insidious tendency to neglect important tasks that do not have to be done today—or even this week.” Among these important tasks, Hummel includes waiting on God: “When we fail to wait prayerfully for God’s guidance and strength, we are saying with our actions, if not with our words, that we do not need him. How much of our service is actually a “going it alone”?”

Reading to slow ourselves down ultimately means learning to wait on and listen to God through his word in a posture of prayer in dependence on the Spirit. It means learning to live a life that is not subject to the whims and worries of the moment, but instead rests in the presence of the God who has never himself been in a hurry.

Duck Dynasty, Homophobia, and Conversation in Our Culture

In a recent post, I talked about same-sex relationships, and in that post I made clear that such relationships fall outside the norm defined by the Bible. Because the specifically biblical nature of marriage was not the focus of that post, I did not attempt to provide a rationale for holding the biblical worldview. Nor is that the focus of this post, so I will not be providing such a rationale here either.

Still, this is a follow-up post of sorts.

I understand that the subject of same-sex relationships and marriage is a controversial, emotional, and divisive one for many. It’s a topic that is both moral and political. Therefore, I understand that not only will many disagree with me vehemently; I also get the fact that there are people who will stop reading this blog because of the position I hold. So be it.

But because I hold to the position I do, there is a word that gets used to characterize my position on same-sex relationships: homophobe. As a term, it also characterizes the atmosphere of the discussion. It speaks to how we have the conversations we do about topics like same-sex relationships.

Before I explain this further, I want to unpack the term ‘homophobe.’ In a literal sense, it seems to suggest that people who fall into this category are afraid of homosexuals and same-sex couples. On its face, this definition is ridiculous for suggesting that people fear homosexuals in the same way people fear heights and spiders. Uncomfortable, yes; afraid, no.

What most people obviously mean by homophobia is that those who oppose same-sex marriage and think that homosexual activity is wrong are intolerant. In other words, homophobia is a criticism not of a position but a person. At its heart, it’s an ad hominem argument. It sidesteps the reasons someone would oppose same-sex relationships and instead attacks the character of the person who holds the position. Put differently, labelling someone a homophobe is, more or less, the same thing as calling them an intolerant, hateful jerk.

The primary problem with the label “homophobe” is that it treats the debate/conversation as over. Calling someone a homophobe is the go to maneuver when a more thoughtful response is not forthcoming. It’s the conversational equivalent of “Well, I don’t know about that but . . . You’re a homophobe!” Where can such conversation possibly go when it degenerates into name-calling?

Consider the relatively recent situation involving the program Duck Dynasty. In an interview with GQ magazine, Phil Robertson made comments on homosexuality that got him effectively fired. His comments, while probably crude and without nuance, reflect the biblical worldview. For this, he got a lot of backlash. PBS made a decision that violated the principle of free speech in suspending him from the program. Phil’s comments, however appropriately expressed, forced the hand of the political and cultural left: the value of agreeing with them is higher than being able to express your beliefs freely, especially if you’re talking like a homophobe.

All of this seems to suggest that conversation is simply untenable, so large is the gap between those who support same-sex relationships and those who do not. Certainly, if supporters of same-sex relationships resort to calling those who disagree homophobes, then it seems to me they have no actual interest in intelligent discussion. They have already decided, it seems to me, that we are not worthwhile conversation partners precisely because it is their conviction that we are unreasonable simply by holding the convictions we do.

The larger issue, beyond that of this specific topic, is that this divide is unlikely to change anytime soon. It’s hard to imagine common ground. The underlying world views and assumptions are so diametrically opposed that unity is only possible if and when someone from one side effectively converts to the other side.

Sadly, it is more difficult in some respects to speak your mind on certain topics, much less have a conversation. And perhaps when this is because a person resorts to labels like homophobe as a means of tilting the cultural mood in their direction, those of us on the receiving end of such labels can respond best and most effectively by appealing to the freedom to speak we each fundamentally assume we have even when we don’t like what we hear.

Why I Am a Theologically-Conservative, Biblically-Based, Partial-Evolutionist, Intelligent-Designist, Old-Earth Creationist Christian (Or Why I Could Care Less About the Nye-Ham Debate)

Creationism Debate

That blog title might require some unpacking.

Just last week evolutionist Bill Nye (“The Science Guy”) and young-earth Creationist Ken Hamm (founder of the Creation Museum and president of Answers in Genesis) engaged in a much-publicized debate. It was broadcast live on the internet. No doubt millions tuned in.

I didn’t.

I did, however, briefly scan a couple of the articles that inevitably followed.

As it happens, both Nye and Hamm remain convinced of their respective positions. And from all reports, it seems likely that the same is true of their respective supporters.

It makes you wonder. Or at least it makes me wonder.

What was the point of all the hoopla exactly? In the first place, neither Nye nor Hamm are scientists; that is, they are not experts in the fields of evolutionary biology. Neither are either of them experts in the field of biblical studies. All things considered, then, I’d much rather tune into a debate that includes folks like William Lane Craig, Alistair McGrath, John Lennox, Hugh Ross, Paul Davies, and others who participate in such conversations with thoughtful nuance and balance.

Of course, at the heart of all debates of this sort is the perennial tension between science and religion. Ever since the days of Galileo, conflict between the church and scientists has been virtually omnipresent in our culture. Most recently, the new atheists have taken the offensive, with the likes of Richard Dawkins, the late Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett, and Sam Harris (the four horsemen of the apocalypse, as some have dubbed them) going beyond atheists from previous generations by calling religion not only delusionary but dangerous. Vitriol often replaces even-handed discussion.

One of the persistently frustrating things about these debates is how so often people get quickly labelled. “He’s a creationist.” “So and so believes in evolution.” People on both sides of the debate use these as shorthand, and as a convenient means of dismissing people as easily as their positions. If someone from the atheist camp gets wind that I believe in creation, I then get labelled a “creationist.” The problem with this is obvious. The label itself remains undefined; or, worse, it is pre-defined. What it means is decided in advance of conversation. Even if I believe that God created all the universe, this doesn’t mean I fall into the category of “creationist” as understood by my atheist opponent. My atheist friend might very well think all creationists are young earth creationists and no creationist accepts any aspect of the theory of evolution.

Even more frustrating is the labeling that goes on within the Christian community. There are those who hold to a literal six-day model of creation and there are those who read Genesis 1 more as Hebrew poetry rather than a 21st century scientific text. The more stubborn within these camps will refer to one another with such labels as “fundamentalist” and “liberal.” The whole thing gives me a headache.

I have Christian friends around whom I am careful with respect to bringing up certain topics precisely because I don’t want to be labelled. I’d prefer to enjoy the unity we have on the essentials than get into a heated argument over what might well be—at least within the hierarchy of Christian doctrines—peripheral matters.

Now don’t mistake me. I do think some of this discussion matters. For instance, the basic question as to whether or not one can reasonably believe that there is a Creator responsible for the cosmos is obviously fundamental to Christianity. And the question as to what degree the theory of evolution is as scientifically reliable and demonstrable as the established scientific orthodoxy claims it is also remains a crucial point in contemporary debate.

What I am referring to, rather, are questions like this: must orthodox Christians hold to a literal six-day model of creation? Must Christians reject the theory of evolution wholesale or are certain features of the theory, like modification within species, compatible with the biblical conviction that there is a divine Creator? Ken Hamm, for instance, would likely answer yes to the first question. I would not.

Labels, I realize, are inevitable. We have to identify ourselves somehow; and others will always choose to identify us as they see fit. Perhaps if we didn’t so often use them as conversation stoppers they wouldn’t be so bad. Instead, let’s use them as the start of the discussion. Let’s begin by defining the labels we use, either for ourselves or others. Use them as a means of truly engaging one another. Life—and how we understand its origins scientifically and theologically—is more complicated than any labels we can ever use. The problem is that labels stick. So let’s think twice—and well—before applying them.