My wife is the one who follows the parenting expert books that teach you better techniques than the old-fashioned approach of yelling and spanking when yelling doesn’t work. I tend to rebel against following what “the experts” say to do about anything. As much as I critique my fellow evangelicals for having a knee-jerk reaction against the “worldly wisdom” of “secular humanism,” it’s part of my DNA too. When my sons aren’t obeying me, I want to put them in line with a look or my voice or my belt. But I’ve been convicted recently that my need to be the big mighty papa bear has led me into sin. I had to ask my sons’ forgiveness for being a bad parent twice last week.
The first time was Wednesday night when my older son was doing his homework at our kitchen table. He kept on getting up and running around the room. I opened to the assignment, read the instructions with him, got him started, and expected him to be able to do the rest. I was sitting on the couch around the corner on my laptop with some writing of my own to do. Every time my son would hop up, I yelled over for him to get back in his seat. He would start whining about never being able to play the Wii, which I had said he could do after he finished.
As time went on, I got more and more crotchety and he got more and more discombobulated. It didn’t occur to me at the time that I was probably creating to a feedback loop where his fidgitiness grew with my own agitation and increasingly harsh volume and tone of voice in telling him to get to work. He finally finished his homework. The amount of time it took him to do the work was about 15 minutes. The amount of time he spend agonizing over it was over an hour.
When I said it was bedtime and he couldn’t play the Wii, he of course had a meltdown. And then I went off on him. But as I was putting him to bed, I felt convicted. I could have sat with him when he was having trouble focusing and helped him rather than wanting to be able to do my own thing on the laptop and yell at him from around the corner. So I told him I was sorry that I hadn’t helped him with his homework more and said that I shouldn’t have yelled at him like that and I would try to do better. He’s a very forgiving kid so he just said, “It’s okay, daddy. I love you.”
The next occasion was Saturday morning after my younger son’s soccer game. A friend had recently shot a deer, and he met us at the soccer field to give us some venison in a cooler bag. We needed to get home before the ice in the cooler bag melted to put the deer-meat in the freezer. But my younger son really wanted to play on the playground. So I said he could for about five minutes.
It ended up being fifteen minutes. I wrangled both of my sons to go. We’re walking back on the sidewalk and first my son says that he needs some water. I told him I would give him his water bottle when we got back to the car. So he stops dead in his tracks and won’t move any further. I decided I would give him his water bottle and told him to keep walking. I walked further and he hadn’t taken another step.
He wanted me to come back where he was and get his water bottle from him. I thought this is a ridiculous power game that I’m not going to play. I said to him, “I’ll just leave you here if you’re not going to come.” He stayed standing where he was. I figured he would eventually bolt and run after me. But he didn’t. I walked all the way to my car with him not moving an inch.
I got in my car and started the engine, thinking I would drive over to where he was and pick him up. When I got there, I couldn’t see him at first so I thought oh crap. I got out of the car and called out his name. He had apparently started running over to where I had been parked and he was on the other side of a row of cars. He came over to my car sobbing, with his face covered in tears.
Once he had calmed down, he said, “Daddy, would you really have left me there? Would I have to sleep on the grass tonight?” And it hit me that he took me straight-up literally. Duh! He’s four years old. I should have given him some kind of concrete consequence for not coming when I called like no Wii or no Halloween candy instead of making a vague threat to abandon him. So I pulled over the car and turned around and said to him, “I need you to come when I call you, but I should not have said that to you and I’m sorry. I promise that Daddy will never leave you anywhere and I will never say anything like that again. Can you forgive me?”
I guess I wanted to share these two incidents because I suspect there’s a tendency for Christian parents, particularly those of us who grew up evangelical, to think that the only mistake we can make in parenting is to not be strict enough. Too often I compensate for my inadequacy in setting consistent, firm boundaries for my sons by expecting to make them obey me through my meanness. It should be obvious that the Galatians 5:22-23 fruits of the Spirit — “love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control” — apply to how I treat my sons. I’ve still got a lot of work to do.
Last weekend, I preached on the passage from Joel that Peter quoted in his famous Pentecost sermon that we read from Acts 2 every year. But the context for Joel 2:23-32 is very different than Acts 2. The Israelites have just returned from their Babylonian exile and their land has been devoured by a swarm of locusts. In preparing for the sermon, I did a lot of research on locusts and learned that they have a very interesting trait that humans tend to emulate when we have not put our trust in God. More commentary below with sermon audio here:
What I learned in researching locusts is that they are basically indistinguishable from grasshoppers most of the time. But a very specific climate pattern causes them to become a giant swarm that can wipe out all the vegetation in a region. It usually happens following an unusual rain in a desert area which causes the locust population to swell from the hundreds to the billions very rapidly in an area bereft of the resources to sustain the hungry new bugs who then fly hundreds of miles to find food. When locusts are in their swarming mode, they actually turn a different color and their bodies become a different shape.
It seems to me that people act a lot like locusts even though our bodies don’t turn different colors and shapes. We are doing to our planet what locusts very dramatically do to the vegetation in particular regions. Our catalyst for becoming human locusts is a basic anxiety that we will not get our share unless we compete with all the people around us. This creates a swarm that causes all of us to buy into ways of living that we don’t really desire because we’ve all decided that we’re under pressure.
The means of dealing with an infestation of locusts is to fumigate them from airplanes in a cloud of pesticide that leaves a ground coated in billions of insect corpses. God’s means of dealing with human locust swarms is thankfully not to kill us. The way that Joel puts it is that God pours out His Spirit on all flesh so that unlikely people become prophets.
To be a prophet is not necessarily to have insight into deep mysteries or predictions about what God will do in the future. It means simply speaking God’s truth in a context where that truth is being ignored. People are disinfected from being locusts when they embrace the promises that God has shared with His people. Two promises that Joel shares are that God will never let His people be put to shame and whoever calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.
If we walk through our lives with the basic trust that whatever happens, we can call upon God to save us, then we will be able to avoid the frenzy of the locust swarm. We become a non-anxious presence, a prophetic voice that clears the land of locusts. So the question is simple: what do you want to be, prophets or locusts?
It’s stewardship season in many churches around the country. As my friend Jason Micheli wrote, talking about how much money people give in church is probably even more taboo than endorsing political candidates from the pulpit. As I’ve been thinking about stewardship, I’m convicted by my own bad habits. I think of myself as an easygoing, generous person when it comes to money. There’s one thing I’m not very good at which feels miserly but ironically is a key foundation to pursuing justice through your use of money. I suck at keeping a budget.
I remember when I was in my early twenties and worked in various social justice-oriented non-profits, I was very passionate about a lot of causes related to disadvantaged people. But when the offering plate was passed in church, I would pull out my wallet and take out a five or a ten or sometimes a twenty and put it in the plate. I wasn’t earning much money at all, but supposing I averaged $12 or so a week and made about $25k a year, my giving would have been about $624 a year or 2.5%, far below the 10% tithe that is the Biblical standard for giving.
I didn’t have a budget. I just had a general sense that I wanted to be extravagantly generous with homeless people or friends in need whenever the opportunity arose (which was rare) and that I needed to be stingy and live within my means when it came to what I spent on myself (or what I put in an offering plate which doesn’t look at you with puppy dog eyes that melt your heart when it’s asking for money).
Budgets have always seemed like the same kind of thing as those color-coded filing systems that some of the girls in middle school had in their three-ring binders. It seems like something that meticulously organized people do so that they can pinch every penny because they’re too “rigid” to be “generous” and “easygoing” like I am. But the “rigid, ungenerous” people who plan ahead write checks with a calculated amount of their monthly income to put in the offering plate that end up being a lot more than reaching into your wallet and grabbing even a twenty.
I still suck at budgeting, though now that I’m a pastor, I do make sure that one way or another 10% of my income gets into the offering plate (we usually have to play catch-up in December each year). I couldn’t stand the hypocrisy otherwise. At the same time, I have to confess that whenever I get charity solicitations in the mail, I stand by the recycling bin and toss them all in, because I have a general sense that we need to be careful and so it’s easier just to say no to everybody than to have to make decisions about how much of my money I should give to the National Zoo or the farmworker ministry or the Lupus Foundation.
I tell myself I’m saving up so that when somebody “really” needs help, I will have the resources to help them. Or if I discover that God is calling me to start a non-profit. Or of course my kids’ college money. But I don’t have too little money when I decide to buy a $10 sandwich from the local Lebanese cafe because I didn’t plan ahead and buy lunch items in bulk from the grocery store. I don’t have too little money when I want to splurge with a bottle of wine at dinner. I don’t have too little money when it’s time to buy Christmas and birthday presents and I don’t want to look like a cheapskate.
Budgeting has always felt like something I couldn’t just start midstream. Don’t you have to have all your ducks in a row before you start? But it hit me how ridiculous that assumption is. All I have to do is look at my paycheck and divide out 10% for God and other percentages for groceries, kids’ sports, date nights, routine medical costs, etc. I can adjust as I go and figure out what I’m really spending.
So we’re going to start budgeting. Because if we’re planning how we spend our money, then we will have to face constantly the reality of whether or not we are living out our values with our spending. Generosity won’t be as much of a feel-good thing, because it will be calculated instead of a rare gesture of spontaneity. I will have to cut some things out so that I’m saving responsibly also, but I’m no longer going to just think generically that I’m going to save everything I don’t spend so that I don’t have to make any decisions.
It’s a farce to talk about social justice and standing up for the marginalized when you don’t have the discipline to live justly with your spending. Something as banal as making a budget is a critical first step in the journey to living out God’s kingdom. If everyone in the church really did budget 10% of their income for God, there’s no telling what we would be able to accomplish.
I’m not a pacifist or a pansy (other than the fact that I’m not very good at sports, I don’t own a gun, and I don’t see much value in gratuitous displays of macho-ness). So I don’t feel attacked by Mark Driscoll’s recent assertion that Jesus is not a pacifist pansy. I really have tried to avoid writing anything about Pastor Mark for a long time since I didn’t like the fact that his name was getting almost as big as Jesus in my tag cloud. But one of the paragraphs in his latest infamous blog post offers a revealing illustration of what Mark Driscoll wants Jesus to look like and why.
So here’s the paragraph:
Those who want to portray Jesus as a pansy or a pacifist are prone to be very selective in the parts of the Bible they quote. But the God of the bloody Old Testament is Jesus Christ. When he became a man, he walked the earth as a working-class carpenter. The European, long-haired, dress-wearing, hippie Jesus is a bad myth from a bad artist who mistook Jesus for a community college humanities professor.
There are several things that are awesome about this paragraph. First, instead of following 2000 years of Christian tradition by interpreting the Old Testament through Jesus, Driscoll is calling for an interpretation of Jesus through the Old Testament. In other words, the “God of the bloody Old Testament” tells us who Jesus really is rather than Jesus telling us who the God of the Old Testament really is. If we’re supposed to read the New Testament through the lens of the Old Testament, then what that means is that what God told the Israelites to do to people like the Amalekites and Philistines should frame and qualify how we interpret Jesus’ statements like “Love your enemies” and “Turn the other cheek.”
If Jesus’ words in the gospels (which were entirely absent from Mark Driscoll’s blog post) do not in any sense “trump” the Old Testament, then there’s no reason (other than political correctness) to say that God’s battlefield commands to the ancient Israelites in books like Joshua and Judges are not paradigmatic expressions of His will that should be emulated today by His people in confronting our own political enemies. Either the Old Testament is qualified by Jesus or it isn’t. If the “God of the bloody Old Testament” simply is Jesus without qualification; then the “God of the bloody Old Testament” redefines Jesus.
But the place where Driscoll really shows his cards is in the last several sentences of the above passage. It seems the most important thing about Jesus to Pastor Mark is that he wasn’t a “community college humanities professor” and he sure as hell wasn’t a “European hippie,” because he was a “working class carpenter.” So it really doesn’t have anything to do with the Bible at all. It’s about making Jesus fit a uniquely American concept of masculinity, a brand of Jesus that Pastor Mark and other neo-patriarchal reformed pastors have developed into a brilliantly successful marketing industry.
In America, to be a man means you’re supposed to act “working class” even if you’re rich enough to have never really worked a day in your life. “Working class” in the way Pastor Mark uses the phrase doesn’t have a thing to do with collecting food stamps because you’re juggling multiple minimum wage jobs that still don’t pay the bills. “Working class” is a fantasy of good old-fashioned manliness that escapes the synthetic cyber-world where unhappily self-conscious, not-at-all-working-class men fritter away their lives clicking mouses and keyboards all day.
The way you show that you’re a “working class” man is by driving in a pickup truck out to a ranch in Texas or somewhere like that and doing something “blue collar” with big, hairy, calloused hands, preferably involving a gun. I’m not sure that any of the founding fathers that manly American men supposedly admire would make it as manly men in America today, because they spoke French, wrote poetry, and wore wigs and tights.
In any case, Jesus has to be a bloody Old Testament Jesus and not the androgynous Eucharistic pansy in all the medieval Christian art feeding his blood and flesh to effeminate European monks because Jesus is a “working class carpenter,” not a “dress-wearing European hippie” or a “community college humanities professor.” The Old Testament is the “working class” man’s part of the Bible mostly because it doesn’t get bogged down in esoteric, rambly letters or strange parables (well, at least not in the parts of it where you get to watch God kick some serious ass). It talks about wars where walls get blown down and people get stabbed: you know, the type of world all men play video games in and fantasize about unless they’ve actually had to live through it.
That was why I always read the Old Testament in church as a boy, which I was allowed to do if I couldn’t follow the sermon. One of my favorite stories was the account of how Ehud the left-handed judge killed Eglon, the amazingly obese king of Moab, in Judges 3:20-22:
Ehud then approached him while he was sitting alone in the upper room of his palace and said, “I have a message from God for you.” As the king rose from his seat, Ehud reached with his left hand, drew the sword from his right thigh and plunged it into the king’s belly. Even the handle sank in after the blade, and his bowels discharged. Ehud did not pull the sword out, and the fat swallowed it.
The fat swallowed the sword, and the kings’ bowels discharged. Wow! Can you imagine how amazing it was for a nine-year-old boy to discover that story in church during an incredibly boring sermon by a preacher who was probably talking about the “community college humanities professor” side of Jesus? I think I remember hollering out loud and getting shushed by my mother.
Because the Old Testament and the book of Revelation are filled with awesome gory stories like this, they along with selected excerpts from the New Testament that talk about God’s wrath get the most play in a Christianity packaged to fulfill mens’ needs to feel “working class.” Jesus’ cross can factor into manly “working class” Christianity, but only if you take the focus off of the pathetic pansy who let Himself get crucified by superimposing an angry Father as that pansy’s wrathful executioner.
Mark Driscoll’s Christianity is a Christianity that sells exceedingly well to “working class” men everywhere (except perhaps the ones that actually earn minimum wage and are too exhausted to have the same emotional needs as the white collar guys who strangely envy them). And that “working class” Jesus sure ain’t no pacifist. So don’t get worried when you read Jesus’ Beatitudes; just remember what He did to Jericho in the “bloody Old Testament.”
I’m a week behind on sharing my sermon podcast, but it actually seems to go with Reformation Sunday so I’m just going to run with that. Last weekend, I preached on Jeremiah 31, where God says that He will write a new covenant into the hearts of His people. What caught my eye though was several verses before that when God says, “I will sow the house of Judah with the seed of humanity.” It’s a phrase that seems like it could have two possible meanings. Is God promising to fill an exile-depleted Judah with new human seeds? Or is God sowing the seeds of Judah amidst the seed of humanity? I think both meanings work as we think about the gift of God’s New Covenant that is always new amidst a church that is always reforma reformando. Sermon audio here:
I’m not always big on Reformation Sunday. Being a Wesleyan who worships at a Roman Catholic mass most Mondays, I’m a little skeptical about the schismatic DNA of the Reformation, particularly when I think about the sectarianism I witnessed last week with John MacArthur’s Strange Fire conference. But my friend Rod Thomas offered a helpful interpretation of Reformation on his facebook page today:
When I think of Reformation Sunday, I don’t think of division or chaos. I think of renewal. With every era, the Christian faith demands not “revival” (emotionally driven, culturally hegemonic change) but wholeness and renewal guided by the Holy Spirit, and tested by the Word of God (Jesus+Scripture).
It’s a very interesting distinction that Rod makes between revival and renewal. Whatever your vocabulary is, there needs to be a recognition that “revival” is not necessarily a Spirit-guided phenomenon. It can be something that we ourselves try to drive and hegemonize for our own purposes.
I think all cultural movements have a mix of spirit and flesh behind them. In our own nation’s history, it’s important to recognize that the cultural destabilization which occurred in the Sixties had a legitimate Spirit-breathed aspect to it (civil rights, dignity and justice for all people) in addition to an idolatrous flesh-driven side (drugs, sexual hedonism, etc). Likewise, the backlash against the Sixties during the Reagan era has had both a legitimate Spirit-driven side and an idolatrous flesh-driven side.
In any case, God’s new covenant was proclaimed by the prophetic word of Jeremiah 31 and established through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, but we have a perpetual need for the new covenant to be resown into our hearts because our flesh finds a way to appropriate and abuse what the Spirit has sown. In verse 28, God says, “Just as I have watched over them to pluck up and break down, to overthrow, destroy, and bring evil, so I will watch over them to build and to plant.”
Well, a garden has to be plucked up and broken down in order to be built up and replanted. When we talk about the new covenant in a Jeremiah 31 sense, we are talking about a heart-felt desire to love God and love neighbor that occurs in the believer as an instilled intuition. Absent from the equation is any kind of transactional, tit-for-tat mode of thinking: “If I do this, God will do that for me.”
The only way that I can make sense of the new covenant, which evangelicals like me call “justification by faith,” is that it amounts to Christ rescuing us from works-righteousness by saying through His cross and resurrection: “I paid the price for your sin so you would stop trying to prove yourself to God and simply live in the freedom and joy that you have been unilaterally forgiven and accepted.”
The problem is that we never tire of finding subtle ways to make our justification into something we earn. Look at me, God, I accept all the difficult doctrine that the postmodern people around me struggle with. Are you going to send them to hell and me to heaven? Or at least if you accept them into heaven too, can I glow a little brighter than they do when we’re all there together?
The point of Christian doctrine (which is important) is to lead us to the place where we can accept unashamedly God’s unconditional acceptance of us (which turns out to be a surprisingly difficult thing to do) and respond with joyful obedience and love of God and our neighbor. It’s like Jesus said in the passage I reflected on earlier last week. God has hidden His simple, subtle wisdom from the wise of the world. All Christian wisdom is only worth as much as it enables us to rest completely in Jesus. That is the goal of the new covenant. When we sin, it’s not because we’re not trying hard enough; it’s because we have yet to rest fully in our savior.
All of our works-righteousness and holier-than-thou quests are about as meaningful and beautiful to God as the dead, rotting tomato plants that litter my garden after freezing to death last Wednesday. They need to be ripped out again. It’s a cyclical process whose proximity to true Christian holiness is hopefully increasing as we go along. But we need to be plucked up and broken down again so that we can be built up and replanted.
Having cleared our soil of our attempts to establish tit-for-tat old covenants with God, He can sow the new covenant in our midst. Once this has been accomplished, God can sow us together with the seed of humanity so that through our words and deeds, His love can spread to other people who may not know entirely at first who or what is strangely warming their hearts.
The Despised Ones are doing a synchroblog on leadership. I hate the idea of leadership. I hate the way that my evangelical world has created celebrity cults around various leaders. I was going to write a post on how there should be no leaders in Christian community but we should all consider ourselves servants with different roles. And I definitely believe that to be true. But it’s also dishonest to deny that I’m a leader. I’m a leader because people treat me like one and I have to figure out how to use the authority I’ve been given responsibly rather than pretending like I don’t have any.
When I wrote my commissioning papers three years ago as part of my United Methodist ordination process, I said that being a pastor involves living in the tension of two basic forms of servanthood identified in the New Testament by Jesus and Paul. We are called to be douloi christou (slaves of Christ) and diakonoi pantou (servants to all).
Doulos is the Greek word for a slave whose identity is tied to a specific master. Diakonos on the other hand is the word used for a waiter at a restaurant. Your job is to serve, but you are not bound to a specific master in the same way as a doulos. So basically, I am at the service of my congregation and bound to Jesus Christ at the same time. If my congregation asks me to do something that goes against Christ, then my status as a doulos christou trumps my status as diakonos pantou. It is only because of my slavery to Christ that I should exert authority with people in my congregation. And only I can know to what degree I am motivated by subservience to God’s will and to what degree I am motivated by greed for power.
The authority that a pastor has is a really weird kind of authority because people can ditch your congregation whenever they want to. It’s not like being a government official where you’re in charge of everybody until they vote somebody new in. The church is a voluntary association. Now it may be that in other branches of Christianity, there are all sorts of manipulative authoritarian structures that are set up to control people once they sign a membership covenant, but in United Methodism, we tend to be so worried about losing people that we bend over backwards to accommodate them.
Nonetheless, as a pastor, I have been put in a position of authority. Once a week, I am expected to speak in a straightforward way a truth that God has given me to say. It’s a disingenuous cowardice to preface what I say with a lot of self-deprecation (which I have a habit of doing). I shouldn’t say more than what I can with integrity, but I shouldn’t say less either. I use a lot of intentional vulnerability when I preach, which I think actually gives me greater authority than if I pretended to be flawless. When people see that I’m human, they take me more seriously.
Even so, the fact that I’m the guy who says things emphatically in the front of the room on Sunday causes people to apologize when they cuss in front of me. A friend was telling me today about how someone had sent him a photo of her holding a margarita on vacation, and it hit me that nobody has ever sent me a photo of themselves holding a margarita. Because I’m the pastor. Some people call me “Pastor” instead of “Morgan.” Some people even call me “Reverend.” I really wish people wouldn’t treat me with deference. Because they do, I need to be careful.
I don’t really have any brilliant or earth-shattering insights about how to use my authority responsibly. A lot of it has to do with paying attention to how much I’m talking versus listening. My authority as a pastor should exist for the sake of others’ empowerment. The question is how I react when people I’m ideologically committed to supporting and empowering have ideas that go completely against my own intuitions. It’s an art figuring out how strongly to speak my point of view as an authority. If I speak too strongly, I disempower others. So sometimes I go along with ideas I have reservations about for the sake of empowering others.
The other way I have to use my authority is to stand up for people who are getting stepped on when there’s a conflict. I hate confrontation so this is very difficult for me. But this is perhaps the most critical use of my authority. It’s circumstances like this that prohibit me from pretending like I’m just one servant among many. It’s not that I should be seeking to increase my power, but rather the fact that people listen when I speak gives me the responsibility of speaking up for anyone whose dignity is not being respected. Ultimately I don’t want to have any more power than anybody else. But because I do have power, I need to use it honorably and not pretend that I don’t have it.