There’s been an outburst this past week from evangelical women bloggers against the idolatry of virginity. Three prominent posts have come from Sarah Bessey, Rachel Held Evans, and Emily Maynard. It’s been amazing to read in the comments about the toxic things that youth pastors and parents have said to conservative evangelical girls about sex (“No man will ever want you now,” etc). I grew up in a more moderate evangelical environment where I never encountered anything like purity balls or abstinence pledges. So I wanted to respond to Emily Maynard’s challenge to articulate a more holistic account of sexuality. Because I do believe that sex is a powerful force whose abuse can wreak havoc on our ability to worship God. And I also recognize that there are some very unhealthy distortions that have been at play in the evangelical consciousness. And I think that ultimately it all boils down to what we think heaven means. I’ll explain. Continue reading
With it being Martin Luther King, Jr. weekend, we preached on justice as our sermon series topic this weekend. For my text, I used Isaiah 58, where Isaiah confronts the people of Israel for fasting without justice. God’s people have often pursued devotional practices that “honor” God not only to the exclusion of treating other people justly but as a means of legitimating their lack of justice. I often call this pitting love of God against love of neighbor. As I was contemplating Isaiah 58, it hit me that our sensibilities about justice are often derived in whether we are seeking piety or holiness in our religious life. Here is my sermon audio.
I have learned a lot from Tim Keller. His books Prodigal God and Generous Justice are two of the most important books I have read. So I signed up for his sermon podcast recently. The first sermon I listened to was about spiritual warfare, based on Ephesians 6. There was a lot of good content, but there was one thing that disappointed me: the way that Tim Keller puts God’s love and God’s holiness in binary opposition to one another and oversimplifies each of their definitions. I realize that he would be more nuanced and theologically precise in a book rather than a sermon for seekers who need things to be kept simple. But I think that this impoverished presentation of the concept of holiness is one of the biggest problems that plagues neo-Reformed theology today. Continue reading
Today I preached at the iglesia evangélica dominicana de Sosua here in the Dominican Republic on one of my favorite texts in the Bible: Isaiah 6. I’ve always seen the story of Isaiah’s call as a model for how God calls each of us. It also illuminates the importance of the fear of God and its relationship to holiness. Before Isaiah can come to the place where he says, “Here am I; send me,” he has to go through the overwhelming encounter with God’s presence that causes him to say, “Woe is me! I am lost.” He is able to respond to God’s call with authenticity because he feared God first. Continue reading
I’ve been reading through Stanley Hauerwas’ Working with Words. I just read an essay in which he gives a great summary of the problem with moralistic therapeutic deism: “God becomes that great OK who tells us we are OK and… we should tell others they are OK.” In other words, God’s “I love you” is twisted into “I approve of everything you do.” Having argued for a more therapeutic understanding of holiness ( that God is more interested in healing than retribution), I thought I should distinguish that from the view that God is our “yes man therapist who approves of everything we do.
One of my favorite things about Stanley Hauerwas is the way he says outlandish, exaggerated things to get a rise out of people. For example, in a recent lecture to the Duke Youth Academy, he shared that he wished the phrase “under God” could be taken out of the pledge of allegiance, because it promotes a generic concept of God that isn’t necessarily Trinitarian. I often try clumsily to emulate Hauerwas by saying things in a more provocative way than they necessarily need to be expressed. One example is my last post on moralistic therapeutic deism which I’ll admit was fairly sloppy. No, I’m not an advocate of bad, wishy-washy theology nor do I think Jesus is. But I have encountered arguments in which MTD is made analogous to the basic premise that love is behind everything God does and command us to do. The underlying question I’m wrestling with is how we understand the why’s and what-for’s of holiness. Continue reading
“Go and find out what this means: ‘I desire mercy not sacrifice’” (Matthew 9:13). There is not an exhortation in the whole of scripture that needs more desperately to be pondered by Christians today than this sentence that Jesus says to the Pharisees after they criticize him for associating with sinners. Jesus is quoting Hosea 6:6, which he does again in Matthew 12:7 when the Pharisees criticize him for letting his disciples pluck grain on the Sabbath. No other Old Testament verse is quoted twice in the same gospel in conversation with the same people. Jesus is making a critical distinction between His way (mercy) and the Pharisees’ way (sacrifice). The reason Christians need to let this verse smack us in the face is that we have become the Pharisees Jesus came to Earth to stop us from being. Continue reading
Sermon preached 1/14/2012 at Burke UMC LifeSign
Text: Isaiah 6:1-8
Do you have a place that’s sacred to you? My sacred place is a lake outside of Charlottesville called Sugar Hollow. I went there every weekend when I was in college at UVA. It’s surrounded on three sides by mountains. There’s a black sand beach on which I’ve taken many naps. Whenever I go back to my favorite lake, I get a feeling in my heart as I drive up the steep hill next to the dam before the lake opens out in front of me. It always makes my jaw drop when I see the lake again, because it’s the most beautiful place in my world. Continue reading
I’ve been reading about a chapter a week of Thomas Merton’s No Man is an Island for the past couple of months. The 11th chapter on mercy has some really good material that’s worth quoting and contemplating, so I thought I would share.
God has left sin in the world in order that there may be forgiveness: not only the secret forgiveness by which He Himself cleanses our souls, but the manifest forgiveness by which we have mercy on one another and so give expression to the fact that He is living, by His mercy, in our own hearts. 208 Continue reading
There’s been a lot of conversation in the Christian blogosphere recently about how God’s holiness and love are related and how our understanding of them shapes our view of God’s judgment. Many people reduce this topic which could be useful to our spiritual growth down to the very narrow question of hell (Does it exist? Who goes there? Are there exceptions? etc). I wonder sometimes if God is smacking himself on the forehead to see how many hours His people have wasted arguing about hell.
The standard argument between people who are “anti-hell” and people who are “pro-hell” often goes something like this. The person who’s “anti-hell” says that eternal damnation seems like an awfully harsh sentence for somebody who’s lived a basically good life other than a few cuss words, self-indulgent trips to Cold Stone Creamery, and other minor vices. And the person who’s “pro-hell” retorts that cuss words and ice cream binges may not seem like a big deal to us, but they’re a big deal to God because He’s infinitely holy and so the most minor offenses against Him are infinitely offensive. So the result is that people get this idea that being holy is like being the middle school gym teacher with really tight shorts who makes you do a hundred push-ups for standing with bad posture.
Theology is often like the game of telephone. We inherit conceptions of God from different contexts in which they made sense, but we’re often confused about which aspects of the way people talked about God before are essential and which are related to their context. So we end up receiving a conception of God that looks nothing like how He was described centuries ago at the beginning of the telephone chain. The way that God became a middle-school gym teacher in our imagination today has its origin in the 11th century feudal discourse of St. Anselm of Canterbury who was trying to explain why Jesus had to die for our sins as both God and man at the same time.
Anselm lived in a time of kings, when everyone accepted that you had to treat the king with a level of honor higher than how you treated your equals or your inferiors. So Anselm reasoned that because God is the King of Kings to whom we owe infinite honor, the only way to make up for all the ways we disrespect God on a daily basis was for an infinitely innocent person (a divine being) to offer His life as a sacrifice on our behalf (as a fellow human) to satisfy our affront of God’s honor. Hence the “God-man” Jesus (cur deus homo if you prefer Anselm’s Latin). Anselm used this feudal analogy to make a theological argument for Jesus’ paradoxical divine-human double nature that made sense in the society in which he lived. The problem is that this argument has been garbled up over time so that we have come to think of God’s holiness as infinite pickiness since we don’t live in a feudal culture of chivalric honor but in a society where people are supposedly equal and there is no chivalry whatsoever.
So I want to push back against the assumption that infinite pickiness is an essential quality of God’s holiness since I think it’s a product of the theological game of telephone and actually a harmful way to understand God. What’s hard for me to grapple with is that the holy people I’ve met and read about aren’t like anal retentive gym teachers at all. It seems like the holier they are, the less picky they are about other peoples’ flaws. The only thing they seem to be picky about is making sure that they treat you with the best hospitality that they can muster. Perhaps you’ve met some Christians like this.
As pastors, we learn about something called the ministry of presence. It means being able to put my entire focus on making other people feel loved and welcomed when they’re with me. This cannot be accomplished if I am filled with “malice, guile, insincerity, envy, or slander,” to use the words from the lectionary epistle reading this week in 1 Peter 2:1. Unfortunately, my heart is often filled with these things if I understand holiness wrongly as the kind of impeccable, uncompromising correctness of a mean gym teacher. It’s better and more Biblically sound to understand holiness as the “purity of heart” that Jesus talks about in the Beatitudes and the fruits of the Spirit in Galatians 5:22: “love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” Methodist founder John Wesley described the holiness of “Christian perfection” as having your heart filled with nothing but love of God and love of neighbor. He got flak for suggesting that this was possible for humans to attain, but I don’t think it’s far-fetched to consider the goal of Christianity to be the embodiment of Jesus’ two great commandments (even if it’s a goal that remains forever on our horizon).
If you want to have your mind blown by a version of Christianity that is so much more holy than the rude rabble of Jesus fans around today, then check out the desert fathers and mothers, a group of Christian holy men and women who gave their lives to God in the deserts of north Africa in about the 5th and 6th century. There’s a collection of their sayings called The Desert Fathers by Benedicta Ward. Roberta Bondi has written some books also. And Anglican archbishop Rowan Williams recently wrote a book about them called Where God Happens. The entire concern of the desert fathers and mothers was to be Christ to other people and see Christ in them. If people came to visit them bearing food if they were in the middle of a fast, they would eat and silently ask God for forgiveness in order to avoid making their visitors feel bad. They were exceedingly devoted to their spiritual lives but if they detected an ounce of pride behind what they were doing, they felt devastated. I’ll never forget the story of a monk who got robbed of everything except for his tunic so out of guilt for his selfishness, he chased the robber down the road to make sure he offered his tunic also.
So when I meet people today who want to make their lives an imitation of Christ just like the desert fathers and mothers, it makes me think that holiness has more to do with hospitality than pickiness. I have a feeling that God’s house whenever we get there will be less like a meticulously immaculate museum where you walk on eggshells terrified to break anything and more like a redneck bar where the chief concern of the Man behind the counter is to make us feel welcome. It’s an imperfect vision. One of my favorite chapters in the Bible is Isaiah 6, where Isaiah quakes in his boots in the presence of God’s holiness. For those who have been stomped on by the world, I can understand the attraction of Revelation’s bowls of wrath and trumpets of rage against the seemingly invincible social order. How is God hospitable to those whom we ignore and mistreat? Does he have to smash a bottle on our heads to get us to shut up and let somebody else talk? What does God do about the people who need to be the center of attention when the only way to throw a perfect eternal party is for God to be the center of attention because He can handle the attention?
Still it feels like the awe and hatred of our own ugliness that we feel in the presence of God is something that increases the more we get to know Him, whereas when we don’t know God, we are incapable of climbing out of our cynicism and shallow banter long enough to feel any sense of shame about our mistakes. I don’t know exactly what God’s holiness will be like for those who are either ignorant of or oblivious to the mercy of Jesus’ sacrifice that makes me feel comfortable sitting in the lap of my Maker. I only know that my life is rich beyond description because I have been opened to God’s mercy and I want for everyone I meet to be blessed the way that I have been blessed. And I hate to see God caricatured as some tight-wad gym teacher. The reality is much deeper than we can express. I just want to be holy like God is holy.