Monday, February 28, 2011

Are You Salty?

Salt is good, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is of no use either for the soil or for the manure pile. It is thrown away. He who has ears to hear, let him hear (Luke 14:34-35).

One thing is certain, a disciple of Jesus Christ is not to be bland. A Christian ought to be earnest. He ought to be plucky. He ought to be divisive.

If you find that last fact shocking, or perhaps even errant, then I wonder if you are being salty enough. Behold the context from which that quote comes:

If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple (Lk. 14:26). Jesus then urges his listeners to count the cost of being his disciple. One of those costs is this: if you cling to Jesus above all others as your only hope, you will be alienated from others that you love. You will become, by virtue of your faith, a divisive person.

This is not to say that Christians should be belligerent and try to stir up trouble. Certainly, we ought to heed the wise words of our Master and be "wise as serpents and harmless as doves." However, if we are never ruffling feathers, if we are never irritating people with our convictions, then we simply are not being New Testament Christians. Jesus said this, "Do you think that I have come to give peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division. For from now on in one house there will be five divided, three against two and two against three. They will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother" (Luke 12:51-53).

This divisiveness that Jesus brings is one of the most detestable things in our culture. Our culture values peace above reason and justice. It values obfuscation above forthrightness. It values doubt above certitude. It finds absolute truth claims in the area of theology, philosophy, and therefore morality to be nigh ludicrous. Therefore, if a person asserts the fact of Jesus' resurrection from the dead, the reality of eternal judgment to come, or if he should condemn an act as sinful, then he is in danger of that dread label of "fundamentalist."

This is not rant or a complaint; I want to be clear about that. It is a simple observation that, in this life, the Christian cannot avoid these things if he wishes to be salty and therefore useful. We have the only Savior who can actually save. We worship the only God who is actually God. We have the only book that is actually inspired. If you believe these things alone, you will automatically become a persona non grata in many circles.

Let me end this little post with a couple of exhortations. First, just because people will think you are an imbecile does not mean you have to act like one. You do not have to cruise for fights, and you do not have to act indignant when they come. Just remain calm and faithful, and be prepared to give a reasonable answer for the faith that you hold dear. So think about these things: One: Have your convictions caused any friction lately? Why or why not? Is it because you are actually being abrasive? Or secondly, if you have caused no friction, is it because you have ducked opportunities to be salty?

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Mustard Seed Faith

For truly, I say to you, if you have faith like a grain of mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, 'Move from here to there,' and it will move, and nothing will be impossible for you." (Matthew 17:20).

A mustard seed is really small. It is barely 2mm across. Jesus teaches us that if we have an itty bitty faith, then nothing will be impossible for us. I find this teaching difficult to believe because some of things I want I know full well are impossible for me to attain.

The interesting thing is that my confession here is ironic. It is ironic because I said that I find it very difficult to believe that if I have a little belief mountains will move and the impossible will be done. I say difficult to believe, but not impossible. Could it be, then, that my tiny bit of belief mixed in with my doubt will be sufficient to prove Jesus promise?

Today, I was reminded of this parable because I did not feel like praying, and when I did pray, I did not feel particularly inspired. I asked God to help me, not because I felt like I needed help, but because I know that I do. I prayed for my family, for my fellow elders, and for my friends. If they had heard me pray, they would have probably doubted my sincerity as much as I did. I was tired, distracted, and did not feel particularly earnest. I had the ear of heaven, and I rambled. I confess it is true. It is a sad beginning to the day when even your prayers discourage you.

I felt like I needed to go and have a prayer "do-over." I felt like maybe I needed to apologize for my lack of passion in prayer. Then, this beautiful promise from God's Word burst forth in my soul, "If you have faith like a grain of a mustard seed..." I immediately seized this passage, and I wielded against my doubtful soul. I asked, "Soul, why do you doubt that God has heard your prayer, pitiful as it was? Because you did not feel passion? Because you doubt that He will hear and answer your cry?" My soul answered, "Yes, this is precisely the case." I then asked, "Soul, why did you even bother to pray? Why did you bother to read the requests you have written before the Lord? Was it merely out of duty?" My soul answered, "No, I did it because I hoped, even in my doubt, that God would hear me and help me." Then I answered my soul, "Ah, my soul, then be content to know that your Lord has certainly heard you and will help you. He loves you, even in your doubting, and He will surely answer you for His Name's sake."

A mustard seed is a small thing beloved. I confess that I often bring it before the Lord wrapped in the kernel of my doubt. But he sees it, my little mustard seed faith, and he hears me. He will hear you in your doubting, too. He will move your mountains, and he will make the impossible possible.

Why are you cast down, O my soul,
and why are you in turmoil within me?
Hope in God; for I shall again praise him,
my salvation and my God.
(Psalm 42:11).

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

The Image of God Explains Who We Are

Imago Dei is latin for "The Image of God." It is the Christian doctrine which teaches the mankind bears the image of the Creator. This is not the same as pantheism which teaches that we are a part of the of God as an emanation of the one Being. Strictly speaking, in pantheism, there is no "creation", simply various manifestations of God. Rather, Christianity teaches that mankind bears the stamp of the Creator. This marking, this imaging of God, is a mystery. We are, according to the Christian Scriptures, a reflection of God, but we are not God. Much like a poem reflects the thoughts and feelings of the poet. The poem is not the poet, but we can learn much about the poet by reading his poetry.

Because we are made in the image of God, we do 'God-like' things. One of these things that we do is make art. We draw drawings; we paint pictures; we write books; we make music. These endeavors express our longing to express ourselves. We want to say something about the concepts of truth, justice, despair, longing, and beauty. We see these things as something outside ourselves, and though we feel them, we are consternated in that we also feel that we cannot reach them. Like pleasure, we brush these things, are delighted by them, but they cannot be held for long, nor fully explained in reflection. However, we can try, and sometimes our efforts capture something of what we have seen and felt and known.

Christianity also teaches that the Imago Dei has been corrupted. We are shattered reflections of God because of sin. We are then, akin to mirrors. In our original, unbroken state allowed us to reflect beauty without marring it in the process. So, if I felt love in that state, I could turn to you and reflect it to you in all its beauty, and as you understood and felt love, you could reflect it back to me again. Only it would be enhanced in the return because sharing love between two people makes the thing shared seem greater. We do this when we mutually praise our favorite songs and television shows and art pieces, we enjoy it alone, but we enjoy it more with company.

This explains the glory and sadness of art. We are trying, in our broken way, to share the things we feel. The greatest artists understands that this effort is taxing and often feels vain. This is why a great artist may despair over his own work and feel it a failure. He knows it does not fully express what he wanted to say, and yet it expresses enough that we marvel at it.

This realization of imperfect expression can plunge the artist into despair, and it often does. They know, innately, that something is wrong. That they have not expressed the glory of their subject perfectly, and because of this, they know that you are not feeling and enjoying it as you ought. This can lead to a terrible retreat into nihilism or relativism. That is, it could lead one to conclude that these feelings are subjective anyway. This takes away the sting that objective truth brings. It lowers the bar by teaching that since their is no objective truth of beauty, justice, or glory, then you cannot possibly express it correctly anyway so the pressure is off. If we retreat to nihilism, then everything is meaningless anyway, so why torture yourself with the trying?

Christianity teaches, on the other hand, that objective truth is real but inexpressable. We believe in justice as a fact, but we also believe that we cannot achieve justice here because of the fall. Not perfectly. But we do not quit the field, and we do not quit making art. We keep trying to refract, as best we can, the truths of God that we know in order to point people, however imperfectly, back to the Great Artist we were made to reflect. We long for Him to fix this marred world, we believe that He will, but most of all, we long for the Artist Himself. He is love, joy, justice, peace, wrath, and mercy. He is the source of all of these things we are trying to get at through our music and poetry.

Friday, February 18, 2011

So Still and So Restful

So still and so restful she lays,
Cold against mother’s breast
The warmth that was hers fading
Even as hot tears come to mother’s cheek.

Her life was brilliant and short
Like a shooting star streaking and burning~
Mother saw and wished and hoped
But could not keep her here

So mother holds her and remembers
The kicks and rolls and sickness
And joy and wonders why she went
So quickly and could not stay

So still and so restful she lays,
Mother’s shooting star that
Seared the joy of life into her heart
And has left her mark there forever

(I wrote this poem in 2008)

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Art and the Language of Transcendence

I wrote a post recently on some very basic, simplistic steps that I take when I consider the merit of a piece of art. You can read that article here. However, if you are really interested in a fascinating interview on art, and especially how it might intersect in the life of a Christian, I encourage you to go and watch this thirty minute interview of Mako Fujimura. I would actually beg you to go and watch it if that would compel you to do so.

I find that I live in a place where art, as a concept of expression, is little thought about or understood. Art, whether it be oration, poetry, painting, or writing, is a vehicle through we we attempt to capture the transcendent. Even saying such a word like "transcendent" might sound a little arty to some readers, but let me explain what is meant by that word, and hopefully, it will help you begin to think about art and how you might more thoroughly enjoy it.

What is transcendence? Transcendence is something you experience. Everyone has a brush with the transcendent, they may not have had a word for it, but they have brushed up against it often. Transcendence is a feeling. It is a moment. Transcendence is that thrill you get when you ask a girl on a date who you really, really like, and she says yes. Transcendence is when you hold hands with your beloved for the first time. Transcendence is when your child takes its first step. Transcendence is when your child does the right thing and your heart swells. How do you know what is transcendent? You can know transcendence when you lack the words, when you lack the ability, to communicate the full extent of what you just felt. That is transcendence.

So what the artist is doing in poetry, in speaking, in painting, and in literature, what he or she is doing is trying to capture that moment or feeling. This is why certain songs move us. When a couple hears a song that is "their song", it jogs their memories of transcendent moments. Anything, any creative art, has the power to conjure these feelings. This is why art can haunt us and thrill us at the same time. My grandmother, who recently passed away, loved to buck dance. I can remember seeing her dance a jig when she was well into her eighties. She was full of life and joy, and it was infectious. When I see my daughter dance, it reminds me of that. It brings me....I was going to write joy, but it isn't joy. The word joy isn't big enough. I feel joy, sad, , hope, happy. I feel a connection between my daughter's life and my grandmother's life.

Dancing is art. We dance for a reason. We dance for love. We dance for joy. We dance because we long for touch. We cannot help it: our emotions compel us to move and paint and speak. Why must we cry at funerals? Because words won't do. They just won't do. Our feelings demand to be expressed, and so we weep.

Think of the movie "Old Yeller." Why do people cry when the boy shoots the dog? It isn't your dog. It isn't even a real dog. The dog doesn't even really get shot. So why cry? We cry because the essence of the story, the tragedy and the heroics of both boy and dog. We cry because sometimes duty and honor call us to do things that hurt us. That story, that art, touches something primal and beautiful that resonates within our souls.

This is what the artist is doing: from Rembrandt to Pollack. Think about what they are trying to "say" through their medium. What is Beethoven expressing in his 9th Symphony? And why do people like Hank Williams Jr.'s All My Rowdy Friends Have Settled Down? What was Andy Warhol going on about? Why do people still read Shakespeare? Why do people like Harry Potter?

Art is an attempt to capture the deepest things of the heart, to share the experience of one heart to another heart. In this way, all of language is art. I may say to my wife, "I love you." She understands what I mean by that, doesn't she? But somehow, that doesn't satisfy me. I may want to write her a note, or if I am brave, I might write her a poem. I might buy her a gift, or plan a romantic evening. This is expression and 'common' art that should not be overlooked.

So think about that the next time you read something or see a painting. Maybe you will find out why certain things resonate with you. Either way, I hope that we all can grow in our appreciation of the artistic disiciplines.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Concerning Real Beauty, Brethren

Perhaps it is only my circle of "Twitter" friends, but I have noticed something a bit off-putting in the way some of my brethren have been speaking about their wives. I know that they do this in an attempt to honor their wives, but in their speech, they actually give them less honor than they deserve and might even debase them by accident.

I have noticed that it is now in vogue to "tweet" about how "Smoking hot" our significant others are. Truly, I am delighted when a brother believes his wife is super-abundantly attractive. However, this sort of language might be best left to the intimacy between spouses than it is for public consumption on Facebook or Twitter. Before you dismiss me as a prude, let me explain.

First, you do not gain anything by this public declaration. You will never convince me that your wife is prettier than mine on the grounds that you are dead wrong. Secondly, your continued public appraisal of her "smoking hotness" seems to objectify her in only sexual terms. Protest all you like, this phrase does not carry the same freight as words like "beautiful" and "lovely." If the only way you know to praise your wife's physical beauty is by such language, you should probably spend more time with the poets and less time absorbing the language of Budweiser commercials.

Consider this as well, brethren. Physical beauty, or smoking hotness, is not the greatest praise you can offer your wife. It is not, ultimately, what she wants to hear about if she is, indeed, a true beauty. Why? Read this carefully:

Charm is deceptive, and beauty is fleeting;
but a woman who fears the LORD is to be praised.
Honor her for all that her hands have done,
and let her works bring her praise at the city gate.
(Prov. 31:30-31).

I think that my wife is the most beautiful woman among ten thousand. It isn't only because I find her eyes seductive, her curves glorious, and her hair as beautiful as a king's crown. It is because she fears the LORD that I give her the highest praise and her love of the King provokes my highest admiration. The works of her hands in her care of our children and her service to Christ's Church are far above all the accolades I can give concerning her smoking hotness.

Yes, you ought to tell your wife that she is smoking hot. You should tell her many, many things that are none of my business. But we should not give the impression to her or to the public that her smoking hotness is the attribute we cherish most. I thank God, above all else, that my wife loves King Jesus. My wife fears the Lord, and this is a beauty that outshines the rest.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Broken by Love

In honor of Valentine's Day, I want to say a few things about how love has humiliated me in all the right ways. That is, not my love for others, but specifically, the love that God has for me. Love has changed my life, and I believe that it is, at the end of the day, the only thing that really can.

The law of God is useful, but it is not as powerful as love. The Law of God is the negative side of love; that is, it points us to what God loves by showing us what God hates. When God says, "Thou shalt not steal," It means that God hates thievery. On the flip side, God loves honesty. When God says, "Do not murder," itmeans that He hates jealousy, envy, and strife. On the other hand, it teaches us that God loves life. "Do not covet" teaches us a similar lesson about what God hates, and it teaches us that God loves it when we are contented with what we have.

Herein lies the weakness of the law: it reveals hateful things in me. I confess that "not stealing" is a good law and it is holy. I love that God hates stealing. But what I find in my soul is thievery. Also, I find when God says, "Do not covet," there is a propensity in me to long for those things that aren't mine. I do this when I lust and scheme and get jealous. The law draws up the battle lines between myself and God, and in my flesh, I dig in when I hear it.

If the law of God draws up the battle lines, the love of God crosses the lines waving the flag of truce. God's love says, "You have assaulted the things that are good. You have embraced evil. You have loved wickedness. But come here to my flag of truce. I love you still. Let us have peace. I would have you for my son." And so God appeals to us in love in ways that the law cannot. The law of God says not to covet; the love of God gives me a reason not to.

Here is where I am broken by love: I see that Jesus has come because of love. I see that he was sent because of love. I see that Jesus himself is God's flag of truce. I see that Jesus has given himself, that he has died for my rebellion, and I see in that act the horror of my own sins. The law of God revealed the rebel; the love of God has broken him.

So then, I want to remember on Valentine's Day the love that broke the rebellion. I see that the One who hates murder was willing to be murdered by me so that I might see how terrible murder is. I see that the One who has all riches was willing to be impoverished so that I could see what is valuable. I see that the One who hates sin was willing to be sin so that I might become the righteousness of God. There are no words adequate to describe this love, this grace, that caused my surrender to my God. He won my surrender through His love. He showed me the foulness of my sin through His love. I am so thankful for the love of God in Christ Jesus my Lord.

That is worth pondering on Valentine's Day. I pray that you will.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Contextualization, Culture, and Ministry

I have been reading and thinking through Tim Challies interview with John MacArthur. I encourage you to go and read it if you have any interest at all in this issue. I want to talk a little bit about the issues of contextualization, culture, and ministry as I see it.

What is contextualization? In the best sense, it is the process of understanding your culture/audience well enough to be able to speak the gospel of Jesus Christ to them in a clear and undistracting way. For example, if you want to be able to have a conversation with guys in Alabama, you should probably learn something about hunting, fishing, or NASCAR. If you want to have a conversation with the local redneck, you should probably realize that if he offers you a Budweiser, he's being nice and not testing your teetotal conviction. You should further realize that, if you refuse his offer, you need to do so in such a way that he you do not needlessly offend him over the matter.

If that's all it meant, then John MacArthur would probably not be saying the things he is saying. I do not think that John MacArthur wants the Acts 29 guys to start wearing suits and ties. I do not think he minds a soul patch, cool glasses, and Steve Jobs type sweaters. He just does not think that our evangelistic strategy should center on our cultural relevance. Not that culture is unimportant. It is the fact that culture shifts pretty fast, it takes a great deal of energy to keep up with it, and the payoff at the end will not be worth the effort to stay abreast of the trends.

I think he's right. I think I need to hear that correction. I'm not anti-contextualization. Seriously, I'm not. I'm also not an anti-cultural Luddite. However, I find that it is easier for me to study culture and contextualization than it is to really pray for people and do ministry.

First, let me say that I do not believe that this is an "either/or" proposition. I am saying that I think that this could easily get out of balance, and I think that maybe it does for people like me. That is, I find it far easier to buy a new shirt than I do to pray for men. I find it easier to make friends when I talk their talk and wear their clothes than I do when I begin to speak of God's law and the gospel. I can get the feeling that I am getting somewhere with a guy when I "blend", culturally speaking. And perhaps I can. But what I really need is to be filled with Holy Spirit, I need Him to come in power, and I need His wisdom to let me know when to speak, when to be silent, and when to turn the conversation to NASCAR or the gospel.

Here's the bottom line, you could dress up like Bozo the Clown, go into town, and if the Holy Spirit came "suddenly" like he did at Pentecost, people would be convicted and saved through your witness. You could also get relevant, dress like the world, look like the world, gain the favor of the world, and after you have fit in you might open your mouth to speak truth, and the world would run you out of town in mockery. Again, it isn't either/or, but given the choice, I will choose the easy way. The easy way is conforming to the world, not conforming in prayer.

All of our strategies: Super Bowl parties, clothing choices, TV watching for relevance, bus ministries, door-to-door witnessing, none of this matters one bit without the power of the Holy Spirit. I hear a lot about contextualization. I hear little about prayer. Puritans talked about prayer and holy living. We talk about context and culture. Maybe Jonathan Edwards should have thought harder about his wig choice. I don't know. But I do know that I need to think more about prayer and my dependence upon the Holy Spirit.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

The Words Conservative and Liberal aren't Helping

In the last post, I pointed to an article that pointed out the fact that the overwhelming majority of psychologists are liberal. This revelation probably provoked a cry of "No duh!" to everyone but the psychologists, but there you have it nevertheless.

But when you think about it, what does it even mean to be a "liberal"? What does it mean to be a conservative? I suppose that most people think conservative means that you are for conserving traditional values. A liberal might say that a conservative is someone who is more comfortable with the devil that you know than you are with the devil that you don't. That may be fair, actually. Or, it could be that a conservative is someone who is simply frightened of change.

So what, then, is a liberal? According to wikipedia a liberalism "is the belief in the importance of liberty and equal rights. Liberals espouse a wide array of views depending on their understanding of these principles, but most liberals support such fundamental ideas as constitutions, liberal democracy, free and fair elections, human rights, capitalism, free trade, and the freedom of religion." Is that really what it means to be liberal? Because if it is, then I am confused. I am for, to a degree, every one of the ideals that liberals love.

I write all of this to say that I hear these words thrown out by either "side" like they are slang words for "boogeyman." When Rush Limbaugh, who I do not listen to, says that President Obama is a liberal, what does he mean by that? Does he mean that President Obama loves fair and equal elections? That he loves freedom of religion? Why would anyone get mad about that? And why, while I am asking, is it easier for me to listen to "Fresh Air" than it is for me to listen to Limbaugh? I'm beginning to think that if I am a conservative, then I must be the lousiest one around.

Honestly, I do not think of myself as a conservative or a liberal, and I do not think much of any commentary that banties those words around to score political points. I am a Christian, and as such, I am called to be discerning. I care for people's liberty. In fact, the letters I write to my representatives are almost exlusively about "liberal" issues. I write to them about people who are imprisoned because of their religious beliefs, and I write to them in order to speak for the unborn. I do not like bad stewardship, but it has not yet provoked me to write letters.

I hope that someday, Americans will realize that we can do better than listen to people who lob around words like musket balls. That is, they fire them off all over the place even though they might be wildly inaccurate. Seriously, do you want to know what a candidate thinks? Write him or her a letter. Tell them your concerns. Every time I have written a representative, I have received a cordial response.

Here's the bottom line on all this. When you throw out the word "liberal" with disdain, you haven't accomplished a thing. Whoever self-identifies as a liberal is not insulted, and people who agree with you already do not need to have their mind changed. So drop the label, and focus on the issues that matter to you. Write the person a letter. Attempt a dialogue. If we did this, I can guarantee you that there would still be strong disagreement, but it would change the political climate for the better.

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Liberals, Conservatives, and the Social Sciences

If you haven't already read this article in the New York Times regarding psychology's assessment of its liberal bias, you really should. No matter where you fall on the political spectrum, it should prove most interesting.

I think that this article forces us to wonder how it came to pass that, if it is true that 40% of Americans self-identify as conservatives and only 20% as liberal, 80% of psychologists are liberal? There are a few immediate answers to this question.

It could be that the more you learn about human beings, the more liberal you become. That is, it could be that psychological studies naturally makes people more liberal because that is the way that we should be. Perhaps this study makes one compassionate, and therefore, more liberal. If indeed liberalism is more compassionate.

It could also be that psychology is inherently liberal at its core. If that is the case, it is natural that conservative thinkers would be put off by psychology from the beginning, therefore they naturally tend to study an alternate discipline. To alter that slightly, it could be that the core foundation began as slightly more liberal, so in the beginning, it attracted more liberal thinkers than conservative. Over time, liberals came to make more and more of a majority, thereby moving the foundational thought more liberal in the field as a whole.

My two cents? Of all that I have studied of psychology, it seems to me that the field is a sort of secular religion. That is, psychologists act as a modern priest to secular man. Now, instead of turning to a pastor or religious figure for counsel, people turn to psychologists. An interesting thought experiment might be to ask yourself whether you think it would be better to seek counsel from a person trained in pastoral ministry or a psychologist? Ask yourself why you picked one or the other? Isn't your choice rooted in your beliefs? This is probably why the field is dominated by a people of a particular perspective.

Life is interesting when you begin to poke around at foundations, isn't it? I believe that psychology, as practiced today, is liberal at its roots. It is a sort of secular religion, as I have said. Here's why I think that. Christianity teaches that man is, at his core, sinful and rebellious. What does psychology teach man is at his core? (In the majority, that is). Also, Chrsitianity teaches that man is a spritual being who has a body. Does psychology teach this? Why or why not?

Like I said, fun thought experiment.

Friday, February 04, 2011

A Letter To My Non-Christian Friend

I hope that this letter finds you well. I have sat down to write this letter today in order to try and clear up some awkwardness that has sprouted in our relationship due to my faith in Jesus Christ. It could be that this letter will only serve to deepen that discomfort. Nevertheless, I am committed to being your friend, and I hope that we will find that the differences we have will serve to help us grow as persons.

There are many sources of contention between us regarding my faith and yours. I say "your faith" because we all implicitly place our hope in something. I place my hope in Jesus Christ and his teachings as outlined in the Bible. I know that some of the things that are in the Bible, and that I therefore believe, make you uncomfortable. They may even seem monstrous. I want to confess to you that there are many things in the Scriptures that make me uncomfortable as well, even if I am conscience bound to believe them.

Let's cut to the most difficult Biblical teaching first: the doctrine of hell. Hell is no minor point in the Bible. Jesus himself describes it as a place where "there worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched" (Mark 9:48). It is alternately described as a place of oppressing darkness, of unending despair, a place of wailing and gnashing of teeth, and an everlasting separation. It is an awful place.

More liberal theologians have attempted to soft-peddle this doctrine. They have alternately tried to deny that it exists, or that no one but "the truly terrible" will ever go there. This is an injustice to the Bible and to the historical teaching of Christ and Christians. If I were to eliminate this from my system of beliefs, it would undermine my faith. Though it sickens me, I believe that there is a hell. I believe that those who fail to love Jesus will ultimately spend their eternity there.

This is what moves me to write this letter. I want to explain how I can believe this and remain sane. I want to explain because I never want you to go there. My attempts to talk to you about Jesus are not rooted in arrogance on my part, though I confess to arrogance and pride in many, if not all, of our discussions. It is certainly not about one-upmanship. All of our disagreements, over what constitutes sexual immorality, how much one should drink, and even the 'personhood' of babies in the womb; they all flow from my understanding of Jesus and the judgment to come. Practically speaking, your sex life is infinitely less important to me than is your understanding of Jesus. If I could somehow communicate to you his grandeur, his 'realness', and his grace, then I am convinced that he could teach you all these things far better than I, and he could ultimately lead you into far more joy.

Regarding hell, you must wonder how I could believe that anyone could deserve such a fate. I believe that when any crime is committed, that the punishment must fit the crime. We probably share this core belief. So then, if hell is really that bad, the question is whether or not Jesus is that good. I believe that he is. I truly believe that. Here's why.

First, I believe that every good thing that we have is because of him. Have you loved? I know that you have. Our loves come from him. He made everything good. He gave us both the sweet fruit and the taste buds to enjoy them. He made skin and sex. He designed everything about our bodies: our eyes and eyes and nose. He gave us smell and sight and hearing. He made us in his image, and it is this image that gives birth to the impulse of music and art and joy and poems. We are little creators, copiers really. We are moved to created because we can see, unlike every other animal, the beauty of God's work, even if we do not realize that this is what moves us. This is why primitive men drew the deer running in the cave, and this is why Rembrandt painted. They saw something transcendent even in the mundane. They saw the hand of God.

Jesus is the incarnation of God. He is God with us. I believe that there is one God in Three Persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. One God; Three Persons. I cannot fathom how this can be because God alone is like this. But I believe his very being is why we have community, love, and relationships. It is stamped on our persons. It is why I am your friend.

What does all of this have to do with hell? This still does not explain how I can believe that people will go there. First, I will start with myself. My friend, I should be in hell. I have been pridefully arrogant towards you in ways that would warrant my punishment. Think of this: if Jesus of Nazareth was really so good, so kind, and so gentle, why on earth did they kill him? This man healed lepers, reached out to prostitutes and thieves, and even dined with the religious. He shared his love and wisdom with all. So why kill a man like this?

Because it is precisely this goodness that makes us push him away. We do not, it turns out, love what is good. We like that Jesus healed lepers. We do not like that he commanded the adulteress and the sexually immoral to cease their sin or perish. It turns out that we are fired up about his gifts: sex, relationships, and freedom, but we are not fired up about him. So we, like thieves, steal that which belongs to him and flows from him, and use it in ways which he never intended, like a child who uses a screwdriver to punch holes in the wall instead of using it for its intended purpose.

The consequences of this behavior are that we wind up not really enjoying the gift as we should. We also harm others in the process. And ultimately, we run away from God with our precious sins. We run away into the dark, like Golem with his precious, and we stroke our sin and love it, even if it proves our undoing. This truth is ever present within myself. I have done this. I am guilty. But Jesus has come to save me, not just from the things that I have done and do, but he has come to save me from myself.

I believe, ultimately, that this is precisely what hell is. It is an eternal justice in this regard: it is the permanent giving over to conceit and selfishness, devoid of the current common graces we now enjoy. It is God coming into the room with the disobedient child and taking back his screwdriver. He is saying, "You will no longer harm others with my gifts." And when he takes back that which is his, it is natural to scream, and howl, and suffer. It is a horrible fate to ever love the gift, to be addicted to it, and to never learn to love the giver.

Take abortion for example. God says that every life is sacred. He says that children are good. Abortion says that children are a burden, inconvenient, and not worthy of life. Sexual immorality says, "I know how to make me happy with sex. I know what it is for." God says, "No you don't. I'm telling you what it is for and how it can add to your happiness." Yet, we refuse his counsel, we do whatever we wish, and when we are not satisfied we blame him or those who seem to speak for him.

I know that many Christians are a pain. I know that many are judgmental. I know that many who claim to be Christians really aren't, and they are truly as foul as you think that they are. I grieve at that. I find it difficult to share the truth about Jesus because of them. I find it hard to show you the love of God displayed for us in the death of Jesus.

This letter is already too long. I thank you if you have made it this far. Perhaps what I have said has further angered you. I beg of you, please let me know where and how. I am willing to listen. I would not be much of a friend if I didn't.

I want to close this letter with a few questions. Really, I want to ask you to think about something upon which everything else hinges. Who do you think Jesus of Nazareth is? You know what I think. What do you think?

Do you think he really rose from the dead? Think about that. If he didn't, it is the grandest conspiracy in the history of the world. It means that Peter, Paul, and hundreds of the early Christians were liars. It is historically undoubtable that they either lied or that they saw Jesus alive after he died and was buried. Could it be that he really did rise from the dead? I confess to you that if I were persuaded that he didn't, I would cease to be a Christian immediately. All my hope is fixed on the resurrection of Jesus. Could it be that he really did rise from the dead? If he did it changes everything. Could it be that he really was the Son of God? That he really did die to change us; to purge us of our sins? I urge you to give him a chance.

Again, I thank you for reading this.

Your friend,


Wednesday, February 02, 2011

We Must Suffer, but Only a Little

"Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith—" (Philippians 3:8-9).

Suffering is certain in this life, even for the Christian. Perhaps I should say especially for the Christian. The types of sufferings we might experience in this world are limited only by experience and the imagination. People suffer terribly of sickness, hunger, from the beast of war, and death. There are infinite ways to break the heart, but there is really only one way to heal it.

This is why the "prosperity" gospel fails so spectacularly. This is why "name it and claim it" theology is so heart-breaking. This aberration of the gospel, which is really no gospel at all, tells the unwary that if you only believe God enough, then he will prosper you in this life. This is fine in good times. It kills in the bad. It kills faith when one is diagnosed with terminal cancer, when a beloved child is struck and killed crossing the street, or when a spouse betrays marriage vows. Then, the person is inevitably left twisting in the wind, thinking that all these things have come upon them because of a lack of personal faith. This is not so. It cannot be so!

Our Lord Jesus left infinite riches to become a pauper with no home. He was a King, a sovereign despot, who died with only eleven close subjects. And my, how he died! No one ever believed in God as Jesus did, and yet he was stripped of his only worldly goods, the clothes on his back, and he was nailed to a tree. The testimony of Jesus utterly overthrows the notion that we will not suffer. The Lord Himself said, "Take up your cross and follow me." Follow him where, you may ask? To calvary, of course. We must follow him up that lonely road and die there with him. It is the only way to live.

So, we will suffer. We will suffer scorn for righteousness sake. Some of us will contract diseases and waste away in the flesh. Some of us will spend many days in agony as life drains from this mortal coil. Some of us will suffer betrayals of the worst kind, from those whom we dearly love, and we will mourn. Ah me, how every Christian will mourn here! Anyone who fights in a war knows grief. We will see casualties of Satan, we will be wounded ourselves, and we will mourn the darkness. Our mourning and our cries will ascend to high heaven, and God will treasure up our tears by number. We will suffer. We will mourn. Some will grow old and go down to the grave with gray hairs. We will walk feebly on walkers. We will be fed Ensure with a spoon held by others. Our pride and strength will be wasted. We will return to the dust.

And after all this, after all this suffering, we will see the King of Glory. He will greet us as sons and daughters. He will delight over us. He will usher us into his joy. He himself will wipe away our tears. He will clothe us with his own robes. He will give us a crown. He will make us whole in every way. We will know that he heard our cries. We will know that he knew our sorrows, and that he cared. And in that day, we will look back upon the canvas of our lives and say with Paul, "Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord!" We shall say it was worth it?! It is true indeed that Christian people are a strange lot. We are mad, actually. We are mad with hope. It is why our elderly, our infirm, and our sick can suffer so valiantly. We are crazy with hope. This is why we can call death gain, and this is why we do not mourn like the world.

I grieve for the world, and I know I must suffer. I am sorry to say that you must suffer as well. It is the way of this fallen world. But I will tell you this, dear child, you will only suffer a little compared to the glory that will be revealed in you. You must suffer...but only a little.