Tagged: Love

“What Do You Want to Be Known For?” My Final Sermon at First Baptist Church of Sudbury

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What do you want to be known for?

Interestingly you can take courses online on how to be known for things. They are called personal branding courses. They are marketed to business people, and the theory is just as a company should be known for a motto and a certain style, so you should be too. The course essentially gets people to think in simple terms:

Because I am x, I am known for doing y.  Or Since I do y, I am x. Answer that yourself. Think about it.

What do you want to be known for? What does First Baptist want to be known for? It is something I have thought about this week.

A few people have asked me, “Now that it is your last sermon, you get to say whatever you want, because you are leaving.” Like I can now air out a list of grievances that I have kept to myself for five years, like this is Seinfeld’s Festivus: “I got a lot of problems with you people and now you’re gonna hear about it.” [Spoken in Jerry Stiller’s voice, of course].

I have to admit, I really don’t have grievances or axes to grind or anything of that sort.

As I looked through the scriptures, I came to 1 Cor. 2, which actually had Paul reporting to the Corinthians what he resolved to do and be when he was with them, and therefore, I think, what he wanted to be known for.

I think it is the right answer. It is the answer that we should all strive for. He writes:

“I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.” – 1 Cor. 2:2

I have resolved to know nothing, except Jesus Christ and him crucified. Paul wants above all else to be known for the Gospel. I do not want my last sermon to be about me (although I will tell a story or two). As I planned out my final sermon, I have resolved to center it on the most important thing I can be about and First Baptist can be about: who Jesus is, the Gospel.

The Gospel is our salvation, our purpose, our unity, our joy and hope.

1. The Gospel is Our Salvation

Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. 10 In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins.” (1 John 4: 7-10)

“Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, a descendant of David—that is my gospel,” (2 Tim. 2:8)

I admit, 1 John 4 is probably my favourite chapter in the Bible. I had to mention it on my last sermon! God is love because God was found in the person and work of Jesus. That is our Gospel.

Our Gospel is that God is love. God is our creator. He made the world out of his generosity.  He has made every human being in his image and likeness, as his children even though we, as prodigal sons and daughters, have failed to realize him as our Father.

We worship a God that made us, loves us, and will not see any of his creation be lost. We do not worship a God that only loves some of his creation or only seeks to save some of his creation, but a God the loves perfectly without limitation.

We know God is love because God is a Trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, an eternal community of love in one being. Before the world began, before creation and sin, God is love.

God came in Jesus Christ, in human form, in sinful flesh, to show the loving solidarity of God with all sinful humanity, and the restoration of God’s people in him.

God in Jesus Christ died on a cross, died a cursed death, the death of a sinner for all sinners, to show us sinners, he has died our death. It is the mystery of our faith that constantly baffles me: God in Christ loved us more than his very bodily self. God is that kind of self-less love.

God our Father raised Jesus from the dead to show a love that is victorious and powerful. As Jesus has taken on our flesh, now in Jesus, we all have the hope that the very worst of this world, the very things that have stolen us away from his love – these things do not have the final say.

As my friend, Brad Jersak was saying this week, “God is love. God is not love but also just or holy or wrathful. God is love period.”

God’s love is holy because it is pure. God is infinite because his love is immeasurable. God’s love is powerful because it is unfailing. God’s love is just because he is in equal measure merciful. God’s love is capable of anger because God’s love passionately cries out to a world gone astray, hoping that we would change and come back to him.

We understand all of God through Jesus. We understand all of God through Jesus’ cross. If there is an idea of God that contradicts the display of a God who would willing give up his very life for us because of his great love for us, we simply have departed from the God of the Gospel.

God’s love is not simple or sentimental, it is complex and mysterious, surprising even uncomfortable, but it always comes back to love. It is always understood through love.

If we can define God in any way other than love, as I have found, we will inevitably find ourselves without a Gospel that offers salvation to us sinners.

We stand on the Gospel that God is love. If God is not a God of consistently personal, perfect, and powerful love, we simply do not have a Gospel. Period.

One pastor told me that preaching is the fine art of being a broken record. If I have been a broken record these past five years, I have also learned that this truth is so counter-intuitive to our limited, sin-soaked minds, that we have to constantly remember it, re-hear it, re-tell it, and re-live it.

Otherwise we simply forget it. Never forget this, First Baptist Church.

2. The Gospel is Our Purpose

“To live is Christ, and to die is gain.” (Phil. 1:21).

The Apostle Paul writes this to the Philippians saying life for him is serving Jesus, walking with Jesus, being willing to die for Jesus, death being nothing in comparison to having Jesus.

When you know what you are about, you have purpose, nothing else matters.

Funny story: I know a person that put that as their high school year book blurb, and the school called the police because they were worried he was suicidal.

We ended up going to college together. He is now a pastor in BC. He is not suicidal, he just believes in something this world does not understand. Although he probably has gone a little nuts since he has a big batch of kids like I do. As long as I have known him, he has lived with purpose.

When we rest in Jesus Christ, when we draw close to him, when we resolve to know nothing but his Gospel, we are captivated by the beauty of what he is, and we want to live that love out to others. That is our purpose: We live to see what the Gospel can do in us and others. That is what gets me up in the morning (other than screaming babies).

Sharing the Gospel can take on implicit and explicit ways. I have gotten to share the Gospel on Sunday mornings, at weddings, at funerals, in times of blessing and in times of tragedy. I have gotten to share the Gospel over coffee and over board games, on the street and in my office. I am always surprised at when people say they are reluctant to share their faith since they are worried about a negative reaction. When we set out to live and speak good news for others, saying and doing something good to them and for them – without an agenda of trying to force them to become a Christian or come to our church or believe this or that, but simply being there for them, to listen, to give hope, and share ourselves, my experience has been overwhelming positive.

Yes, a lot say no thanks. A lot say they want to but there is no follow through. It does require patience.

I think of our McCourt meals and taking people to the food bank on Tuesdays. This simple an act of service and fellowship has openned doors for me to sit and pray with dozens of people, many of whom as shut ins are too sick to come to church, but are precisely the kind of people that God has a special heart for. Or others are people that face terrible mental illness. Many times I have gotten the privilege to be an ambassador of Christ to be the first person that sees them as a person of value and worth, and when they ask, “why do you do this for people?” I get to tell them why.

Sometimes sharing the Gospel is quite explicit and decisive, other times it is a simple act of kindness or service.

Or it can be planting a community garden to promote community and food healthy food in our community. That lead to Alexander Kuthy to start coming here. Remember Alex? He sadly passed away a little while ago, but he shared his testimony with us. An irreligious man that hated the church growing up because a priest tried to sexually assault him. He lived most of his life completely unconcerned with God until he had an accident and he said, “All of a sudden I was aware that I needed God.” Alex would stroll into my office and chat with me. In five years, I can probably count on my one hand how many appointments I had at my office that were actually booked in advance. That’s just fine, my life is far more interesting for it. Alex lived with a new purpose. You saw that in him. He said he lived all his life for himself, now he was making up time living for God. He believed in devoting his life to “spreading peace” as he said it often.

I hope everyone goes home, reads some scripture, meditates, and prays upon it, and asked themselves, “What is my purpose? Is my purpose living the Gospel, completely without reservation? Is my reason for being alive walking in God’s love, worshiping in God’s love, showing others God’s love?”

If it is and the person next to you agrees, that is the church, brothers and sisters. That is what we are doing here together.

3. The Gospel is Our Unity

“If you declare with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” (Romans 10:9)

It is such a simple phrase. Jesus is lord, and salvation is in trusting that work of the resurrection. Jesus is our unity. We so often make it Jesus plus a hold lot of other stuff, or Jesus can only mean the way I relate to Jesus.

I have spoken before that I was raised with a very fundamentalist faith. My grandfather was a fundamentalist Baptist pastor, and that is what formed me growing up. Fundamentalism is a lot of things. While many come by it sincerely, as I did, at its very worst, it is an arrogance that all my thoughts and interpretations are the right and infallible ones. It is often obsessed with control and certainty and simple pat answers; that affective sense of certainty in essence shields the reality that since most fundamentalists do not believe God loves all people perfectly, there is a deep sense that God might actually not love them either, unless they do and think a certain way. It is also oddly then obsessed with very specific and convoluted doctrines, whether about creation, the Bible, the atonement, how Jesus will return, you name it, and perfectionist behavior, usually obsessed with sexuality above any other sin. Each doctrine or behavior is then turned into a litmus test of who is truly a Christian and who is not, disregarding the historic creeds of our faith and that our communities must embody grace. It also sees everyone who believes differently and acts differently as dumb, delusional, or dangerous.

I know this not because I look down on fundamentalists, but because I used to think that way. I really did not know any other way to be honest.

I have learned the simple biblical truth that, as James McClendon has put it, “Fundamentalism just isn’t fundamental enough.”

When I came to First Baptist, I did see something different. First Baptist, like many other historic First Baptist Churches in North America, has a long history, enduring all the movements over the last century. Some of our members have been in this church for over 50 years. It has learned to endure diversity. Many of the First Baptist Church family when I came had lived together as a community for so many years they just resolved to keep being a family together, no matter what.

Being committed to being historically Baptist we have upheld the liberty of the conscience of members of this church to interpret the Bible for ourselves in community as our denomination on the whole upholds that our churches are autonomous yet partner together for the Gospel.

For the last five years I have marveled at just how diverse First Baptist is, the different faith backgrounds and experiences, the different doctrines and ideas of faith and how they have functioned in people’s lives, and the sincere commitments to keep learning the Bible together.

That is rare. It is difficult to live out, but it is refreshing in this divided world we live in.

It has been oddly refreshing to lead a Bible study hearing all these perspectives come out, and sometimes quite heatedly, but then have a recognition that we are all sincerely trying to follow Jesus together, and he is our unity.

First Baptist is a diverse place, we all don’t think the same, and we have to reckon with all our diverse backgrounds and experiences and ideas, whether on theology, politics, or on what color the carpet should be.

But if Jesus is our unity, we are bound by blood as family.

As we do this within our walls, we have a vital witness outside our walls. The Gospel has been our unity with all the other churches here in Garson and Coniston. I don’t think you realize the high regard we are held in by the other churches. And it has been an honor working with so many excellent pastors and priests.

One of the most powerful moments in my years here was when we gathered for worship with St. John’s, Trinity United, and the Anglican churches.

I remember the second ecumenical service I participated in here, we went to St. John’s. That year the liturgy called for each person to pair off with a person from another church, and come to a font of water, dip your fingers in it and make the sign of the cross over the other person’s head, asking forgiveness for the sins we have done against each other.

I have never seen the Spirit move so powerfully. People broke down crying in repentance and hugged right there.

That moment was not of ourselves. That was the Spirit moving as we, Christians from very diverse traditions, simply came together to worship Jesus.

The Gospel, the simple Gospel, is our unity. Nothing else should be or can be.

4. The Gospel is Our Hope

“But Christ, as the Son, is in charge of God’s entire house. And we are God’s house, if we keep our courage and remain confident in our hope in Christ.” (Heb. 3:6)

When you are able to be there and see our God working. It is the best thing in the world.

While pastoring can be quite difficult, it is propelled along by the conviction that God never gives up hope on people and neither do we.

One more story: Some of you remember Jered. He does not live around here anymore. A troubled young man, who had been in and out of prison, with so much chaos in him you could immediately tell just from hearing him talk.

The chaos and pain with him was so bad, he once told me he resolved to stop believing in anything because his mind was so unreliable he just had had enough. If you can imagine living like that and being at that point?

I remember coming home that day shook-up by his words. “How can the Gospel reach someone that unstable?” I thought. How can our Gospel mean anything if it can’t bring hope to someone like him?

A few days later, I remember seeing him at the residence.  He came up to me: “Spencer, I had a really difficult night. I was in a really dark place…Then he showed up.”

“Who?” I asked. Jered just pointed upwards. “He did. I can’t be an atheist anymore,” he said. God showed up for him in a time of need, far beyond what I or anyone is capable of. In that dark moment God appeared and told him he had worth and that he was loved and that there was hope.

That is the hope of our faith. God does not give up on people. He has not given up on me; he has not given up hope on you; therefore he will not give up hope on anyone. He simply will not give up on this broken world.

Because of this – this good news – we live with purpose, with unity, with joy and hope.

Let us pray…

Benediction:

“May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit. (Romans 15:13)

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The First Christmas: An Unbelievable Story about our Unbelievable God

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The Adoration of the Shepherds by Guido Reni (c 1640)

We have all heard the Christmas story before.

The Christmas story is the story of a baby born miraculously and mysteriously to a virgin mother.

About a nobody girl named Mary, who saw the announcement that she would be the mother of the messiah to be the greatest privilege of her life, despite its meaning she would be ostracized perhaps the rest of her life, since she was not married

It is the story about a good and merciful man, named joseph, who when he heard that his fiancé was pregnant and he was not the father, he could have subjected her to disgrace and even had her stoned in the culture, but moved with compassion, simple was going to dissolve the marriage quietly.

A man that was reassured by an angel to marry the woman, and that he would be the legal father of the savior of the world.

It is a story set to the back drop of God’s people conquered and oppressed by a massive empire, ruled a tyranny Emperor who claimed himself to be the Son of God.

It about this little unlikely family having to travel miles through storm and sand to the town of Bethlehem to be counted by order of the Emperor Augustus.

It is a story about this family who upon returning to their own hometown found that no one wanted to give them shelter for the night. No family wanted them.

It is a story about the king of heaven being born in the muck and mire of a barn.

It is a story about good news announced by angelic hosts to lowly shepherds, forgotten in the wilderness, tending their sheep.

It is a story about wisemen following stars, fooling a local corrupt ruler and coming to worship the messiah child with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

It is a story about an escape in the night as Herod sent out guards to kill the children of Jesus’ age, trying to stop the potential usurper.

And so, this is a story about miracles and the messiah, about faithful servants and faithful spouses, unplanned pregnancies and ancient prophecies; it is about shepherds and tyrants, about journey and escape, about humility and royalty, oppression and hope.

This story is the first Christmas. It is the story. It is the most important story. It is the story of all our salvation. Our salvation began to be accomplished in history on that day, in that stable, in that dirty manger, to that poor Middle-eastern couple, two thousand years ago.

It is the truth that God is now with us: the incarnation. The infinite God dwelling with us mortals.

It is the truth about God’s rule. The messiah Jesus shows how God rules: he chooses the lowly; he chooses the poor; he chooses the unworthy, the forgotten, the unlikely. He prefers them to the powerful, the rich, the proud, and the oppressor.

It is the truth about forgiveness. Jesus wasn’t just the king of the righteous. He didn’t just love the deserving. He also loved sinners. In fact, he died for the people trying to kill him. He died for Emperor just as much as the shepherds. He died for King Herod just as much as the wise men. He died for the criminal and the terrorist just as much as he died for you and me.

The Christmas story is the truth about God’s fundamental character of love and compassion, about God being born in our form, identifying with our plight, binding himself to our fate, all to say that nothing can separate us from his love.

Immanuel: God is with us. He is not against us, he is for us. He gave us his son. He gave us himself.

It is also a difficult story to believe, too isn’t it? We live in a world of skepticism. It seems that usually about this time every year someone publishes an article, proclaiming their modern brilliance at just how unbelievable the Christmas story is.

Angels don’t exist. Miracles don’t happen. Virgins don’t have babies. Stars don’t give travelers directions. Gods don’t reveal themselves. It is simply an unbelievable story.

It’s preposterous; it’s impractical; it’s too spectacular; it’s too amazing. Things like this just don’t happen.

But our culture’s skepticism over the things of God – whether it is the possibly of miracles or the fact that God could indeed reveal himself – pays a high price.

Skepticism against the Christmas story is skepticism against hope itself.

We live in an apathetic age.

Wars can’t be stopped. Poverty can’t be solved. Politicians always lie. Life is always unfair. Marriages never work. Churches never help. God isn’t there.

There is no life after death, and ultimate no reason for life before it.

Right and wrong, good and evil, hope and tragedy, these are just creations of the human imagination with no real anchor in reality.

The world is not getting better. In fact, it is getting worse and to be honest, most people would think we are not worth saving.

Forgiveness? Hope? Love? Goodness? It’s preposterous; it’s impractical; it’s too spectacular; it’s too amazing.

It is unbelievable.

Perhaps the Apostles passed along this story not because they were primitive, but because they were just like us.

They lived in a skeptical age. Tyrants stayed powerful; peasants stayed poor; lepers stayed sick; women and slaves stayed property; the dead stayed in the grave; and there is nothing new under the sun.

…Until Jesus showed up. Perhaps the reason the Apostles passed along this Christmas story is precisely because it was unbelievable. Unbelievable yet true.

This is a watershed moment in history, a game-changer, a paradigm-shifter, an epiphany, an event.

God showed up. Hope showed up. Goodness and mercy and forgiveness showed up. Nothing like this had ever happened in their time. Nothing like it before or after. Prophets had foretold this, but who could expect it happening in this way?

Perhaps this story is true in all its remarkable, exceptional, unbelievable, beauty.

We can ask, just like Mary, “How is this possible?” And the angel’s words are just as true today as they were two thousand years ago: With God all things are possible.

With God all things are possible.

If we grant that, this story starts making sense.

Good does triumph over evil. Love does triumph over hate. Forgiveness does triumph over hurt. Peace does triumph over violence. Faith does triumph over idolatry. Hope does triumph over despair.

These truths are not the delusions of us human bi-pedal ape-species with an overgrown neo-cortex.

The deepest longings of the human heart, the groaning of the soul for a world without hunger, sickness, sin, death, and despair – as unrealistic as that sounds – that yearning knows this story is true the same way our thirsty tongues know that water exists.

Its real. Its possible. It is out there. It is here: in Jesus.

The only left to do with this story, when we are done pondering it and puzzling is to trust it.

Can you tonight trust this unbelievable story? Can you trust that with God all things are possible?

Can you trust that your life is not just there without value, but it is a gift, it was planned and made by a God that sees you as his child?

Can you trust that the wrong in your life, the sins we have committed that no excuse can defend has been forgiven by a God that knows you better than you know yourself and sees with eyes of perfect mercy?

Can you trust that God has come into history, has shown us the way, has died for our sins, and conquered the grave?

Can you trust that God can set right all that has gone wrong as we invite him to renew our hearts, our minds, our souls and strength, our relationships, our job and family, our past and future, our communities and our country?

Can you trust that this Christmas story about God’s miraculous power, his unlimited compassion, his surprising solidarity, can be shown to be true this night just as much as it did then? In you, in the person next to you, in this church, in this town.

We give gifts at Christmas time as a sign of God’s generosity, but do we look forward to God’s gifts to us each Christmas?

Do we look for the gift of renewed spirits?

Do we look for the gift of transformed hearts?

Do we look for the gift of forgiveness of past hurts?

Do we look for the gift of reconciled relationships?

Of new freedom from guilt and shame, from hurt and hatred, from addiction and despair, from materialism and apathy.

What gifts are we going to see given from God’s spirit this Christmas.

Perhaps it will be like what happened to Nelson Mandela (just one story I read about this week about how the truth of Christmas changed someone in remarkable ways). In South Africa where Blacks were segregated off from the privileged of White society, Mandela as a young man advocated armed uprising and was imprisoned for life in 1962.

In prison he faced all the things that would, by any worldly standard, destroy hope, love, joy and peace in any man’s soul. He was beaten by the guards. He recount one day being forced to dig a pit that the guards taunted him saying it would be his own grave. As he dug, they peed on him and spat on him. The prison was so dirty he contracted tuberculosis.

Conditions like that fester the heart not just the body, but the miracle of Christmas reached him. Mandela recovered his Christian faith in prison, and was moved with hope towards a better tomorrow, with love and forgiveness towards even his guards that beat him.

In a sermon he gave later in life, he spoke about the hope he gained knowing that the messiah was born an outcast like him. This unbelievable Christmas story, the story that we recite and remember till it we often take it for granted, restored a man’s heart in one of the darkest of places.

Christ’s name is Immanuel: God with us. God was with the shepherd, with Mary, with Joseph, with the oppressed Israeli people, and so, also with Nelson Mendela.

After 26 years in prison, campaigns to have him pardoned succeeded, and Mandela went from prison to the presidential campaign, running to become president and end apartheid, not through violence but through reconciliation.

He won and he even had the guard that beat him from prison, whom he reconnected with and forgave, at his inauguration, a guest of honor.

Its an unbelievable story isn’t it?

How will God work something unbelievable in you tonight?

We could say that our lives aren’t as fantastic as Mendel’s, but then again, if we say that, we would be selling ourselves and our God short.

You see, a story about angels and a virgin giving birth and about a God found in the form of a baby might be unbelievable, but we Christians take that as part and parcel of what our unbelievable God does.

There is a saying that goes if you are in for a pound, you might as well put in a penny.

If we know that God has done the miraculous, can we trust him now with the mundane?

If we know that God has given us life, can we trust him with our finances and family?

If we know that God has atoned for all sin, can we trust him with our fears and failures?

If we know that God has conquered the grave, can we trust him with the worries of tomorrow?

If we know our God is a God that can do all things, that he has already accomplished everything, perhaps can you trust him with something small now. Let’s do something small right now. Something small but still significant.

Let’s have a moment of silence and stillness. We don’t get enough of those in this busy season. Have a moment right now to say to God whatever you need to say or to listen to God and hear whatever he as been trying to tell you, then we will pray together…

*Pause*

Living God, Father of our lord Jesus Christ.

May the worship we have shared this Christmas lead ro acts of service which transform people’s lives

May the carols we have sung this Christmas help others to sing, even in times of sadness.

May the gifts we exchange this Christmas deepen our spirit of giving throughout the year.

May the candles we have lit this Christmas remind us that you intend no one to live in darkness.

May the new people we have met this Christmas remind us that we meet you in our neighbors.

May the gathering together of family and friends this Christmas make us appreciate anew the gift of love.

May these unbelievable stories we have told again this Christmas be good news of great joy to us and all people, proclaimed on our lips and embodied in our lives.

May the ways you have come close to us this Christmas not be forgotten.

May we remember your unbelievable love, mercy, grace, and forgiveness – that you are our life, our light, and our salvation, this season and always, because of Jesus Christ our Lord.

Amen

[End prayer modified from Gathering for Worship: Patterns and Prayers for a Community of Disciples by the Baptist Union of Great Britain]

The Shack (Part Two): The Ironic Move from Calvinism to Orthodoxy

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I have heard some really vitriolic criticisms of the movie, The Shack.

I am reminded of the parable of the emperor’s new clothes. A foolish emperor commissions new clothes to be made. They were invisible, a deception on the part of the tailors, but they tell the emperor that anyone who thinks they are invisible are foolish. So the emperor pretends he can see the clothes and scorns anyone that does not. On parade, an innocent child points out that he is naked, and the jig is up. The emperor realizes he is in fact naked.

Paul Young is that child, I think. The emperor is evangelicalism; his clothes the pretension to orthodoxy. Our children know our flaws better than anyone, and Paul Young, as a child of evangelical thinking, a pastor’s/missionary kid, is speaking from the inside. He is not an outsider.

Some of Paul Young’s testimony resonated with me. I was raised with a very conservative theological paradigm. I went to seminary, where we liked to joke, “Of course, we are fundamentalists, we just aren’t as angry as those other people.” But the truth was we were angry too. Anyone that held beliefs different from us, if they were significant, were wrong and worse than that, dangerous.

I have learned there is a big difference between “right belief” and “believing in the right way.”

Some of the biggest critics of The Shack have been Reformed Christians. Now, these Christians are our brothers and sisters. They often don’t recognize that, but that is on them not us. I’d prefer to take the high road. We have the same Gospel, just different particulars, but I would point out there are some particulars that I think are deeply problematic.

I do not speak as an outsider on this. In college, I loved listening to John Piper. I read Calvin’s Institutes and I thought Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology was the greatest contemporary work to put theological pen to paper.

Now, I think the only reason I thought that was because I had not read much else. Since then, I have read at least one systematic theology every year. For me I moved beyond some of my more ultra-conservative convictions because they fundamentally could not stand up to either the Bible, historical Christian thinking, or the phenomena of life itself. I’ll explain…

For Calvinism, since God elects some to salvation and others not, and there are those Christians that claim to be “Christians” (like those Catholics and liberals and people that watch HBO) but are not (grace was not enough for them), I had to be hyper-vigilant theologically. I found myself always angry and annoyed at someone’s theology, even disgusted. I did not want them to contaminate me. If there were people that were not Christians but thought they were, the only way I knew I was saved myself was to always keep articulating every question I had theologically, ever more precisely, and to stay away from those that differed (you can read more about my journey in learning to accept other Christians here). Questions over infra-lapsarianism or super-lapsarianism became faith crises as to whether or not I actually believed God was sovereign and therefore whether or not I was saved. Discussions like this all became slippery-slope arguments. Arminians denied God’s sovereignty; open theists God’s impassibility; egalitarians, God’s authority. I was very good a pointing out the proverbial speck in another, ignoring the proverbial log in my own.

I could not reckon with the fact that there were sincere, biblically-minded Christ-followers that did not think the same things as me. See, when I looked at a biblical passage, and had an interpretation I thought was by the Holy Spirit, I could not doubt that. Everything hangs on certainty. I have often said that a fundamentalist cannot ask whether or not they are truly wrong on a core issue of doctrine, because to do is to doubt God and to invite doubt about one’s salvation assurance. Self-fallibility is too risky, even if it is true.

In this scheme, I did not believe in justification by works, but that just meant I was saved by doctrinal works. I was certain of my salvation because of the correct ideas in my head.

This proves potentially fatal if you ever encounter an important yet ambiguous text, which was often in seminary, or change your mind, or just don’t know what to think. The Bible became a scandal to my own theology, whether it was the unsustainable idea of its inerrancy, the refusal to admit the existence of woman leaders, or passages that did not fit an impassible God. As I began to see some of my theological convictions being contradictory, I felt like I was losing my salvation.

In one summer, while that was happening, my “shack” occurred. My father died of cancer; my mother was also suffering from cancer. Several friends of mine went through severe moral and faith crises, which for their sake I will not go into (you can read more about the whole experience here). I was left penniless, working at a Tim Horton’s on night shift, wondering if all this Christianity stuff was even true.

I ended up having a remarkable shift where God encountered me in the abyss of my confusion. I realized that if God is love and God is in Christ, then my ideas of faith can fail, but God will still have me. It was a profoundly mystical experience.

That lead me on a journey to rethink my faith, since I suspected there was more to it than just one tradition that no longer nourished me. This is a hard thing to say to some of my Calvinist friends, who I do consider my brothers and sisters, but I find that this theology is so intellectually and biblically problematic that it induced a faith crises for me, yet still nourishes them.

Nevertheless, that summer I began to I read deeply. I went to the University of Toronto soon after where I got to study under so many different voices. In high school I was a fundamentalist, in college I moved to being a conservative evangelical, in seminary I felt like I was becoming increasingly liberal, in post-grad studies I read deeply in postmodernism and mysticism, by doctoral studies I found myself gravitating to the school sometimes call “post-liberalism,” which lead me to do my dissertation on James McClendon, a Baptist narrative theologian.

Along the way, I started reading church fathers, mothers, and doctors. These are the most esteemed thinkers and saints the church has looked to. I gravitated to the mystics: Dionysius, Nyssa, the Cloud of Unknowing, St. John of the Cross, Julian of Norwich, and Meister Eckhart, but also Irenaeus, Aquinas, Athanasius, Anselm, and Augustine, etc.

One thing that I started noticing was that what I thought was “unorthodox” was widely held by those who were actively bound by creeds. When I told them about my upbringing, they looked at me recoiling, noting how unorthodox it was.

I found that, ironically, the narrow view of what I considered orthodox was actually not viewed that way by those who had read deeply in the tradition of historic Christianity and had strong conservative commitments to historic orthodoxy. What is “orthodox” here is the bounds of acceptable biblical reflection that the church over 2000 years has developed, using church fathers and doctors, councils and creeds. The sad thing was that the over-protective, arrogant, isolated, and suspicious mode of my past beliefs ironically made me closed to something the greater sweep of Christianity held to be appropriate.

Bonhoeffer once said that those that cannot listen to a brother or sister will soon find themselves unable to hear the word of God also. I think this statement is applicable.

Here lies the irony of those that criticize the “heresy” of The Shack. The notion that Young has moved beyond conservative evangelicalism is not abandoning orthodoxy; it is coming back to it!

I’ll explore this further in my next post.

The Shack (Part One): Am I Missing Something?

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The other day I got to participate in a showing of The Shack that our church, First Baptist Church of Sudbury, and Valleyview Community Church sponsored.

It happened in the beautiful Imagine Theatre Movie Lounge with its wonderful recliner seating (I am not being paid for that plug by the way – it really is nice!).

The Shack is a movie based on a book where a man, Mack, suffers the loss of his daughter. His daughter, Missy, is murdered, and he hates God for it. His life is beginning to unravel when he gets a card requesting his presence at the shack where his daughter was murdered, signed by “Papa,” the name for God his daughter used.

Mack goes to the shack wondering if the murderer is there, and Mack comes ready to kill him. When he goes there and finds no one, he lets out his anger at God. Shortly after in the woods, a man who we find out is Jesus, invites him back to the shack to have a weekend with the Trinity.

God the Father, “Papa,” is portrayed as female, a big black lady and the Holy Spirit is portrayed as an Asian woman, Sarayu. Mack is invited into fellowship with them. Mack is struck by the warmth of Papa, the relatability of Jesus, and the mysterious wisdom of Sarayu.

Mack learns that the Father is fundamentally love. Rather than seeing God the Father as distant and unforgiving, disconnected from Jesus – essentially being the thing Jesus saves you from – the Father is unified with Jesus, one in the purpose of loving humanity. The cross is the full disclosure of the love of God, all of God. Mack is surprised to see the mark of the nails on Papa’s hands.

Mack goes out to the garden and speaks with Sarayu. They begin digging a hole. Mack wonders why the garden is so messy and wild. The garden, Sarayu indicates, is Mack’s heart. Her work is wild and beautiful and creative and she is working in him, growing something that he does not understand right now.

A pivotal point in the journey is that Mack goes out on a boat. He begins to think about his pain and his loss, and realizes the boat is sinking into the dark waters.  The sea is the primordial chaos of satanic sin, seeking to swallow him. The only thing that saves him is that he sees Jesus walking on the water towards him. He grabs a hold of Jesus and does not let go. After that is some, as I call it, “Christian cheese,” where Jesus and Mack goof around walking on the water. The point is theological: Mack admits that Jesus is the most accessible of the members of the Trinity.

Mack is taken to a cave where he is confronted with lady Wisdom. Mack angrily wishes God to smite the killer of his daughter. Wisdom invites him to sit in God’s throne and play God for a moment. Wisdom invites him to give judgment on who will live and who will die. Eagerly Mack sits, ready to pour out his ire on his daughter’s killer. However, Mack’s other two children are placed before him. Their sins are recounted, and Wisdom requests Mack to choose between them, who will be preserved and who will die. Mack is confronted with the fact that if God is a loving Father to all people, God still loves the murderer, despite his brokenness, and is working to save him just as much as all his other children, not wanting any to perish.

At this point, Mack is given a glimpse of heaven, and sees Missy enjoying the fellowship of Jesus. He realizes that God in his love has placed her in a place beyond the pain of her death, and this comforts him to know she is okay.

Mack begins to heal as he learns to forgive as God has forgiven him. In the process, Mack learns he has to forgive his father, who was abusive. Interestingly after he does this, Papa appears to him as a male. Mack needed healing to approach God as Father. Papa previously appeared as a mother to appeal to the love that Mack already knew. Now, Papa is about to teach Mack a new stage of forgiveness. Papa brings him to the place where his daughter’s body was hidden. Along the walk, Mack is confronted with the need to forgive his daughter’s killer. As Mack lets go of his hate, Papa then brings them to the small cave where the body is stashed.

They delicately bring the body back to the shack and Mack realizes that Jesus has been working on a beautiful casket for his daughter. They bring the casket to the garden, and Mack realizes that the hole he was digging with Sarayu was a grave to bury Missy in. Mack realizes the love the Trinity had for Missy is the same as his and that God was with her through all that she went through. They all have a little funeral service there together.

Mack leaves the shack with a new found love at work in him, which he uses to rebuild his fractured marriage and family.

The movie was wonderful: good acting and cinematics. It is a bit of a crier, with many emotional and touching scenes. Admitfully, a movie of this nature is hard to pull off. Depicting God as a character, let alone the Trinity as a black lady, a young middle eastern man, and a weird Asian lady, is hard to do with warmth. We expect either the comical Morgan Freeman of Bruce Almighty or the powerful austerity of the voice coming from the burning bush like in The Ten Commandments. To depict Mack engaging in a friendship with God, and to do so tastefully, is perhaps most difficult because we don’t often want to think about God that way.

The movie presented the love of God, the invitation to trust Jesus, the wisdom of the Spirit, the need to live out God’s forgiveness and love as a response to the problem of evil in perhaps some of the most clear and success ways I have seen in Christian cinema. I look at some of the crap out there in Christian movies, not to name names, but The Shack was frankly refreshing.

Now, some will say that this is just literature and others, the movie’s critics, point out that it is teaching theological convictions. Both are correct.  My reaction to the theological themes of the movie, which I will take up next post, are same as the book. Several years ago I read the book curious as to whether it was “heretical” but was surprised by how much I enjoyed the book. My reaction is the same: “Am I missing something? Why are people getting angry at this?”

If you want to understand the book you really must listen to Paul Young’s testimony here. People need to walk a mile in Young’s shoes before casting judgment. In deed, as Christians I don’t think they can do that without listening to him. The Shack is a metaphor for his wrestling with God, as a man that was the son of missionaries, thoroughly indoctrinated in evangelical thinking. We would be wise to listen to the views of such an insider. Our children know our flaws better than anyone. His father abused him and taught him a theology of shame. Later in life he was unfaithful to his wife, repented, and sought counseling. The level of vulnerability and emotional insight in his testimony is staggering. The counseling was so intense that he almost committed suicide, but through it, he finally understood God’s love and grace. The book was written as a present to his kids, never intended to be published at the scale it has achieved. For any critic of Young, even if you disagree with his ideas, I would hope they would extend understanding on a person that shows us so much about how to follow Christ through suffering and brokenness.

As someone who is a person that saw abuse in our home (my mother’s husband to her), as someone who did grow up around emotionally toxic Christianity (my father was a pastor’s kid and his father abused him), this movie is highly therapeutic. As someone that has experienced a lot of difficulty, especially in my college years with my parents dying of cancer, while I will get into it more in the next post, this movie has forgiveness and faith at the center.

That is, I think, what the book is about at the end of the day: A man learning about the love of Christ through pain and suffering, propelling a person towards forgiveness. Am I missing something? What is wrong with that?

Peeing in Peace: A Sermon on the Transgender Bathroom Laws

 

 

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“I did not even know theologically that these people could exist.”

This is what a pastor told me as we sat chatting at his house for lunch after service several years ago. I spoke at his church and my message was on drawing close to the love of the cross. Recently a friend of mine then had came out to his church and was driven out. He went suicidal, and seeing the whole thing, I was outraged at those Christians. One of my points challenged them to stop their hatred and conditional love of sexual minorities and thus to truly embrace the fact that we are all justified by faith not by works.

I thought this would be a controversial sermon, but it was met with unanimous approval. One lady even came up to me and said, “Pastor, what a fine sermon. One day you will become the next John MacArthur!” I choose to take that as a compliment.

At lunch the pastor turned to me and expressed that he also felt challenged by what I said. He told me that he was doing door-to-door evangelism one day – God bless him! – and a person greeted him and let him come in. As he started talking, the person shared startling information. This person appeared female, but was actually “intersex,” meaning that while she appeared mostly female, she had both male and female genitalia. Neither she nor the pastor I spoke with shared specifics beyond that.

She turned to him and said, “Do you honestly think that if your church knew this about me that I would be welcomed in your church?”

The man sheepishly tried to respond, and as he did he looked around and saw the pictures of her family. She apparently had a lover, who was female, and they had a child.

Overwhelmed, he turned to her and said, “Honestly….nope, my church would freak out.”

So, he thanked her for her time and dejectedly left. And as he turned to me, he uttered a statement indicative of the grand mess the church with its uncritical beliefs has gotten itself into:

“I did not even know theologically that these people could exist.”

For him, he believed that there was male and female and that was it (which is a pretty bad way to read Genesis 1-2). If you don’t fall into those comfortably, it’s your choice, your fault. However, in doing so, his beliefs prevented him from not only reckoning with the basic facts of life: that intersexed people (and this is something different than transgender) exist and they were born with both genitals in some way. It also prevented him and his church from having grace on people it should have been showing grace to. He admitted to me with deep shame that his church was not prepared to love the unloved.

The way we talked about this person was a matter of ministry: is this person loved by God? Is there a place for her in our church? Those are the important questions of us as a church. However, people are talking about this issue in regards to politics…

Once upon a time our laws were blissfully naïve to the existence of the full range of the children of God. Women went to the bathroom that had a person with a dress in it; men to the one with a person in trousers. We are told that trans-people have always been around, and it seems like these people used the bathrooms that best corresponded to how they looked, and the watching world was none the wiser. If they did go to a bathroom that did not correspond to how they looked, they did so at risk of ostracization and even being beaten up.

Lawmakers did one of two things: institute laws that prevented trans people from using bathrooms of their current gender or institute laws that protected them, giving them the right to use the bathroom of their current gender. Either way, people were not happy.

Now, I am going to talk about a sexual topic today, which we have to say always makes people squirmy. Sexuality is a dimension of the human person that is closest to who we are at our most vulnerable. Therefore, we are the most guarded and sensitive about those topics.

Obvious proof of this: how many couples here even go to the bathroom while their spouses are in the bathroom with them? I don’t like to even with my spouse being near me, let alone another man, let alone anyone else. Thank-you very much.

There was an East Side Mario’s in Hamilton. In the men’s washroom, there were urinals. Anyways, I went to the bathroom there, and I found that the urinals were only about a foot apart. No barriers. Another guy came in. He obviously had to go. Came up to the urinal beside me, and started going. Our shoulders were touching. I couldn’t stop. He couldn’t stop. It was very traumatic for the both of us.

All of that is to say, matters like sexuality, we are more sensitive to. People naturally will get upset about these kinds of things no matter what people say. People make knee-jerk reactions based on their sexual-disgust feeling. Evangelicals are particularly susceptible to this. They are ironically “liberal” reading their experience of bodily shame into Christian ethics. Where guilt and shame-based preaching abides, evangelicals fixate on matters of sexual disgust as their core political concern, forgetting far more grievous social sins. I have heard evangelical pastors say really idiotic stuff like, “I am not homophobic; I just think the whole gay thing is disgusting.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer noted this when we visited the U.S. He thought evangelicals resembled gutter journalists, obsessed with what people did with their genitals to the neglect of all other ethics. I think that is more or less true.

So, keep that in mind, and now let me sketch out a timeline of this kerfuffle.

Most people don’t even know that the legal battle in Canada is a done deal. A transgendered person can use any public bathroom that they feel corresponds to their gender.

In Canada, in 2012, the NDP proposed Bill C-27, which amended the criminal code to protect other “gender identities.” If you remember the Conservative party was in power at the time. Over the next few years, it went through various readings, eventually being fully passed in 2013. What is interesting about his (and you can look up all the transcripts of debates and votes on the internet) is that the bill would not have passed if 30 some odd votes were not given by conservative MP’s. On most of the votes that happened on Mar. 20, 2013, the bills were passed by 150 to 130, give or take. The 20-30 votes that were needed to tip the bill into being passed came from the conservative party.

This means the party could have prevented the bill if its leader demanded uniformity (which he often did). This to me smacks of the lip-service conservatism that says it is pro-life but does nothing about it (Harper actually quashed his own MP’s from trying to talk about it), or in this case, says it is against a bill, but lo and behold, supplies just enough to get the bill passed, but not enough for it to look like the conservatives supported it.

I say that because I am very weary of any political party claiming to be the “Christian option” in this day and age. At least as far as I understand the conservative party in Canada, it does not seem like the definite traditional-Christian party anymore. It seems like a house divided at best. This does not mean the liberals are “the Christian” option either, or the NDP. Christians are called to affirm that Christ is King and all other politics authorities are secondary.

I find in politics there is very little integrity. Politicians refuse to admit their faults. They will argue their points, even if they know they are wrong. They will demonize their opponents to win. They often have ulterior motives: making a corporation rich or appealing to a voter base. For that reason, Christians should always keep politics at arms length. Only the kingdom of God will restore society, not a liberal utopia or conservative nostalgia. We are not going to build the kingdom of heaven by who we vote for.

At any rate, the Bill was met with interesting protests from trans individuals. Take for example, Brae Carnes (first picture below), who posted in male bathrooms, exposing the obviously problem of making all transgendered people go into bathrooms that did not match their identities. I don’t think any conservative would want a person that looks like the next two individuals in women’s bathrooms either.

The issue changes when it has a face doesn’t it?

I think intuitively when you see just how far transitioned these people are that it would not be a good idea to force them to go to the bathroom of their birth gender. But there are lots of transgendered people that do not look that much like their transitioned gender. For them, going to any public bathroom will still be dangerous.

Many conservatives did oppose the bill under the notion that it put women and children at risk. Potentially a predator could come into a woman’s bathroom and claim to be a woman, and refuse to leave. There are a handful of examples that show laws the protect transgendered people have been manipulated by sexual predators. For instance, a man claimed to be transgender, and used it to living in a woman’s shelter, committing acts of sexual assault. There are those examples.

Certain places in Canada installed gender-neutral, co-ed bathrooms. I remember using one of these bathrooms at University of Toronto. Apparently these bathrooms were quite unsafe. They certainly were awkward.

Then HB2 hit. While Canadians dealt with this debate rather quietly and civilly, as we often do, for good or for ill, but when things happen in America, it happens like singing a bad campfire song again: “Second verse same as the verse, a little bit louder a little bit worse!”

North Carolina passed the law allowing organizations liberty to enforce that a person ought to go to the bathroom of their birth-gender.

The company, Target, refused. They said, if you are trans-gendered, you can use whatever bathroom you feel meets the gender you feel. Note that they are merely exercising the rights that HB2 gave them.

Conservative family values lobbying organizations protested this and organized a boycott of Target of almost 1.1 million signatures. I think organizing a boycott like that is foolhardy. Even if you are morally outraged at Target, there are so many more immoral companies out there that Christians are not boycotting, so by doing this to Target, this portrays that Christians really have uneven standards.

Also, think about it this way: Would you appreciate a company refusing to sell to you if it knew your religious convictions? Lets say an atheist bakery refused to bake bread for church communion? We would be outraged at the pettiness. Yet this is why I cannot see those conservative Christians they would refuse to bake a cake for a same-sex wedding as anything but petty.

In wake of this, two particularly disappointing things happened:

First is that there is a story of a woman, who had short hair and was athletic, was followed from the woman’s bathroom and harassed by Christians in a public place because they did not believe she was a full woman. Now Christians are the ones straight people need protection from!

Second, the leader of one of these family values political lobbyist groups, Sandy Rios of American Family Association, admitted in an interview that her organization actually sent men into women’s bathrooms to scare women and children into agreeing with her agenda. That is the height of hypocrisy. Her organization claimed to be about protecting women and children from men in their bathroom, yet they are the ones sending men into said bathroom all for the sake of their political agenda. What if one was, as they argued, a woman that was raped? Again, there is this odd necessity to now protect bathroom from Christians.

We should note that if this is true, the American Family Association has very likely put more men in women’s bathrooms than there are instances of sexual predators abusing transgender laws. While there have been instances of sexual predators abusing transgender laws, these instances are very rare. With good reason: How many times do you think a predator can get away with doing that? Predators need absolute secrecy, and it seems like only the really stupid ones would try to do that.

But given the whole debacle, the whole thing is really quite sad. Just plain sad.

Personally, I find the conservative politics the most abhorrent. It is mostly because Christians often back conservative politics, so there should a higher expectation of moral integrity, which is not there. But perhaps it is my own disappointment with the party I was raised to support. While liberalism worships sexual liberty in a problematic way, Christians who support conservative politics routinely come off as condescending and apathetic towards others. Evangelicals routinely ignore basic science on matters of gender. The persistently make one issue about another. Do conservative evangelicals really care about transgender people? Or do they just want their political sensibilities validated and codified?

They sound like they just want the church to flex its muscles and the world to bow down to them and wave fans at them for being so right. That’s probably most sad part.

Personally, I would rather say, “I don’t know but I care,” then be obsessed with have all the right answers, and coming off like I don’t care.

I know Christian pastors that harp on this issue and don’t even know a single transgender person. These pastors are not acting like the priests of Christ but acting like pharisees of the law.

Those that do this forget some very important facts. They read their Bibles, but not the book of nature. This much I do know about the science: There are people – less than 1% but that is still quite a bit – that are born with different configurations of gender. Some are born being physically male but have within them ovaries. Some are born physically female, but have within them testes. They often don’t discover this till years later, and then they understand why they feel “different.” Some are born with both genitals, believe it or not. Some are born physically male or female, but their brains are hardwired to be the opposite. There are all sorts of other examples like this.

When I hear of unique cases like this, I turn to God and reaffirm the strange but blessed diversity of God’s image in humans. He made us all; he loves us all; he claimed us with the dignity that belongs to his children. The more we lovingly draw close to others different from ourselves, the more we see the divine image.

If they are born that way, there is the unsettling truth that I could have been born that way too. So could you. We can’t control the circumstances of our birth.

I could have been born feeling like a female within, and being drawn to “girlie” stuff as my parents looked on with confusion and concern.

I could have had a disappointed father that always made me feel like half of a “true man.”

I could have been the one mocked in gym class change rooms as my peers invented new insults.

I could have been married with kids, trying to live a normal life, but never feeling like “myself” around them, or anyone else for that matter.

I could be the one dying of confusion, despair, and even self-hatred of why I am the way I am.

If this could be any of us, we must follow Christ’s command to “love our neighbor as ourselves.”

How would I want to be treated in public? Hopefully just to be left alone. What kind of world would I hope there be for me? Hopefully a just one. What kind of church would I hope there be for me? Hopefully a compassionate one.

What they go through could be what any of us could be going through, and therefore it is our obligation to care and do something.

I am amazed at how many people don’t get this.

I often ask myself: Why cannot people be more rational? Why can’t Christians particularly have empathy? Or at least discuss things with a least a drop of honesty and integrity. So, let’s try to do that.

Note that there are two major responses to this debate:

(1) Liberals have made it their goal to proclaim that all gender is fairly fluid and that choosing the gender that one feels is the best approach. This usually involves hormone therapy and gender reassignment surgery. How that works, I am not going to get into here.

(2) Conservatives tend to ignore the existence of true intersexed people, and emphasize that there are many others that are plainly gender confused because of the break down of the nuclear family. It is nurture not nature. The person had an unstable childhood, so their gender is unstable. In those cases, recommending gender reassignment surgery is a bad option. It causes more harm to an already unstable person. The best thing a society can doe is get back to the stability of the “good old days.”

Who is right? I don’t think either side has it completely. Let’s admit that. When issues polarize, there is very rarely one perfectly right side.

Christ forbids the notion that there ought to be an “us” versus “them.” Eph. 6 :12 warns, For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” I worry about those Christians that excel at making enemies of the people they are called to preach reconciliation to.

At least as far as I have read, gender reassignment surgery has been shown to relive the anguish of some transgender people, but also in many cases create whole new problems. I am not a psychiatrist, so that is all I can say. Whatever a transgendered person is going through, we know it is going to be difficult. We should be honest about that.

Now, bring in politics. What do you do when a person identifies as a woman, but was born a man, and wants to use a woman’s bathroom? Some say, “Let them if it helps them feel some modicum of security and peace.” Others say, “I don’t feel comfortable with a person of the opposite physical gender being in that bathroom. The laws can be abused by predators.” Again, both have a point, but neither side have it all.

There seems to be a bunch of concerns here that all Christians should have:

  1. Transgendered people are valued and should be kept safe from harassment.
  2. We need greater awareness for the existence of transgendered people and what they go through.
  3. However, the concern is also that in doing so, society promotes the notion that our genders are fluid, which could cause physiological harm to some that need more structure.
  4. Women and children could be put at risk by sexual predators abusing transgender laws

You will notice that liberals tend to prioritize (1) and (2) while conservatives prioritize (3) and (4). But, if you can admit that both sides are trying their best to uphold justice some way, I think we can have a better way of thinking about his whole debacle.

We cannot be satisfied with any law that does not protect all vulnerably parties. We don’t get to choose who we defend the dignity of, one way or another. We are called to defend all people’s dignity. All people, not some, not just your kids, not just transgendered people either – all are made in the image of God. Everyone is. We don’t get to choose who to care about. All deserve our love in how we talk, think, feel, and write policies.

So, what should a Christian do? Should we advocate for the laws to stay the same? That did not happen, and there should be a law that protects trans people. Should we advocate for the bathroom laws to pass uncritically that can be abused? No. I think there needs to be further criteria to how the bathrooms are used. Should we advocate new ones that can further allow transgendered people to get beaten up and harmed, protecting the churches prerogative over others? No.

Many say we should move to installing gender-neutral bathrooms that are fully enclosed. That is probably the way things are going to go, but that sounds expensive. I don’t think companies can accommodate every public bathroom being converted that way. There does not seem to be a good answer here.

I think the obvious response for Christians, when the law of the land does not reflect the perfect justice of God is to pray and trust and hope.

I recently read through 2 Peter. Peter is encouraging a congregation with the hope that Christ will return and one day the world will be ruled by God not people. So, he says,

“We are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, where righteousness dwells” (2 Peter 3:13)

We are to live like exiles in a strange land, for we are citizens of a different kingdom.

This admits that the current situation does not have a comfortable solution that Christians should be happy about. If any law leaves a vulnerable party unsafe, we should not be happy about it. We need to continue to rethink, listen, and pray.

What does that mean? I don’t know. I don’t know the answers to many things in life. But as I said, I would rather say that I don’t know but care then that I know but come off like I don’t care.

I don’t know if I have a position, but I do know the posture: Christ. I don’t care much for politics, but I do care about the people. That is what we should focus on: the posture of Christ and the people in need of love.

I look at this world, and all I know is to cling to the love of Christ, the love he showed me, and the love I ought to extend. True religion is, according to the prophet Micah 6, “To act justly and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.” The more I befriend people that much different me, the more I see Christ working around me. That is a humbling thing.

I know that politics is not the vehicle of the kingdom of God. The Gospel of our God loving all people, forgiving all sin is. Our world is broken, so we need to walk graciously in Christ, for our sake and others. There are broken people in it, like ourselves. If we are to love our neighbors, we need to listen to them and walk with them.

May you walk in the peace of Christ in this broken world, on this matter and all things.

Martyr’s Mirror: Living the Cross: Dirk Willems

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“For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain.” – Phil. 1:21

Like good Protestants, but bad students of church history, we are going to have to jump 1500 years into the future, to the dawn of the Reformation. In this room here, I imagine we have Christians from different denominational backgrounds like Lutheran, Presbyterian, Reformed, Mennonite, Pentecostal, even some Catholics as well. And some of you even know what those words mean! Those words tend to mean less today not just because we don’t know our church history, but also I think because we have a deeper recognition that we are all one in Christ Jesus, despite minor doctrinal differences in how we interpret our Bibles. It was not always so…

The first Baptists, called by their enemies, the “Anabaptists,” were radical Protestants that saw all the wars of religion, killing between Protestants and Catholics, and the concluded that faith has to be free and voluntary. They were committed to non-violence and refused to let the government legislate religious belief one way or another. This is what Baptist call the separation of church and state – more accurately it is the separation of faith from power.

Again, most Christians now affirm this in one way, shape, or form, but back then, the Baptists who preached freedom of religion and conscience, something we take for granted now as our un-revocable right as a citizen. However, back then, they were deemed enemies of the common good by the established churches and their governments, both Protestant and Roman Catholic. And so, authorities hunted the Anabaptists. This was a dark moment in European history, Catholics killing Protestants, vice versa, Protestants killing Protestants. Christians who all believed in the same Jesus, executing other Christians. What were they killing over?

Baptists held to believer baptism, Reformers and Catholics to infant baptism. In hind sight that is a terrible thing to fight over, let alone kill. It was petty. Yet, where state-religions were strong, so also was the need to control people to get them to believe, and so the Anabaptists, who dissented from this, were chased. Their punishment: they were often dragged to bridges and lakes and flung into the water to drown as a kind of ironic punishment for being re-baptized.

One man was arrested by the Dutch authorities for his Baptist convictions. His name was Dirk Willems, and he was imprisoned purely for saying he no longer believed what other Christians of his day believed. He never hurt anyone. The accounts say that he managed to escape the prison, slipping out of an unbarred window. It was winter time, and so, in order to evade his pursuer, he ran arose a frozen lake neighboring to the prison.

The guard chasing him, being a bigger man, fell through the ice. Dirk was home free. But then he stopped. What would Jesus do? His conscience pricked him, and he was moved with compassion on his persecutor. At great risk to himself, he dragged the man out of the icy water, warming him with his own body heat. Dirk carried the man back to the prison, accepting that if he retuned, he would be re-arrested. Sure enough, some prison guards did not care about his very obvious compassion and bravery, let alone the injustice of his charges to begin with, and sent him back to his cell.

For being a Baptist heretic and because he refused to let his own enemy die rather than escaping, Willems was burned at the stake 16 May 1569.

Can you imagine his thoughts? Turning to save the man that would imprison him, knowing that it mean confronting prison and the death penalty?

It seems difficult to imagine, but that is what Jesus did for us. While we were still sinners [still his enemy], Christ died for us.

Father, we pray for Christian unity, as Jesus prayed “May they be one as we are one.” Empower us to end our petty squabbles and focus more on you. Remind us that the only way we will show the world your son is by having the same reconciling love Willems modeled for his own pursuer. You teach us to love our neighbors as our selves and may we love even our enemies the way Christ loved us, counting their lives more important that our own.

Amen

Seven Last Words: Mother Mary, Brother John

 

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“Woman, behold your son” … “Behold, your mother!”  (John 19:26)

While it is easy to see this passage of Christ looking to his mother, Mary, and instructing her to embrace John, the beloved disciple, and John vice versa, as a simply provision undertaken by our Lord to ensure his mother is cared for, these passages offers us glimpses of something deeper. Let’s look at both John and Mary here.

Why is Mary told to refer to John as a “son” and John to refer to Mary as his “mother”? The provisions of care do not necessitate this, yet Jesus insisted. He could have just said, “John, take care of her.”

Some have seen this as Jesus recommending a relationship between Mary and the disciples.In Christ, there is a new family, a global family, of the redeemed that all began at the cross. Mark 3:35 says, “Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.” Here we see the constitution of that family, gathered around the crucified Jesus, listening to his instructions, and so, compelled to treat one another as family.

But it surely meant more than that for John. Mary and John are among the few that actually stayed close to Jesus. They did not flee like the rest of the disciples. John was allowed near the crucifixion site, perhaps because he was so young.  We know this because only boys too young to serve in the military could come near the execution site for fear of uprising to save the crucified.

This helps us understand why John sometimes refers to himself as the “beloved disciple,” who “reclined at Jesus’ side.” Peter would have been much older, the eldest of the disciples, possibly. It is also possible that John was the youngest. He was only a boy, small enough to need hugs from Jesus. He may have seen Jesus has a father figure.

Jesus taught us to call God, “Abba” (Daddy). John may well have called Jesus, “Abba.”

John is standing there, watching his father figure die. So, this was more than provision of care to Mary, it was recognition of mutual support. They would need each other. You can understand Jesus’ words now as commissioning the young John. “It is time to be a man, now John, take care of Mary, treat her like your mother.”

As we see John’s writings through the New Testament, particularly in his epistles, John took up this commission well. He was an apostles of family and love through and through. He constantly refers to his congregation as his “little children,” not unlike what he was when he learned his essential instructions from his master.

We know from church tradition that John’s dying words to his church was, “Little children, love one another!” Love shun through John’s writings at all points, especially in passages like 1 John 4:7-12:

Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.

His church was his family, and love was his ministry because Jesus was his hero.

Can we look to Jesus like John did?

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Now, Mary: Protestants have often forgotten the importance of Mary. We have done this out of understandable reasons: it is out of discomfort with how high Mary is elevated in Catholicism. But as Catholicism raise Mary too high; Protestants are guilty of not raising her high enough.

In church history, veneration of Mary began because of how Mary pointed to a proper understand of Jesus. Jesus died in the flesh (contra some who denied his humanity) because Jesus was born to a human mother: Mary was the guardian of Jesus’ humanity, the theotokos, “God-bearer” in Greek.

But, sadly, Mary was elevated to a kind of co-operator with Christ in some Catholic theology, which Protestants simply feel makes her into an idol. But we should ask is how do we properly adorn Jesus’ mother so that she once again safeguards her son’s high place? We might phrase this better by asking, how does respecting Mary as a mother – us looking to her motherly qualities – how does that bring us deeper into appreciation of Jesus? Or, how does understanding Mary as mother deepen our understanding of Jesus as our brother?

The picture displayed above renders this clearly: eyes too sorrowful to see clearly, but too concerned to look away; hands, clenched praying perhaps both that her son would be faithful to the onerous task she bore him for, but because she bore him, praying pleading with God to relent of the suffering her son is feeling.

To look to Mary as our mother is to look at Jesus’ hanging on the cross, not as an abstract idea, a stale doctrine, a historic account, or an expression of our own sentiments, it is an attempt to see the cross for what it is, and not bypassing it too quickly.

Seeing the cross as our salvation can too readily jump from its tragedy to the benefit we get out of it. We can easily see Christ as suffering on our behalf and we can say, “thanks,” and continue on our merry way. We can selfishly forget the cost of the cross. We can easily look at the cross for what we get out of it, not what God put into it.

When we look to Mary as the mother of Christ, we also look at the cross through the eyes of a mother. Someone’s son died on that cross. Someone’s little boy, her pride and joy, everything she lived for, is being murdered mercilessly, dying that miserable death.

And do you not think that it may have occurred to her that while she knew Jesus was dying for her sins, she would have gladly died in her sons place just to save him from the pain? Don’t you think even that she would have gladly refused her own salvation if it meant saving her little boy’s life?

It is only when we look at the cross through Mary’s eyes do we appreciate the cost of the cross for us. It is the cost of a life more precious than our own.

It is only when we lament the cross through Mary’s tears are we ready to say thank-you to a God that gave so much we will never understand.

It is only through the love of Mary for her Son that we ready to love the world as Jesus loved it.

Lord,

May we love as John loved. May we look to you as our daddy, our father figure. So close to us that we can “recline at your side.” Help us to remember that we are beloved disciples, not just disciples. Draw us closer into the family of God. May we treat your sons and daughters as brothers and sisters. Give us opportunities to be big brothers and sisters to others.

May we mourn for you as Mary mourned. And in our mourning, let us remember the provision that Jesus gave at that very moment, the only true provision against the tragedy of this age: You gave us the church, the family of God. Help us to take care of one another. Help us to love one another.

Amen.