Take the Aziz Ansari First-Date Challenge

After the Aziz Ansari episode, a thought:

Want, as a single male heterosexual, to be a radical feminist?

19961192_10156005571760656_6905410604910853056_n.jpgMake it your rule that there is no such thing as anything that could remotely be construed as sexual contact on the first date.

YOU say no.

By saying no, you’re saying yes to that woman’s humanness.

Talk, hang out. Find out the beginnings of what makes this woman tick as a unique creature. Learn a smidgen of her hopes and dreams and fears and longings. Have a modest dinner and then splurge on expensive coffee and dessert with more conversation if this female human person with whom you’ve spent dinner is interesting.

Affirm their intellect and emotions, not their body or even their outfit.

There will be plenty of time for complicated stuff: understanding one another’s moral imaginations and convictions about sexuality; navigating the intricacies of consent and desire; figuring out how far is far enough at given levels of life-commitment.

But on the first evening together, you can take all that completely off the table. You can be, for at least one night, a feminist man, who comes to the first date not without hormones or desires, but without sexual ambitions.

You don’t have to love her on Evening One. But you have to be loving to her. Loving another human means that you don’t get naked with them on the first evening you spend with them. Loving another human means that, at minimum, for one evening, carnal knowledge does not precede personal knowledge.

I know. Radical, right? Scandalous.

Still. Single male heterosexuals of the world, be this sort of oddball radical feminist for just this one night. To start with.

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Of Pears and Porn

I’ve come to believe that one of the best tools in fighting sin is to meditate intellectually on how profoundly stupid and ridiculous the sin is.

Ideally, of course, one would leave vices behind simply because one was attracted to the good things of which those vices are a mere parody. But at any given season in their lives, every person is at a different place with respect to each vice.

Today, I might have lost the taste for drunkenness, and grown to so delight in sobriety that I’m hardly tempted to drink excessively, while at the same time I might be an overeater of junk food with no “taste” yet for things that actually taste good and would make me feel good after I’ve eaten in moderation. What I’d need in such a scenario (I speak hypothetically, of course!) is a physically fit foodie in my life, whom I admire, who would have the patience to teach me to savor delicious and nutritious foods until junk food tasted to me like the junk that it is. But, absent such a friend, I’m left with Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma to help me see food for what it is.

funny-stupid-signs-useless-pointless-11-571f374995df4__605.jpgAs Augustine undertakes his famous protracted analysis of his adolescent pear-stealing night with his friends, he engages in precisely this sort of intellectual meditation. Writing as he is in his adulthood, he’s presumably gotten over the particular vice of Theft with Friends. But certainly as a Christian bishop he is now sensing the lure of new and more pernicious vices—perhaps pride and envy in particular, temptations which seem to go hand-in-hand with ministry.

He unpacks the pear-theft ad nauseam. 

He is succinct, however, in describing, what the theft was not:

“Those pears were truly pleasant to the sight, but it was not for them that my miserable soul lusted, for I had an abundance of better pears.”

A married person with a loving spouse has an abundance of better pears. Whatever is going on when one goes after porn, it’s not images of bodies of other people after which the soul lusts. Those bodies may be pleasant to the sight like Augustine’s neighbor’s pears, which he praises because they were carefully and wonderfully made by God their Creator. But when the miserable soul lusts, it’s not for pears or porn per se.

Augustine goes on famously to detail the intricacies of concupiscence—of the deformed workings of a soul that in one respect or another is dead to true delights and delighted with dead things. And it is worthwhile to follow his exposé of such a soul as his (and yours and mine) in the fight against vices.

But the first and proper step is to learn of and meditate upon the sheer stupidity of eating junk food when there’s real food available, of stealing your neighbor’s pears when there’s better pears available in your own orchard, and of stealing glances at mere images of the bodies of anonymous humans when you have infinitely more in a good wife or husband.

Education can’t save the world. Knowledge is not really power. Rational Choice Theory doesn’t explain behavior. Reading proverbs won’t automatically make you wise and reading Aesop’s Fables doesn’t mean you’re going to avoid the folly in the fable. There’s much more going on in the soul of which the mind knows little.

But still, nobody wants to be stupid.

Grasping the stupidity of porn and telling yourself “Self, don’t be stupid. You don’t want to be stupid, do you? C’mon, stupid!” seems to be a worthwhile strategy.

Flattening our reality, one share at a time

This past semester I taught our school’s senior class a unit on media studies. This was mostly an excuse to geek out on Marshall McLuhan and call it “work.”

But in the context of our course as a whole, I had another aim. We are spending the year studying the way in which we derive stories from various influences and then enact those stories in our own lives. When we live our lives, full of thought, passions, and actions in the world, we tell a story—what we’re calling (after Richard Rorty and Mark Edmundson) our ‘Final Narrative.’

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I’m hoping to help students identify the sources (scriptures, rituals, works of literature and art, philosophies) from which they hope to consciously construct their Final Narratives. I am also hoping to make them aware of the ways in which their immersion in the structures of social media may inhibit their efforts to discern, adopt, and enact dimensions of the Final Narratives proposed by compelling authors, mystics, filmmakers, and artists.

In short, it’s hard to mine Homer, Hemingway, Hebrews, Heidegger, Herzog, or Handel for actionable glimpses of the good, true, and beautiful when most of our attention is captured by #hashtags, handles, and header images.

And, even if our minds and hearts are profoundly moved by an encounter with great Final Narrative proposals, the life-changing impact of such encounters may be significantly diminished by the way in which our social media supervenes upon our lived experience. We are brought crashing back down from our mountaintop experiences not by the demands and duties of our daily lives, but through the banality of living within social media’s world-flattening reality.

We put down a great novel and pick up our phones. The Old Man and the Sea was trying to convince us that doing what we were made for, and doing it with heroic perseverance, is intrinsically valuable. But now Twitter is trying to convince us, by the very structure of its ‘world,’ that the latest nuclear provocation by Kim Jong Un is worthy of the same amount of concern as a snarky comment by Stephen Colbert.

We come home from church, where the liturgy was attempting to en-world us in the life of the world to come. We sit on the sofa and amputate that far off world in order to save the World of Facebook, within which a historically private moment like a marriage proposal is photodocumented alongside the also historically private (but for opposite reasons) event of my high school buddy’s afternoon snack.

When we bookend our reading experiences, however immersive they are, with immersion in social media, however brief, we tell our souls that the worlds of those books are fantasy, and these selfies and cat videos are reality. When we enfold our corporate worship within a life more fundamentally framed by Facebook, in a subtle but undeniable fashion, it is Facebook that corporate worship becomes about. 

Our technology has enabled us to see the world from the vantage point of distant planets. But our technology has also given us lifelong memberships in the Flat Earth Society. And, when our lives are through, it will be difficult for people to discern from their movements story arcs other than, perhaps, “they were born, they posted, they died.” Our Final Narratives, our supposed visions of the life well lived, are telling the story not of deep conviction and persistent action, but of things liked, things shared, things retweeted.

Are there some of us who manage to utilize social media in ways that do not allow its structures and its ‘world’ to supervene upon the ‘real world’? Are there some of us who primarily live within a world wherein duty, heroism, conviction, love, and sacrifice are treasured and enacted, rather than a world of mere likes and retweets? Certainly.

Do we have the reflective capacity to recognize when we’ve swapped the enchanted world of the great texts, great films, great artworks, great religions and real-life heroes for the flattened earth of Facebook? Do we have the will power to make a substantial change if we recognize that we’re living in the wrong world? I’m not sure.

How (Not) to Give a Christmas Present

Here in Korea, giving gifts is illegal.

At least certain kinds of gifts are illegal. Specifically, illegal are those gift-giving instances in which the recipient has some influence or authority over the giver. It’s called the Kim Young Ran Law, and it’s designed to curtail corruption, or “graft”—the giving of gifts in order to secure some sort of gain from the recipient.

As a result, I, a foreigner and private school teacher in an American-style school, am considered a “public official” in Korea. It’s an odd classification, one which effectively prohibits me from accepting a bottle of Scotch, a fountain pen, or even a cup of coffee from a student or parent who is currently, or may at some point be, my student. This would put me in a position in which I might be inclined to show favoritism to a student, giving them a grade they haven’t earned.

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Kim Young-Ran herself! Photo: Yonhap News/Korea Herald

Curiously, I may give my students Scotch (?), fountain pens, and coffee, because they can’t pay me back in any shady way.

The law is an overcorrection aiming to fix a real problem. And here at Christmas time, it’s heartbreaking to imagine all the Scotch, fountain pens, and coffee that I’m not getting. All that generosity, nullified! Bah humbug!

The problem, of course, is that bribery strips the gift of its very status as a gift. When a gift is given with a wink, the gift disappears. The gift fails to reach the outer space of gratuity and is sucked back into the orbit of an economy where goods, services, and cash are exchanged within a transactional rationality.

Is there such thing as a pure gift?

But wait, you might say: is it even possible to give gifts that don’t collapse under the gravity of pure economics? When I give my kids presents at Christmas, isn’t it because they didn’t shout, cry, or pout, and thus, Santa Claus was contractually obligated to show up? When I buy my wife a bouquet of flowers, aren’t I really attempting to buy another few months of cooking and cleaning from a low-maintenance partner in home-economics?

Jean-Luc Marion comes along to rescue us from our deconstruction of gifts. Along the way, he shows us some ways we can give in purity. A philosopher saves Christmas!

How do you give a real gift, then?

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Photo: LE BRAS

1. Eliminate the giver!

Marion says that when an inheritance is given, the giver has been stolen away by death, and cannot be thanked or reciprocated. I had never heard of my Icelandic uncle Skuli from North Dakota until he died and left me some cash. So I never felt “indebted” to him for the Martin D-28 dreadnaught acoustic guitar I bought with his money. I was able to simply enjoy it.

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Thanks, Uncle Skuli! (Me out in front of King’s Cross Church in Charlotte, NC, 2012, with my Martin D-28, now almost 20 years old.)

But he wasn’t able to enjoy me enjoying it, except proleptically. I wouldn’t suggest giving all your Christmas gifts at once, when you die, simply in order to eliminate the possibility of the gift falling back into the realm of quid pro quo.

But isn’t Santa Claus a way of eliminating the giver? Sure, Santa can be conscripted as an all-seeing eye crossing naughty kids off his list. But one argument for keeping Santa around is that he gives parents a chance to watch their kids open and enjoy Christmas presents without their kids feeling any shred of indebtedness to them. The parents (spoiler alert!) are the real gift-givers, and they’ve been hidden by the person of Saint Nick. And Saint Nick is long gone.

Grown-ups can receive gifts from Santa, too. Why not give a completely anonymous gift, ascribed to Santa, this Christmas?

2. Eliminate the recipient!

This is not as sinister as it sounds. “Sorry, son. I could gift you, but then I’d have to kill you.”

Marion has in mind here a humanitarian gift. The giver remains, but the recipient is unknown to us. We can give a pure gift that can never re-enter the transactional economy if we don’t even know whether it is helping pay a child’s tuition in Timbuktu or keeping the lights on at a Boys and Girls Club in Kalamazoo.

But here’s an idea: Give a big fat Christmas present to your local church! These are the leaders you know and trust. These are the ministries with which you are most intimately familiar. These are the anonymous recipients who, though they cannot repay you, live among you.

I frequently tell people that giving to their local church takes faith and releases them from control. If choose the charity which, or the individual who, will be the recipient of my gift, then I give and I withhold according to my own private calculus of who is worthy, and of how much help. In contrast, if I give to my church, I abandon my gift completely to the wisdom of my church’s leadership—people who I know and whom I have elected to be ministers of mercy and stewards of modest kingdom resources here in my own community. And best of all, I’m not in control. This is a way of technically eliminating the recipient, but more fundamentally eliminating me—at least the me who would otherwise be picking, choosing, and managing the “gift”.

3. Give to an enemy!

Marion says that “my enemy appears as my gift’s best friend.” Weird. How so?

He says that when I give a gift to an enemy, they (1) will not give me a gift in return, they (2) will resent me all the more, and they (3) would rather kill me before they acknowledge that I’ve put them in my debt.

Voilá! The gift is purely given, and I can’t and won’t be compensated for it.

To kill an enemy with kindness, to heap burning coals upon their head—it seems like a weird way to channel one’s resources at Christmas. But the guy who Christmas is named after says to do it, so …

4. Eliminate the gift!

Finally, Marion describes a man who gives a woman an expensive piece of jewelry. There are two possible things going on in such an instance.

Either the man is giving the jewelry in place of time, love, and tenderness, or the man is not really giving jewelry at all, but is instead giving himself. He is either saying “I love you,” but lying; or he is saying nothing, but saying everything. The necklace or bracelet is where the gift begins and ends, or it’s simply a stand-in that signifies the un-monetizable gift of self, the provision of one’s soul.

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Michael Bolton, who is hiding in the margins of this post, and can be found if you look closely. (Photo: buzzfeed.)

It gets cooler. Marion says that the placeholder gift can be given all at once. But when I give myself with the gift, “I can only give symbolically, since it will require the entire duration of my lifetime to truly accomplish it.”

Spare the gift, spoil the child

If we lavish our kids with stuff, there is always the chance that our kids will receive it not as grace, but as karma. They could develop a karma disposition to the world. The mountain of gifts we give them would then disappear by its perversion; they would rot by ceasing to be gifts at all.

But if we can figure out a way to give our kids ourselves in, with, and under their Christmas presents, they have a chance of experiencing real gratuity, real grace. The mountain of gifts will still disappear. They’ll be wasted—symbolically, sure, but also they’ll literally end up in a landfill somewhere. But their disappearance will allow the only gift that really matters to emerge: the gift of self. Isn’t this the whole idea of love, anyway?

Marion says we cannot live without love, or at least we cannot live without the hope that we will some day be genuinely loved. That is to say, we can live without a pile of toys or a box full of jewelry. But we can’t live without someone giving themselves to us in complete generous abandon—another claim that makes us recall the historical origins of Christmas.

This Christmas has me thinking of how I can give myself via the placeholder of a few gifts. But it also has me thinking of how a Christmas present, to be a real gift, requires me to be present to those I love all year long — long after the “gifts” have been discarded.

The Capacity to Admire

If there has been one intellectual and spiritual preoccupation of mine for the past 7 or 8 years, it has been a preoccupation with love. I believe it all started in a slogan of Augustine’s which I must have first encountered as a newlywed sometime in 2003. Credo ut intelligam, as Anselm later codified it. “I believe in order to understand.”

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Anselm of Canterbury | 19th-Century Stained Glass | Image: Wikipedia

For Augustine, this faith that seeks understanding, this belief unto learning, is an act of the passions, of the will, of the decision-making faculty that resides at the core of who we are as human beings.

All of this is another way of saying that love has priority over knowledge, and is the pathway of knowledge. Knowledge grows as love grows, not the other way around. One must admire someone before one can learn about them and from them.

I was stunned recently by Jean-Luc Marion’s reflections on admiration. In a recently-published book of conversations (translated by Crina Gschwandtner, my secondary doctoral supervisor!), Marion recounts the ways in which, as a young thinker and Christian, he both succeeded and failed to admire well.

‘You’re doing it wrong’: How (not) to admire badly

Sometimes the young Marion would come close to foolishly hitching his wagon to a pseudo-Master, someone who was making a lot of noise, gathering a lot of disciples, and, as we might say now, “building a platform.”

Other times, Marion would miss a real master right in front of his eyes. He recounts when he and his classmates were bored and passively rebellious in the midst of the tedium of basic lectures on German. Only later did they realize that the man who was teaching them declensions and conjugations was the great Paul Celan. You’ve got to have your eyes, or, better, your heart open in order to recognize the possibilities for a life-transforming mentor-protégé relationship right in front of you. 41+5NJrfRhL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_.jpg

Still other times, Marion noticed the temptation to appropriate a master at the expense of receiving their contribution. To get to true understanding, one cannot strip-mine the masters for their material. You can’t go beyond your masters without truly going through them.

True admiration is the key. Marion sums this up poignantly:

“Those who do not have the capacity to admire cannot receive what is there. They want to imitate or confiscate the inheritance instead of receiving it as one should, namely as a task that is too great yet cannot be avoided.”

Admiration of the Image-bearer

Augustine and Anselm’s motto has to do with the human quest to love and know God. But Marion shows that this same love-first openness to God’s self-revelation must be recapitulated in one’s human relationships. As we reckon with the incomprehensibility of God, we discover knowledge of God opening only insofar as we are, first and last, poised with loving anticipation for what God might reveal.

Humanity, in God’s image, is likewise fundamentally incomprehensible, a reality we do not often fully appreciate. As we abandon attempts to understand people apart from a loving openness to them, a true admiration grows. This admiration opens the space for a love-borne understanding. In turn, such a quality of understanding brings us to the place where our “use” of those we admire sheds its posture of appropriation. Instead, we move through and beyond those we admire by engaging them in winsome, charitable conversation. Our conclusions, even insofar as they diverge from our masters, are nevertheless indebted to them. And this indebtedness honors them. 

When I take the posture of admiration at the outset, I honor the incomprehensibility of my human interlocutor. As I do so, I am able potentially to come to a quality understanding that would never be possible had I attempted to know first before admiring.

Love, for humans as well as for God, unlocks the potentialities of understanding and refuses the impulse to reduce another to brute facts or usable truths. Fatih seeking understanding ‘works’ among humans, too.

Every one of us has people whom we admire for one reason or another. The only question is: will we admire well, or poorly?

10 Things to Love About Luther

Luther Slide.001He wasn’t perfect. He said nasty things to a lot of people. And while he at first held great hope that European Jewry would be swept up into the evangelical movement of the Reformation, he later uttered a lot of bigoted things against Jews.

I still love Luther. And here are my Top 10 Reasons to Love Martin Luther on the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation:

10. Luther believed that God didn’t need him to reform the church.

I believe Luther, despite his bull-in-a-china-shop temperament, honestly didn’t want to split the church. And I have no reason to doubt his sincerity when he says:

“I simply taught, preached, and wrote God’s Word; otherwise I did nothing.  And then, while I slept, or drank Wittenberg beer with my Philip [Melanchthon] and my Amsdorf [Nicholaus von], the Word so greatly weakened the papacy that never a prince or emperor did such damage to it. I did nothing. The Word did it all.”

9. In fact, Luther believed that God didn’t need him at all.

I am in a phase in which I am beginning to greatly appreciate the monastic traditions, especially those of the first few centuries. Luther was a monk, too. But by the time he was leading the Reformation, he didn’t have a lot of great things to say about monasticism. He felt that cloistered monks and nuns made two mistakes: thinking too much of their service to God, and thinking almost nothing of their neighbor. So Luther said:

“Who needs my good works? God doesn’t need my good works. But my neighbor does.”

When we realize that God doesn’t need us, it takes off all kinds of unnecessary pressure to be awesome for God, and releases us to let God be awesome by the Spirit at work through us. We are chosen and privileged to get to have God attract glory through our loving service to our neighbor.

8. Luther was a monk, and married a nun.

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Sorry, but that’s just awesome.

Better, she was 16 years younger than him! He married when he was 40 and Katarina Von Bora was 24.

Luther wrote that some people are called to a life of celibacy in singleness, and most to marriage–but that both were holy callings. The Medieval church had ranked celibacy over marriage and said that monks and nuns were the real servants of God, while everyone else was mired in the world and couldn’t really serve God fully. 

Luther was like, um … no.

He said, reflecting on his own potential to remain celibate: “I am neither wood nor stone.”

Thankfully, once he deconstructed the medieval notion that God needed monks and nuns at all, and that they certainly weren’t more holy than married people, his honesty about not being a block of wood or a stone, sexually-speaking, made some monks and nuns wonder about their own vocations.

The rule had been that once you made a vow of celibacy, you could never go back. You had to be celibate for life. Luther recognized that there could be seasons of life. God might call you to celibacy in one season, and then to marriage. And perhaps again–after a spouse’s death–to celibacy once again.

Nowadays the world values singleness (sans celibacy) as the “best”. Meanwhile, the church seems to value marriage and disparage singleness, as though singles were lacking something.

Luther’s teaching–and his bold action!–are instructive for us. There are seasons when God calls us to chastity, and in which we may be given God-glorifying and (especially) neighbor-serving work to do and the freedom from spousal constraints to do that work. And there are seasons when God calls us to serve a spouse and maybe some kids as our “first neighbors.”

Luther helps us think clearly about singleness and marriage. And he certainly catches our attention when he marries a nun!

7. Luther was a jerk, but at least he knew it.

It’s at this point that we’re going to need to visit the Luther “insult generator.” I’ll wait. 

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Look, there are plenty of times that Luther’s jerkiness was uncalled for, when it harmed the neighbors he was meant to serve. Plenty of times when his proneness to ad hominem attacks showed that he had an insecurity that wasn’t in concord with the gospel itself.

At the same time, Luther was no fan of himself. Listen to his advice:

“So when the devil throws your sins in your face and declares that you deserve death and hell, tell him this: ‘I admit that I deserve death and hell, what of it? For I know One who suffered and made satisfaction on my behalf. His name is Jesus Christ, Son of God, and where He is there I shall be also!’”

Being honest about how disappointed we are in ourselves is not in itself humility. It won’t in itself turn us from those who curse to those who bless. But it’s the essential first step.

6. Even though I’m nicer than Luther, Luther’s prayer life dwarfs mine.

Luther famously said:

“I have so much to do today that I’m going to need to spend three hours in prayer in order to be able to get it all done.”

What a jerk.

Time wasn’t the ruler of Luther. He had lots to do, but he was not busy like we’re busy. And that allowed him to say something annoying like the above.

But Luther also thought of prayer like breathing. He wanted to pray without ceasing in that way: for the need for God to flow out of him at every moment, so that he was in a constant spirit of prayer. And to me, this is even more convicting. After all, I can think of the last time that I sat down and prayed. But I can’t think of the last time that I moved through a day with prayer breathing out of me all the day long.

5. Luther’s message was not complex, or easy. It was–like most true things–simple and hard.

Legend has it that a member of Luther’s church came up to him and asked, “Why do you preach the gospel to us week after week?” Luther reportedly responded, “because week after week you forget it.”

This message is simple, though it’s hard. 

Luther’s message was basically: “You cannot do nothing at all to make God love you, to earn his favor, to merit your salvation. You do not justify yourself. God justifies you by applying to your record the perfect life of Jesus. You can’t suffer enough to atone for your sins. God atones for your sins by applying to you the suffering of Jesus—the very proof that God loves you.”

At first we feel liberated by this news and say “Amen.” But then we proceed to think, act, and feel as though we must impress God with our good deeds rather than allow our service to our neighbor to be energized by God’s love for us. And so we have to hear it again.

The gospel that Luther recovered is not complex or easy. It’s simple and hard. 

4. Luther talked about farts. A Lot.

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Even with the Headmaster gone, the only quote I found that I could share with my colleagues in staff devotions on this topic was this one:

“Almost every night when I wake up the devil is there and wants to dispute with me. I have come to this conclusion: When argument doesn’t help, I instantly chase him away with a fart.”

It’s good to know that a world-changing theologian not only talked about farts around his kids and his congregation, but frequently talked about farts in his voluminous published theological writings.

3. Luther was a practical theologian.

I grew up on Luther’s Small Catechism. Answers in the catechism about a point of doctrine are followed up with another question: What does this mean? And every answer to that follow-up question started with “We should fear, love, and trust God so that we …”

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In other words, Luther recognized that the gospel finds its home in our hearts, in our affections, in our emotions, in our countenances, in our dispositions: not just in our brains, but in the most human and touchy-feely parts of who we are as people.

This or that biblical truth is true, and it means that we should fear God, love God, trust God. In other words, every truth from the Bible calls for an “amen” not just in our thoughts, not just in our words, but in our feels.

Any truth that’s worth believing belongs in your gut, Luther catechizes us: you must let it shape your fears, loves, and trust in ways that make you more human and thus more like Jesus at the core of your being.

2. Luther suffered physically, mentally, and spiritually, but savored and treasured the simple, good gifts of God.

One of the reasons Luther talked about farts and in general had such a potty mouth is because he spent so much time on the potty. He suffered his whole life from constipation. How bad was his case? Well, in 2004, German archeologists discovered the toilet on which Luther wrote the 95 theses. 95. Great find!

But he also suffered spiritual slumps and depression both before and after his discovery of the gospel. Knowing the gospel, and even believing it, doesn’t necessarily cure spiritual slumps. Neither does it automatically cure depression. We can grow in our fear, love, and trust of God even while we are in a dark night of the soul.

But despite all these ailments, Luther was known as a jolly fellow who loved simple things: a good pair of shoes sold at a fair price; a good stein of beer with a few buddies; a good carafe of Corsican wine; a good laugh; a good meal.

Luther was a model receiver of God’s good and simple gifts. He knew that they were from his loving Heavenly Father, who loves to give good gifts—both simple and profound—to his children. And he was thankful for the gifts and for the neighbors that worked hard and skillfully to bring them into being.

1. Luther shows us that, when all is said and done, it’s all about Jesus.

Let’s end with this prayer of Luther’s, meditating on how astounding it is to be called a brother of Jesus.

O gracious God, I am fully aware that I am unworthy. I deserve to be a brother of Satan and not of Christ. But Christ, your dear Son died and rose for me. I am his brother. He earnestly desires that I should believe in him, without doubt and fear.I need no longer regard myself as unworthy and full of sin. For this I love and thank him from my heart. Praise be to the faithful Savior, for he is so gracious and merciful as are you and the Holy Spirit in eternity. Amen.

Death Still Stings (For Now)

Easter is the day when we like to say “O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?” And it’s a line quoted from the climax of one of the best theological meditations on the resurrection found anywhere in Scripture. 

  

But here’s the thing: death still stings. Ask anyone who’s got the stinger in them: like my wife, for instance, who lost her father a couple months ago; or her mom, who just visited us here in Seoul, who lost the love of her life. 

The French philosopher Jacques Derrida recalls the occasion of his younger brother tragically dying of tubercular meningitis at the age of two: “I remember the day I saw my father, in 1940, in the garden, lighting a cigarette one week after the death of my little brother: ‘But how can he still do that? Only a week ago he was sobbing!’ I never got over it.”

You don’t ever really get over it. My mom lost a teenage brother. I have only rarely heard about Uncle Kenny, but when I do, I can tell no one has ever really gotten over it. 

This Easter, I remember that death is too big a deal to ever get over. I remember that Paul isn’t suggesting that the sting of death is gone, or that the grave has been stripped of its victory. Not yet, anyway. 

Not till the mortal puts on its immortality:

Behold! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed.

For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality.

When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written: 

“Death is swallowed up in victory.” 

“O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?”

 – 1 Corinthians 15:51-55

Death has had a big fat bite taken out of it. And this is Eastertide’s tidings. And so we can declare these things proleptically, bringing their future facticity to bear on our present stings and sorrows. 

But death hasn’t been swallowed whole. Yet. 

Dulcis Loquela, Dulcis Oratio, or Un-Umming Your Speech

‘If you’ve done your homework you’ll know when one of your credibility killers is just about to escape from your mouth. Then, all you’ll need to do is to keep quiet. I know, easier said than done. At first you’ll have awkward pauses in your speech, but that’s still better, actually far better, than speech peppered with “likes” and “ums.” Eventually the pauses get shorter.’ – Lisa B Marshall in Business Insider
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I once interned under Sinclair Ferguson, one of the great preachers alive today. In one of the few chances I got to sit down with him and really talk about ministry and preaching, he charged me to eliminate “umm” from my speech. He insisted that in order to get rid of it from my preaching, I would have to get rid of it from my everyday conversation. I worked hard at it, and made a lot of progress.
Lisa B Marshall calls “um” a “disfluency” and a “distraction.”  I think that might be a little harsh. They are natural from a linguistic perspective. As she says, every language has them. And perhaps 20% of our utterances in casual conversation are of this variety.
But it is true that in certain contexts these space-fillers can be “credibility killers.” They call attention to the fact that you’re still trying to form your thoughts, and maybe even your beliefs, on the fly, in your head. On the other hand, the elimination of disfluencies will make it sound like your opinions and beliefs have taken shape over time, and that you are confident in them.
I think the tricky part is, what if you actually are not sure what you think? The reason we give a negative connotation to “rhetoric” these days is because so many people have waffled back and forth, forming their “beliefs” at the drop of a hat to suit the occasion.
It’s important to make sure that one’s public speaking doesn’t project false confidence. The key, as far as I can tell, is to confidently state that we are less than certain about the things we are less than certain about. (See what I did there?)
If I had to guess, I’d say our world contains roughly:
  • 5% smooth talking and successful purveyors of empty rhetoric
  • 15% honest, quite intelligent people with unfortunate rhetorical habits, who utter lots of ummmms and leave a lot of us bored, distracted, or unconvinced
  • 30% people who are blustery, cocky, and who darken counsel with all kinds of crummy ideas and logical fallacies spewed with inarticulate garbling passed off as persuasive speech
  • 40% people who are not likely to try to persuade others, simply because they’re not disposed to leadership

That’s 90%, which leaves 10%, I suppose, who have something valuable to say to people who need to hear it, and can speak with confidence, elegance, and persuasiveness, and who probably don’t distract from the content of their thought by habitually resorting to disfluencies.

My experience, especially during this election cycle, is that the hot-headed 30% are not going to lose their unsavory rhetorical tendencies soon. It seems to be a matter of the heart, and while the heart can change, it usually takes time. I know, because I used to squarely belong in that 30%.

However, I would be difficult to overestimate the difference that could be made in our world if some of the 15%, whose voices we need to hear, would make themselves better-heard. In their case, change can begin to take place immediately. If you’re one of them — part of the 15% that ought to move into the 10% — then start small, but start today. Drop the “umm.” Embrace the silence left in its place. Gather your thoughts but keep your mouth closed while you do it.

Let’s all give up “umm” for Lent.

Fear the Cash, Wear the Crash Helmet

“As many as were owners of lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold and laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.” – Acts 4:34-35

Keep your hands off that cash

This would freak any of us out, if we were the Apostles. “Who put me in this kind of position?” They say that pastors should keep their hands completely off the church finances, and especially never come into contact with cash money. Keeps us honest, above reproach, un-scanalizable. These folks dumped a whole pile of cash money at their pastors’ feet and said “you all figure out what to do with this. The Spirit of God freed me to give this, and to release control over how it’s precisely used.”

Yikes.

But if you’re planting a church, and the Spirit of God is moving among his people, you’re going to have these moments.

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Wombs and wee preachers

I remember the first instance of this, when I was first learning how to preach one summer at a country church in Virginia. I mentioned off-hand while preaching through the book of Ruth, that we should notice that it was the Lord who opened her womb, and gave her and Boaz conception. I didn’t grind and axe or get pontifical. I just mentioned it, pointed it out.

Well, 2 of those country folk, who happened to be married with a good bit of offspring already, and not much cash flow and not much square footage … they had to go and get “convicted”. They decided to trust the Lord with their family size. And of course, they got pregnant. And then pregnant again. One of those kiddos was named “Ruth”.

Oh gosh! Did I do that? Yikes. Not really. Kind of? No. Oh wow.

Don’t turn your life upside down, I’m just preaching

Then there was our church plant’s emphasis and sermon series on hospitality. Hospitality. Seems innocuous enough. Being friendly, inviting people over, feeding people, maybe having someone stay for a while so they can get on their feet again. No big deal.

But after 12 weeks of preaching on gospel hospitality from creation to New Creation, all of a sudden there’s a pile of money laying at your feet. One couple in our church felt the Spirit of God call them, through the preaching of the word, to take guardianship of a 13-year-old girl whose home-life had deteriorated. To raise a teenager. Teenager. One laden with beauty and brokenness.

Wait, hold on. Don’t do that. Let’s make sure you’re not just hallucinating or having a warm fuzzy moment. This is serious business. Don’t sell the farm just because I preached about Jesus and his generous welcome to us.

Crash helmets for seersucker

You’re not in charge. You have the authority to minister God’s word. It’s not a coercive and physical authority. It’s persuasive and verbal. And you—if you’re like me—hardly think of yourself as a grown-up, much less as in some ways analogous to the Apostles who led the first churches in the New Testament. You want Jesus to move among your people, but you don’t want to feel responsible for the weird things people do as a result.

Maybe Annie Dillard is right when she says that we really ought to be wearing crash helmets, and not big flowery hats and seersucker trousers, when we enter the presence of God in corporate worship. There’s nothing cute about the Spirit using his Word to flip someone’s life completely upside down in an act of radical, joyful obedience to something you certainly didn’t explicitly suggest anyone should actually do.

I still don’t know what to make of all this. I could be trite and say that it makes me humble. I could be sagacious and say that you should be warned and prepared. But I don’t think I’ve gotten past the PTSD of seeing the pile of cash laying at my feet, so as of yet I have nothing really to say. Except yikes.

Yikes indeed.

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6 Three-Quarter-Baked Arguments for Becoming Church Members Even if You’re About to Relocate

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I thought I’d pseudonymously share an exchange with a dear couple in our church about church membership, especially since they thought, as Dustin Hoffman says in The Graduate, these ideas were fully baked rather than half.

This couple is planning to relocate for a new job, after having leaned into the life of our church increasingly in the past year.

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Dear Andy,

We appreciate the personal email asking about membership and where we’re at with it.

In light of our current life situation, we weren’t considering membership. If we were staying in Rock Hill, we’d be first in line to become members of Hill City. That’s a no-brainer. We love the church, consider it our home, and are committed to it. However, it’s clear to us that we’re not staying in Rock Hill, and we will be moving this summer. It didn’t make sense to us to become members and make that level of commitment if we’re leaving four months later.

As we look at our future and the coming move, the biggest regret we have about moving is leaving Hill City. Hill City has been a great fit for us, and we have felt more loved, wanted, and appreciated here than at any other church we’ve been a part of. We hope and pray that when we move, we can find something that approaches what we’ve found here with you all. You love Jesus and live life for him with an authenticity that is rare. You avoid pretense and aren’t afraid to live in a messy reality of brokenness and grace. You all are awesome!

In our remaining time in Rock Hill, we want to be fully engaged (and used!) in the church in any way we can. We want to make the most of the time we have left with you all.

If you have any feedback for us or a different perspective on this, please feel free to share.

-Joe & Judy

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Dear Joe and Judy,

We’re of course so sorry we’ll be losing you and your gifts in our church, but obviously we want what Jesus wants for you and for his kingdom, and so we are thrilled that you’ve been given clarity about your next steps.

May I suggest a couple half-baked arguments for why you might consider going ahead and becoming members anyway? Either way, of course, we support your decisions.

1. Ellie and I were 90% sure we were moving away from Ohio when we found Grace Church in Hudson, OH. We found an unfathomably rich community and the restoration of our spiritual sanity, along with some robust Bible teaching that challenged us in our walk with Christ. We joined 2 months after beginning to attend. We moved 4 months later to SC. They baked us a cake and had a commissioning and send-off for us after the service on our last Sunday. It was moving, and we never regretted joining for a second.

2. When you arrive in your new context and settle into a church family, you’ll be able to have your new church contact us and we can commend you to them and to their care, so that there is a continuity in your care and in your membership. I know church membership and ‘transfer’ is taken more seriously in the Presbyterian tradition than maybe in others, but it was really neat to settle into our new church family in Columbia and have their elders contact our old elders in Ohio and have them commend us to their care. Weird Presbyterian idiosyncrasy, but I think it’s cool-weird, and meaningful.

3. If you were engaged to be married, because you had found your dream-spouse (or something finally close enough!), and then, 2 weeks before the wedding, found out that you only had 4 months to live: what would you do? I’d get married. You said “it didn’t make sense to … make that level of commitment if we’re leaving in four months.” The only level of commitment you’re making is to love and serve your heart out for the four months you’ve got with us before God calls you to your new home.

4. Obviously we’re not grasping for numbers, numbers, numbers, or we’d have a very different way of “doing church” (or “playing church”). But at the same time, it will be very meaningful for our church and for our supporting presbytery to see that we gained you two as members, even if for a short time. Especially the fact that you’re a generation more senior than me and Ellie makes a big difference and says something important to our supporting presbytery and to our rather young church body.

5. Four months is way too short a time for you to get in trouble for all your quirky views. You’re safe. 🙂

6. If in some measure God has restored your hearts to confidence in what the local church can be under the grace of Jesus, then consider your membership vows a testimony to the goodness of Jesus for what he’s done here in this place, and in your hearts while you have been among us.

You all are such a blessing to us, and your support and encouragement to our church is a huge vote of confidence that God is really at work among us. For a young, relatively less-experienced leader like myself, it’s both incredibly humbling and a massive encouragement to me that you all would affirm what Christ is doing within Hill City’s body. Thank you for that. Even if you still feel like membership is not the way to go, that’s okay for sure. It’s really no personal slight whatsoever. Either way we’d like to have the chance to lay hands on you and commission you in your new kingdom deployment when you are getting ready to leave for your next assignment.

Yours in Jesus,
Andy

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This couple found these reasons compelling. Maybe you will too?

My man Daniel also wrote a piece today on the beauty of church membership, which is worth a read.